I wouldn’t say that Joy and I are very close friends, but for a long while – from my later college years until I left California – we ran in the same social circles and saw each other fairly often. A friend of a friend, you could say; we’ve been happy enough to see each other whenever we have, but it has always been in some group activity or another rather than one-on-one. Still, we’re well enough acquainted that I was on the list to be notified when she sent out word that she’s in trouble. The circumstances are worth relating, as it occurred to me that it sheds some light on a lot that’s wrong with our Modern world.
Joy is a second-generation Chinese-American, a native of the S.F. Bay Area who grew up on the edge of Oakland’s Chinatown, and although I have enough sense to never ask a woman her age, by the length of time we’ve known each other, she must be squarely on the north side of 40. She is not married and never has been, and has no children. She is neither rich nor poor, with a job as the shipping manager of a furniture wholesaler’s warehouse, where long service has given her seniority and a salary that is respectable if not spectacular. She is careful with her money – not so much of a miser that she’ll never go for a dinner out with friends, but not luxurious in anything. She is sensible and level-headed, and at an age where that should begin to pay off in a certain degree of comfortable stability in one’s life.
But not so for Joy, it seems. That’s what I found out last week when I read her message. Joy is being kicked out of the house where she has rented a room for the past couple of years. The reason is personality conflict, or perhaps more accurately, cultural conflict. There are five or six roommates in a large house that long ago was designed for the kind of big families people used to have. Being the modern Bay Area, the roommates are all quite diverse – white, black, Latino, and Asian – in the way that we are assured is “our strength”. But Joy has found otherwise. She didn’t share the details of the particular disagreement that started things, but the situation progressively got worse and worse. And the most important reason for that was, according to Joy, that her non-Asian roommates just couldn’t understand the Asian style of conflict resolution. To her, all of them, but especially the Latina roommate who she was most directly clashing with, were extremely aggressive toward her – shockingly so, compared to the people she had grown up with. Joy said that she felt “bullied, teased, picked on, and tormented” to the point where it caused her to sink into a depression. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that the situation was unsustainable and somebody would have to leave. The homeowner made her choice, and gave Joy until the end of this month to get out of the house.
The first thing that Joy thought of was to move back in with her mother. But that was impossible; the high cost of housing, and even property taxes, in the Bay Area meant that as soon as her children had moved out, her mother had to take in boarders of her own in order to make ends meet, and they now filled every available room in the house, including the one that had once been Joy’s. It just wouldn’t be fair to evict one of them over a problem Joy was having that was no fault of their own, so that idea was rejected. Finally, with the deadline looming, Joy was considering the option of sleeping in her minivan until something better came available. There would be room enough to set up a semi-comfortable bed, the mild California weather meant there wouldn’t be any danger from freezing temperatures, and she could still shower, eat, and do laundry at her mother’s house. It would be a genteel form of homelessness, and (with any luck) only a temporary one. But it’s homelessness all the same – not a happy prospect for a woman in her 40s; a senseless humiliation for someone who has worked steadily and been frugal all her adult years. When I received the story, it was in the form of a last-minute plea for anyone in her orbit who might know of a more permanent place for her to stay to get in touch with her ASAP. And that is where the situation stands.
Of course, having left California for Southern Appalachia three years ago now, I don’t have any way to help in her search. The only thing I can do is to reflect a bit on all the ways that Modernity has failed Joy – and they are many indeed.
For one thing, while there has always been a small percentage of spinsters in our society, the phenomenon of women who are unmarried, well past prime marriage age, and in many cases are outright unmarriageable, has reached crisis levels in our society. I would by no means call Joy “unmarriageable” (that would involve factors like an extremely disagreeable and entitled personality, an excessive attachment to career over everything else, showy expressions of trendy leftist politics, a very high “notch count” springing from an extended Sex and the City phase, and perhaps single motherhood as a souvenir of it as well), but the fact that she remains unmarried at her age is proving to be a problem for herself and for those around her. Both the traditional Asian culture of her ancestors and traditional Christian Western culture understand this issue, and either of them, working through the circle of friends and family around her, would have intervened in her life 20 years ago in order to find a suitable husband for her and to pressure her into marrying him. This sounds abhorrent to the post-feminist Modern, and yet we must ask: feminism has loosed women, but from what, and into what? In her 40s, Joy deserves to have a husband and children of her own, which would give her a stable home and a large support structure around her. Instead, with the sole exception of an aging mother whose ability to help singlehandedly is limited, Joy is alone and without resources that the Modernist promise of the “independent woman who doesn’t need a man” apparently cannot actually provide her. She is left having to send out appeals to every minor acquaintance for help in avoiding homelessness.
