Order and Its Discontents

Last week, while Jennifer and I were packing up our worldly goods (which now fill less than a 7×11 storage space, thank you very much), Rod Dreher wrote about chaos and disorder in Baltimore:

I was thinking today why stories of rioting and civil unrest unnerve me like nothing else. It has to do with fear — terror, actually — of anarchy. I have a very deep need for order (not that you’d know it by seeing the interior of my car), and I am always thinking about the sources of order, and disorder. For better or for worse, this drives my thinking; it’s why I seem so alarmist to many. You might say that I worry unduly over things that aren’t that big a deal, or you might say that I see things that are not apparent to others.

Anyway, order for me is not an aesthetic concern, but a moral one. A mob is the enemy of the things I value most. One of the most traumatic events of my life had to do with a mob of bullies who held me down and abused me while the two adults in charge did nothing to stop them — not because they could not, but because they would not. Once violence starts, I find it hard to fault authority for stopping it by any means necessary.

The anarchy I worry about is not the anarchy of poor black people in West Baltimore, or anywhere else. The anarchy I worry about is the anarchy within the hearts and communities of people like me — people who outwardly live lives of prosperity and normality, but who, in their hearts, believe that they and their appetites are the only authority they should follow. This is why I am so perpetually alarmed about our culture: it is fundamentally anarchic, because there is buried within our culture no source of order outside the Self.

To which I responded in an e-mail:

[T]his is where you and I differ the most. I did not see the bullying I suffered through as a lack of good order — I experienced as the order itself. This is why I’m not terrified of chaos, but rather, by order. And I think there’s a similar experience at work in many African American communities, especially poor ones. Because they experience a very violent and capricious order. One they may respond badly to, but it’s hard to respond well to that kind of violence. When the people who keep order see you as something to be dealt with, an object to be handled violently if need be, then it’s hard to respect order, and hard to make the kinds of choices that will lead to something resembling success. Because everything is so contingent, even random, and your property, your safety, your value as a human being, is not figured into any calculus of what matters when order is kept. Character is good, grit and persistence are valuable in and of themselves. I will always preach those things to people who face even horrific odds because it’s easier to change who you are than it is to change the world. But it is not wrong to say that the world is, in fact, ordered against some people. And some whole communities. It doesn’t respect their lives, their liberty, their well-being, or their property. These can all be taken at a whim, and THAT is called good order.

I am deeply sympathetic with conservative appeals to order. I truly believe conservatives have a better understanding of the human condition than do progressives and liberals. I believe an orderly world is one in which people can truly thrive. But I also know that every order has a cost, and every order is enforced with violence, and my concern will always be with who pays the cost for a particular social order. With who is on the wrong side of that violence. And why.

13 thoughts on “Order and Its Discontents

  1. This gets to a central cultural truth. Order is good, in fact it is necessary for any but the most brutish kind of human life. [One observer on the scene in post-Bolshevik-revolution Odessa, said that as bad as Soviet life was, his experience of the weeks in the city before a new local government finally assumed control after the collapse of the old, was far more horrifying than any orderly oppression.] But there is a difference between order and “Order” – that is, the established ‘received’ order of a society which privileges some against others.

    Received is not quite the same as ‘traditional’ [which may be reactionary rather than conservative]. But either standard, to the extent it can be defined at all, represents only one possible order among many. But a stern caution: the order of society cannot be tinkered with like a game of constitutions, but can change only organically as the insights and aspirations of the people change.

    Growing up in the Midwest, but on the fringes of the Appalachian foothills, I was drawn to the old order of Western Civ. I knew I lived in a culture where the roots of civility were still shallow in the soil of what was frontier within the memory of people who had been known to people I knew. And I did not find the old joke funny, that America was the only great nation to go from barbarism to decadence without ever having passed through civilization. Too close to the truth.

