Moving the Ancient Boundaries – III

This is a series on the erosion of moral, cultural, and ethical boundaries in modern society:
 ♦ Part 1 — Moving the Ancient Boundaries

 ♦ Part 2 — The Rebel & the Victim

stone walls

Do not move the ancient boundary stone
   set up by your forefathers.

        — Proverbs 22:28 —

In prior posts, we began to examine some of the many ways which a society will evolve and act if it seeks to move the ancient boundaries, to chip away at absolutes, principles, and tradition in order to create a new utopia grounded in narcissism and libertinism. Here, I will continue to illustrate the means whereby an increasingly individualistic and relativistic society, having lost its moorings in faith, absolute principles, and tradition, undermines its own foundations. This post will address the undermining of civil authority and government; the next, the assault on religious authority.
 ♦ The Assault on Civil Authority

Authority in Western society serves — at least in theory — the people whom it governs. As embodied in government, it exists to protect, to preserve societal order and norms, and to promote the common good. It functions to protect individual members of society from harm from its renegade members, from natural dangers, such as fire or natural disasters, from large societal upheaval such as riots and civil unrest, and from threats to national security or sovereignty. This authority is embodied in both law and the necessary authorized force to restrain the destructive and centrifugal forces in society and maintain civil order.

But law and legal force alone cannot restrain such evil tendencies, short of enforcing a despotic and tyrannical rule which is the antithesis of democracy and freedom. To function optimally, authority must be based on a shared tradition of self-restraint and ethical behavior, operating under the common denominator that the good of society as a whole outweighs individual desires and priorities — and delegating the enforcement of the common good to those in authority when individual license violates societal norms and standards.

In an age of narcissistic individualism, then, authority must be undermined, for it represents a constraint and impediment to the utopian vision of ultimate human freedom posited in unrestricted individual license. For the individualist, personal gain always trumps the common good. The view of authority in such radical individualism is changed: its goal now primarily — if not exclusively — protection of the individual’s rights, and secondarily, the mitigation of the inevitable consequences of such self-centered behavior. In societies where such individualism becomes preeminent, we see the evolution of authority primarily into the guarantor of autonomy and the guarantee of relief from its effects.

There are many instances in modern culture where such an effect can be seen. We see civil authority increasingly protecting irresponsible sexual behavior, through promotion of “safe sex” to children and young adults, and through an aversion to promoting sexual abstinence before marriage in schools and government-funded health clinics. Normalization of same-sex relationships has also been encouraged by laws prohibiting hate crimes (disproportionately applied against crimes against homosexuals and racial minorities, never enforced with crimes against whites and Christians), as well as statutes prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation — even among those whose religious and moral values find such behavior destructive and morally dangerous. Such policies arise and are influenced by the assumption that unmarried teenagers and adults will inevitably be sexually active, and should not be discouraged from doing so, and that all forms of sexual relationships are equally valid and utterly harmless.

At the same time, research for curing AIDS is funded at levels far exceeding its risk to the general population, and government increasingly provides financial support for the consequences of sexual incontinence, destigmatizing the status of unwed mothers and funding the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. While such programs are not inherently wrong, they nevertheless serve to mitigate the adverse consequences of irresponsible sexual actions and reduce in some measure society’s inhibition of such potentially destructive behavior.

In like manner, government has weakened the preservation and protection of traditional marriage over recent decades through the liberalization of divorce laws. At the same time it finds itself struggling to address large increases in crime, child abuse, poverty, gangs, and drug use — many of which are markedly increased by a rising rate of divorce. It may well be appropriate for government to address such problems — but it has clearly also exacerbated them by favoring individual autonomy — the virtual lifting of restrictions on divorce and extramarital sexual relations — at the expense of larger social good. Government must now increasingly pick up the pieces resulting from the very change in direction brought about by its own laws and policies.

