This is a chapter in my unfinished book, The Devil’s History of the United States
I’ve often lamented the demise of public religious institutions, for that is an important part of the Foundation of the House. Moses Sands blamed much of this on the rise of what he called the “Don’t-give-a-damn’s”, noting the state has embraced and grown them as a new secular religious class..
The Lower Classes & Don’t-Give-a-Damns; a Genesis.
There’s a closing line in the Richard Brooks film, “The Professionals” in which Ralph Bellamy calls Lee Marvin a bastard. Walking away, Marvin replies, “Yessir, but with me that was an accident of birth. But some people are self-made men.”
Moses reminded me that originally “low-downs” were also accidents of birth. These were people we used to refer to as being “brought up rough”, products of a harsh environment, without any moral compass or civil manners and generally lacking in hygiene. Actually, as a pejorative, they don’t quite fit into the mold of the lower classes, a difference not everyone could appreciate unless Dickens is on the bookshelf. Low-downs were a minority within a minority, but since no one (except Dickens) wanted to get close enough to tell the difference, they were always lumped together. Because of this, they defined the lower classes in American society in the minds of local law makers and class-conscious busy-bodies, of which every community, no matter how small, had a few. “Don’t-give-a-damns” were the primary reasons even the religious poor were considered to be outside the constitutional scheme of protections well into modern times, a fact that has taken conservatives and people of faith alike nearly two centuries to fully fathom.
A century ago the state took liberties with the lower class because they were asked to by the majority, but more specifically because this class provided a social petrie dish for thieves, confidence men and worse. In more recent times they have become a principal reason to re-order the constitution in order to keep them in some sort of protective custody, ostensibly for the same reasons….and interestingly, by some of the same people who over the same period have morphed from antagonists into kinder, gentler keepers.
Since the turn of the 20th Century we have almost universally associated “low class” with those teeming masses huddled together in American cities, just off the boats from Europe and Asia. But most of those folks came here with valises filled with moral values, not to mention civil manners…as would most black Americans who moved north following the Civil War. The Pierpont Morgan’s and ruling Anglican class would declare Roman Catholics to be low class per se, as wrong believers, (which apparently was worse than non-believers…a theme that would one day help redefine liberalism in America) and blacks also would be similarly declared by another segment of society, thus leaving both groups outside the Constitution’s umbrella for almost a century.
So, don’t confuse modern “don’t-give-a damns” with that first generation “low-class” girl named Mary, who got off the boat from Kilkenny and lived in Five Points, and was a domestic servant to a third generation woman named Margaret, who lived on 8th Avenue and whose grandfather also got off the boat, only from Liverpool fifty years earlier.
Every group coming to America brought its own criminal element, dressed in raiment that somehow made them appear unique, but still no greater or different than society-at-large. But few came to America as morally and culturally blank as did some of the original colonial stock, when Britain occasionally thinned out her jails. These dirt-rimmed mouths, while common sights in Europe well into the 20th Century, in America were tabula rosa of sorts, naifs on virgin soil but for having been pre-dipped by the ankles in a river of muck, and were the probable cradle of “Don’t-give-a-damn-ism” in America, where being first, even first among the least, matters in America. These were people who had no cultural memory (three generations…grandparent, parent and child) of civilized behavior, empty vessels more than malignant creatures, and it would be more than a century before civilization would catch up with them, for in America, you see, they were mobile.
They could come and go as they please, and you see, in the quirkiness that is America, there are valleys, mountains and counties out west now named for them.
On one of my raids in the southwest with Mr Sands, this time crossing the Navajo reservation toward Durango, he outlined his notion of the Law of Generations, a theme we were working on for this book. He kept me laughing about the genesis of class in America, relating some of the really out-of-the-way-places he’d visited where you could still run into strutting founding fathers and preening grand dames; places like Hensley Settlement in Kentucky, “the last holler up the last crick”, where an old woman, the great granddaughter of the first settler, “strode around with great pomp, chewing tobacco with her one good tooth.”
His first law: As it was with those who migrated to America, it was usually losers who packed up and moved (in the early days, west or upstream), noting that many farmers who settled Alabama and Mississippi carried with them only the vaguest idea of civilized society in the East. “Their move was rarely voluntary. Life’s winners usually stayed put back in Virginia.
