Civic Trust and My Friend José

 
 

The disappearance of forty-three Mexican students serves as a cautionary tale—and a reminder of the crucial importance of what civic trust we Americans still have.

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Social contract theories often begin with some secular creation myth of human beings who exist outside of history and prior to the social order. As Yuval Levin writes in The Great Debate, “The formation of society was itself a choice made by free individuals, so the natural rights that people bring with them into society are rights to act as one chooses, free of coercion.” In this view, we exist as free individuals prior to society, and thus we can enter into contract amongst ourselves. In the abstract state of nature, man is free and equal. Yet in reality, women and men never seem to exist in a state of perfect freedom and equality. As Rousseau said: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”

The fact is, we do not personally choose to enter into a social contract; rather, we are born into societies with contextual conditions. As Levin writes, “all human beings enter a world that already exists—a world in which they belong to a particular family and community that are responsible for them and toward which they in turn have obligations.” We need to be concerned about how we view our own social order. What do we have that is worth conserving, since we did not create specific institutions and liberties (such as churches and religious liberty), but inherited them? How ought we to view the social order, especially when there are ever creeping federal top-down increments ever furthering their reach to mold these institutions to suit ideological agendas?

One may look south of the United States to see what happens when the intermediary institutions inherited from previous generations—schools, for instance—are viewed as the enemies of political power.

A Cautionary Tale: The Tragedy of Mexico’s Missing Students

Readers are probably familiar with the disappearance and alleged murder of forty-three college students from Iguala, Mexico. The headline of the first New York Times article on the story captures the scenario well: “43 Missing Students, a Mass Grave and a Suspect: Mexico’s Police.”

The forty-three students were attending a local college (“Isidro Burgos”), training to become teachers in the surrounding areas of the state of Guerrero, located in southeast Mexico. They were reported missing September 26. Later, a mass grave was found, and reports surfaced of the police rounding up the students just prior to their disappearance. Then, the plot thickened. It was eventually discovered that the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, had ordered police to attack the students, who were on their way to protest an event coordinated by Pineda. After ambushing, firing on, and detaining the students, police handed over those who had not yet been killed to a criminal organization call the Guerrero Unidos. They are still missing.

This case has made international waves: on Oct. 30, Pope Francis asked “for prayers for Mexican students who were burned alive.” Several more mass graves have been discovered. Upon examination, the bodies in the graves turned out not to be those of the missing students. It seems that even more people have been secretly killed than had been previously reported. The Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City published this statement:

The evil that Mexico suffers is a true decomposition of the social fabric, an evil from which no sector of the country escapes. The seriousness of the crisis demands a deep replanting of our morals, our laws and the social and political organization of our homeland.

One can see the lack of civic trust among the religious leaders in Mexico. This lack of trust is, quite understandably, shared by many Mexicans, who fear the rampant corruption of their government  and cannot assume a reliable civic trust between the governed and the governing.

A Personal Perspective from My Friend José

Recently, I had the privilege to interview a man who personally knew many of these missing students. For purposes of anonymity, we shall call him José. He is from the village, Iguala, where the students went missing, and is currently pursuing graduate studies in the United States. We spent several hours discussing the missing students and how he finds the political context of this situation in Mexico. José tells me these missing students, mostly children of farmers from nearby areas, were hoping to “teach reading, writing, and math to children from the poorest places of Guerrero.” This aspiration is especially admirable and impressive, as the area is much poorer than the average Mexican region.

José says the students “sought to go the extra mile and form their pupils to be whole persons.” They helped their pupils learn “creative ways of community organizing, and inform them as citizens what their rights are.” Most of the students, he continues, “have indigenous roots and speak one of the four languages ​​that are currently practiced in the state of Guerrero (Tlapaneco, Mixteco, Nahuatl and Amuzgo).” Often, the pupils’ parents do not know “how to write or read Spanish, mainly due to being cultured in their native language,” such as Nahuatl.

I ask José what these students were doing in Iguala, since their school is in a different town. He responds that they were going to different cities for a “botear.” The word does not have a direct translation in English, but it describes the students’ attempt raise money by “seeking charitable support from people living in cities such as Chilpancingo, after Iguala and other nearby cities.” The funds would go to help cover teachers’ professional expenses. While in Mexico, José had interacted with many of the students who are now missing when they came to the city for earlier botears. According to José, the students’ quest “to find solutions and help the children have a better quality of life is partly why the government branded them as troublemakers.”

