The Nation of Alcatraz

President Clinton, wagging his finger in accusation, has said that the Republican philosophy of government is, “You’re on your own.”  The sheer absurdity of the statement staggers the mind.  I doubt there is a single person in the nation who knows, even approximately, the number of government programs at all levels instituted to assist the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, and others in special need.  That is not counting the number of private institutions, more effective at what they do, established for the same purposes, nor to mention the charitable assistance afforded by other groups whose main purpose is something else, or assistance given informally by free associations of people, or privately, by individuals.

Almost all of the persistent poverty in the United States—as opposed to temporary rough patches which some families endure—is the result not of misfortunes like the death of a breadwinner, or famine, or the predations of the rich, but of vice.  The sexual revolution that rich graduates of Yale and Princeton justified for us all has been especially devastating for the weakest among us—those who aren’t graduating from Yale and Princeton.  But that aside, there’s something queasy-making about Mr. Clinton’s easy condemnation of the dictum, “You’re on your own.”

I write as a Thomist Catholic; I am quite aware that man is meant for community, and that we find ourselves only in our love for others.  Let me then take the “you” in the dictum as plural.  Then it means, “You, you people, in your own neighborhood, your own parish, your own town, are on your own.”  And that is an altogether different thing from the atomized individualism that is quite happy to share a bed with the collectivist state.  The community—a true community, not some vast abstraction of an anthill—is a threat to both.  The last thing that the atomist or the collectivist wants is a healthy community on its own, competent to take care of its own without the dictates and the protection money of the national government, and competent to uphold its customs and values against the selfish vagaries of the atomist.

Let me illustrate with the example of a man who was simultaneously on his own as much as a man can be, and quite literally hemmed in by the state.  Robert Stroud was a convicted murderer who, while in prison, killed a guard in a violent altercation, and was sentenced to hang.  His mother embarked upon a campaign to have the sentence commuted to life imprisonment.  She sought out Edith Wilson, the wife of the president, whom a stroke had rendered barely able to fulfill the duties of office.  She persuaded Mrs. Wilson that her son was not merely a monster, but was a man of some worth.  The sentence was commuted, but the attorney general, construing matters in the harshest possible way, ordered that Stroud suffer solitary confinement, indefinitely.

One day, while trudging about the blacktopped courtyard for exercise, Stroud discovered a small baby bird that had fallen from his nest.  Moved with pity for it, he took it into his cell and nursed it to health.  The film Birdman of Alcatraz tells the rest, with great care for the particulars.  Stroud fashioned the severed end of a glass bottle, fired in a “furnace” he engineered with matches and sticks, into a birdbath.  He asked for an apple crate from a friendly guard, and, with a small knife and a lot of precise blueprints, constructed a birdcage with hundreds of tiny strips of wood—a job that took him seven months.

The inmates in the cells nearby—whom he never touched and could rarely see, and with whom he sometimes communicated in Morse code tapped upon the water pipes—grew to like the birdsong coming from Stroud’s cell.  They requested from the prison officials canaries of their own.  Stroud soon had a regular aviary, with dozens of birds, in cages and on perches that he had carved, without help from anybody.

Then the birds contracted a disease called septic fever.  A veterinarian—who had supplied him with a microscope and taught him how to use it—made the diagnosis, and told Stroud that there was no known cure.  So Stroud began a frenzied study of avian diseases, while his beloved birds were falling ill and dying.  He compounded various chemicals until finally, after hundreds of hours of single-minded work, he happened upon the cure.  That began Robert Stroud’s career as a researcher and a writer of learned articles on the subject.

It should be noted that none of what Stroud accomplished happened because of the prison system.  A lenient warden allowed him to order bird seed, books, chemicals, and other necessaries, but the work was all his.  Also notable is the fact that this hobby brought the prisoners together—it was the most important thing they shared.

All was going well for Stroud, and it seemed he might even be paroled.  A kindly woman, a lover of birds, had ferreted out the truth, that the writer of those fine articles in bird magazines was serving a life sentence.  She visited him and offered him a business proposition.  She would promote and sell his cures, and they would split the profits.  They fell in love and were married—in part also to protect the business from the law forbidding inmates to engage in any activities for profit.  Stroud had even written an entire book about birds and their care, a book that the veterinarian called a work of genius.  Who knows what this wholly self-taught man could do if he were given the chance to study human diseases?

