What is the Goal?

In 1920, when my grandfather, as an 18 year-old boy, emigrated to the United States from Italy, he had no education, no English, and not much money in his pocket. He did, however, have plenty of “capital” that can result in financial gain, but that is not simply reducible to money. What my grandfather had, I want all Americans to have—and that they may have it should be the central aim of the Right in the wake of the Trump interregnum and the storm of madness that is going to come from the Biden Administration.

Let me explain. The Italians in my hometown, Archbald, Pennsylvania, did not arrive from anywhere and everywhere. Not until I visited Tiriolo, a mountaintop village in Calabria, did I begin to understand the potential of the paese—not just the place, but the kin by blood, the kin by marriage, and the nearby clans of people you, your parents, and your grandparents have fought with, sung with, striven with, and worshiped with—to give poor people a firm place to stand, and the confidence to launch forth into a new land. 

For when the people of Tiriolo came to America, they all went to the same town where their neighbors had gone, which turned out to be a spanking rough-necked mining borough full of Catholics, true, but they were all Irish, and not inclined to like Italians. So it was that I saw name after name in Tiriolo that I recognized in Archbald: Paone, Mancuso, Rotelli. My neighbors in America were the cousins of the neighbors of my cousins in Tiriolo. The same thing happened in the town next to ours in Pennsylvania, but those Italians in Jessup all came from Gubbio, a cliff and a mountain defile away from Assisi, hundreds of miles to the north.

What made that possible? Many things, no doubt, but I can name one thing that would have made it impossible: families sliced to bits by divorce, unwed motherhood, and other forms of sexual and social confusion. You didn’t always like your cousin, or even your brother, but family is family, and you could rely on them in hard times. Such strong families are like big nets. A weak link, a severed tie here or there, does not destroy the net; there are too many connections for that. And marriage, more even than common interests, involves one net in another. Think of a family of seven children who marry into seven other families. Even if your sister’s husband’s family is not yours by blood or marriage, you have a connection, and in a place like Tiriolo—or Archbald—those nets of nets were practically indestructible.

I understand that people have few children in our time, and that is a severe social problem we have not faced honestly, because even supposing that the world cannot bear large families forever, still it is a good thing in itself for a child to belong to a large family connected with others like it; and even if we must deny ourselves this good thing, we should be clear about the tremendous loss to children and to the humanity of our common lives. We should then seek, as far as we can, to make up for the loss, and that would require strong families as utterly reliable institutions, the most visibly active and powerful fashioners of local life.

But we have not done that, either. We have been content to watch idly as the family withers, thinking, in a stunning display of opacity and hardness of heart, that the welfare state could repair the harm. Alas, I am afraid that the welfare state as it is now constituted, granting its operatives the best of intentions, ultimately perpetuates and aggravates the harm. But let us be clear about all the things that the welfare state cannot do.

It cannot give you moral encouragement when times are hard. It cannot advise you about where your talents really lie. It cannot hold you to your promises. It cannot inspire you with a high moral vision. It cannot call you to leave childish things behind.

It cannot circle the wagons against attack. It cannot make your enemies think twice before they come after you. It cannot sing with you. It cannot throw a feast you will remember all your life. It cannot kneel beside you in worship. It cannot follow you to the altar. It cannot follow you to the grave.

It cannot cook a single wholesome meal. It cannot laugh. It cannot weep. It cannot bind you to the past, the past of your own people. It is a machine for the transfer of money—it is not a human thing.

Now, it is not necessarily bad that there are machines for the transfer of money. But it is bad if those machines supplant the human things, or practically prevent them from coming into existence in the first place.

If you call something “progressive,” you presumably have some aim in mind, something towards which you are proceeding—unless the word has merely sunk into a bit of political self-advertisement. Suppose, then, that this is our aim: we want those families I have described. How would that alter what we do with welfare, or even how we conceive of what “welfare” is to begin with?

Koreans come to the United States and are strikingly successful, not because the rest of Americans are friendly to them, but because they have strong family bonds, and they thus avert the enticements and the dangers of the welfare state. If a responsible young man needs a loan to get started in a business, he goes to the bank of his big family, whom he does not want to disappoint, and who can help him over the rough patches. The same thing may be said of the Amish. When will you ever meet an Amish person on the streets, begging passersby for money, which he will use for a hamburger or a bottle of whiskey? Only if he has severed himself from his family and his congregation; only, in other words, if he has ceased to be Amish at all.

What kind of welfare would nudge people towards being like those Koreans, or like the Italians in my grandfather’s generation, or the Jews in our large cities a hundred years ago? Right now, a young black man is more likely to see the inside of a police station for nonpayment of child support than for theft or for violent crime, and the devastation of the black family is a continuing and self-perpetuating scandal. We know that our welfare system penalizes young people who do responsible things, such as waiting for marriage before they do the baby-making thing, or getting married right away when the baby has been made. We know that most payments go to women and not men, and that this has the perverse effect of confirming both men and women in irresponsibility, making the payments seem all the more necessary, as in the immediate moment indeed they are. A spoonful of sugar makes the poison go down. And that is not even to touch the enticement to destruction that no-fault divorce provides.

If we had sober statesmen, and not shrieking crowd-pleasers and whores for votes, we might consider shifting much of the money that puts salve on a wound while the leg rots from gangrene, and give it to real families, that is, to a married man and woman and their children, or to young married couples, or to young men—and yes, I am thinking about their plight in particular—who need capital to buy equipment for a business. Surely, such money can hardly be worse spent than are the now trillions we have shoveled into the maw of the Higher Swindle, mortgaging families over the gables to acquire an education that leaves many of their children more foolish when they graduate than man can ever hope to be by his own unassisted ignorance.

Why not, you progressives? Come out of the quagmire. Quit being stuck in the mud, and go somewhere for a change. Your ancestors in politics—Jacob Riis, Seth Low—used to think along these lines. Or are you just individualists of the groin, as others are individualists of the wallet?

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

Photo: (Photo by bpk/Salomon/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

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