The human tempests presently sweeping the country—rape allegations at the University of Virginia and in the U.S. military, racial protests and rioting over police conduct, growing and growling bitterness during the sweetest of seasons—have as much to do with moral decay as with circumstances.
A moral system presupposes some general level of personal restraint in word and deed; some level of decorum and consideration for others. Yeah. Well. That's not where we are right now. Nor have we been there in a lot of years. We live in the "But I Wanna" Era: I want what I want when I want it.
The problem is massive and complex. What the country needs, it probably isn't going to get right now—recovery of some broad sense that obligation, no less than free choice, holds societies together. Such sense of obligation as Americans retain is a holdover from the past: presently sporting frayed cuffs and blood stains from endless battles over the fraught question: Are some things, some modes, some behaviors more civilized than other things, modes and behaviors?
Unlimited personal choice, alas, hasn't turned out to be the blessing its acolytes, half a century ago and more, made it out to be.
The University of Virginia uproar over a sexual assault that seemingly never took place is a good case in point. The point to which commentators cling, and which is not a wrong point at all, though I would go further, is that Rolling Stone magazine neglected its journalistic duty in printing virtually without investigation the claim of a UVA student to be the victim of gang rape at a fraternity house.
Rolling Stone has since owned up to journalistic malpractice, and the feminist-driven narrative has backfired on its proponents, eager as they seemed at first to discredit (a) males, (b) a Southern university and (c) fraternities: a galaxy of politically incorrect institutions.
The issue momentarily worth highlighting, for purposes of illustrating the bind into which free-and-easy cultural styles have got us, is that of male-female relationships. Would a story like this have made a lick of sense in a time—an imperfect time, all times being imperfect to one degree or another—when male-female relationships in college came in for firm supervision: on grounds that supervision of the young and restless was a social duty? That was what social institutions were for—to make sure some basic rules were kept.
"We are afraid," affirmed Edmund Burke, two centuries ago, "to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages."
Accusations of rape, whether false or true, flood the media as 19- and 20-year-olds wade through the moral morass of the "But I Wanna" era—and their elders employ political, as opposed to moral, analysis to the problems that arise in consequence. What are the rules? Are there any rules? Should there be? What kind, in that event?
Americans squabble over these matters because nothing like cultural unity exists anymore. Pretty much everyone, in Burke's words, lives and trades "each on his own private stock of reason." What I say goes! Except when another "I" finds the first "I's" interpretation mischievous, insulting, wrong, whatever. The fighting commences at that point.
What to do? No one knows for sure. Churches, universities, families—none of the old teaching institutions retain, or even seem greatly to miss, their lost authority to make general rules for the general good, observed by the generality of men and women on account of an internal sense that, yes, after all, particular things, particular modes, particular behaviors are indeed better than other things, modes and behaviors.
Sounds anti-democratic—yes? What would be the truly "democratic" approach? Throwing an all-comers watch party as the very last rule ("Do unto others?" "Love thy neighbor"?) dissolves in the cultural cauldron?
William Murchison is writing a book on morality in the 21st century. To find out more about William Murchison, and to see features and cartoons by other Creators Syndicate contributors, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.Creators.com.
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William Murchison is a corresponding editor of Chronicles and the author of The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson (ISI) and Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity. William Murchison, syndicated columnist and longtime commentator on religious, cultural, and political affairs, has contributed to many national publications, including the Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, and First Things.