Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Small answers for Big questions

At some point I will finish blogging my European vacation. In the event that I don't get to it for a while, I'd like to mention the fact that while in London we spent a week in a revitalized area of the East End largely populated by Muslim immigrants. While the neighborhood was different from what my parents were used to, we never felt unsafe or even unwelcome. People just seemed to be going about their business and doing their thing.

The fact that we had just spent time in London (in an urban and ethnic neighborhood no less) and had a lovely time meant that it was quite shocking to hear about riots breaking out within a week of us leaving. While we were there we spent time with various relatives of Mama Yid's and so having just left them we spent a lot of time emailing once the riots broke out. While they were concerned they luckily weren't right in the thick of it so they never seemed super worried, but there was definitely a lot of surprise for us realizing that some of the commercial districts we had been walking through just a week prior had since gone up in smoke or been heavily looted.

It's always a challenge to dissect the causes leading to a significant disaster, and I feel like whereas most rational people are capable of reining themselves in when it comes to disasters caused by nature, that restraint seems to be greatly diminished when it comes to human causes and agency. Obviously, events like the London riots need to and should be studied to prevent similar things from happening again, but it's gotten far too easy to predict which talking heads will come popping out of the wordwork linking mob violence and bad behavior to their pet doomsday issues (usually timing it just right to also plug whatever new thing they have to sell).

Pat took the lead and blamed it on multiculturalism.

The West is in decline because the character of its people is in decline. In Europe,  is dead. The moral code it gave men to live righteously is regarded with mockery. The London riots were the work of moral barbarians with no loyalty to the people in whose midst they live and no love for the society to which they give nothing, only take.

...What were the British thinking when they threw open their doors to mass  from the Third World?
Over centuries, they had failed to assimilate a few million Irish, who were European Christians. So, having failed to assimilate the Irish, they decided to invite in millions of Hindus and Muslims from South Asia, Arabs from the Middle East, Africans from the sub-Sahara, black folks from the Caribbean.
But with no common faith or culture to hold the nation together, Britain is coming apart.

This, of course, assumes that the rioters,

A- Were primarily ideologically motivated (as opposed to being, you know, jerks and hooligans), and
B- Didn't include anyone white or British.

Also, I'm not sure what Pat would have Britain do at this point... are they supposed to deport three or four generations of British citizens in a family if they decide that they haven't become "British enough?" It's not surprising Pat doesn't like multiculturalism; his articles sound like Kipling's gin-induced fever dreams.

Most commenters focused on values, or lack thereof.

There was Shmuley, who blamed the Church of England for being too nice and not bothering to condemn bad things: 

Britain has become a rotting carcass due to the failure of a moribund, stultifying, and amoral religion, more concerned with propriety and causing no offense than simply teaching right from wrong.
I lived in Britain for 11 years where I slowly watched the Church of England and other mainline Christian bodies succumb to PC correctness, refusing to ever condemn immoral behavior... religious leaders failed to ever condemn the narcissistic, selfish, womanizing men who behaved like Neanderthalic inseminators rather than gentlemen.
Contrary to public opinion, values do not come from schools or University professors but from the Ten Commandments.

Shmuley isn't exactly "wrong" in saying that values are worthless if they aren't practiced and taught by role models, but as a secular-oriented person, I think he's off the mark in presenting a biblical framework for his morality and then complaining that Britain doesn't follow his ideas. Well no kidding, Shmuley, considering you just said half the country doesn't believe in God. Sounds like we might need to think of a different way to talk about this then. What's that, that doesn't fit your message? Well, sorry England. Get those butts back in those pews so your pastors (you know, the ones you don't have, don't listen to, or don't preach about anything Shmuley considers worthwhile in the first place) can give you this much-needed dose of moral relevance. I can't picture any way this doesn't work out.

Then there was Dennis, who knows where Shmuley's coming from. In fact, I kind of get the feeling they were sitting too close together when they were writing their respective columns:
There is only one solution to the world's problems, only one prescription for producing a near-heaven on earth.
It is 3,000 years old.
And it is known as the Ten Commandments.
I find it entertaining that Dennis is saying this in the context of being a professional Jew when religious Jews often like to point out that being a good Jew requires following more than the first ten commandments. Incidentally, don't you just love people who proclaim their personal arguments about morality as if they were ironclad facts? Never mind that most people in the world probably don't think that being a moral person is restricted to just following the 10Cs (don't you love finding moments where Orthodox Jews, atheists and Zoroastrians agree?)

Don't believe Dennis? Don't worry, he brought his argument-bag.

1. I am the Lord your God.
There are moral atheists and there are immoral believers, but there is no chance for a good world based on atheism. Ultimately, a godless and religion-free society depends on people's hearts to determine right from wrong, and that is a very weak foundation.
Plenty of people have died in history in the name of God. But many more have been killed, tortured, and deprived of liberty in the name of humanity and progress or some other post-Judeo-Christian value. Religion gave us an Inquisition and gives us suicide terrorists, but the death of God gave us Nazism and Communism, which, in one century alone, slaughtered more than a hundred million people. All the founders of the United States - yes, all - knew that a free society can survive only if its citizens believe themselves to be morally accountable to God.

