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Matters of Right and Wrong

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So, to get the country past this awful moment, we need:

Gun control?

A presidential speech?

An end to political posturing?

A blue-ribbon commission?


Or maybe we need something more.


What about a concentrated effort to reconstruct the moral understandings formerly embedded in our ways and institutions, orphaned by the personal entitlement culture that rules the roost -- the culture of Me, the culture of "I Want; I Deserve"?

I hold college degrees in history. I am painfully aware there was never a time before us and never will be after us -- humanity being what it is -- when the moral norms bound us all with hoops of steel. We used to do better, though. We didn't use to assume cultural approval to decide for ourselves, on a case-by-case basis, what's right and what's wrong. Generally speaking, we had standards -- guardrails between which we operated. We weren't to gambol gaily around the pasture, doing the first thing that came to mind, unless that first thing squared with the duties and obligations that went with life.

There were well-known, well-advertised sources for scrutiny of duties and obligations. There was the law written on the heart -- the natural law, telling you what to do whether you liked doing it or not. The natural law intersected with religious commands that the religious "establishment" propounded with some vigor: starting with loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. It was the kind of stuff that elevated your neighbor to a higher status than that of rifle or pistol target, or the object of vile language.


Thus the heart spoke and the churches spoke. But so also -- and with no less force -- the family spoke. And the community. And the schools. "Here's what's right, and here's what's wrong," they all said. And you could object to that assessment with indignation and -- preferably -- intelligence. You could argue for change and reform and adaptation, knowing nobody's right all the time. But that included you. You weren't right all the time. You couldn't assign everyone else an overhead berth in the Hot Place because you thought you alone knew what should be done.

Where'd it all go? The insurgencies of the '60s and '70s gave the Me culture its place in the sun. Me, I know what's wrong with society! The rest of you, shut up while I talk. The Me culture, once it became general, was impatient with institutions of "control" -- for instance, the family. Why can't I live the way I want?! Divorce, abortion-on-demand, illegitimacy, and "shackin' up" were the consequences. So what if our great teaching institution disintegrated? In a Me culture, there's nothing worth teaching. You figure it out for yourself. You make your own rules, sort of the way the Dallas gunman Micah Johnson appears to have decided who should live and who should die: judge, jury, executioner.

The country's racial divide stems in part from the disintegrative forces that have sharply reduced the number of two-parent black families, leaving, generally, the single mother to raise her brood. Not much time for teaching in so strained an environment! But then, teaching isn't popular in white households where the Me culture holds sway.


Putting it back the way it used to be: What are the prospects? Who would do it? Where would we start? In any case, who ever saw the clock turned back? Arrested, maybe, but never turned back.

The advantage of the enterprise would be the enduringness of the norms we now see as so influential previously in sparing us moments like the present one -- the 1861-1865 war being an obvious exception -- through emphasizing common decency over individual chest-puffing.

The norms can be ignored; they can't be taken away. You just have to assert them, and keep on asserting them, until their undeniable Truth can no longer be dodged. "Me First" is folly: That would be the first Truth, the unassailable Truth.

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