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A School of Strength and Character
19th century Americans stunned outsiders with their capacity for self-organizing. Through procedural formality and agentic hierarchy, they created a powerful set of norms for building institutions.
This past week, Palladium correspondent Tanner Greer published a new article on civic life in nineteenth-century America. In those days, the entire country was checkered with various civic institutions created and staffed by regular citizens. They ranged from the United States Sanitary Commission, which provided medical relief during the Civil War, to the Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal order that protected families in the event the household breadwinner died. “For this generation of state-builders,” Tanner writes, “the distinction between ‘state’ and ‘society’ so central to the modern conception of the public sphere felt awfully thin.”
Everyday life in nineteenth-century America was a school of competence and agency, distinguished from our own time by a few key cultural traits. For example, one feature inherent to these organizations that is easy to overlook today is how seriously they were taken by their participants, even if they only filled a humble niche:
First, institutions cultivated a sense of public kinship and brotherhood, sometimes formalized by sacred oaths. Just as citizens took oaths to the republic or upon the Bible, social and political associations took their bonds of loyalty no less seriously. The fraternities, federations, and even political parties that these men belonged to embraced extravagant rituals, parades, and performances designed to build fraternal feeling among their members while reminding them of their public responsibilities. They required earnest oaths that committed their members to a life of charity, public service, brotherhood, and the betterment of their fellow men. Lodge leaders developed these rituals and treated their oaths with great solemnity. This required their culture to have a functional role for solemnity and seriousness at all. When irreverence becomes a universal norm, attempts at seriousness degenerate into performative role-play.
The same procedural measures used by the heights of government were followed with discipline at the local level. Because these civic institutions were often where nineteenth-century Americans began their political careers, the hierarchical discipline and solemnity of their tasks naturally transferred over to matters of state importance. These were the real schools of political action.
The temptation faced by those alienated from majority institutions is to place self-affirmation above action. This sort of “liberation” is a recipe for impotence. The brotherhood of builders only succeeds if their institutions demand the formality, discipline, and clearly delineated lines of responsibility that such building requires.
You can read more about them here.
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Accompanying Tanner’s article is Anton Cebalo’s first article for Palladium. Writing about the decline of American social fabric in the twentieth century, Cebalo traces its origins to the urban planners of the post-New Deal era:
But by the 1960s, Moses and the planners were losing their “human element” too. The proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, approved in 1960, intended to bulldoze through Greenwich Village and Soho. The Mid-Manhattan Expressway, approved in 1963, showed similar disregard. Both failed due to being widely unpopular. Moses and the planners were surprised, and even angered. Responding to the protests, Moses often argued that “succeeding generations would be grateful.” Sometimes he even relished being an adversary. “I’m just going to keep right on building, you do the best you can to stop me,” he once replied—or, more bluntly, “when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” Increasingly, people were simply in the way.
The cavalier “meat ax” mindset led to tens of thousands of displacements every year throughout the 1960s. Newly-optimized traffic flows facilitated suburban commuters to urban workplaces and commercial centers, to be sure, but multigenerational businesses, impromptu meeting places, and arts districts were quite literally bulldozed in order to make it happen. But it’s these same spaces that enabled the community life that made American civic life so famous.
The urban stagnation wrought by “urban renewal” coincides with the high water mark of public trust in the U.S. government. In 1964, American trust in government was at its height at 77 percent. In the past decade, it has often dipped below 20 percent.
Social trust is built by strong social bonds formed by well-structured proximity. The physical construction of the cities is an underrated contributor to America’s social decline and its future prognosis.
You can check out Anton’s article here.
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Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
A School of Strength and Character by Tanner Greer. Nineteenth-century Americans stunned outsiders with their capacity for self-organizing. By cultivating the virtues of public usefulness, procedural formality, and agentic hierarchy, they created a powerful set of norms for building institutions.
Midcentury Planners Demolished America’s Social Fabric by Anton Cebalo. The decline of American community life did not begin with the internet. Over the course of the mid-twentieth century, the country’s urban centers were bulldozed through to make room for freeways.
Madame Mao’s Nietzschean Revolution by Dylan Levi King. As Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing helped lead China’s Cultural Revolution with a Nietzschean philosophy of art. Through revolutionary operas and ballets, she sought a heroic consciousness that could transform society.
Our Knowledge of History Decays Over Time by Ben-Landau Taylor and Samo Burja. Despite modern approaches to archaeology and preservation, as history moves forward we will only lose knowledge of the past.
Bill Gates Has Perfected Managerial Philanthropy by Brian Balkus. Bill Gates has used his foundation to win prestige and secure the goals of the elite consensus. But without strategic independence, he cannot act against its worst ideas.
That’s all for now.