To the Editor:
In “What To Do About the Children” [March], William J. Bennett has, I think, given as trenchant an account as it is possible to give of the moral quagmire engulfing American society. I believe he is entirely correct in allocating some responsibility to government policies—and in particular to those of the welfare state—in bringing us to our present sorry state. His proposals to correct those policies also deserve the highest consideration by Congress. But Mr. Bennett is also correct in saying that the primary cause of the moral crisis is not government, and will not be corrected even by the reforms he proposes.
As he well understands, there is an endemic moral relativism that dominates our universities, and that has spread from them to the entire educational establishment, at all levels. From there it has spread to leaders in the media, in business, law, and politics. Promiscuous behavior of all kinds—and not only that of the drug and welfare cultures—subsists largely upon the authority of the conviction that good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust are only “value judgments,” matters of opinion. Among these, it is said, reason is unable to discriminate, so that what is called moral is no less arbitrary than what is called immoral. In such a regime the distinction between moral and immoral rapidly erodes. . . .
My recent book, Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution: A Disputed Question, is, in part, an account of how moral relativism has replaced the principles of the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of an allegedly conservative constitutional jurisprudence. The philosopher-king of this new dispensation is the present Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist. In a 1976 essay (reprinted in 1984) on “The Notion of a Living Constitution,” he condemns those who
ignore . . . the nature of political value judgments in a democratic society. If such a society adopts a constitution and incorporates in that constitution safeguards for individual liberty, these safeguards do indeed take on a generalized moral Tightness or goodness. They assume a general social acceptance neither because of any intrinsic worth nor because of any unique origins in someone’s idea of natural justice but instead simply because they have been incorporated in a constitution by the people.
To say that the “safeguards for individual liberty” in a constitution do not have “any intrinsic worth” means that individual liberty does not have any worth, which in turn means that human life does not have any intrinsic worth. It also means that the safeguards of slavery in the Constitution of 1787 have the identical moral standing as the safeguards of liberty, since they were incorporated into the same constitution by the same people. This doctrine of the equal right of slavery and freedom was also the doctrine of John C. Calhoun.
The foregoing is more than legal positivism, it is moral relativism subsisting upon a foundation of nihilism. It would be difficult to find a more concise and lucid example of the intellectual germ that has generated the moral plague Mr. Bennett has so well noted. It is true that Rehnquist is not responsible for spreading this disease, any more than Typhoid Mary was responsible for spreading typhoid. Throughout college and law school, he was undoubtedly surrounded by those who have repeated as a mantra that the only truth is the truth that all truth is relative. That the Declaration of Independence—and therewith the Constitution—enshrine an “abstract truth applicable to all men and all times,” as Lincoln said, is as alien to him as colors to a blind man. . . .
Mr. Bennett has been an able diagnostician of the symptoms of the disease that is unraveling our social fabric. But diagnosis must lead to therapy. He must be prepared to wield the scalpel, however painful it may be. Lincoln also said, “Stand with anybody that stands right. Stand with him while he is right and part with him when he goes wrong.”
There is no alternative to dealing forthrightly with the facts of our case, unless we are resigned to the illness becoming terminal.
Harry V. Jaffa
To the Editor:
As an anthropologist, I was startled to see William J. Bennett cite another anthropologist to the effect that the conditions we now confront in our own country approximate those of the traditional societies that our churches once sent missionaries to uplift. The plain fact is that the conditions Mr. Bennett discusses—random violence, widespread illegitimacy, and utter disregard for social sanctions—cannot be found in any traditional society anywhere in the world. The third-world social problems which inspired generations of missionaries had to do rather with (1) the traditional world view which in many cases tended to locate causation in human malevolence (thus engendering, for example, witchcraft accusations); and (2) the sharp distinction between “own” and “outsider” which permitted (or even prescribed) violence in relationships outside the community, however defined. (For some missionaries, the injustices traditionally borne by women provided further evidence of the need for enlightened education.)
Traditional societies, whatever their degree of apparently licentious or promiscuous behavior (e.g., on occasions of festival “inversion” of conventional norms), operate according to famously rigid rules of decorum. Illegitimacy is virtually nonexistent, either because women are married by the time of puberty (or closeted until marriage) or because legal and cultural mechanisms provide for the legitimation of any birth.
Economic and cultural influences from outside have in many cases resulted in the breakdown of traditional lines of authority and deference, creating the same sorts of problems that Mr. Bennett discusses. The parallel may be instructive for us, but not, certainly, as an index of how far we have fallen from civilization. The loss of traditional social structures represents as great a decline for a subsistence-farming village as for a world power.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
To the Editor:
The tragic demise of the family, schools, and religious institutions during the last 30 years that William J. Bennett analyzes in his excellent article has had a profoundly damaging impact upon American Jewry. The erosion of society’s support for the traditional values that are central to Judaism like marriage and the family, nurturing children, moral values including the sanctity of life, and personal sacrifices and service has contributed monumentally to shaping a younger generation that is largely alienated from its Jewish roots and values, and, therefore, very prone to assimilation into the decadent culture that typifies secular America.