    Now I am still a booster for Western Civ, but for different reasons. A knowledge of Greek and Latin and their classical literatures is necessary to get a grasp on the worlds of thought and action upon which the West has based itself for the past 1500 years. These are brutal worlds of catastrophic error, ignorance and stupidity, in addition to amazing achievements of imagination and action. Some things inspired admiration where horror would have been more appropriate, and perhaps vice versa. I would also affirm that the Bible and the histories of ancient Israel and the early church are far more important, but it is hard to understand the latter without some knowledge of the former.

    All this history and literature shows us how societies really work (at a time when historians were a little less self-conscious and less skilled at hiding the truth). We can see how good intentions and bad play out in Christian and pre-Christian societies.

    We are not well served by modern revisionists – e.g. Howard Zinn, who has admitted that his books are distortions of the facts, motivated and justified by ideological goals. But in this online world culture, all we can do is let the 1000 distortions bloom – and the 1000 wiki-ish leaks, and hope for the truth that sets us free.

    So – Latin in every high school and Greek in every college (and of course Hebrew). [Is it too outrageous to ask for Greek and Hebrew in high school?] Not to give the children of the elite something to feel superior about. The old elite is long gone. Now we have a hereditary meritocracy, stacked by the ruling class in favor of their kids. They feel superior just being themselves – champions of self-esteem.

    So, Greek, Hebrew and Latin – not to affirm the masters of empire, but to convict them of their sin.

    P.S. – A Note on the 60s: As a kid at the movies in the 1950s, I commonly saw urban riots in the news reels (shown along with the cartoon and the travelogue, and maybe a Three Stooges short). They took place in locations like Greece or Argentina or Korea. It was unthinkable that could ever happen here. Some minor violence at labor strikes, maybe, but nothing worse. Then there was Watts 1965. And passionate rallies at Berkeley. And then the same thing repeated in countless American cities (every summer) and colleges (every spring – which is why commencement is now often in early May, rather than early June). The sight of National Guard or regular army tanks in the streets of American cities was so familiar it was somewhat comforting. Regular army troops were generally much better at easing tensions than the nervous, poorly trained young guys in the Guard. The descent of American cities into near-anarchy happened very fast. But it wasn’t organized ideological violence which turned me toward a conservative outlook. It was the carnival atmosphere of new-left ‘Revolution for the Hell of It’ and the rise of ‘violence for the hell of it’, exemplified by the Manson murders. As they said on Battlestar Galactica (21st century series) – all this has happened before and all this will happen again. Order, good or bad, is fragile; 10 to 20% of the population is enough to wreck it if they want to.


  2. In full agreement on the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. I’d add Arabic to this as well — every good and serious Old Testament scholar in the West learned Arabic as part of the OT studies up until the 1950s, and it should be that way again.


  3. In high school, I got as far as learning the Arabic alphabet. I used it to write down memos to myself phonetically – high security encryption. Had to invent a couple of symbols to cover English phonology.


    1. Likely, those symbols were already invented. But nifty. Did you master Arabic cursive, or just the individual, stand-alone letters?


  4. I think I had the knack of the cursive. I could sound out real Arabic text, if the vowel signs were there. I knew the different forms for beginning, middle and end of words. And I may have gotten a symbol or 2 from Farsi. I had a book on “Persian”. I still remember: “Kitab injast” and “Kitab anjast” [sic?] The book is here & the book is there. Farsi has the English “ch” sound; I don’t think standard Arabic does. I still may go back to it some day. I bought a book a few years ago with the intention of making another attempt, but so far haven’t done anything with it. I have always thought that Arabic script was the most beautiful.

    I did learn a moderate amount of biblical Hebrew a couple of years ago. I’d like to be able to understand some modern Hebrew, but for now I just added Latin to the Ancient Greek, and that’s enough. I try to read Hebrew signs I see in pictures or ads in the news. Some are easy. But I can never keep the crazy cursive Hebrew script in my head which is also used in a lot of commercial signs in Israel. Some of them seem to have no relation to the printed letter.