“Funniest thing happens, though, for there’s entire counties and towns out west, not to mention every geographical feature imaginable, named for some useless so-and-so run off his daddy’s land ‘cause he stole a cow, raped a neighbor’s daughter, or was just a worthless no-account…but who hitched onto a wagon train at Council Bluffs and walked right into a book by Bernard DeVoto. And today his name is venerated by some great, great granddaughter who puts on a gingham dress and gets together with other Daughters of the Broke Down Conestoga each year to remind whatever tourist will listen about their great grandfathers… as Shakespeare says, ‘…with advantages’.
“Sky determines”, it’s said. The last fellow to settle Powell Valley, Virginia got the poorest piece of land, which usually became the first to turn over to someone else. The last of his line, with no chance of getting a piece of it, was the first to leave, heading west…where a nice stream-fed virgin grove of chestnuts and oaks, later to be a county seat, was just waiting with his name on it. And so on and so forth. See how it worked?
“And often as not, within three generations that original homestead back on the French Broad had been broken up and turned over half a dozen times, the original line of kin now working in sewing factories and feed stores, with absolutely no memory of that scamp who fled west in 1821, or their other “loser” kinfolks in Kansas Territory and their 20,000 acres of wheat or that new law library in Ft Collins named after still another. That’s the wonder of America, and the lower classes helped write a helluva lot more of it than most of their ancestors back in Virginia want to allow.”
So it follows (Moses’ second law) that whoever gets to a new spot first, measured anywhere from an entire continent, (Jamestown and Plymouth Rock), territory (Nebraska), or just a simple confluence of two creeks in Appalachia, becomes Founding Fathers and acquire a certain ceremonial stature.
“There’s a pecking order in every place Man deems to congregate, and being first is first among them. That, not money or land, was the first element of home-grown class in America. And a sort of heroic mythology always arose as to why any ancestor chose to settle in such an inhospitable place as the middle of Arapahoe country on the North Platte, or some dank hollow in Kentucky….instead of just bad luck.
“Now, we have commiserated a lot about people being too comfortable and secure these days, and that being a sign that there’s rot in the foundation of their House. But no one in his right mind does a man want to spend the rest of his life peeping through a rifle slot in the front door every time a wild turkey gobbles. Comfort and security was mostly a dream with a large part of American society all the way into your day. Still, they were things much sought after, as much as could be grabbed and held onto. But when survival was a full time occupation it left very little time for taking on new comforts or graces.
“This explains the rough exterior, but says nothing of the insides of people, where true “low-down” behavior dwells. Civilization is based on what was in a migrant’s pouch from the beginning, when he first got to a place. If you arrived with the Good Book and could read, you’d no doubt keep on reading it, and pass it on to your kids…them that survived. That’s what you call a Darwinian advantage. But the Oregon Trail was littered with the pages of books used as toilet paper…and I’m sure some of the Donners would’ve given worlds to have a good book to eat.
“But if you arrived with an empty pouch, it was likely to stay empty. If you couldn’t read, it was an art you would not acquire in your lifetime, and you’d pick your teeth with a skinning knife ‘til the day you died.”
This all changed by the 1890s’s when Turner’s Frontier Thesis ruled there were, in a sense, no new creeks to go up. At about the same time, port-cities like New York began to fill up. But even in the small towns of the south and midwest, the last to arrive, life’s losers, began settling down “across the tracks” trying to squeeze a living out of town work…but usually not for long as they were rarely made to feel welcome.
Some were meaner than others but most folks on the other side of the tracks rarely noticed. By and large they followed every boom, from gold, silver, copper and timber in the West, to coal, as well as factories and mills in the east and the Midwest, work that was undesirable, dirty, strenuous and dangerous, only adding to the hard exterior we now associate with this sect. Every mining town had at least one bachelor’s hotel where, in some rooms men would gamble, drink, fight and whore their paychecks away, while in other rooms men would pray on their knees and send a letter off to dear Mother with five dollars pinned inside it.
“Don’t-give-a-damns” had settled in among the working classes, and to an unfair extent, defined them among a rising class of social planners…and social climbers, the “lawyers’ wives and other reformed whores” as Mr Sands liked to call them.
In my own day, in the 1950s, these were the ones who hated the church bells on Sunday because they hammered against their hang-over, and who sent their children to school unwashed and unkempt, and left it up to the state to teach them to say “Thank you” or “Please”.