Long gone is the idea that an individual has a responsibility for his or her own actions, or that one has a responsibility to community well-being over personal self-interest. We now expect government to place no restrictions whatsoever on behavior which we deem personally fulfilling but which is often quite detrimental at the societal level. We then demand increasing government solutions to the social consequences of lifting these very restrictions.

The age of great legislators, those who pursued national interest over personal gain and political power, is long gone — for the citizens no longer cherish such values.

It was in the 1960’s and 70’s when we began to hear, with drumbeat regularity, that we must “always question authority,” and “never trust anyone over 30.” This heady, self-righteous individualism felt liberating at the time: surely the young know better than the old, the individual was wiser than the institutions of government. It was an attitude, in no small measure, brought forth by some measure of government deceit and malfeasance, such as occurred with Watergate and with the inept prosecution of the Vietnam war. But the true irony was that this relentless assault on the authority of government — amplified by the megaphone media, who had much to gain by the assault (themselves gaining newfound power and influence) — led not to less government deceit but more, and made the prosecution of war and foreign policy nearly impossible, by constantly assuming that all such high government decisions were rooted in dark personal and political motives rather than the highest national interest.

Government of the people is subject to moral lapse — for it is comprised of individuals who are morally flawed. But for government to function well in a free society, there must be broad-based presumption of good intent: we must believe that government is acting for our best interests, while always recognizing its potential to go astray. The narcissistic culture always operates from the position of pure self-interest — and projects this motive onto others, small and large. The individual cares only about his own desires — and therefore assumes government must always be serving its own interests at its citizens’ expense. The narcissistic culture cares nothing about others — and therefore seeks a government which cares only about lifting all restriction on personal behavior while eliminating all personal responsibility, and offloading the resulting consequences onto others. This corruption percolates upward from citizens to those serving in government. The age of great legislators, those who pursued national interest over personal gain and political power, is long gone — for the citizens no longer cherish such values. We very much get the government we deserve — because we are the government, and we, like Alice in Wonderland, have grown very small indeed, moral midgets in a dark and ever more dangerous world.

As radical individualism molds government in its own image, it not only increases the number and complexity of difficult social problems it needs to address — it also greatly impairs government’s ability to resolve these problems. As citizens, and the public servants they elect, become increasingly unwilling to make personal or collective sacrifices based on principle for the common good, leadership responds instead with solving smaller and largely insignificant problems, while passing symbolic solutions and non-binding resolutions to address the large and growing societal cancers which pose a far greater threat to the society at large. So we get legislation promoting school uniforms and midnight basketball, while ignoring –or passing band-aid legislation to address — Social Security’s impending bankruptcy, a health care system imploding under the weight of staggering over-regulation and vast numbers of uninsured patients, or a failing educational system which spews out students well-versed in feminist deconstructionism but utterly incapable of making reasoned, ethical decisions in the arenas of personal or civic life.

The risk grows even greater with external threats to national security, as elected leadership becomes paralyzed executing military action necessary for defense against mortal enemies. War in the post-modern age is a media circus, virtually impossible to wage with the ferocity necessary to deter and defeat ruthless and amoral enemies. Postmodern media shows every car bomb, “bravely” photographs terrorist snipers hard at work murdering American troops, and flaunts videos of flag-draped caskets. But the media, having fully co-opted the message of moral relativism and the value of selfish individualism over the common good, has neither the interest nor the aptitude to examine broader moral themes, to consider issues of just conflicts and proper national defense, or to pass proper judgment on flagrant evil. They exult instead in self-congratulatory displays of non-judgmental moral equivalence, ensuring that their audience can quickly avert their eyes from the deadly threat which endangers them. Thus American idealism suffers while American Idol soars.

The life lived in self-absorption is pervasively corrosive, dismantling the foundations of free democratic society in its blind pursuit of pleasure at the expense of principle, comfort at the cost of character. We are increasingly ungovernable because we refuse to be governed. We are receiving what we have demanded — and it will never satisfy us, and threatens to destroy us.