To reverse this disastrous phenomenon will require massive Jewish educational outreach. . . . With this in mind, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald created the National Jewish Outreach Program in 1987 for the purpose of liberating American Jews from the dungeon of Jewish ignorance and alienation from their deepest selves. . . .
[Rabbi] Sanford H. Jarashow
Boca Raton, Florida
To the Editor:
William J. Bennett is right on the mark in his thought-provoking policy guide. His favorable view of “the concept of orphanages or group-care homes” is especially relevant this year, the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Herman Ruth—the great Babe Ruth, considered by many the best baseball player in the history of the game.
The Babe’s mother died when he was very young. His father, a saloon owner (there were no cocktail bars in those days), could not handle him. At the age of eight he was sent to a reform school, an institution liberals today look upon with as much abhorrence as they do orphanages. The Babe remained at St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore, a Catholic institution, for eleven years. At the school, every boy was taught a trade and engaged in some sport. The Babe was taught shirt-making and was the star catcher, shortstop, and pitcher on one of the school’s several teams. His skill at baseball caught the kindly eye of Brother Mattias, who brought Ruth to the attention of the owner-manager of the Baltimore team, then in the triple-A International League. As a $600-a-year player he was sold to the Boston Red Sox, where he was an outstanding pitcher whose records still stand. The New York Yankees bought him from the cash-strapped Boston team. The Yankees recognized Ruth’s hitting ability and switched him to left field where he could play and bat in every game. From then on he became the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the King of Clout—home-run hitter and baseball legend.
Although he was not exactly a model gentleman, the Babe was no worse than most ballplayers of the time, and he never forgot his roots. He helped raise money for St. Mary’s and remained close to Brother Mattias. He loved children and was never too busy to sign an autograph or visit sick children. . . .
The point I wish to make, however, does not concern the Babe’s hitting ability, but the fact that his success, as that of many other kids who were at St. Mary’s, was due to an institution that took him off the streets and gave him guidance and care. I agree with Mr. Bennett that we would benefit from institutions like St. Mary’s today.
Robert J. Rosenthal
William J. Bennett writes:
I appreciate Harry V. Jaffa’s letter and agree with much of what he says. Intelligent public policies can have an impact on America’s social pathologies, and we should obviously do what we can. But legislation can do very little about the influence of moral relativism. There will be no cultural regeneration until we address the moral “root causes” of our problems.
Mr. Jaffa is right in pointing out the enormous damage universities and intellectuals have wrought. Although the worst aspects of their ideas are usually diluted, what many intellectuals advocate (i.e., open marriage, values clarification, sexual liberation) eventually does spread to the rest of society. And once the virus is unleashed, many people suffer, and none more than the poor, with whom intellectuals, ironically enough, so often express solidarity.
As for “wield[ing] the scalpel,” what does Mr. Jaffa mean by “scalpel,” and who is to wield it against what? The solution to most of what ails us is to grow more civilized and become more responsible. Moral recovery can come only from the American people and our character-forming institutions. That, at least, was the vision of the Founders, who argued that a self-governing people must control its appetites, passions, and self-indulgences if liberty and democracy are to survive.
I think Clare Wolfowitz has confused an argument by analogy with an argument by identity. My point was not that 19th-century “primitive” societies were plagued with the same problems we face; rather, things have come to such a pass in America and there is so much suffering that it should arouse sentiments similar to those which once inspired others to cross oceans bringing solace and enlightenment. Culturally speaking, we are entering uncharted waters, which makes our situation both unique and alarming. But I would also be wary of romanticizing the “rigid rules of decorum” of “traditional societies.” Surely many of them are inconsistent with what we would consider to be a good and decent social order.
The alienation to which Rabbi Sanford H. Jarashow refers is all too real, and it is encouraging to hear about voluntary organizations like the National Jewish Outreach Program and its educational efforts. This is an example of Burke’s “little platoons” accomplishing what government initiatives simply cannot do.
I appreciate Robert J. Rosenthal’s letter. Comfortably removed from the realities of inner-city life, some liberals have taken easy shots at institutions which are, as it happens, doing the Lord’s work. No one has ever argued that orphanages or similar institutions are the solution to all our problems. But orphanages can make a tremendous positive difference in the lives of young children who have been neglected, abused, and abandoned. I know; I have been to these institutions and I have seen their work. Nor do they have to produce another Hall of Fame baseball player to be considered a success. I would settle for some love, discipline, protection, and basic sustenance. That is a good deal more than many inner-city children can now look forward to.