But beyond this, even if Joy remained single her whole life, she deserves some greater measure of stability than this. She should at least be able to afford a small apartment of her own instead of having to perpetually live like a college kid, renting out a small bedroom in what amounts to a boarding house, never having real privacy or control over her fate in a place to truly call her own, well into what should be anyone’s most prosperous and secure years. There’s a lot behind why even this small measure of dignity has been denied to her, basically none of which is her own fault – she has never been a stoner or a slacker or a wastrel. One important factor is the economic squeeze on the middle class that’s been happening everywhere in the country, and most especially in California, over the past 20 years. California’s taxes, housing prices, and cost of living are legendary for all the wrong reasons, and are driving its middle class out of the state by the millions. (It is an exodus that I myself joined, in deep sadness, three years back. I could perhaps have tried holding on a bit longer – even in the face of increasingly intolerable laws and decreasing quality of life – if I’d been willing to keep living the way that Joy has been. It worked in my 20s and 30s well enough. But in my 40s, I found it harder and harder to live like that. Now, in Southern Appalachia, I have a small cottage of my own, with a workbench, a kitchen where I can cook anything I like at any hour of day, and a closet that I can stuff with a prep stash. I couldn’t go back to not having them.)
On paper, California is a fantastically rich state, but this hides the fact that it is increasingly a place with a Third World economic profile – one populated by the very rich and the very poor, with very little in between. Communists and socialists seem unable to understand that a certain amount of wealth inequality is actually the sign of a healthy economy; mainstream conservatives and libertarians seem unable to understand that too much of it is the sign of a deeply unhealthy one. In the real world, Silicon Valley money, which we are told is the envy of the globe, has been the second-worst thing (after mass immigration) to ever happen to the Bay Area. For those making six figures or more in a high-level tech job, the astronomical cost of living is an annoyance; for the established middle class that was there long before the tech boom, it has been ruinous. Beyond that, Big Tech long ago closed on its purchase of the state government, so no reforms of which they might disapprove, coming from either the left or the right, have any chance to pass. Things won’t get better for the middle class, because the ruling class – both inside and outside of the formal government – has little interest in that. No one in power wants to stand up for Joy, nor for anyone like her.
Then there is the issue of immigration and its attendant diversity. First, the former: it is of no small consequence that since Joy was born, the population of the United States has risen by 50%, and the population of California has doubled. The sheer presence of that many new people needing housing and using resources would make the cost of living skyrocket and turn the prospect of having an adequate place of one’s own on a middle class salary into a pipe dream, making life miserable, even if the curse of tech money wasn’t a factor, and even if diversity caused no problems. The fact that diversity does cause deep problems that are simultaneously ever more impossible to solve or to even talk about honestly in the open only makes things worse.
Unlike many others on the Dissident Right, I am not an absolute purist when it comes to diversity. I see nothing wrong with, say, San Francisco having a Chinatown or Miami having a Little Havana. But as with income inequality, a little diversity under the right circumstances may be healthy, but too much can only be disastrous. Even in the days before the post-1965 immigration flood, when we had diversity in more reasonable proportions, the social arrangement that made it work was based on the old ethnic neighborhood system, a form of voluntary soft segregation which created the kind of intangible-but-very-real good fences that make good neighbors (and that Chesterton warned us against dismantling). But then that system broke down; it was simultaneously overwhelmed with sheer numbers and deliberately dismantled by utopian busybodies who made it their mission to ensure that any remaining vestige of non-diversity be destroyed. What had existed before was a humane, respectful, and sustainable unspoken agreement by which ethnic neighborhoods were largely left to self-govern, so long as they caused no trouble to outsiders and passersby. Everything from anti-discrimination laws to overreach by the official organs of government put a forcible end to it. It is nothing to the busybodies and utopians that the old system created a sense of community; that it fostered informal support structures and an environment where like people could live by long-established rules that suited their unique characteristics. And it is nothing to them that its passing has led to the reality that Joy faced in a micro sense, and that we all are doomed to face in the macro sense: that diversity + proximity = conflict.
Here I should note that, despite the complaints that Joy has about her soon-to-be-former roommates, I doubt that any of them, even her Latina tormentor, is an evil person at heart. It’s more likely simply that there’s a Latin way to handle things and an East Asian way to handle things. It’s not that one is better than the other in any objective sense; that they’re different and incompatible is enough on its own to exacerbate any conflict to the point that it’s intolerable to all involved. This is an important reason why, whether it is through the mechanism of hard borders or soft fences, it is nearly always in the best interests of everyone for like to be with like. Though utopian egalitarians would be horrified by the idea, it would have been better for Joy if her search for a place to live had taken place within the soft limits of an Asian ethnic neighborhood, or even just a housing development or apartment building that was legally and socially permitted to restrict itself to accepting only like people in order to reduce conflicts such as the one that has Joy on the edge of homelessness. Perhaps that would have put some choices off-limits to her, but she would not now be facing living in a van.
Keep Joy in your prayers, as she will be in mine as well. She deserves better, and let’s hope she finds it soon. On multiple levels, she has been brought low not because she failed, but because she has been failed by Modernity and all of its unworkable promises. As have we all.