DAVID BROOKS, “NICE” MURDERERS & THE HUMAN CONDITION
By Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law
Once upon a time there was sin, evil and death. And there was the credible threat of post-mortal consequences for villainy. This will be temporarily referred to as the outmoded, retrograde tradition.
One fine day, a group of materialist, ameliorative humanist thinkers took charge. For now, they will be referred to as the wave of the future.
By materialist, I’m referring to the “happiness is measured in material goods and benefits” school; and by ameliorative I reference the “inexorable progress towards goodness” vision of the human condition.
Time passed. A great deal of mischief, mayhem, villainy and – dare I say it, evil – took place.
There was a pause: Righteous anger against the Creator erupted. Much theorizing about human nature took place. A small amount of introspection was indulged. This will be referred to as the great period of confusion after which those ameliorative humanist thinkers resumed their role as our mentors-in-charge.
Ah, but more time passed. And even more mischief, mayhem, villainy and evil took place. Suddenly cracks in the confident, “we-know-what’s-best-for-you” doctrines of the materialist, ameliorative humanists began to show. That is our current situation. A great many of us have become uneasy, unsettled and more than a little uncomfortable with the facile way that our mentors “explained” and even accommodated us to all that mischief, mayhem, villainy and evil.
This moment will be referred to as the great retro paradigm shift. Among its “new” features are the recognitions that humanity does not live by bread alone, and yes, that there really is a dark side to human nature.
Having spent the greater part of my career submerged in the criminal subculture[i], I have something to say about mischief, mayhem, villainy and evil. Let me begin by pointing out that they are real, as much a part as the warp and woof of the human condition as are honesty, forbearance, compassion, and the courageous opposition to evil. But first let’s acknowledge that ever prescient, ever perceptive Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who saw it coming.
“Without God” (i.e., religion or at least without deity or an equivalent universal moral authority) “everything is permitted”. Sartre, that cynical atheist, attributed this aphorism to Dostoevsky. It’s a fair paraphrase, but the source was Dostoevsky’s epic novel, the The Brothers Karamazov.
Note this passage from Book X, at Chapter 4: Mitya Karamazov is in jail awaiting trial for killing his father. He’s speaking to his brother, Alyosha, the novitiate. Mitya has just said that he is “sorry for God” because, “Your Reverence, you must move over a little, chemistry is coming!” Then Mitya says: “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.” [Page 753, Penguin Edition 1880, 1993 trans. Reissued 2003 w/ revisions.]
It’s obvious that Mitya was speaking for Dostoevsky, and that Fyodor was on to something.
ENTER MR. BROOKS
David Brooks, the thoughtful New York Times columnist and author, enters stage center. In a column on March 19th (When the Good do Bad) Brooks used the recent example of the US soldier Robert Bales[ii] who is facing trial for slaughtering 16 innocent Afghan civilians. He quotes a study from an evolutionary psychologist, David Buss, in which presumably ordinary people confessed to vivid homicidal fantasies. In this piece, David Brooks partly resurrects the outmoded, retrograde tradition (which we might now dare to call moral realism).
“In centuries past most people would have been less shocked by the homicidal eruptions of formerly good men. That’s because people in those centuries grew up with a worldview that put sinfulness at the center of the human personality.
“John Calvin believed that babies come out depraved (he was sort of right; the most violent stage of life is age 2). G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.
“This worldview held that people are a problem to themselves. The inner world is a battlefield between light and dark, and life is a struggle against the destructive forces inside. The worst thing you can do is, in a fit of pride, to imagine your insecurity comes from outside and to try to resolve it yourself. If you try to “fix” the other people who you think are responsible for your inner turmoil, you’ll end up trying to kill them, or maybe whole races of them.
“This earlier worldview was both darker and brighter than the one prevailing today. It held, as C. S. Lewis[iii] put it, that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism.”
David Brooks is what I refer to as a deep humanist, which makes him an essential voice in the new dialogue with the “wide” religionists.[iv]
INSIGHTS FROM MY LIFE OF CRIME
For decades I served as a public defender working in a major urban jurisdiction. Because I was paying attention, I was privileged to give the same matter of crime and the moral order considerable thought. Think of it as an extensive field study.
By invitation, I’ve lectured on the topic or criminal behavior and the moral order on a number of occasions, including to a Graduating Class of newly minted law enforcement candidates[v]. Here’s an overview of the perspective I’ve gleaned from my 28 year “life of crime.”
