by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
I am starting to feel as if I am living in a Vandal state, perhaps on the frontier near Carthage around AD 530, or in a beleaguered Rome in 455. Here are some updates from the rural area surrounding my farm, taken from about a 30-mile radius. In this take, I am not so much interested in chronicling the flotsam and jetsam as in fathoming whether there is some ideology that drives it.
Last week an ancestral rural school near the Kings River had its large bronze bell stolen. I think it dated from 1911. I have driven by it about 100 times in the 42 years since I got my first license. The bell had endured all those years. Where it is now I don’t know. Does someone just cut up a beautifully crafted bell in some chop yard in rural Fresno County, without a worry about who forged it or why — or why others for a century until now enjoyed its presence?
The city of Fresno is now under siege. Hundreds of street lights are out, their copper wire stripped away. In desperation, workers are now cementing the bases of all the poles — as if the original steel access doors were not necessary to service the wiring. How sad the synergy! Since darkness begets crime, the thieves achieve a twofer: The more copper they steal, the easier under cover of spreading night it is to steal more. Yet do thieves themselves at home with their wives and children not sometimes appreciate light in the darkness? Do they vandalize the street lights in front of their own homes?
In a small town two miles away, the thefts now sound like something out of Edward Gibbon’s bleaker chapters — or maybe George Miller’s Road Warrior, or the Hughes brothers’ more recent The Book of Eli. Hundreds of bronze commemorative plaques were ripped off my town’s public buildings (and with them all record of our ancestors’ public-spiritedness). I guess that is our version of Trotskyization.
The Catholic Church was just looted (again) of its bronze and silver icons. Manhole covers are missing (some of the town’s own maintenance staff were arrested for this theft, no less!). The Little League clubhouse was ransacked of its equipment.
In short, all the stuff of civilization — municipal buildings, education, religion, transportation, recreation — seems under assault in the last year by the contemporary forces of barbarism. After several thefts of mail, I ordered a fortified, armored mailbox. I was ecstatic when I saw the fabricator’s internet ad: On the video, someone with an AK-47 emptied a clip into it; the mail inside was untouched. I gleefully said to myself: “That’s the one for me.” And it has been so far. But I wonder: Do the thieves not like to get their own mail? Do their children not play Little League? Do they not want a priest at their funeral? Would they not like to drive their cars without worrying about holes in the street? Or is their thinking that a rich society can cover for their crimes without their crimes’ ever much affecting them — given that most others still do not act as they do?
I know it is popular to suggest that as we reach our sixties, everything seems “worse,” and, like Horace’s laudatores temporis acti, we damn the present in comparison to the past. Sorry, it just isn’t so. In 1961, 1971, and 1981, city street lights were not systematically de-wired. And the fact that plaques and bells of a century’s pedigree were just now looted attests that they all survived the Great Depression, the punks of the 1950s, and the crime-ridden 1970s.
A couple now in their early 90s lives about three miles away from me on their small farm. I have known them for 50 years; he went to high school with my mother, and she was my Cub Scout leader. They now live alone and have recently been robbed nine, yes, nine, times. He told me he is thinking of putting a sign out at the entrance to his driveway: “Go away! Nothing left! You’ve already taken everything we have.” Would their robbers appreciate someone else doing that to their own grandparents? Do the vandals have locks on their own doors against other vandals?
There is indeed something of the Dark Ages about all this. In the vast rural expanse between the Sierras and the Coast Ranges, and from Sacramento to Bakersfield, our rural homes are like stray sheep outside the herd, without whatever protection is offered by the density of a town. When we leave for a trip or just go into town, the predators swarm.
Last summer several cars drove into my driveway, the surprised occupants ready with all sorts of innocent-sounding inquiries: “We just are looking for a rental.” “Do you have scrap for sale?” “We’re having car trouble.” And so on.
All this serves as a sort of red/green traffic light: If someone comes out from the house, the driver poses the question and then abruptly leaves; but if no one appears, he strikes quickly. I remember three or four intruders I confronted this year who had trucks as nice as or nicer than my 2006 Toyota. Two had sports apparel more expensive than my jeans and sweatshirt. All were heavier than I. In other words, malnourishment, the desire for basic transportation, the need for clothing on their backs — all the classically cited catalysts for stealing — are not what is driving these modern vandals.
At a local gathering last week, lots of farmers — of a variety of races and religions — were swapping just such stories. In our new Vandal state, one successful theft begets another — at least once deterrence is lost. In my case, one night an old boat in the barn was stripped. Soon, the storage house was hit. Ten days later, all the antique bolts and square nails were taken from the shop. Usually — as is true with the street lights — the damage to the buildings is greater than the value of the missing items. I would have given the thieves all the lost items rather than have had to fix broken locks and doors.
I just spoke with another group of farmers at a rural fairground. Every single person I talked to has had the copper wire ripped out of his agricultural pumps within the last two years. The conduits taken from my own 15-horsepower and 10-horsepower pumps were worth about $200 at most. The repair bill was $1,500.