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5 thoughts on “Moving the Ancient Boundaries – III

  1. If the Lord tarries many more years, I do fear that students elsewhere will one day be studying the deconstruction–and ultimate destruction–of the once-great United States: The Fall of America.

    As a former teacher of English composition, I would love to know how you go about putting together such essays. But rather than try to pull your process apart, I will simply appreciate the whole in all its breadth, depth, and expression.

    I have read others’ comments, asking you to please publish in print much of what you post here. I’m renewing the request.

  2. I agree. Your essays deserve more scrutiny than they will receive in an Internet blog forum. Very meaty content here.

    This one made me think of Reinhold Neibuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society which I came to very late in life. Had I found it in my younger days my youthful angst about many of what I perceived to be horrible social trends would have been assuaged. Neibuhr was, of course, the writer of the Serenety Prayer as well as being an influence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

    I did a site search of First Things looking for an essay I once linked to there in which Moral Man and Immoral Society was clearly, succinctly summarized, but I didn’t find what I was looking for. I did, however come up with three other writers referring to the same source. Edward T. Oakes in 1993, Wilfred M. McClay in 2002, and Matthew Berke in 2000. This last link is shortest and quickest to digest.

    Neibuhr seems to have tripped across a timeless principle. I think it might be possible to sift history through his observation and discover that from the start of written records individual standards of behavior have invariably been higher than collective behavior. Oh, from time to time we clump together for flag, race, church or nation, but that’s not quite the same dynamic as individual sacrifice that results in true martyrdom.

    First Things is really the voice of Fr. Neuhaus. So to be fair, you might want to wade through some of his endless remarks as well. He has a discursive style that never tires, but he makes trenchant observations that provoke one to think. Been doing it for years, too. This piece in 1992 came up in my search because it contained a “Neibuhr” reference, although it was not the one for which I was looking. It contains this nugget.

    Speaking at Trinity Church, Wall Street, former President Jimmy Carter got a big hand when he criticized the United Nations for condoning war in the Gulf “without totally exploring a peaceful resolution to the conflict.” Like, for example, Saddam Hussein might have been willing to agree to be very careful in using the nuclear weapons that, it is now generally acknowledged, were within months of being ready for deployment.

    Remember, he’s writing fifteen years ago, long before recent memory. Most of the casualties of the war in Iraq were toddlers at the time. It is easy to criticize mistakes in retrospect, but we often discover that making those collective mistakes required a lot of denial about trends observed by individuals but ignored by our collective indifference.

  3. As an afterthought, remembering that today is Palm Sunday, the subject of collective expectations versus individual revelations makes for good reflection. Jesus was received with great pomp, we are told, with the expectation that He would be the long awaited liberator in the political/temporal sense. He brought liberation for the oppressed, but it was spiritual liberation from spiritual oppression, very different from what the chattering classes sought. How easily popular movements can run in the wrong direction while missing rewards deeper than those for which they were looking.

    It is also April Fool’s Day. The significance of that in connection with deception needs nothing more than an interesting footnote. If I listen closely I can hear thunderous belly laughing coming from Heaven.

  4. Once again, I couldn’t agree any more with what you see in our decaying society. I can only imagine harsh scenarios ahead for us, as we cater to the lowest, most immature common denominators.

    Radical Indiviualism+ Radical Islam+Moral Relativism =Upcoming Bondage like We’ve Never Known Before.

    Perhaps, as Vicky says, the Lord will come sooner rather later, but either way, things are lining up for a dark period of unknown proportions. God help us.

    Thank you so much for continuing to write all this.

  5. Dr. Bob, I’ve seldom seen anyone who can cut to the root of the issue quite as precisely as you do. You are not only a surgeon for ailing bodies, but you are also a surgeon for our ailing times.

    Thank you for taking the time to write all of this, and for sharing your seemingly bottomless well of wisdom.

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