I am re-reading a sociology classic I read years ago in graduate school, Philip Slater's The Pursuit of Loneliness. The thesis is chilling; what is contributing to the decline of our democratic republic is our endless individualism, the individualism that is celebrated in American literature but often and accurately diagnosed as the very cause of our difficulties.
One chapter really caught me out: our tendency to hide and institutionalize our social problems, whether it be deafness, the mentally ill, or the disposal of the mountains of garbage and waste generated by the Gods of Growth. As he points out, in the past the elderly, the senile, the mentally incompetent, the deaf remained in the community, known to everyone, seen and encountered almost everyday. Even human waste from the water closet thrown out of the back door or the kitchen window lay in the streets and alleys, with all of their stench and purification. In London, in the 19th Century, Dr. John Snow deduced that deadly cholera epidemics were spread because the various water companies drew water from the Thames below the point where human waste was dumped.
I worked as a young college student in the Texas School for the Deaf and also the Texas State Mental Hospital, both in Austin.
The deaf students were "parked" by their parents as wards of the state. The school itself was composed of cottages where the boys and girls lived, segregated of course. (Of course there were no black students. It was 1955. The students' only contact with hearing persons were the house parents, in my case a couple who were in charge and who, along with two other house parents lived in separate quarters. As a house parent my job was to see that the boys were up, showered, dressed and had breakfast (prepared by an excellent black cook) and sent to an on-campus school, from grade school through high school. Students who excelled looked forward to attending Gallaudet in Washington, DC. Once as week I took the kids to a nearby theater where I attempted to keep them quiet (deaf kids can make a lot of noise) and get them safely back to the campus.
Slater's point is that this institutionalization only seems to "solve" our social problem of deafness, or mental illness, or other social deviance. Instead they result in a new and different kind of social problem, the ghettoization of society, kept apart much like segregated schools for blacks operated. And all were pathetically underfunded and neglected.
Our daughter Valerie was recently visiting in Bisbee and went Carole her step-mother to the gallery where local artists, painters, sculptors, and photographers exhibited their work. One of the photographers, after being introduced to Valerie, who majors sociology in graduate school, asked what sociology was about. When Val took the time to explain, the photographer said, incredibly, "that doesn't make sense to me." Actually, what the man said echoes the blindness we all have to the social structures and dynamics of American society, our unknowing and ignorance to the ways which society, with its practices and remedies, isolates and hides social problems.
Slater's book is merciless in its analysis, especially the chapter "Kill Anything that Moves." Slater observes how we proceeded to destroy the "enemy" in Vietnam with napalm, deforestation, relentless airstrikes on the plains, and on and on. Apocalypse Now is perhaps the most chilling autopsy of the American practice of "solving" social problems by destruction.
The brief mention in his book on how human waste used to be present all the time, and how the mentally ill and the deaf were part of the community instead of sent away to be warehoused at state institutions. As a mayor of Bisbee, I learned that this famous former mining company in 1900 disposed of dead animals and human was by throwing them out in the street. Also, there was an ordinance that human corpses could not be left outside for more than 24 hours. At the time I think Bisbee's population was 25,000, with miners crowded in shacks, where the copper miners worked in shifts and slept in the beds of those who were down in the mines.
Now all of this history is in our small museum and history books. And as mayor I helped finish the first complete sewer system for the town in 2004, after 2 two-year terms. The town was offered an overhaul of the sewer system in 1968 but it turned it down by an overwhelming majority, thinking that if the measure failed the famous Phelps Dodge Mininng Company would change its mind and stay. Phelps Dodge left in 1976. It took the EPA four decades to force the citizenry to meet its responsibilities.
Slater's book brought out all of these memories, in spades. Americans "solve" their social problems by hiding them, either in institutions, in environmental neglect, in resistance to adequate taxation, and in acceptance of the reality of social problems that are the inheritance of life together.
Michael Walzer once said that "we live together so as to solve problems together. We Americans don't do that very well. We build massive stretches of highways and expensive cars to escape modern city life and its woes and the problems tend to follow us. We can run but we can't hide from our social failures.