So, the breakdown on this is... more people have killed in the name of things other than religion than religion itself. Therefore, religion is more moral and the 10Cs are all we need? Also, the founders of the U.S. (ALL of them! Yes, even the ones who were religiously ambivalent) liked God. So, there you go. I guess we got served... somehow? 

3. Do not take God's name in vain.
People have misinterpreted this commandment. They think it prohibits saying something like, "Oh, my God, what a home run!" But the Hebrew literally means "do not carry" the name of the Lord in vain.
In other words, we are forbidden from doing evil in God's name. Only when thus understood does the rest of the Commandment make sense -- that God will not "cleanse," or forgive -- the person who does this.
Thus, the Islamist who slits an innocent's throat while shouting "Allahu Akbar" is the perfect example of the individual who carries God's name in vain and who cannot be forgiven. These people not only murder their victims, they murder God's name. For that reason, they do more evil than the atheist who murders.

It's nice that Dennis is at least willing to discuss evil discussed by religious people (though no one over here is surprised by who he chose as its poster-boy) but this exposes the primary reason why this essay is an exercise in masturbation. Just like a committed Socialist always has the out that Socialism and Communism could "totally work in theory," so too Dennis can't really claim that religion makes people ethical and that "people just need to follow the 10Cs," then try to weasel out of religious evil by saying, "Well, yeah, sometimes religious people do bad stuff, but they're not really religious! If people would really be religious and not do terrible things in God's name, stuff would be awesome!" No kidding! Hey, by the same token, as long as we're wishing for stuff, let's just ask for people to stop doing awful things to each other. We wouldn't even need the 10Cs!

The rest of Dennis' stuff follows the same prattle. Just like Shmuley, it's hard to take Dennis' preaching seriously when his first premise is that all wisdom and ethics everyone needs are located in his particular list, and interpretation thereof. Oh, and the various snark-attack cheap shots he takes at, among other things, colleges, pacifism, and "class warfare" in a discussion of ethics (among them the importance of not lying) don't help.

Last was Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK. As with Shmuley, I wasn't surprised that a rabbi would say that values are important to not be, you know, a jerk, but the argument that Judeo-Christian values prevent mob violence and that therefore a drop in one leads to a rise in the other doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

Britain is the latest country to pay the price for what happened half a century ago in one of the most radical transformations in the history of the West. 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. Or as Allan Bloom put it in "The Closing of the American Mind": "I am the Lord Your God: Relax!" 
You do not have to be a Victorian sentimentalist to realize that something has gone badly wrong since. 

Sorry rabbi, but I'm not convinced that both of these things happening simultaneously (drop in religion and rise in social problems) means that they are causal, or that the reverse will therefore solve all the UK's problems:

In the 1820s, in Britain and America, a similar phenomenon occurred. People were moving from villages to cities. Families were disrupted. Young people were separated from their parents and no longer under their control. Alcohol consumption rose dramatically. So did violence. 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.

There's only one problem with all of this: it's not quite true. As R. Eliyahu Fink points out, there have been plenty of occasions where so-called religious people committed terrible acts of violence. There are also plenty of people who aren't religious, or don't base their lives around JCVs, who don't commit violence. So it's a little disingenuous to single out a lack of JCVs as the specific cause of the riots and then prescribe more of them as the cure. E-Fink also notes that it is a mistake to assume that none of the rioters consider themselves Christians. Pundits may not consider them as such, but that is an entirely different issue-- and in my opinion, potentially a lot more scary-- than saying the problem is that there aren't enough Christians in England.

A similar argument from a widely different source comes from Christopher Hitchens, who makes two excellent points:

1- Despite its reputation, Britain has hardly been a violence-free society in the last 50-100 years, particularly in urban and poor areas. Think of football hooligans, street gangs, and of course sectarian violence surrounding Protestant/Catholic issues, particularly as they bled into questions about Irish nationalism.

2- That said, it is legitimate to point out that seems to be a new dimension of nihilism, disaffection, and all-around scariness coming from the new youth gangs operating in the UK these days. The fact that the general trend among immigrants seems to be less towards using "multiculturalism" as a way of supporting home culture while also participating and engaging with larger society and more as a tool to encourage separatism and justify xenophobia is also concerning.

I haven't even talked about the various social causes that people have been pointing to contributing to the rioting (among them, high unemployment, low education, bad economy, a perception that the rich are stealing from the people and getting off free, various cuts in social services, and social/cultural alienation). As someone who just visited, I would also venture an extremely cautious guess that the all the Olympics construction and promotion may also have played a role.

There are lots of big issues going on here, with lots of big questions. I freely admit to not having the answers, though I am not so closed-minded as to discount the concept that some of the work that has to be done needs to happen on a values-based, even "spiritual" level. But I don't think I'm alone in saying that, as a young person, as someone who isn't terribly religious, I don't think the way to fix the UK's problems is by shoving religion down everyone's throat.

Big questions need big answers, not small ones.

Hat-tip: E-fink by way of Dovbear.

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