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McAlister: Degradation of our society

By Jeff McAlister
June 21, 2013 at 10 p.m.


We live in what the late historian Arnold Toynbee referred to as a "time of troubles." There now exists a crisis at the very core of our civilization. The Oxford English Dictionary defines civilization as "a civilized condition or state; a developed or advanced state of human society; a particular stage or particular type of this." Also, to civilize is "to make civil; to bring out of a state of barbarism, to instruct in the arts of life, and thus elevate in the scale of humanity; to enlighten, refine, and polish." My observations over time suggest we are in many ways reverting to a state of barbarism, albeit without the strong survival skills that animated the Vandals and the Goths.

To hear, night after night, the menacing sounds of aesthetically defective pseudo-music emanating from the countless automobiles of aimless young people is to be reminded we live in a society in an advanced state of decay.

The degradation of our society and culture manifests itself in numerous ways.

The United States, as well as the bulk of Europe, is afflicted with an unprecedented mountain of debt, a perverse gift to our children and grandchildren who, if trends continue, will not know the kind of freedom we once knew and prized. This testifies in part to decades of increased dependence on an administrative welfare state and a corresponding erosion of family ties, social cohesion, and religious practice.

Europe in particular suffers from what has been called "the birth dearth," the failure of the native populations to reproduce beyond replacement levels. America does not fare that much better, its population growth being largely the result of increased levels of immigration.

Our popular culture appeals far too often to the lowest common denominator and the basest of human instincts. Young people graduate from high school and even college without an adequate knowledge, much less appreciation, of our history and traditions. These same youth are all too often handicapped morally and spiritually and have grown up in dysfunctional homes, which have increasingly become "the new normal."

These lamentations might well be dismissed as the gloomy ruminations of a reactionary pundit. But they proceed from a heartfelt concern for the well-being of our country, which has become increasingly unrecognizable as the one I grew up in, though far from perfect even then. It is a concern that our moral compass has been broken and perhaps to the point of being irreparable. A compass exists to point one in the right direction; to identify true north, for example. The needle on our moral compass has spun out of control. If we want our society to move back into a healthy direction, we must first recover the idea that moral precepts exist, they are discovered rather than created, and that such precepts were known by wise men and women who preceded us, including those living long before the United States existed.

The idea of eternal verities makes many modern liberals and progressives uncomfortable. They are inclined to believe morality "evolves," as we are all evolving toward a higher state of consciousness. They do have a moral sensibility of a sort, as they take concepts that are valid in a certain context, such as "tolerance" or "equality," and then emphasize and exaggerate these at the expense of everything else. Many of us who studied philosophy in college may remember the idea of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who held that history progressed as a thesis met up with an antithesis, out of which came a synthesis. This synthesis eventually emerged as the new thesis, which would then encounter a new antithesis, etc. This is sort of the way in which progressives view history and society. The problem is that nothing is ever settled. Everything is in flux, and the public, which has been compromised by such thinking over a long period of time, loses its grip on truths their ancestors once understood as necessary restraints on otherwise destructive appetites.

Several months ago, a fellow columnist suggested, "It's not the loss of virtue that troubles [conservative] thinkers so much as the idea, enshrined in law, that each of us is free to interpret virtue and morality as we see fit." This has haunted me as an example of what has gone wrong with our self-understanding. Might it not be said the Boston Marathon bombers were interpreting virtue and morality as they saw fit? The same could be said of the bloody hands of Philadephia abortionist Kermit Gossnell. Our understanding of freedom is defective unless it is grounded in a shared ethical understanding, what the Declaration of Independence calls "the laws of nature and of nature's God," The question we face is whether we can once again humble ourselves before our maker, and then start to pick up the pieces of our shattered society.

<em>- Jeff McAlister, a Longview resident, is a regular contributor to the Saturday Forum.</em>

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