How many genuine “Don’t-give-a-damns” were there in a town? Who knows, since we measured that class more in terms of their crime rate than how many moved up and out into the mainstream. (We still do.) One colleague, Bernard Chumm, said his town was 1%-2%, which sounds about right by my calculation as well. But like the Lady Disdains of Centerville, most sociologists (on the state payroll) have since taken the attitudes and habits of “Don’t-give-a-damns” and imputed them to the entirety of what it calls the poverty class, while in fact the opposite was true. From this calculation alone you can see how the state, once empowered, has been able to turn the behavior of “Don’t-give-a-damns” into a self-fulfilling prophecy, for now their behavior is very likely in the majority among the poor.
Don’t Give a Damn’s as Victims
It is instructive that before the 1960’s “Don’t-give-a-damns” were a declining sect. They were never really recruited until Hollywood put Brando on a Harley in 1953, thus making anti-social behavior look cool. Before that most new “converts” had already taken a wrong turn somewhere else, with alcohol, drugs, or petty crime. They usually congregated together in the uglier parts of a town, even by the standards of the poor (something else the state put an end to), but because there were common areas where they had to mix with society-at-large, especially the schools, there were elements in every town that took notice of them and had a “plan” for their rescue.
This used to be called “classical, social liberalism”. For every Lady Disdain that looked like Margaret Hamilton, there were other, more gritty and determined women, who’d heard of a nice or talented child through a school teacher, or perhaps a church group. Similarly, some men at the mill or plant might notice characteristics in some worker that set him off from the rest of his neighborhood’s low demeanor. Thanks to their willingness to roll up the sleeves and get dirt under their fingernails and a public school system that answered entirely to the community as to what was expected to be imparted to those children, they were rigidly taught “Please”, “Yes M’am”, and “No, sir”….with a bar of soap…and yes, a garnish of Jesus.
Consequently, their numbers were steadily under attack and falling. In the purest of cultural, conservative senses, and to the extent the mind-your-own-business manners of the day would allow, ladders were placed down into the holes occupied by “Don’t-give-a-damns” so that their children, at least, could climb out, thus cutting off that generational cycle of not giving a damn any longer. And it was working.
A good thing?
Only there was that one rub…that little garnish of Jesus. I don’t need to define Don’t-give-a-damns wart by wart, since almost any of you can make your own list of what you consider to be “low-down” behavior (we all do that mentally anyway), but I do note that Mr Chumm defined them by an absence of manners and moral values, while Moses, a generation older, drew a much darker picture of meanness, describing a people who would steal or kill in a heartbeat if they thought they wouldn’t get caught.
This is an important distinction, for moving from Moses’ time (1930s) to my own there seems to have been a watering down of low-down behavior, from would-be outlaws to philistines slouching and scratching toward perdition, proving all the salient theories about free markets and grass roots American exceptionalism while disproving all the social theories to the contrary.
But this success may actually shed light on the reasons behind the state’s decision to dump such a fine, working program and take “Don’t-give-a-damns” out of the jurisdiction of the American village and put it onto its own reservation. The private sector was simply too good at it, and there were just too many ex-“Don’t-give-a-damns” around proving a fact no one inside certain intellectual communities wanted to acknowledge.
All they needed was a banner, and if you’re inside government looking out rather than the other way around, it should be easy to see why the state decided there are constitutional rights to be protected here, invoking both state primacy and that wall of separation as a way to…you guessed it, save the children.
“Don’t-give-a-damns” were removed from both God and civil society because they’d never heard of or known either, true accidents of birth. But being American, they didn’t have to if they didn’t want to. It was a right, which even in my day some wore like a badge of honor (though nothing like today).
If you’re a leftist, or bureaucrat, or both, it isn’t hard to see how you can find “victims” inside this set of circumstances. The “forced” injection of religion into public life by town citizens provided the perfect straw-child for both bureaucrats and true believing leftists.
I don’t need to re-state here the general opinion of religion by leftists or the anti-religious zeal out there today among the useful-idiot young. Even the smallest amount of public religion was a burr in the left’s saddle from its beginnings in the 19th Century.
But it was likewise in government’s swivel chair. It is a natural law of bureaucracy to want to take unto its breast every aspect of the human experience…if for no other reason than to count it (and someday tax it). The Founders always knew this tendency in government, and gave the citizenry ample tools to deal with it (which, like their guns, they seem to be handing over). It never really drew serious notice until the 20th Century, and the rise of progressivism, which, if you haven’t noticed, has eaten classical liberalism whole. But as a natural impulse within government it existed from the day the republic was formed in 1787.
