Fiddling While Rome Burns, Conclusion

It is still possible to educate one's children at home or in private schools, but homeschooling is difficult and time-consuming, and private schools are generally more expensive than they are effective.  Families are already required to pay taxes to support the government schools that malnourish the minds and corrupt the character of their children, but, in a period of steady and precipitous decline in the quality of all schools, private as well as public, homeschooling becomes ever more attractive to more people.  The same can be said of home production, which can include everything from part-time typing and maid services to large mail-order businesses.   At the simplest level, self-sufficiency begins with the planting of a home vegetable garden.  

Where families work together, where the group's economic success depends upon the contribution of all the members, a cohesion is achieved that is otherwise very difficult.  Government, government schools in particular, drain much of the family's authority, but there are other sources of conflict that tend to delegitimate the family as an institution.  There are many circumstances under which a married woman might need to or might wish to work.  Some of the reasons are better than others, but one of the effects will be an inevitable competition between a man and woman who are no longer "merely" husband and wife but two wage-earners on career paths, taxpayers (filing joint or separate returns), voters who may support different parties, and sport fans who may “root” for opposing teams.  

 Religious, political, and ethnic differences can also turn the family home into the battleground of a civil war.  In cases of mixed marriage, some conservative religious groups have insisted that the "alien" spouse either convert or promise to rear the child in the faith.  What may seem, at first sight, to be bigotry is probably a sound idea.  If husband and wife cannot agree on their worship of God, they are either indifferent to religious questions or else so divided on essentials that the children will end up being torn, back and forth, between the parents' churches.  In either case, they are unlikely to raise the children in either or any faith. 

 It is through the rituals of common meals, common worship and common work that a family discovers its identity as a family.  The pleasures and opportunities, no less than the pressures of modern existence threaten this identity.  Children have their endless rounds of music and dance and tennis lessons, clubs and parties to attend, and school functions that sometimes seem to require whole weeks of afternoons for meetings and practice sessions.

 In economic terms, families are outsourcing many of their vital functions. Children are taught to depend on “experts” in various agencies and organizations for everything they do.  In fact, many kids today have never known what liberty is, have never spent an afternoon in the woods, unless it was organized by the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound; have never read a book unless it was assigned in school; have never indulged a whim that was not scripted and directed by some group of professional do-gooding malefactors with social science MA’s. 

The conventional explanation for this phenomenon can be summed up in the word “ambition.”  Students and their parents understand that success in a career depends upon success in college, and prestigious colleges require not just good grades but that evidence of leadership that is displayed in multiple activities: sports, music and drama, part-time jobs, and volunteer work.  Parents complain frequently that they spend too much time driving their children from soccer practice to guitar lessons, but the busy schedules they are imposing on their children are also a reflection of their own over-scheduled lives that leave little time to spend with their sons and daughters, much less to be alone with their own thoughts.  

Some psychologists have been warning parents not just against over-scheduling and over-programming the lives of their children but also against the “disengagement” that results from the idle hours spent watching television or text-messaging, and some have gone so far as to call for children to form closer connections with their families and communities and even with the past.  There was a time—and not so long ago—when parents did not need to be told the plain truths that every parent since Adam and Eve had known.

Parents themselves bear a large part of the guilt.  Like their student children, they also join clubs and attend classes, and they  may only have the chance to greet their children as a group on the way out the door as they leave for school.  In popular entertainment, these activities are conventionally portrayed as the fruits of success and popularity, the sometimes hectic rewards that await exuberant and talented individuals.  What many of us sense, however, is the familiar story of the hare with many friends.  The more activities we undertake, the less seriously we devote ourselves to any of them; the more friends we make, the less we value them--and they us; the more we spend time outside the home, the less capable we are of being at home at any time in our lives. 

Political Measures:

Agrarians and distributists are often criticized for offering analyses of what is wrong with the world without ever putting forward concrete proposals that might be adopted in the real world of politics.  This critique is not without justification, but it could be leveled even more squarely at conservative and liberal reformers who are forever offering quick-fixes and new paradigms that are the equivalent of putting a coat of paint on a house riddled with termites.  The country, at this very minute, is absorbed bv a presidential contest in which both parties are making windy promises of what they will do for us.  They would not make such promises if they thought we believed we could manage our own lives.

Supposing for a minute that we were one of the two candidates: What are some of the practical measures we might undertake to restore freedom, property rights, and the family?

For starters we could eliminate inheritance taxes, re-designate home-property as tax exempt, inalienable—and not subject to eminent domain except for urgent necessity.  We could make school taxes applicable to all schools and, in the case of families engaged in home-schooling (and this could apply not just to parents but to  older siblings and grandparents) available to home schools.  While we’re building castles in Spain, we could eliminate child labor laws and government control of marriage, along with social work agencies, child protection laws, and the whole panoply of legalized tyranny that has subjugated families.   

By now everyone is saying to himself, but “those proposals are just pie in the sky.  You might just as well propose we repeal the 14th amendment and implement the 10th.”  

Exactly.  At least for the foreseeable future, serious political and legal reform is off the table

In the meantime, there are a few things we could do.  We could begin to act as if agrarian principles were something more compelling than literary fantasy.  Every one knows the expression:  “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”    Like most of what we think we know about ancient history, this is probably false.  In fact, the evil emperor apparently took practical steps to save the city from the conflagration.  A wise guy who likes to debunk all traditions would add that the violin would not be invented for another 1000 years, and only an ignorant Southerner would not know this. If the evening were not already half spent, I would explain that the verb “fiddle” originally applied to all string instruments, which makes the proverbial expression better English than most of what one reads in a major newspaper.  The whole question, by the way, was settled the year I was born by a Southern lady with a PhD in classics from UNC.  Where would we be without Southerners who remembered the classics?

America has never produced a cultural capital that could be compared with Rome, but our own fake Romes—New York and Chicago, Washington and Louisville, Seattle and Portland are on fire.  The Barbarians are ruling the country, and their savage allies are looting shops, attacking the police, and threatening our homes.  There are those who insist we should get in our cars, drive to some strange city we do not know, and fight in the streets like the unfortunate Kyle Rittenhouse.  In other words, if we can’t beat the savages, we should join them.

Hilaire Belloc and his Southern colleagues knew better.  Charity begins at home, not just charity in the sense of handing out alms, but charity in the sense of carrying out the duties of Christian love.  One of those duties is the protection of our homes and communities, to do what we can to make them centers of work and community, learning and recreation.  If we must fight to defend our homes and neighborhoods, then we shall do it, knowing that we have worked to make them worthy of the risk and effort we shall have to make.  

Once we throw out the radio—and the  iTunes and Twitter and Facebook and especially the FOX NEWS—and take down the fiddle from the wall,  we can do what Nero never did:  Fiddle while Manhattan burns.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. theAlabamian says:

    Dr. Fleming has done such an awesome job with this article and there so much to unfold in it. Very well written, and the point that the home is to be sacred, and self sufficient (as possible) really makes me want to take steps to be more independent. There is so much touched on in Dr. Fleming’s article that hit me hard. One of the areas he mentioned was how husband and wife work, and often this leads to deterioration of relationship. Dr. Fleming’s description of the family working together for survival, and everyday needs is wonderful, and it makes sense that working their own land, or livelihood together brings them together. I have often wondered why people are shocked at adultery and divorce when husband and wife give their best to other people at work, solve problems with these other people, only to come home and give their spouses leftovers. Who are they actually married to? Thank you Dr. Fleming.