At this particular botear, the New York Times reports, the students were asking for money to attend “an Oct. 2 demonstration rejecting cuts to their state-financed school.” Reportedly, the students stole buses to go the demonstration. I asked José about this, and he answered, “The students would ‘temporarily borrow’ the buses. They would return them, however.” José informs me that this “borrowing” was the only practical way to travel to the demonstration. In a country of law and order, that would properly draw the ire of law enforcement.

But this affair may reveal a complete inversion of the rule of law and civic order. The BBC reports that “in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, a popular uprising led by heavily armed self-defense groups has chased out one of the main drug cartels.” These vigilantes, José says, “do what they do because it is the only way to have security and protect their communities from the cartels.” José believes that these groups are necessary because “during the day the police in Iguala work as police. During the night, however, they work as hitmen for the drug cartels known as “Guerrero Unidos.” That cartel controls Iguala and the north part of Guerrero.”

Even the mayor of Iguala has now been arrested. According to José, the corruption runs deep: “the mayor of Iguala has relatives, such as [his] wife’s brothers, who work for the cartel.” Because the mayor is head of the local police in Mexico, José’s distrust of the local police—and the local political order—is clearly justified.

Hope, Solidarity, and Trust amid Barbarism

Political corruption in Mexico and the barbarism of the cartels are not news. But what has happened to these students, in José’s words, is “one of the most shameful acts” in Mexico’s history.

But he has hope. He finds solidarity at the Catholic parish where we met. When seeing “solidarity in many parts of the world,” he tells me it gives him and his friends a belief that “we can have a country where we can live in peace, where protests are tolerated and we can have justice.” I ask him about his Catholic faith, and he is stirred when he says that “as Catholics, we cannot tolerate these acts of barbarism.”

José continues to speak of the Catholic faith in his country with a tone similar to the statement by the Archdiocese of Mexico City:

Today more than ever it is important to be become closer to God. I think we have lost the fear of God and we have gained more respect [for] money and material things; as citizens [we] have to reform ourselves to offer a better future for our children.

When he tells me this, I cannot help but be reminded of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his 1978 Harvard Address: “We have placed too much hope in politics and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.”

This massacre seems far, far from where I live—far enough to have a momentary care and then forget about it. I trust local authorities and fellow citizens. But this is a trust that should not be taken for granted. Roger Scruton writes that the existence of civic trust (like that among authorities and fellow citizens) “in a society of strangers should be seen” as

a rare achievement, whose pre-conditions are not easily fulfilled. If it is difficult for us to fully appreciate this fact it is in part because trust between strangers creates an illusion of safety, encouraging people to think that, because society ends in agreement, it begins that way to.

Sadly, José cannot expect what Scruton describes. This lesson from a neighboring country should give us pause and cause us to reflect on our own social order and the precious liberties we currently have—such as the civil liberty of trusting strangers.

When José speaks of seeing solidarity in the rest of the world, of hope, and of the fear of God, I wonder about my own country. Patrick Deneen predicts that “religious believers who resist the spirit of the age . . . will lose many of the institutions that they built to help the poor, the marginalized, the weak, and the disinherited.” Whether or not one finds his prediction the most plausible scenario, one must wonder how long autonomous civil institutions of a counterculture morality can expect to remain autonomous in our own country. We do not expect the police to work for cartels, but we may expect censorship or political pressure through the law—think of those citizens who affirm the conjugal view of marriage and are fined by the government for their refusal to perform or assist same-sex weddings, or Catholic adoption agencies de-licensed because they want to place children in households with a mom and a dad. I fear that James Poulos's description of a “pink police state” seems more plausible with each new day.

I have never traveled south of the US border. I do not know the poverty and pains, crony capitalism and cartels that José, his family, and his friends have known. José offers to let me stay with him in Mexico if I get the chance. That seems like a trust amongst former strangers. It is a trust I did not create and for which I can only be grateful.

Ryan Shinkel is currently a senior studying philosophy and literature at the University of Michigan. He has written for Ethika Politika and Conciliar Post.

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