Monday, October 3, 2011

The Way Back Up to Civilization

Over the weekend I was reminded of a piece from August in the WSJ concerning recent riots in London. The editorial, by Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, addresses what has happened there (and what to expect here for the same reasons), and what is the way back. 

Panos Pictures, from original editorial.
A priest and imam join with community
in prayer for repair of society.
What caught my attention was how well he was saying what I say at Spherical Model, only without the graphic model. So I’m going to take his words and apply them to the model, in the hope that it will make his words even more convincing. 

First is a description of the chaos, the anarchy of the southwestern quadrant on the sphere: 

The world was watching London again as hooded youths ran riot down high streets, smashing windows, looting shops, setting fire to cars, attacking passersby and throwing rocks at the police. 

…This was no political uprising. People were breaking into shops and making off with clothes, shoes, electronic gadgets and flat-screen televisions. It was, as someone later called it, shopping with violence, consumerism run rampage, an explosion of lawlessness made possible by mobile phones as gangs discovered that by text messaging they could bring crowds onto the streets where they became, for a while, impossible to control. 

Much of the history of the world has been the oscillation between the chaos of the southwestern quadrant and the statist control of the southeastern quadrant. But we know, particularly here in America, that there’s a whole northern quadrant to move to—with effort, and with principles to follow to get there. Rabbi Sachs identifies those very principles. First comes the description of the movement away from those principles: 

In virtually every Western society in the 1960s there was a moral revolution, an abandonment of its entire traditional ethic of self-restraint. All you need, sang the Beatles, is love. The Judeo-Christian moral code was jettisoned. In its place came: whatever works for you. The Ten Commandments were rewritten as the Ten Creative Suggestions. 

In Britain today, more than 40% of children are born outside marriage. This has led to new forms of child poverty that serious government spending has failed to cure…. 

Whole communities are growing up without fathers or male role models. Bringing up a family in the best of circumstances is not easy. To try to do it by placing the entire burden on women—91% of single-parent families in Britain are headed by the mother, according to census data—is practically absurd and morally indefensible. By the time boys are in their early teens they are physically stronger than their mothers. Having no fathers, they are socialized in gangs. No one can control them: not parents, teachers or even the local police. There are areas in Britain’s major cities that have been no-go areas for years. Crime is rampant. So are drugs. It is a recipe for violence and despair. 

What is one of the main principles for civilization: Family is the basic unit of civilization. Married parents who raise their own children, inculcating in them the principles necessary for living a civilized life, are necessary. There is no guarantee that all children will turn out well, nor is there only hopelessness for children in broken homes. There are exceptions both ways, but the critical mass of society gives direction toward or away from civilization.  Here is Sachs’s summary of raising these children without the civilizing influence of intact families: 

They are the victims of the tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement. 

So when responsibilities are ignored, civilization decays. At this point we can probably summarize the other northward moving principles as moral principles. Religion is key: 

We have been spending our moral capital with the same reckless abandon that we have been spending our financial capital…. 

There are large parts of Britain, Europe and even the United States where religion is a thing of the past and there is no counter-voice to the culture of buy it, spend it, wear it, flaunt it, because you’re worth it. The message is that morality is passé, conscience is for wimps, and the single overriding command is “Thou shalt not be found out.” 

In the Spherical Model, I have said that, while not all religious societies are civilized, every civilized society is a religious society. This does not mean state-sponsored religion—the opposite. But the civilizing principles hold true: Honor God, who is the giver of human rights, and to whom we are held accountable for our choices in this life and the next. And beyond honoring God, following these basic commandments makes it possible to live in harmony with others:

  • Honor parents
  • Do not murder (take innocent life)
  • Do not have sex outside of marriage
  • Do not steal
  • Do not lie
  • Do not covet (want what belongs to your neighbor)
These are the principles families will pass along, so civilization can continue. So, if the principles are true, it must be possible to move northward into civilization—and that gives us hope. Sachs reminds us, savage chaos has happened before, and the solution was to follow the principles that move us northward. 

In the 1820s it was unsafe to walk the streets of London because of pickpockets by day and “unruly ruffians” by night. 

What happened over the next 30 years was a massive shift in public opinion. There was an unprecedented growth in charities, friendly societies, working men’s institutes, temperance groups, church and synagogue associations, Sunday schools, YMCA buildings and moral campaigns of every shape and size, fighting slavery or child labor or inhuman working conditions. The common factor was their focus on the building of moral character, self-discipline, willpower and personal responsibility. It worked. Within a single generation, crime rates came down and social order was restored. What was achieved was nothing less than the re-moralization of society—much of it driven by religion. 

…[Toqueville, in Democracy in America, found] a society in which religion was, he said, the first of its political (we would now say “civil”) institutions. It did three things he saw as essential. It strengthened the family. It taught morality. And it encouraged active citizenship. 

Yes. Of course. If you apply the principles, you get civilization as a result. Sachs then turned to observations for our day. He quoted Robert Putnam, in Amazing Grace, saying,

Social capital… has not disappeared. It is alive and well and can be found in churches, synagogues, and other places of worship. Religious people, he discovered, make better neighbors and citizens. They are more likely to give to charity, volunteer, assist a homeless person, donate blood, spend time with someone feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger, help someone find a job and take part in local civic life. Affiliation to a religious community is the best predictor of altruism and empathy: better than education, age, income, gender or race. 

Religion, individually lived, and extended generation to generation by families, can change people’s lives in ways governments simply cannot do. Religion is “a shaper of behavior, a tutor in morality, an ongoing seminar in self-restraint and pursuit of the common good.” 

What evidence do we have that moving northward will work in our current world? How about China? Historian Niall Ferguson, in Civilization,
…quotes a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, tasked with finding out what gave the West its dominance. He said: At first we thought it was your guns. Then we thought it was your political system, democracy. Then we said it was your economic system, capitalism. But for the last 20 years, we have known that it was your religion.
It was the Judeo-Christian heritage that gave the West its restless pursuit of a tomorrow that would be better than today. The Chinese have learned the lesson. Fifty years after Chairman Mao declared China a religion-free zone, there are now more Chinese Christians than there are members of the Communist Party.
I didn’t know that. A civilized China may be a formidable economic foe, but if we move northward as well, they will not be an enemy—they will be friendly trading partners in a more peaceful civilized world. If we stop the southward decay and make the necessary northward repairs.

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