The prison and jail population is far more dangerous than when I began my practice. Why this change? Two main factors have been at work: The drug culture – it is a character poison. And the virtual drop out of the moral foundations of society, formerly supplied by religion. As a result, ever so gradually, an entire male criminal subpopulation has been brutalized.
Within the larger group of crooks over the years, I began to notice more dead eyes, more cold hearted thugs, more than ever before – teenagers in juvenile hall for whom the act of killing someone had all the moral and psychological significance of turning off a bad television program to go to the bathroom. These are the soul-damaged ones.
One day, I was walking back from the North County Jail in downtown Oakland where I had just seen one of my murder clients. 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.”
Now I need you to stop and think about that exchange, as I did. It spoke volumes to me. 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.” Her tone was coolly practical, without moral judgment.
Put yourself in that conversation.
You are talking to your own child, perhaps a niece, nephew or student. Someone the child knows is in jail for stabbing somebody. Imagine what you would say. Consider your tone. You would feel a gut reaction to the event, a sense perhaps captured in the “My God, how could he have done that?” Every part of you would tend to communicate to the child 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. I think that was what most disturbed me about her remark: the context it revealed, a world in which basic morality was simply absent, just as if you were talking about color to a blind person.
This was 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. There is never just one termite. Outside this room, there is a world where the moral compass is broken, where people don’t know north from south because their compasses point only in one direction — immediate, predatory self-advantage.
This didn’t just happen. The first famous philosopher who claimed that morality is just an invention set in motion a chain of events that has now put us all at risk. That one idea – morality as made up – has eaten its way through the social fabric with the same effect as a computer virus corrupting an irreplaceable data base.
By the time these notions get down to the street level, their carriers are like the drunken sailors who build a bonfire in the hold of a wooden boat far from shore. Here are some examples of bonfire building:
Everybody does it.
She had it coming.
Nobody’s going to find out.
Money can buy anything.
Only an idiot would tell the truth about that.
I had no choice.
Once upon a time there was a great cultural transmission belt that carried the essence of the Moral Law from one generation to the next.
That belt is broken.
Most of the crooks I have talked to (and there have been several thousand over the decades) were more than three generations away from anyone who ever set foot in a church or had otherwise received any formal moral instruction.
Please note: The time honored “Rule-consequences” model still works. It is as basic to the human condition as Newton’s Laws are to mechanics. The model works because people do respond to incentives and disincentives. But the authority of law itself begins to unravel when the legal rules are not supported by belief in the Moral Law; worse still when the rules and their applications fail to line up with the Moral Law. …Because the Moral Law applies to rulers and the ruled…equally. Without a sense of ultimate morality to which the justice and law enforcement professionals and the rest of us are subordinate, the center cannot hold. Exceptions to the reach of justice de-legitimize all authority, especially when exceptions become exemptions based on power, privilege, politics and/or victim status.
The Moral Law is indispensable, but not sufficient. In 12th century Europe, a single priest could face an angry sword wielding man, stopping the would-be killer in his tracks with a single phrase: “Put down the sword or I will deny absolution.” Just try using that threat against a 21st century thug.
I once naively assumed that the K-12 educational curriculum included the essential moral injunctions of the bible, the Torah and the Gospels. But the doctrine of separation of church and state has become the doctrine of the separation of moral law from all state ceremonies and institutions. This is as self-defeating as refusing to teach Newton’s laws of mechanics because Isaac Newton believed he was uncovering evidence of 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 is a gift from the Creator.
Worse, the latest politically correct fad is to substitute medical terms for moral categories. It’s almost as if we are being asked to worship a secular savior – the Great Therapist. A few of my clients had a version of this, referring to some pervert as a sick fu**. The attempt to medicalize anti-moral behavior will someday be recognized as one of the worst mistakes of the last two centuries.
Religions are equipped by tradition to provide an answer to the “Why be good?” question. But just answering the question is not enough for the thuggish mind because thugs represent the subset of humanity who grew up without caring why other people are foolish enough to be good.
Though indispensable, the Moral Law is not sufficient because the 21st century thug kills the priest.
Cultural and moral relativism are shams. Living by the core moral principles is not rocket science. Respect for the property, privacy and persons of others, as in not robbing, cheating, tricking, assaulting, raping or killing them, and respect for family obligations are at the heart of every healthy society’s moral order. Each is protected in the Decalogue and the English Common law.
There is one overall design behind these core elements: Protect human dignity from the predators. All the rest is small change.
