The Big Rock Candy Nation

Oh the sinning and the sleaze
On the DVD’s,
And the easy fornication,
Where the grownups play
And the children pay
For that Big Rock Candy Nation!

In that Big Rock Candy Nation
The soldiers shake their hips,
The poor man swings his rings and things
From ears and nose and lips.
The traders run
To Washington,
The trough of milk and honey,
And snaff their fill
Of the national swill,
And all they need is money.

As I write, several thousand young people are squatting near Wall Street, insisting upon some kind of change or other. Change, of course, is the natural state of affairs on earth. “Change and decay in all around I see,” says the great hymn.

Not so long ago people praised the virtue of steadfastness, the loyalty that binds the heart to this place, these neighbors, these children, this spouse, and God above all. To sever those bonds was to be changeable, that is, fickle.

But there is nothing so definite about what these protesters desire. They are not holding placards that read, “Everyone back to his station! Long live the neighborhood!” No, they are there to protest some hypostatized “system,” though what exactly the system is, nobody can tell. 

Some seem to believe that “corporations” are free-floating entities brooding malevolently over the waters, creating misery for mankind. They do not consider that, if Godfather’s Pizza is to make a profit and return money to shareholders who have risked their investments, it must actually make something that people will declare to be good, and must offer it at a price that people will think reasonable. 

In other words, at the base of all businesses lie an idea (here is something that people will find useful or sweet), hard work (here is how we will create that thing), and capital put at risk (here is the means for making the creation possible).

What the protesters are demanding, though, is magic – and that makes them strangely similar to the high-rolling brokers and financiers they despise. We’ve come far from the time when investors searched into the workings of a business, its ethos, the character of its managers, the skill of the workers, and decided to invest accordingly.

Some reforms of the financial market, if only to settle its dangerous volatility, and to discourage the building of air-castles, are in order. But they will require considerable perspicacity, and they are not going to be whipped up by silly children who are themselves building castles in the air, and whose education has left them foggy about what a percentage means, and how interest accumulates.

          The Land of Cockaigne by Pieter Breughel the Elder (1567)

The protesters, for example, are demanding the forgiveness of all debt – an Old Testament jubilee year, without fields and farms and flocks, and of course without rejoicing in the love of God. 

No matter that such a thing, sprung upon an unsuspecting people, would constitute the greatest act of theft in the history of the world. No matter that banks would fail and that the savings of ordinary people would be wiped out. No matter that it would reward those who have not paid their bills at the expense of those who have. 

It should just “happen” – with a wave of a political wand. Glinda the Good Witch will simply appear out of a pink bubble and grant a clean bill of financial health to everyone, and Toto, too.

It’s easy to call the protesters a posse of spoiled children. They are that, but they have not simply descended like addled gods and goddesses from Columbia. We have made these children what they are. This fact bears some examination.

Catholic moral theology is consistent in its teaching that, although the natural appetites are good, our proneness to sin makes it hard for us to subject them to right reason. 

That is the task of the cardinal virtues, which, as Thomas Aquinas makes quite clear, are not easy to learn or to practice. They must be built up in us by hard work, including self-denial. That is why the pagan Romans called them virtutes in the first place. They are, literally, acts of manhood. 

But a life of pleasure-seeking – even if one defers gratification of this appetite as a strategy for the gratifying of that greater appetite later on – thrusts a dagger into the heart of virtue. 

Worse, if we teach our children that the highest virtue is tolerance, and that tolerance is not the silent and prudent bearing of a known evil, but rather indifference, then how can we expect them to scale the difficult heights of courage? 

How can we take the self-pleased and self-pleasing, and teach them to bend their wantonness under the yoke of temperance? 

How can we encourage them to believe that they are entitled to their “dreams,” whatever those hazy concoctions of the self-absorbed may be, and then expect them to subordinate their desires so as to give to others what is justly theirs? 

How can we expect them to apply moral norms in a prudent fashion, given the circumstances wherein they and their neighbors find themselves, when we deny that there are norms in the first place, and when we encourage a narcissism that necessarily divides us from our neighbors?

The protesters live in a Big Rock Candy Nation. I will come back again to this fact on this site and hope to take my pickaxe and chip away at some of the candy, to look at it closely and name it for what it really is.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.