So, if you have a bureaucracy who needs feeding, and government decision-makers with a pre-disposition against religion anyway, what do you do? You claim primacy over the “Don’t-give-a-damns”, who are, as I mentioned, already threats to the good public order per se just because of their habitat. Just imagine the territory you can acquire. And the banner you unfurl on your “salvation march” is the rescue of the (straw) children, dragging them away from the evil clutches of the good people of the Methodist Garden Club, as Bernie Chumm said.
Don’t-Give-a-Damn-ism as Creed
I usually accuse every bad thing the left has done to be on purpose, but I’m not sure early planners ever saw “Don’t-give-a-damn’ism” jumping the tracks into the suburbs so easily. Thanks to Hollywood and the popular culture, advertisers and now, kids with credit cards who’d never mowed a lawn, it all just sort of fell into their laps. But by the mid-1980s they knew exactly what they had, and what they now have are the tools to not only artificially inseminate broad spectra of society, but feed, inoculate, educate and secure this rising sector. With citizens more and more looking to government to protect them from government, and modern conservatives withdrawing to defend little more than their front yards (a regular Moses Sands complaint), the forces of anti-God found a (sic) godsend in this tiny group, becoming completely vertical, with nursery-to-seminary-to-grave “Don’t-give-a-damn-ism”. Their cup runneth over.
If it wasn’t intentional in the beginning, it is now, and I have become tired of listening to conservatives talk about the good intentions of the left or the bureaucratic state. Both are malignant per se. State pre-emption in the rescue of the loser class has been an undreamt-of success, not failure. This is why despite their failures (as the public sees it) they will never relinquish this territory voluntarily. One law of bureaucracy is, like parasites, they will never voluntarily let go of their host, even if it means death to both of them. This means making them surrender has to be forced. (I wouldn’t bother to write this if there weren’t solutions. I don’t do laments here.)
The stakes are high. Thanks to the popular culture, especially in entertainment, but also in advertising, which Moses called the real greatest threat to the First Amendment, the state has found willing comrades in the private sector, who have always conspired to separate the common man from his wallet, but was deterred by his vigilance and common sense. With the power of the state to deny man’s ability to discern between what is beneficial to his House and what is a danger, and more importantly, make those choices as consequence-free as possible, from free condoms to mortgage bail-outs to bushels of free potato chips and moon pies, this alliance has created the making of the perfect constitutional and cultural storm. Beyond the wallet, what can now be separated is the common man from his House, and ultimately his House from the Constitution.
Recalling Moses’ three generation rule, we are near to losing any cultural memory of the Depression/World War II generation who knew the blueprints of their House intuitively. This is exacerbated, as Bernie Chumm reported, by the “millenials”, the most current generation, nearly half of which were raised by mother alone, many well-educated (even Ivy League well-educated) but with at best mere indifference toward the most holy of American icons such as human dignity, liberty, or for that matter, the ancient Christian ideal of love. (I won’t bother to include gratitude, or humility, or the Boy Scout Law.) First the House, then eventually, the Constitution hobbles down….only… …to where?
Moses Sands was the most garrulous men I’ve ever known, yet he says some things that are so clear they don’t need to be over-explained. He defined his fear of rising “Don’t-give-a-damn-ism” this way: “Imagine you’re in a Walmart at the watch counter wanting to buy one of those nice $9.99 Citizens. The clerk is down at the other end tending to a customer and you look down and right on top of the glass is a crisp hundred dollar bill, just laying there. What’s the first thing you do?
“Trust me, no matter how honest and moral you are, the first thing you do is look around to see if anyone is watching.
“Now, the second thing you do is more problematic, as some will pick the bill up and find the first person in authority to give it to. But others will first calculate the odds…“If I stick it in my pocket and head toward the door, do I still have a fail-safe point where I can reach back in my pocket and pass it over?’ Or, ‘Is this Candid Camera? Is this a trick? What if I get caught?’
“Being low-down is mostly, as Mark Twain said, a ‘secret supplication of the heart’, a state of mind. A few hard-cores might snatch that banknote and be out the door in ten seconds, but most people end up giving it back, their reason ranging from ‘it’s wrong’ to a fear of getting caught.
“Only, it’s impossible to know anyone’s heart in such a thing…until it starts to show up in the mob, as we now see in national politics, the professions, among adults and children alike, from petty crimes like shop-lifting, indiscriminant cheating, promiscuity among teenagers, or serial lying for no particular reason. This is how you know if civilization is on a safe high road or a dangerous, low road.
