It Takes a Village…but What Kind of Village?

“It takes a village” is the title of a silly book written by Hillary Clinton decades ago, but it is also an idea that has been floating around lately.

A village, in a sense, is a wonderful thing.  It is willing to be tolerant of the eccentricities and oddities among its members, provided that the odd and eccentric ones are its members in “good standing.”  Liberal-ish folks might be imagining something like the literal village described in this public radio story when they speak of villages:  how a conservative rural Oregon town elected the first transgender mayor in the state because he/she is a good, trusted, long-time member of the community.  A village’s tolerance of its members extends to other issues–such as various “failures”  in life, economic, moral, health, etc.  Its members help each other out–as long as they are “good” members who are entitled to such.  Another story in this vein has shown up in New York Magazine, about how New York Chinatown has persevered.

But villages come with two dark sides:  First, it is not exactly tolerant of the outsiders.  Indeed, the same flexibility with the rules that it is willing to rely on to help out its members in good standing can be used to keep the outsiders out.  Second, the forgiveness for the sins of the insiders extends to those who are truly deplorable (no, not in the manner popularized in the recent politics) and horrible people:  one needs only to turn to the Sandusky trial and the pedophile priests to realize how a village can be used to shield all manner of wrongdoers.

Michael Barone speculated some time ago whether lack of social capital explains Trump’s appeal.  I think there is something to it, although not necessarily a direct causality:  people without social connectedness tend to fall into a bit of us vs. them mentality, driven by their actual circumstances.  Without anyone to help them out in times of difficulty and crisis, except possibly others in similar circumstances, especially those whose fortunes are likely to be highly correlated with each other’s (i.e. everyone in a factory town will probably go jobless at the same time), they are indeed likely to fall into desperate straits in times of misfortune, dependent only on their own limited resources to get themselves out of difficulties.  All “others” will be potential enemies, from their perspective, all the more so if their plight is not understood and becomes instead the target of mockery.  Such a community is not exactly lacking in a village–it is a village, alright, but one whose criteria for inclusion is a bit skewed, in the direction of shared suffering and almost paranoid (but not unjustified) suspicion of the outsiders.

I was reminded of this by this tweetstream by Chris Arnade, taken from a place as far as possible from the Trump country:  Milwaukee.  The outsiders are help in deep suspicion until their goodwill can be credibly established.  This is, from their perspective, entirely logical:  most outsiders are either cops trying to infiltrate the community or “journalists” engaging in “gotcha” journalism, after all.  When the community already has a reputation for problems, deservedly or otherwise, very few visitors of goodwill stop by.  This is problematic:  it ensures that the community will remain isolated, dependent only on its own beplighted members to get by.  The warm welcome received by Arnade once he was able to prove his bona fides suggests that the community members are aware of this:  they can desperately use an outside ally, someone with goodwill who can understand their problems from their perspective and hopefully, maybe, even help.  But this is not easy:  not only are potential candidates for this role few enough to begin with, being able to successfully prove the bona fides will not be easy.  I’d like to think that I have the goodwill, but I don’t have the bona fides.  To be entirely honest, I don’t know if simple “goodwill” would be enough:  the amount of understanding that one needs to accomplish to bridge the gap will be immense and the time and effort required would be tremendous.  But this ensures that the isolation continues.

The problem persists, indeed, perhaps even worsens, even if there is a theoretical exit.  In the passage from The East of Eden that I had written about the other day, Lee remarks that when he cut his queue and spoke proper English, he lost connection to his Chinese-American “village” but could not gain entry into the mainstream American one (and he didn’t have any linkage to the “Chinese” village to begin with–his people has been away from it too long.)  We would like to pretend that the mainstream is more accepting now, that all that one needs to do is to cut off the queue and speak proper English.  Ah, only if it were so easy!  JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy would surely disagree:  it took several years’ in the Marine Corps and a Yale JD for him to shed his “obvious” queue and accent, and he came from Kentucky, not Chinatown, and he still hasn’t quite lost them yet.  And very few people can even get that far.  Having to lose connections to one’s existing village for a scant chance at gaining entry into a strange one where adjustment and adaptation will be difficult is not something easily ventured, nor it should be expected, let alone demanded.

The challenge is not really to idealize a “village” and to mandate that everyone call themselves a village and pretend its trappings.  “Villages,” many villages, indeed, already exist and operate in some fashion.  There are successes and failures, which should be looked at thoughtfully.

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