Evil is real. Obviously, this is a separate topic[vi], but here is my short hand definition. Badness and wickedness are part of the human tendency to fall away from the good, often for narrowly selfish reasons. Evil is a complete motivational turnaround, the active, motivated pursuit of the bad as a value in its own right, as difficult as that notion is for most of us to accept.[vii]
As I said, morality is not a medical category, but if an evil mindset is an infection, then it is a moral infection. A moral breakdown begins with nihilism, the world view that, in its naked form, represents the affirmative rejection of morality. Drawing room elites have toyed with the theory that morality is personal preference, like one’s lipstick choice or brand of beer. For these intellectuals, such ideas are a harmless parlor game. No, these elites do not rape and pillage their neighborhoods; but that’s a small consolation. They are the Typhoid Maries of the culture. The Cold New Breed of thugs is their progeny.
Nihilism grants a license to do evil.
The information-swamp carries all sorts of bizarre, malevolent ideation, death fantasies and dark power-ideologies. They are floating through our culture, just below the radar of most adults. They mainlined into our children’s minds.
These ideas and images act like an odorless and colorless toxic gas that attacks the morally vulnerable. As I followed a particularly odious murder case, I coined a term for these toxic, pathogenic, anti-moral images: They are malogens. My new term is now in use – having been cited in the New Oxford Review by a political scientist (Dr. Maria Chang) with attribution to an essay of mine[viii].
Malogens are malevolent and pathogenic cultural influences, in effect the seductive forms of anti-life nihilism, promoted in entertainment. We ignore malogens at our peril. Because we live in an information saturated age, we will never shut off all the malogenic input.
Therefore we need a firewall. Fortunately, the firewall technology already exists. It is moral character… eight thousand year old technology.
But character is inspired, not installed like a computer program. Character is forged by trial, not played like a video game. Character is sustained by faith. Yes, faith. All trust relationships are founded in faith. No institution, whether religious or secular, owns the patent. Faith is open source software. It was issued along with the human capacity for moral intelligence by the Author of the Moral Law.
There has been a generational deterioration where character is concerned. I commend to your attention David McCullough’s brilliant and timeless biography of Harry Truman (Touchstone 1992). Among other things it is a sharply limned portrait of two generations, the ones that spanned WWI and WWII. They drank more, smoked more, and probably cursed more – they certainly played more poker and no video games. But they got the big things right. Their character firewalls were intact. Evil was real to them and its recognition triggered a duty of implacable opposition. Truman sponsored Israel. Eisenhower insisted on getting pictures of the holocaust camps because he knew people would later lie about the evil they revealed. Contrast young Bales who volunteered for military service in a different and far weaker culture. He entered a free fire zone without a character firewall.
Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE) told us that character is destiny. Modern experience reminds us that “niceness”, sophistication and charm are not character.
You, David Brooks, and I could well be the last link in that great intergenerational transmission belt. Consider the responsibility if that were even partly true: What if we really are the last, best vital connection to the Moral Law?
Too many of the later generations are not all that sure of the moral ground. By the way, you can’t fake moral confidence. Children can sense an adult’s moral ambivalence like a dog can smell fear.
Character is our firewall against 21st century malogens. So it is up to us and other morally aware men and women to move the great retro paradigm shift into the Great 21st Century Recovery.
The author is a California attorney. His profile is posted at http://www.jaygaskill.com/Profile.pdf.
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[i] For a brief history of my former office, go to this link –http://www.jaygaskill.com/History.htm .
[ii] This is not the place to address Mr. Bales’ character, except to point out that he reportedly entered the military following a 1.4 million dollar fraud judgment.
[iii] If you read nothing else by CS Lewis, I recommend his collection of essays, The Abolition of Man, Harper Collins 2001 (Copyright CS Lewis 1944, 1974).
[iv] David Brooks’ most recent contribution is the excellent book, The Social Animal – see the review at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/books/review/book-review-the-social-animal-by-david- brooks.html?pagewanted=all and for more on the needed Dialogic, please read my essay at http://www.jaygaskill.com/HumanistAtheistBeliever.htm .
[v] The text of my address to those graduates is posted at http://www.jaygaskill.com/sheriff.html.htm
[vi] As to evil, please review two my essays – http://jaygaskill.com/explainingevil.htm and http://jaygaskill.com/evil2l.htm
[vii] I recommend Scott Peck’s People of the Lie (Touchstone 1983). While I might quarrel with the use of a medical category for a moral pathogen, Dr. Peck’s use of the notion of malignant narcissism is a brilliant insight that invites a much wider discussion.
[viii] As cited by Maria Chang in her piece, Peering Into the Abyss – http://www.newoxfordreview.org/article.jsp?did=1008-chang .