An Island of Civilization
Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.
— Jacob Marley, A Christmas Carol
In writing “faced with the prospect of a return to barbarism,” Harvard scholar Christopher Dawson implored all of western civilization to “preserve every existing breakwater against this flood” by maintaining “islands of civilization” through the “virtues of justice and goodwill, the virtues of truth and patience, above all the virtue of prudence which Aristotle defines as the truly rational and practical state of mind in the field of human good and evil.” To not heed this counsel or abrogate this responsibility, Dawson believes, will sacrifice the just and good society to social and political disintegration.
Dawson wrote those words in 1946. His prescient instruction is ever more relevant today. America seems to be coming apart, socially and politically.
At the heart of social and political disintegration is the plight of our poor, uneducated and disenfranchised neighbors. It always has been the case that social and political contention, havoc and even revolution, whether in deed or through contentious rhetoric, are the results of the “haves” ignoring the “have nots.” There is no faster way to condemn civilization than by ignoring the poor, the needy and the voiceless. Sooner or later such inattention will come back to bite the ruling elite – this is true in every form of human relationship.
Let’s be as plain spoken as possible: The poor are us. The measure of a just and good society is if we see the poor as we see ourselves.
Conservative thinkers have been trained to view general prosperity as the antidote to social and political discontent. And with good reason – capitalism has lifted the standard of living for billions of people worldwide. So, as an economic theory, it has its merits. Practically applied, it benefits a majority of people. Though, as humane policy, addressing the dignity, value and worth of every person, it often misses the mark. Many conservative thinkers forget that, as economist Wihlem Roepke argued, free markets need social and moral frameworks to achieve their highest purposes. If conservative thinkers truly cherish freedom for all people, we must value justice, human dignity and the common good as much as we value free markets and personal responsibility.
NGFF holds that Utah can and must become an island of civilization existing as a breakwater against the tide of “barbarism” that seems to have hold on America today in the form of social and political angst, anger, fear and scapegoating. Our leadership begins by perfecting our conservative paradigm about the poor. Conservatives need to stop fighting against things and start fighting for people.
What if we saw the poor as we see ourselves? What if, instead of seeing the poor as “them,” we saw the poor as “us”? What if, instead of judging or stigmatizing a struggling student in a struggling school as an isolated case of personal failure, we saw that student and school as our student and our school? When over 40 percent of Utah’s Hispanic students fail to graduate high school with a diploma, what if we saw that mass of students as our own? Instead of seeing women’s economic issues as a peculiar set of individual circumstances, what if we saw these issues equal to every other economic concern? What if we viewed the public safety net as if we, personally, would have to rely on it? Would these different perspectives change not only our understanding of these important issues but also our willingness to be open to new policy ideas? Of course it would.
For Utah to become an island of civilization in a rapidly disintegrating and fractured America, we must see our neighbors as ourselves. As policy makers, we must ask ourselves what we would like to see if nearly half of our children weren’t graduating with a diploma, what it would feel like if the women in our lives were treated less than us, or how pleased we would be if we had to live on the public safety net for a time.
This is the difference between a just and good society in Utah versus a society only a bit better than the declining state across the country. Perhaps not a lot would change. But we do know that any needed changes would not occur in maintaining current attitudes about the poor and needy among us if we do not change. As long as we see them we will never come close to doing all we can do, principally and prudently, to claim the right to call ourselves exceptional.
NGFF is dedicated to helping Utah become an island of civilization and to meeting the real needs of Utah’s poor, struggling and disadvantaged neighbors – not simply in meeting situational needs, but also addressing the deeper issues surrounding dependency, dignity and flourishing.