  5. I can’t really see the point of Greek or Latin, much less Hebrew, unless you plan on raising society of theologians. I grant learning other languages is worthwhile. If you want to do some real thinking, learn a non Indo-European language. I am (relatively) fluent in Neshnabemwen, and attempting to think in the language allows me to look at a situation from a different point of view. But please, some modern living languages. There are only so many hours in a day, and so many possible courses to take. As you and the other correspondent seem somewhat familiar with Arabic, do you know any good programs for a computer? Those I speak with about it say there is really no good Arabic keyboard system.


    1. Well, the Arabic keyboard for iOS isn’t bad. I wish it ported over to the Mac. I don’t know o a computer program. I still use the books I got when I was at Ohio State as a refresher, and work with a little book called The Connectors in Modern Standard Arabic, but those are refreshers. I’m not sure how I’d start from scratch. Sorry I can be of so little help.


  6. Up until 1890 or so (give or take some years depending on location) most kids only went to school through 8th grade, and that was considered the same as a high school diploma is now. Most kids then went on to work in the family business or begin an apprenticeship; that is, if they hadn’t already dropped out of school years earlier to work in the fields, mines or factories. High school then was only for serious students. There were no electives. Everyone took four years of Latin (introductory, Caesar, Virgil, and finally Cicero – cf. the play “Our Town” – I think that’s the one – where exams in Cicero’s orations and solid geometry are referred to as a rite of passage to adulthood, at least for the professional class). This wasn’t for theology; it was considered, along with math and English comp and a few others, to be the essential foundation of a liberal education – the education which fitted one to be a free citizen of a democracy. Check out ‘The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature’ by Gilbert Highet [no friend of religion] to see how central and foundational classical culture was. The modern concept of ‘person’ as an individual in a democratic community has both Biblical and classical roots.

    Students entering college pre-1890 were expected to be fluent in Latin already (some college lectures in Europe were still given in Latin; before 1750 all lectures and scholarly publications were in Latin) and to know some Greek and a lot more by the time they graduated. And this was the bare minimum. Real theologians and ancient scholars would think nothing of adding not only Hebrew and Arabic, but also Akkadian, Aramaic and other ancient languages. Modern languages were not for college classes; students were expected to pick those up in summer travels.

    John Stuart Mill was the victim of his father’s experiments in education. He could read Latin at 5 and Greek at 7. Then he had a nervous breakdown at age 21. (these numbers pulled out of my unreliable memory) He was a youthful prodigy, but was not considered a freak. Any gifted student would have been not too far behind.

    Of course this was an elitist system. But so is our current system. We have high-tech elites and legal-financial elites and others. They have by law, technology and convention engineered a society in which their skills and connections are the sources of power. But they don’t really understand democracy or people very well. They don’t understand the unintended consequences of the use of power. Or the long-term consequences of anything. The kind of political wisdom which was second nature to Adams, Madison & Jefferson is opaque to them.

    Students now are required to stay in school until age 16, and advised to graduate. [It wasn’t until around 1950 that more than half of US teens graduated.] Considering that there are very few job-track alternatives, that is good advice for now. But what do kids really get from those last four years, if they aren’t college-bound? Even with a diploma, prospects are ever bleaker for those who don’t come from skilled-labor or business families, unless they really know how to hustle & con.

    Bleak prospects for democracy, too.


    1. Have you ever looked at the German system? They are seriously into tracking at an early age, and couple this with a serious apprenticeship system. Children of the middling sort come out of school job ready in the vocational tech field. They also partner with union, now a dirty word in politics.


  7. I wanted to make clear that my last comment wasn’t a me vs. them. I don’t claim any more political wisdom than the current elites. I am no John Adams. Or even a John Kennedy. I probably couldn’t run a county treasurer’s office, even if I had the energy of youth back. But I DO know that I don’t know – that there is wisdom I ought to have, but don’t. Well, maybe I have a little – enough reading of history of various cultures that I know how easily and speedily things can go wrong. And how hard it is to get them right.