But his mother turned against him.  The film suggests that she was envious of his love for his wife.  The maternal love had turned sour.  Rather than have her son enjoy freedom owing to the ministrations of someone else, she preferred to have him remain in prison, and said, to a reporter, that he was exactly where he belonged.

I believe we can draw a good analogy between Stroud’s mother, the prison system, and the induced dependency of the welfare state.  Mrs. Stroud did not want her son to be “on his own,” that is, to have established, without her management, a community of persons and of love—the marriage, and the associations of customers and bird-lovers which the married couple served.  She feared that independence, as rendering her superfluous.

Far from gaining a parole, Stroud was soon transferred from Leavenworth to Alcatraz.  He was compelled to leave his aviary behind.  The instigator of the transfer was a longtime nemesis, the warden under whose care he had killed the guard long before.  So Stroud embarked upon his next passion—he researched the history of the American penal system, and wrote a tome condemning it for its stupidity, incompetence, and cruelty.  In a pointed interchange with the warden, he says that the prisons rob the prisoners of their individuality, and that therefore they must fail.

Again, it helps here if we keep in mind the ambiguity of Mr. Clinton’s accusation, “You’re on your own.”  What the imprisoning government does is to rob people, both individuals and the natural communities that those individuals form, of their just freedom of action and of the true adventure of human life.  Take for example the dreadful public schools wherein we confine the urban poor.  We say, implicitly, “You people cannot take care of yourselves,” but what we really fear is that they willfind ways of taking care of themselves without our ministrations.  If, for instance, we allocated to the parents a half or a third of the money that the protectors and wardens pour into the public schools, and allowed them to use that money in their own self-invented schools or into local religious schools, the children would certainly benefit—and we know this.  But we don’t do it, for the same reason Mrs. Stroud, in the end, preferred to have her son behind bars.

The welfare state is a soft prison, a system of induced incapacity, to the benefit of the wardens.  It works in concert with public schools, another vast network of compulsions, whose existence is predicated on the assumption that learning, in children, is unnatural, so that only “experts” can fathom the mystery, and so that “good” parents will act as trusties, submitting to the authority and enforcing its often ridiculous and pernicious commands.  The next network of control is an infantilizing media, persuading people that they are stupid or fat or ugly, that they live in a shack, that they wear rags, that they need what the hawkers provide.  The last element is a diseased and counterfeit individualism: the promotion of selfishness and of vices that make true self-reliance, and therefore true community, impossible.

“You’re on your own”—a good father might say that to his son, in love, in communion, and mean, “I am confident in you, I know that you can handle whatever comes your way.”  Or, again construing the pronoun as a plural, the phrase might mean, “You people are free.  We won’t extort money from you in order to buy your allegiance at the price of your liberty.  We are confident that you will come up with fascinating ways to teach your children and police your streets and take care of those in special need.  You can do these things.  More to the point, only you can do these things.  We cannot, and we do not pretend to.”

If only we were given the chance.

Anthony Esolen

By

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

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  • Carolyn McKinney

    Mr. Esolen has outdone himself. Bravo!

  • JMC

    Given time after the Pope performs the consecration of Russia, we will see exactly that. I ask only that God allow me to live long enough to see it.

  • Cthemfly25

    Professor—so many thanks for this article. Beautifully stated.

  • Peter Nyikos

    I hate to be a wet blanket where such a well-written article is concerned, but in the interests of fairness (especially to Stroud’s mother) it should be pointed out that there is another side to Stroud’s story. It was told in a 1960′s article in the long-defunct magazine True, titled “The Phony Fairy Tale of the Birdman of Alcatraz.” It’s two main theses as far as today’s world are concerned are these:
    1. the many birdcages were mainly meant to hide a moonshine still, and
    2. had he been set free, he would not have continued his research on birds; keeping him in prison therefore was necessary for the complete flowering of that research.

    There was a third thesis which was considered significant back then, but no longer today: Stroud was an active homosexual.

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