“The math is real simple. Remove right and wrong from a calculation and all you have left is legal and illegal. Once that is all you have, then the rest is calculating the odds. What are the chances I’ll be caught? Or prosecuted? That is exactly the way a criminal thinks, only it is now the dominant thinking in whole classes of people in America, especially politics and law, and is generally glorified by both the media and Hollywood.
“This is a life-and-death equation for the American House. If you do or don’t do things based on right and wrong, you are walking on a survival-enhancing road, much more than if you do or don’t do the very same things simply because they are against the law, or you’re afraid of being caught. This latter is survival-endangering conduct, and in proving this one single point, we can prove scientifically that leftism is not just philosophically wrong, it leads to cultural suicide.
“Even a fool can see how dangerous this is once the law-makers can make anything legal, and there’s no higher law to correct them. Just ask the Jews. A bureaucrat can kill anybody and still sleep good at night, just so long as you let him do it with a clipboard, or I guess, these days, with a keyboard. It really isn’t that hard to make the leap from rampant lying and cheating today to Leopold and Loeb tomorrow…killing for sport…and then onto killing for a high state purpose.”
“Once you begin that easy slide back to a state of nature, it’s a long hard climb out of the abyss. No one ever bothered to look underneath the social fabric of Russia for almost 75 years, or east Europe, after almost 50 years, to measure the pace at which they were disintegrating into animals, or the long way back they have now, just to find some fixed stars to steer by. It will be at least two, three more generations before right and wrong are even platforms in their new social codes.
“Imagine if all the moral values you have now were hidden in a basement for 60 years before being allowed back to the surface, only in front of your great grandchildren. Want to know what it would be like? Go to an Orthodox church in Serbia as I have and watch a feeble 85-year old woman trying to teach a 5-year old how to cross himself or genuflect…because neither that child’s parents, nor his grand-parents, had ever been inside a church. Sort of makes you go wobbly just watching this. Or try to explain the difference between a Moonie and a Methodist to a Russian and you’ll see what I mean.
“In a way, this has happened once before. It was called the Dark Ages, and they lasted almost a thousand years. I’d just as soon not go there, but as they say, sky determines.
Don’t-Give-a-Damn’ism as Cancer.
As a natural law, a healthy society must have a sense of what “low-class” is. In terms of survival, this is more important than any idealized vision of what “high-class” might be. We all need our fine arts to grow, but first we must be cancer-free.
“Don’t-give-a-damn-ism” has moved far beyond the other side of the tracks and the whore houses on Bleaker Street. The rightness and wrongness of human conduct has been preempted by the state…a thing the Founders never envisioned (in my view) and which can have disastrous consequences for civilization.
You can follow this fact down any dark alley you want. Once morality, or the Clintonesque idea of a “floating morality” becomes an accepted creed within a culture, and we’re nearly there, even state-sponsored genocide can be made “legal”. Never forget that eugenics was always a part of the old progressive-socialist platform, so the leap wasn’t really that great in some corners of the political spectrum already. The question in America is, just as it was in Germany in the 1930s, just how far will the people let the state go. In Germany they first hunkered down in their parlor, then later, in their basements, waiting for the bombing to cease…those that were lucky enough to be in the western sector.
Chumm points out “Don’t-give-a-damn’ism” now consumes almost half of the generations since World War II. While in our day two percent or so didn’t give a damn about God, now fully thirty percent, and growing, don’t give a damn about their House, their honor, their country, or their Constitution, as well as God. They only give a damn about their vanities and their appetites, and that is the new national religion, state-controlled and fed.
Only, who’s feeding who, really? Who’s eating who? Really? This is the part the socialists never get right. In victory, all they ever become are the last ones eaten.
As I said earlier, Moses Sands believed the process of “home-grown” class in America to be a humorous affair, better for comedy than drama. The great leveler for the progress of our society has been the doors the Constitution keeps open, so that people are constantly marching in and out of them all the time, creating quite a commotion. It’s not supposed to be pretty or orderly.
“It took the Constitution’s protectors (his term for ‘conservatives’) nearly two centuries to understand just how inclusive that document was…open doors meant open doors for all, and by the time they had learned it, the other side had also learned how to place Gate Keeper’s on several of them, tolls on others, and out-and-out locks on still others.
“About the same time we figured it all out, they did too. What we could have fixed with a pill forty years ago, now requires a scalpel. That is the real war to the death in America.
“I’m just not sure we have the stomach for it, anymore.”
Publications: Famous Common People I Have Known and Other Essays
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