  8. I also know that every order has a cost, and every order is enforced with violence, and my concern will always be with who pays the cost for a particular social order.

    The entirety of US history is about picking people to pay the cost for its peculiar social order. Slavery and then Jim Crow was about maintaining the role of the non-working elite and providing a “social order” for whites by keeping blacks lower on the social hierarchy, with outcroppings of lynching in order to keep any blacks “in line” who crossed any social or economic boundaries. The private sector played this role in the north, intent on creating whites-only living communities to shut blacks out of middle class aspirations, because that supposedly served the social order.

    The justification for the bullying, persecution, and firing of gays in various parts of public and private life is that such things are necessary to preserve the “social order” of heterosexual relationships– namely to give straight people someone to look down upon for the “greater good.”

    The propaganda of the 80s and 90s told us that the solution to crime meant we had to enforce a system of violence, mass incarceration, and “papers, please!” stops, harassment, and detention of civilians, specifically blacks and latinos, which created the fertile ground for the Baltimore riots.

    The bullying Rod faced growing was not from an unruly “mob” but from a social stratum intent on enforcing social order regarding behavior, intellect, and ambition. Rod’s entire upbringing was about his family and town enforcing “social order” at his expense to ensure that he did not “get above his rasin'”. And instead realizing that this was what was being done to him, he decided that the situation was to find the right niche in which to become an advocate and enforcer of the “right” social order. He simply figured that the greatest threats were campus liberals, the urban poor, and gays. Maybe that made sense among young conservatives in the 80s and 90s, but his intent on maintaining those scapegoats and discussing their threats to the public order have become laughable today.


  9. Re: “every order has a cost, and every order is enforced with violence”

    This is true even on a personal level. Even if parents ground their kids rather than spank or beat them, the kids still suffer the consequences of the judgment, fair or not. And if the kids refuse to comply, they could drive their parents to violence, and/or if, say, they stop going to school, then there is social services to jump in with all the power and implicit potential violence of the state against both child and parent.

    When one of our kids was 2 or 3 yrs old and was mildly admonished for a minor misbehavior, he started crying and said, “It’s not fair! Parents can punish kids, but kids can’t punish the parents!” Having enunciated that sad truth, he let out a great wail at the injustice of this world. He was always the logical one.

    There is no way out of this condemnation for actions having consequences. Non-action is also an action, as Buddhists are fond of saying. If George W. Bush had become a Baptist preacher in his youth, or joined a monastery, who knows if the world would have been better or worse. Someone would have been president during those years from 2001-2009, and not necessarily Al Gore. What would they have done?

    Everyone acts all the time, or not – which is the same thing, with reluctance or enthusiasm. Our deeds cannot save us, or maybe even the world. But we still decide things, build, destroy, invent, praise, condemn, learn, forget …. We are little gods or demons – always some of each. Any god who isn’t God is a demon, as the early fathers thought. And the “Order” of this world is the cumulative creation of all our own personal actions. Some are more powerful and responsible than others, but we all cast our little votes with words and deeds.

    There is even a sense in which every act is an act of violence, like the butterfly’s wings which bring the whirlwind. (A misleading pop-scientific truism, but I won’t go into that now.) But I will act anyway, and seek out practical wisdom anyway, and a great deal of impractical knowledge, even if it does no one any good. That’s life. Meanwhile, God is in the whirlwind, and God governs every molecule of every galaxy. Thank God.

    I doubt any of this adds anything to the discussion, or to your primary point that your actions but you on the side of those who pay the (highest) price for social order. Sometimes my brain just opens up and words fall out.


  10. For a while I missed the comment above on the German system of education. I had heard a little about it years ago. Though I think the German state tends to be a little too intrusive about some things, this is generally a good approach. It is far more humane, and safer, than producing hoards of young adults who have no idea how to get or keep a decent-paying job, and who might have dismal prospects even if they did. I say this based on my own experience with the trials and varying successes of my own five kids and their friends.


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