A few years ago, my brother and I were driving from Texas to Ontario and on the way we stopped in Kentucky where—long story short—we "ran into" Wendell Berry. He was giving a talk to a group of Louisville students out in a park and after the talk, people asked all sorts of questions about farming, food, and economics. Yet what the conversation kept turning back to was community.
I forget the context now, but I remember Berry answering one question about the purpose of community by telling a story about a man whom we'll call Fred. Fred was a known slacker, drunk, and thief in the town of Port Royal where Wendell grew up. He couldn't hold down a steady job and more often than not, the sheriff would be called to haul Fred to the local jail to cool off after a bar fight and sober up. As time moved on, Fred moved on to petty crime and even some violence, which translated into longer stints in the clink.
As Fred's actions became a larger threat to the community, the outcry to the sheriff increased. People wanted to get Fred put into a State penitentiary. Yet the sheriff refused, and his response—as Berry told us in his story—was simple: "True, Fred is a son of a ___; but he's one of us."
The shrriff's understanding of his responsibility to the community is not simply a responsibility to the "good" members, but also to the misfits who exploit and even threaten the very community to which they so reluctantly belong. Giving Fred up to the powers of the State pen would remove the problem, sure, but only at the expense of turning one of the town's members into a jumpsuited, anonymous number within the State's cold glare. Fred would no long have to answer to anyone he knew, and no one he knew would have to answer to him. Looking at the bigger picture, the sheriff understood that cutting Fred from the membership would be the greater crime.
Today this truth seems hard to come by. In Ross Douthat's opinion column a few weeks' back, he provides a whole litany of cases where parents—usually single mothers—have recently been imprisoned for leaving their children in cars untended or free to roam public parks without guardians. The attention this topic has garnered was sparked in part by the imprisonment of Debra Harrel, a McDonald's employee who had her child play in the park because she couldn't afford daycare. And with this story, many fingers have been pointed at Debra Harrel for being an irresponsible mother, at the State for failing to provide the proper systems to allow mothers to afford daycare, and even at parents for being overly protective helicopters.
Yet few, I think, are pointing the finger in the right direction. What about that woman who saw Debra's 9-year-old daughter and, rather than talk to her mother, decided to dial 911?
If the community and the family are two of the most important mediating structures that buffer and protect the individual from the powers of the State and the Industrial Economy, it seems that these stories show we're in a bad way. Not only are many of these cases the byproduct of broken homes and single-parent families, but the larger community in which such broken families should exist is not properly shouldering the burden of its responsibilities to its weakest, most vulnerable members.
I'm not saying that Debra Harrel's decision was a good one, and that parents at the park shouldn't have been concerned, but what kind of world allows the first plan of action to be delivering a mother from your neighborhood to the anonymizing forces of the State? It seems to me that this would be a world where trust is eroded and community interdependence and reliability are lost. It is a world without mediation where the most vulnerable members will continually be threatened unless we can begin to reignite those values which cement the strongest and weakest in a community together in a bond of cooperation, trust, and ultimately, care.