Most farmers have lost any steel or iron lying around their barnyards, whether their grandparents’ iron wagon hardware or valuable replacement furrowers and discs. Stories of refuse piled in their vineyards and wrecked cars fished out of their orchards are monotonous. Did the thieves never eat raisins, a peach, an almond? And did they not appreciate that if we did what they did we would all starve?
As I write, I am looking out the window toward my barn at a strange new trash pile that, presto, appeared overnight while I slept: all the accouterments of an old car — seats, dashboard, outside moldings, etc. — are heaped together, along with household garbage. What am I to do with it? I can’t burn it. (Believe me, an environmental officer would appear out of nowhere at the rising of the toxic smoke to fine me, as surely as he is absent when the garbage and refuse are tossed on the roadsides outside of town.) There is too much of it to pile into my $100-a-month Waste Management bin, where I put the plastic garbage sacks tossed by the mailbox each week. It would take two trips in my pickup to haul it to the distant county dump. So for now, the problem is mine, and not that of the miscreant who tossed it. Was he thinking, “Mr. Hanson has more time, more money, more concern over trash, or more neuroticism of some sort, and therefore is more likely to deal with my trash than I am”? — as if to say, “I can live in a neighborhood where wrecked car parts litter the road; he obviously cannot.” So are these tossers simply comfortable with refuse on our streets, or are they not, but, like irked toddlers with soiled diapers, expect someone else to clean up after them?
And is not that the point, after all? Behind the easy criminality of stealing metal or driving outside of town to toss your garbage is an implicit mentality, as frightening as it is never expressed. Someone will indeed take the garbage away. And someone indeed will have copper wire for others to harvest for their needs. And someone will pay the taxes and costs associated with the commission of the crime, efforts at prevention, and rare apprehension of the criminal. And lastly, someone most certainly should. In our crude radical egalitarianism, the fact that one has more, and another less, is de facto wrong, and invites popular remedies. Now, for every crime committed, a new sociology will arise to explain away its commission. We are back to the bankrupt French philosophers who asserted: “Property is theft!”
In the last 20 years, several vehicles have zoomed off the road and plowed into my rather short stretch of roadside vineyard. The symptomology has always been the same: The driver fled; no proof of registration or insurance was left behind. The cost of replanting the vines and replacing the stakes remained all mine. Even the car was towed away and impounded by the state for its fees. As I drive these days across the valley, I play a game of looking at vineyards abutting the road to spot newly replanted vines and fresh stakes; these car-induced blights are quite common. Occasionally, I see the Catholic version of the Orthodox iconostases so common on Greek roadsides — commemorative crosses and shrines erected to mark the spot where one driver did not survive the zoom into the vineyard or orchard.
I just asked a neighbor how many times he has been rammed at a rural intersection, with the other driver fleeing the scene and leaving the car behind (my tally: twice). He laughed and said, “None, but I can top you anyway. Last month a hit-and-run driver swerved off the road, hit the power pole next to my farm, and fled as the high-voltage cables fell onto my grape arbors — and smoked ten acres of overhead vineyard wire.”
I agreed that I could not top that. Who could imagine electrified grapes? I wonder how much in taxes the hit-and-run driver has paid this year to make up for the cost of a utility pole, and the repair of downed wires and a vineyard’s trellising system? Even more frightening are the thousands in our society — journalists, politicians, academics, activists — who get up each morning more concerned about the fleeing driver who destroys power and vines than the victims who pay for the carnage.
The immediate reaction of the victimized in rural central California is predictable and yet quite strange. As in 5th-century North Africa, farmers feel that civilization is vanishing and they are on their own. The “authorities” of an insolvent state, like petty Roman bureaucrats, are too busy releasing criminals from overcrowded jails to want any more. The stories of cyclical releases are horrific: Criminals are not arrested and let go just twice a year, but five and six and ten times. Sometimes we read of the surreal, like this week’s story in my local Selma Enterprise of one criminal’s 36 arrests and releases — and these are only for the crimes we know he committed and was caught for:
Chief says: Jail revolving door hurting Selma
Crime is Topic No. 1 in Selma, which makes the story of Adam Joshua Perez worth telling. Selma Police have arrested Perez 24 times since he turned 18 in October 2004. Charges against the Selma man have included burglary, theft, possession of narcotics, and weapons-related offenses, according to interim Police Chief Myron Dyck. In that time period, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department also arrested Perez eight times, and the Kingsburg Police took him into custody four times, Dyck said. Fresno Police also were looking at him for some car thefts, Dyck added.
He calls Perez (born Oct. 23, 1986) a career criminal who’s getting the benefit of a broken criminal justice system. And there are other people like Perez on Selma’s streets, Dyck said.
Yes, there are.
There is also an unspoken acknowledgment of how state and local law enforcement now works, and it is predicated on a cost-to-benefit calculus. Reporting to the local police or sheriff a huge pile of refuse in your yard — even when the address of the tosser can be found from power bills or letters — or the theft of a tool from the barn is simply not worth the effort. It is not even worth the cost and trouble of activating a high-deductible farm-insurance policy. I guess the reasoning is that you in fact will replace the stolen item, and even if the criminal were apprehended, the costs of arrest, trial, and incarceration — even without the entrance of immigration authorities into the matrix — are too steep for a bankrupt state.
