As revised on Monday, June 30, 2008
WE GOT TROUBLE, MY FRIENDS – TROUBLE RIGHT HERE…
Years ago, when I was still the Public Defender for Alameda County, my friend, the county Sheriff, the legendary Charlie Plummer, asked me to address his department’s graduating class.
Naturally, I accepted.
This is part of what I told the men and women who sat attentively that afternoon, poised at the threshold of a career in law enforcement.
“I believe that we are now and have been at war ever 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:
• Everybody does it.
• She had it coming.
• Hey, it was cool – they’ll never miss it.
• Nobody’s going to find out.
• Money can buy anything.
• Only an idiot would tell the truth about that.
• I had no choice.
• Right and wrong? Get real!
“Obviously this is an incomplete list, but you get the idea.
“What makes a gradual moral deterioration like this dangerous is when there is nothing 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.
“This is not a pitched battle. The lines are not clear. You can’t walk two blocks in a core urban neighborhood or read two pages in a popular newspaper without encountering the enemy. 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. Money alone, whether given directly or in the form of free services, however important, is the aspirin.
“This is a battle about the 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 I said earlier that I believe in the possibility of redemption, I was using the term very carefully. Redemption requires recognition that you have committed a wrong. If you lack the moral framework to recognize that you have committed a wrong, then redemption is technically impossible.
“When we are talking about the complete absence of a meaningful moral framework – that is scary.
“When I talked about a war, I wasn’t using hyperbole for effect. I was serious.
“So what can we do? Sermonize at the prison population? Not such a bad idea by itself, but I wish it were so easy. You will find that in dealing with an inmate defendant population, as I have, the practical, low risk approach is to adopt a non-judgmental attitude. It’s a little like the medical model. The doctor doesn’t typically look at a gunshot victim and say – “You dumb asshole, what were you doing in that bank with a gun?” And, frankly, we PD’s don’t often approach a client interview in that spirit either.
“You will also learn that the easy prisoners and the difficult ones do not automatically sort out along lines of the seriousness of their cases. That nice guy killed his wife. That asshole stole a tire from Big O. Go figure.
“What can you do? Be aware of the problem. Know the nature of the war. Be sure of your own ground. If you conduct your life with integrity, if you believe in right and wrong, and in the essential value and soundness of our laws and legal institutions, if you are not ashamed or embarrassed by your beliefs, that will come through in a hundred ways you are not even conscious of. If you accomplish nothing else but to do your job well and allow yourself to reveal that there is moral ground in your life and you are standing on it, you will advance the cause. You can’t throw a lifeline if you are drowning yourself.
“We are all soldiers in this war. And our weapons are our beliefs, our integrity, the quality of our lives, and the quality of the relationships of the people we deal with. And with your help, the good guys will win.
“You have chosen an important calling at an important time in history. Don’t let it end at the conclusion of your shift. Get involved in your community and stay in touch with the people you have sworn to serve and protect. You owe that to your family. You owe that to yourself.
“If you lacked basic respect for the law, if you didn’t care about the future, if you thought that morality is just something some old dudes made up, you wouldn’t be in this place at this time celebrating this graduation. Looking over this group, seeing your faces, and knowing the quality and the esprit of the institution you have joined, I know you picked the right job. And I can tell that the Sheriff and his staff have picked the right people.
“Sheriff, you have done very well with this graduating class indeed. Congratulations and Godspeed.
Years later, this is what I would now add:
We desperately need an ethos that engenders fierce defense and heroic sacrifice in the cause of creative civilization against all the forces aligned against it, internally and externally. And the concomitant advancement of the integrated pluralistic institutions that will nurture, preserve and provide pan-generational support for the ethos of defense.
This is the tall order of the age. And it is why I maintain that, if we didn’t have religion or its functional equivalent, we’d be forced to reinvent it. A note about functional equivalency. The aspect of religion that is essential to human survival, in my opinion, is its role as custodian of moral wisdom, carrier of the vital moral traditions and as a body of supporting communities that an effectively answer the question: Why care? I am not asserting that religion cannot be replaced, just that it has not been and that its essential function – however poorly performed in some instances, is well…. Essential.
The scope of the work to be done is great. Religion – or its replacement – will be the primary source of an ethos that can take its believers past the transient concerns of the current generation.
Here is the core question of the age:
“Why should I care about what happens to this world after I’m gone?”
Religionists, as the current custodians of moral transcendence, can supply an answer to the core question, but the secular “futilitarians” so far cannot. With rare (and so far not-widely replicated) exceptions, it has been the world’s enduring religious institutions (with all their admitted flaws) that have managed to keep the “moral light burning” during times of irresolution and doubt about our species’ essential ethical commitments.
The civilization imperative requires us to hew to a pan-generational ethos.
This I why I believe that we need a great convergence of secular humanism, one better rooted in the great universals, and religious humanism, one better able to embrace and address the whole of the human condition and the civilization imperative. Both sides of the convergence will be informed and shaped by an emergent understanding of the critical importance of creative civilization.
This is what I had the occasion recently to say (in the spirit of Professor Harold Hill) to a moderately receptive church congregation:
“We got trouble, oh we got trouble, right here in Inner City! With a capital “T” That rhymes with “C” and that’s not cool,
“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.
“Folks are walking round town lookin’ depressed. They got a God shaped hole in the chest.
“They’re lookin’ for somethin’ they just can’t find: a com-mun-ity where folks are just plain kind.
“Ya got trouble, my friends, right here, I say, trouble right here in Inner City.
“Why sure I’m a church player, certainly mighty proud I say. I’m always mighty proud to say it.
“I consider that the hours I spent with a wine glass in my hand were golden. Helped me get thru those loooong meetings with a cool head and a keen eye.
“Now anybody kin stay home on the couch, playin’ video games and watchin’ Em TeeVee, or surfin’ MySpace. They call that sloth. Never mind gittin’ with books, music or a friend in need, the weeds pulled, the homework done, or just one good deed. Never mind nothin’ inspirin’ to do all week. And that’s trouble, my friends. Oh, yes we got lots and lots a’ trouble.
“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!
“Does little Jimmie think he’s bettern’ his buddies ‘cause he has cool clothes?
“Does little Julie feel inferior ‘cause she has troubles nobody knows?
“I’m thinkin’ of the kids in the low hangin’ pants, talkin’ gangsta’ rap, doin’ gangsta’rants,
“Right here in Inner City.
“Trouble, oh we got trouble. Right here in Inner City! With a capital “T” That rhymes with “C”
“And that’s not cool. No, that’s not cool. Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock and the Golden Rule! That remote control is a devil’s tool!”
Meredith Wilson was on to something.
G-d help us, every one…