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Our intellectual leaders, the opinion and moral elites, seem to be trapped in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Here is the chilling Dostoevsky paraphrase as coined by that cynical, dyspeptic atheist J. P. Sartre:
The Brothers is a great and compelling novel, far, far too long and cluttered with characters for modern tastes. The story, set in late Tsarist Russia, presages the looming Marxist disruption. The novel remains acutely relevant to the modern situation.
Dostoevsky’s character, Mitya, is in jail, accused of murdering his father. He is “sorry for God” because, as he puts it -“Your Reverence, you must move over a little, chemistry is coming!” Then he adds: “How...is man to fare after that? Without God and a life to come? After all, that would mean that now all things are lawful, that one may do anything that one likes.”
My own real world education began in when, a freshly minted lawyer, I began with the Alameda County Public Defender, an office I would be appointed to lead years later. Headquartered in Oakland, this venerable institution was started by Earl Warren when he was the Alameda County District Attorney in 1927.
My first boss, a tough, pipe smoking trial lawyer, introduced me to the fascinating world of crime with a trenchant warning on day one. Lest the “everybody is an innocent victim” nonsense would carry us all away on a naïve tide of daftness, he warned each of us:
I am a seasoned veteran public defender, in charge of the entire department. I am standing at the speaker’s dais in the Command Center of the modern Jail complex near Pleasanton, California. This was the replacement for the infamous old Santa Rita Jail described by Tom Wolfe in his novel, A Man in Full.
A famous County Sheriff, one of those legendary law enforcement figures, a tough guy with a heart, has invited me to speak to the graduating class of address the Sheriff’s 102nd Police Academy. He introduces me as “the best public defender in the country.” He adds, “When I see him on the elevator, I tell him ‘Have a bad day.’” We all laugh. He wasn’t kidding.
I describe the scene many years earlier as I and other public defender lawyers were allowed to mingle with the prisoners for interviews in the old Santa Rita. We stood in the open by wooden barracks, interviewing clients in the Compound, the wind ruffling our files and papers while the prisoners – potential clients - lined up in orderly queues.
Rarely was a deputy in sight, yet we moved in complete safety, surrounded by polite crooks. If you saw the film, the Shaw Shank Redemption, you have a sense of the kinds of guys that made up the prison population when I first started as a young lawyer. I was still in my 20’s. These crooks were screw-ups to be sure, but men (almost all the prisoners everywhere are men) who had some real sense of having done wrong and mixed feelings about whether they really deserved the break that they all wanted.
We’ve all seen it in the typical modern and postmodern prisoner’s hard, wary eyes, and the coiled-spring body language. There are complex reasons for this human deterioration, for the sadly necessary bulletproof lexan barriers between lawyer and client, the difficulties getting approval for a “contact” interview – meaning a real face-to-talk - and for all the other security precautions.
No longer do public defender lawyers show up in the morning with a stack of blank interview files, admitted to an open Compound where the prisoners politely line up outside their living units. This practice is not acceptable today. The very nature and composition of our jail and prison populations has changed. On a much more volatile and unpredictable group of people is now behind bars. What in the world is going on? Why this deterioration?
Two factors tower over the rest: The drug culture, and the cultural drop out of the moral foundations formerly supplied by religions, have conspired to brutalize the entire male criminal subpopulation.
But even now, we see many of these jailed defendants as interesting and sometimes complicated people. Those who work with them day to day (sheriff’s deputies, public defenders, medical and probation professionals) are hassled, cajoled, assaulted, complemented, bullshitted, begged, amused, aggravated by them.
Many of us will find still many of them to be appealing characters, just regular men (and women) who are caught up in a large impersonal machine. Yet there others who are classic assholes for whom flunking the attitude test was just the first in a series of life’s lessons ignored.
And there is that chilling, manipulative, cold hearted group, the budding sociopaths. I’ve interviewed juveniles for whom the act of killing someone had all the moral and psychological freight of turning off a bad television program to go to the bathroom. These soul damaged ones have a huge influence on the rest of the population. They are the New Breed.
Imagine, if you will, having thousands and thousands of confidential conversations with these men and their occasional family members or home boys. This was the kind of field research that can’t be replicated by a naïve social worker, an eager graduate student or a typical mental health professional.
I’ve defended them all, the druggie, the killers, the petty nuisance, the third time drunk driver with a job and a family to support, the combat veteran with a massive addiction, the pregnant prostitute, the nineteen year old kid who got caught in something that got out of hand, and the hardened sociopathic crazy who put me, you, and everyone else at grave risk. Almost everybody you meet in custody has a story. Some of these people can be saved, and some of them will never find their way out.
I tell the graduating class my favorite vignette. One day, when I was still an “out-lawyer”, I was walking back from the North County Jail (the downtown Oakland temporary detention center for felony arrestees) where I had just checked in with one of my murder clients.
Right behind me on the sidewalk I noticed a woman in her twenties and her child, a girl about nine or ten. The pair had obviously just visited a prisoner charged with felony assault. “See,” the mother was saying to her girl, “if you cut somebody, you can end up in there.”
The tone of the mother’s remark was flat and conversational. There was no sense at all that the woman was communicating an event of moral significance. It was as if she had said, “See those weeds, if you don’t cut the grass, that’s what your lawn will look like.” The content of the remark was coolly practical, without moral judgment, something of the order – “If you go 45 on that street you will get a ticket.”
I invite you to put yourself in that conversation. You are talking to your own child, niece or nephew. Someone you both know has “knifed” somebody and is in jail for felony assault. Imagine what you would say and how you would probably say it.
First, consider your tone. You would feel a gut reaction to the event, a sense perhaps captured in the “My God, how could [he/she] have done that?” or “I hope you never hang out with [x]!” Every part of you would tend to communicate to the child walking with you and depending on you for moral instruction that the act of assault itself was wrong. Whatever your words, you would be speaking in a context in which the given was - We don’t do that. It is wrong.
I think that’s what most disturbed me about that mother’s remark. It was the context that it revealed, a context in which basic morality was simply absent, just as if you were talking about color to a blind person.
My vignette is not an isolated sample from an atypical population. It was like finding dry rot and a termite in your kitchen floor, then finding telltale powder along the bedroom walls, and in the bathroom. There never is just one termite.
And make no mistake -- this is our house we’re talking about. The foundations of civilization are being eaten away by something very sinister, something that, in modern terms, is very much like a computer virus.
Surely, the continued existence of civilization depends on the rule of law. That is true enough. It is like saying that a house requires a foundation. But that is not the whole story. The rule of law itself stands on two pillars – ultimate right and wrong, and justice integrity. If either of these pillars is seriously weakened, then the whole structure tends to collapse. Here they are:
(1) Ultimate right and wrong: This is the idea that there is a higher source of morality, of right and wrong, that comes from an ultimate authority, a more objective, more powerful and more permanent basis for morality than mere human convention or invention.
(2) Justice integrity: This is the idea that the law, however imperfect it may be in detail and application, is based - at least in its core content - on the ultimate right and wrong, and thaat the law, as such, is as binding on the people who administer it as it is on the population at large. This is the notion of moral law and statute law working in concert to protect the innocent victims no matter how high and mighty the criminal.
In large parts of this society, the moral compass is broken and in others, people wouldn’t know north from south because their compasses point only in one direction -- immediate, predatory self advantage.
I believe that we are now and have at grave risk since the first fool who claimed to be a philosopher declared that morality was just an invention. That idea has eaten its way though the social fabric with the same effect as a computer virus corrupting an irreplaceable data base.
Those who believe in and support the pillars on which law and civilization rest are surrounded by millions of gnawing rats, of misguided intellectuals, and reckless idiots who are like the drunken sailors who build a bonfire in the hold of a wooden boat. Let me give you eight examples of how one can light a fire in the bottom of a wooden boat:
We have depended in the great cultural transmission belt that carries the essence of the moral law from one generation to the next, but that belt is broken in too many places. Among my clients, the most recent generation of criminals are now more than three generations away from anyone who has ever set foot in a church or has otherwise received any formal moral instruction.
A gradual moral deterioration is especially dangerous when there is nothing strong enough to stop the slide. How many of the people under 25 in high crime areas actually believe that there is an ultimate right and wrong? How many well-off latch key kids living in the suburbs do? Go over the list of eight excuses, imagining you are conducting a poll. The suburbs are a war zone, too.
But apprehended and un-apprehended criminals themselves are just the sideshow. Like the fever in the early stages of a septic infection, criminals are a consequence of the deeper sickness. You take an aspirin, you fail to treat the disease, you feel better for a little while… then you die. This is a struggle about the gradual drop out of an entire moral framework. I’m not talking about “moral compromise” here. That implies - even requires - the existence of a moral framework in the first place, something to compromise from.
When talk about the possibility of redemption, I tend use the term very carefully. Redemption requires recognition that you have committed a wrong and a commitment to turn away from that. I love the Hebrew term for that, teshuvah. It means turning away from wrong and a turning toward the author of all good. If you lack the moral framework to recognize that you have committed a wrong, then redemption is technically impossible.
We aren’t doing the young men who run afoul of the law any favors when we buy into the notion that “social conditions are responsible” or adopt any of the other pseudo-sophisticated excuses. In the real world, rehabilitation can only follow accountability and consequences. Criminal justice policy, social policy and moral/ethical education need to be on the same, realistic page. And the realistic page starts with the acknowledgement of the breakdown in the cultural transmission belt that carries the moral law to each generation. I am your witness. That is a real breakdown, one that is slowly spreading to all the rest of us.
The police enforce the Penal Code. Who enforces the moral law? One would think that the great intergenerational cultural transmission belt would naturally include the essential moral injunctions of the bible, the torah and the Gospels, at a minimum. Unfortunately, the doctrine of separation of church and state has been allowed to mutate: We now have the doctrine of the separation of moral law and moral wisdom from all state ceremonies and institutions. This is pathology. It is as self defeating as refusing the teach Newton’s laws of mechanics because he believed he was understanding the mind of God, or refusing to teach the golden rule as if it were just Christian doctrine, or refusing to celebrate the American revolution because its architects taught that human freedom was a gift from the Creator.
So who is actually allowed to teach the moral law? And to whom and where? How well? for that matter, who, in this postmodern culture, is paying attention? Without real moral boundaries, taken seriously, the social order quickly devolves to a war zone. I can’t make it any plainer than that.
Yet there is a particularly popular disabling condition; it is a mindset that has been allowed to actively erode our essential moral boundaries. This condition affects both religious and secular communities. It is unbalanced cultural liberalism, a term I’m using here without political implications.
Of course, liberalism, writ large, is a benign pattern of social evolution characterized by its relentless challenging of boundaries. The liberal project worked wonderfully when it broke down social boundaries between royals and commoners, slaves and free, and dissolved the political boundaries between feudal lords and their vassals, between male voters and all adults. On this level, we’re all liberals these days.
But in the early 20th century the liberal project began to undermine moral boundaries themselves. This paved the way for the reemergence of barbarism. We saw it in the crimes of Hitler and Stalin and we’re reaping that barbarian harvest in the inner city.
The conservative project is about preserving boundaries. All morally aware people –and I’m not talking just about the prudish, judgmental subset – all morally aware people respect moral boundaries. On this level, we’re all conservatives these days.
This began to happen when some influential moral leaders, secular and religious, adopted a brand new savior - the Great Therapy Solution. I can hear them now, singing a camp song together and following it up with a moral gesture or two. Forgive my parody because it comes so close to the truth.
We all need to be much more clear-headed about the weaknesses of the therapeutic model. When we toss out our moral boundaries - whether in the service of therapy or diversity or misplaced compassion, we get trouble. And that starts with T, and T stands for Thug
I’ve often said that religions are uniquely equipped to answer that “Why the hell be good?” question. You’d think they would be a powerful bulwark against the breakdown. Why is this not happening? There are some lessons here:
Lesson One: Males especially need bright line boundaries and clear, consistent consequences. Females do as well but – truth to be told – they respond more readily than males to nurture and the appeal to one’s better angels. Modern, liberal religion is talking past the men to the women.
Lesson Two: The time honored ‘Rule-consequences’ model actually works. It is as basic to the human condition as Newton’s Laws are to mechanics. It is the very architecture of a working civilization. Newcomers to Ancient Rome or new drivers on the highways of modern Europe have three questions: What are the rules? How are they enforced? What happens when you get caught? The rule-consequences model is rational because people respond to incentives and disincentives. But it works better when the rules are closely aligned with the moral law and when the moral law has independent authority.
Lesson Three: Love, without robust action to protect the innocent, is a thug invitation. In church or synagogue or in an academic setting, we may hear “love conquers all” without being taught or reminded of the underlying moral foundations that protect us all and enable safety of the weak.
“Father, you talk about peace every Sunday. God bless you for being a man of peace. But I keep thinking that we are safe in this building only because my men and women in uniform carry arms every day into the rough neighborhoods a few blocks from here. They are risking their lives at this very moment to keep the peace. When you pray for peace, I wish you’d pray for them, too.”
Moral systems are weakened by power and privilege based exceptions to its reach. This is why the close alignment of societal rules and laws with the underlying moral law is so important: One set of rules for the well connected “ins” and another for the “outs” profoundly undermines the perception of a common, underlying moral foundation. Post modern tribalism and misplaced diversity models play into this trend to make “in vs. out” exceptions seem legimate.
Because my focus here is on the preservation of civilization, I have omitted the set of norms, however laudable, that belong to the high virtue and purity set. We need to unite to get our thugs in order. Arguments over purity are divisive. We need a more robust and realistic notion of love, the kind that trumps gesture, false purity, and is willing to settle for the real world optimum instead of the utopian dream. Authentic love requires us do what actually works in the real world to protect human dignity. This means that we take the careful, courageous actions that are always more difficult and messy than a sentimental gesture.
“Well, either you’re closing your eyes to a situation you do now wish to acknowledge, or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated by the indifference to religion in your city – or its functional equivalent.
“Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda’ parents, grandparents, god parents, aunts ‘n uncles, I’m gonna’ be perfectly frank. Heed the warning before it’s too late! Watch for the tell-tale signs of Dee-spare and coooo-ruption!
Beware the exceptions that swallow the rules, when right and wrong are just games for fools. When Moral boundaries, legal boundaries and responsibilities are not, This Fair City won’t amount to squat. Ya got trouble, my friends, ‘cause there’s a new virus in town - the anything goes flu. You don’t catch it ‘cause it catches you.
I want you to imagine a moment when you are alone at night in a bad neighborhood. Your car has stalled. You are about to call for a tow, when a man comes up behind you and presses a pistol barrel against your head. That feeling is as unmistakable as the next words from the thug’s mouth. Imagine, also, that you have heard about three killings in the same neighborhood within the last few weeks.
It doesn’t really matter at that moment whether YOU believe in God or a higher moral authority, but you sure as hell wish that the thug holding the gun on you does. You will be able to appeal to his better angels? NOT. Now imagine being forced to lie down on your face. Feel the gun barrel against your temple. The sharp crack of a single 38 round could be your last living memory.
We don’t have to believe in a theology of the afterlife, or heaven or hell to entertain a gut level belief in ultimate accountability for wrongdoing. We all tend to believe in something, deep down. The persistent inner perception of accountability for our serious wrongdoings is hard wired into the hindbrain. The 17th century mathematician, Pascal, had this in mind when he proposed a simple wager: We can’t prove one way or the other whether we will face divine punishment. So the smartest course is to be good, just in case.
Character is integrity merged with personality. Character begins with a functional understanding of the contours and boundaries within which honor is measured. All character - saintly or the common variety - is held together by honor.
Character is inspired by example, not simply installed like a computer program. Character is nurtured by trial, not played like a video game. And character is sustained by faith. Yes, faith. All friendships and marriages are acts of faith. Every trust relationship is founded in faith. And religions do not own the patent on faith.
Nihilism is the dark mirror image of honor and character. On a philosophical and ideological level, nihilism is the outright rejection of honor and morality as “absurd” or “mere” social constructs. The anti-heroic trend in literature – popular and otherwise – is crypto nihilism, as is the more extravagant misogyny of gangsta’ rap.
Nihilism is more dangerous than common thuggery because it represents an attempt to screw up the very source code of the human operating system – disable the module called “conscience” and the system begins a ‘self destruct” sequence. The collateral damage can be huge.
Nihilism is a pathogen of the soul. A nihilist ‘infection” usually ends in death or (sometimes) a cure. It flames out, it bottoms out or its carrier dies. In the first two instances, conversion to a moral character is still possible, but this typically happens only when moral boundaries and honor are recovered and allegiance to them is firmly rooted in character. Evil’s half life is nasty, short and brutal.
Fortunately, nihilism is a disease mostly of the intelligentsia. Some of the elites play with nihilist ideas as if they were harmless. I notice that very few professors (who spout crypto nihilist rhetoric) are running around raping and pillaging neighborhoods. That is small consolation. They are the Typhoid Maries of the culture. The clever notion that there really is no morality is just a parlor game for them.
But the ideological children of nihilism, especially cultural and moral relativism, are pathogens; they feed and accelerate the breakdown of the moral underpinnings of the culture of civilization; they strike those suffering perceived injustice, the psychologically vulnerable and those who have not been exposed to good examples of moral character the hardest. Eventually, these “malogens” (my term) degrade everyone but the Saints and heroes among us.
Now, here is an interesting feature of the common criminal mind. The most successful thugs – those who act in concert – are actually practicing a version of moral rules. Recall the notion of “honor among thieves”? It reflects a reality. There are reasonably consistent “moral” rules that apply within a working cohort of thieves.
In this sense, thieving cohorts are really modern versions of Neolithic hunting teams, predator bands that cooperate in a common endeavor to acquire resources by a combination of force and stealth. Because of the inherent dangers attendant any criminal predator operation, mutual trust must be established. And to provide the overall incentive for cooperation, a division of spoils must be agreed to - requiring rules supporting promise fidelity.
Without some minimum truth fidelity and avoidance of significant deception, the baseline cooperation for the enterprise would quickly disintegrate. In fact there is a kind of Darwinian selection: the criminals who fail to follow such norms are usually the first ones caught.
These “thieves’ honor” rules are almost identical to the moral systems that support civilization. Think about it. Substitute “fellow citizens” for “fellow thieves” and “lawfully constituted government” for “pack leader”.
Within the predator cohort, these norms apply equally, subject to an agreed or imposed leadership principle (normally the alpha - follower model, but there can be other more sophisticated models as well). A working civilization represents, at a minimum, the extension of the predator-cohort norms to the entire civilization’s scope of authority.
The moral foundations of civilization represent a partial universalization and refinement of the set of theft-cohort norms. This creates an expectation of equality of norm application within the various cohorts protected by a particular civilization.
Put another way, the differences among the moral systems adopted by a criminal gang and a tribe or even a nation are more matters of scale and sophistication than of kind. Each is based on a version of thieves’ honor, in which the out-group is prey – or at least an ‘exploitable other’ – and the in group is bound together by a share-the-spoils ethos.
The actual civilization-supporting norms are very similar, but not identical. I have described the primary moral principles on which civilizations are founded as these five: Faithfulness to oaths and promises; Veracity; Respect for the property of others; Respect for the personal boundaries of others; and Respect for family obligations. The last one (family values) is conspicuously missing from the thieves’ honor set. The first four are sharply limited to the criminal gang or enterprise, and remain subject to the authority of the alpha leader.
But there is one other essential distinction: Thieves’ honor is a set of alliance rules, a sort of “good for the day” or “good for the gig” morality, a kind of “get ahead in the gang” rulebook without any pretensions to greater reach and applicability. Civilizations, however, must be far more durable. They require much more stability and universal authority than a gang. Indeed, when the sense of a universal moral law underpinning a civilization’s laws and rules becomes eroded, the social order quickly devolves to the competing gang level.
We are men and women, not hollow automatons. We were equipped by nature or nature’s God with the capacity for conscience. That was only fair. We have been endowed with conscience capacity for the same utilitarian reason that we have eyes or the capacity for foresight. We need the capacity for conscience because we will all face a moment of ultimate judgment.
Every undamaged human mind knows this deep secret and fears judgment on some level. This is the secret of the appeal of drugs and the other escapes. But an anesthetized conscience is like self inflicted blindness – it does not eliminate the light.
This is why every religion that entertains even the possibility of such a judgment always allows for mercy. Without mercy, honest, absolute judgment is unbearable. But without the clear boundaries of moral judgment, mercy becomes permission to prey on others.
To my atheist friends, let me say that parts of religion are put together, like those beautiful stained glass windows or a glorious oratorio, but other parts – especially the judgment part – are discovered. Deal with it provisionally if you must, but I warn you that you are dealing with a fact of nature.
As a threshold step, we need to be very clear about the nature of the problem. We need to understand the nature of the struggle. We need to be sure of our own ground. If we conduct our lives with integrity, if we believe in right and wrong, and in the essential value and soundness of our laws and legal institutions, if we are not ashamed or embarrassed by your beliefs, that will come through in a hundred ways we are not even conscious of. If we accomplish nothing else but to do our jobs well and allow ourselves to reveal that there is moral ground in our lives and we are standing on it, we will advance the cause.
We are in a war for the survival of civilization and we’ve all been enlisted, willing or not, ready or not. Our only weapons are our beliefs, our integrity, the quality of our lives, and the quality of the relationships of the people we deal with… and our ability to restore that great cultural transmission belt.
By the way, our children can’t be fooled for long. They know whether we actually feel the moral law in our bones even when we are hypocritical and flawed. Children can forgive a parent or mentor who is sincerely trying, but they can sense adult moral irresolution like a dog can smell fear.