Indeed, farmers out here are beginning to feel targeted, not protected, by law enforcement. In the new pay-as-you-go state, shrouded in politically correct bureaucratese, Californians have developed a keen sense of cynicism. The scores of Highway Patrol cars that now dot our freeways are looking for the middle class — the minor, income-producing infractions of the generally law-abiding — inasmuch as in comparison the felonies of the underclass are lose–lose propositions.
If I were to use a cellphone while driving and get caught, the state might make an easy $170 for five minutes’ work. If the same officer were to arrest the dumper who threw a dishwasher or refrigerator into the local pond among the fish and ducks, the arrest and detention would be costly and ultimately fruitless, providing neither revenue from a non-paying suspect nor deterrence against future environmental sacrilege. We need middle-class misdemeanors to pay for the felonies of the underclass.
The state’s reaction to all this is a contorted exercise in blaming the victim, in both the immediate and the abstract senses. Governor Brown wants to raise income taxes on the top two brackets by 1 to 2 percentage points, making them over 11 and 12 percent respectively. That our schools are near dead last in test scores, that many of our main freeways are potholed relics from the 1960s, that we just passed the DREAM Act to extend state financial support for college-age illegal aliens, and that the overtaxed are fleeing the state do not register. Again, those who in theory can pay, should — and should keep quiet about why they must suddenly pay a 12 percent income tax that was not needed, say, in 1991, 1971, or 1961, when test scores were higher, roads better, and communities far safer.
There is, of course, a vague code of silence about who is doing the stealing, although occasionally the most flagrant offenders are caught either by sheriffs or on tape; or, in my typical case, run off only to return successfully at night. In the vast majority of cases, rural central California is being vandalized by gangs of young Mexican nationals or Mexican-Americans — in the latter case, a criminal subset of an otherwise largely successful and increasingly integrated and assimilated near majority of the state’s population. Everyone knows it; everyone keeps quiet about it — even though increasingly the victims are the established local Mexican-American middle class that now runs the city councils of most rural towns and must deal with the costs.
Out here in the Dark Ages we depend instead on truth from the oral tradition, in the manner of Homeric bards. Rural folk offer their stories of woe to help others deter crime, cognizant that official accounts in the media are either incomplete or censored to reflect a sort of Ministry of Truth groupthink.
Poverty, racism, class oppression, an uncaring society, government neglect, exploitation, greed — cite them all endlessly, as our coastal lawmakers, academics, and bureaucrats largely do. But most of these elite groups also seek to live as far away as possible from rural central California, the testing ground where their utopian imaginations become reified for distant others. The influx of over 11 million illegal aliens has had a sort of ripple effect that is rarely calibrated. Sixty percent of Hispanic males in California are not graduating from high school. Unemployment in rural California runs about 20 percent. There is less fear now of arrest and incarceration, given the bankruptcy of the state, which, of course, is rarely officially connected even in small part to illegal immigration. Perhaps because illegal immigration poses so many mind-boggling challenges (e.g., probably over $20 billion lost to the state in remittances, the undermining of federal law, the prejudice shown against legal immigration applicants, ethnic favoritism as the engine of amnesty, subterfuge on the part of Mexico, vast costs in entitlements and subsidies), talking about it is futile. So most don’t, in fear of accusations of “racism.”
For those who do not leave the area, silence for now remains the norm. We pick up the litter from our farms on the implicit logic that the vandal — and, indeed, the state as well — expects us to, given our greater worry that his garbage would be likely to attract rats, flies, and other historical purveyors of illness. Dead cats, dirty diapers, used needles, baby carriages, shattered TVs, chairs, sofas, rotting lumber, broken windows, concrete blocks, tree limbs, used paint cans, household poisons, bags of used toilet paper and tampons, broken toys, fast-food boxes, toddler’s pools, tires, rotting chickens and dogs — anything that does not have easily detachable clean steel or copper — I’ve picked them all up from my vineyard and driveways.
I do not (yet) move wrecked Winnebagos and trailers onto my single-family-zoned rural parcel to garner rental cash, as do many of my neighbors. After all, some must not, if the careful zoning work of a century is to survive. When one dog in four is not licensed and vaccinated out here, we have a problem; when four out of four will not be, we should expect a 19th-century crisis. When there are three outdoor privies used daily behind a neighbor’s house, the local environment can still handle the flies, the odor, and the increase in the chance of disease; but if there were to be 100 in a half-mile stretch, civilization itself would break down.
Cynicism is the result. We pay no attention to news accounts of new state measures to check the source of metals presented at recycling centers, because we know these efforts are futile — as futile as the “seminars” in which we are told to fence everything in, to buy huge guard dogs, to install video cameras in trees, and to acquire electric gates — as if we were not so much being protected but being held prisoner.
I stay here, however, because I now ask: Why should we change our way of life rather than demanding that those who are changing it should look inward and themselves change?
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson