One of the new sports of recent times has been the game of the demarcation of the decades. After Hiroshima came the phrase, “The Atomic Society”. Then there was “The Affluent Society”, “The Permissive Society”, and now, “The Frightened Society”.
Once we put lawbreakers behind bars so we would move freely wherever we wished, and be safe. Now we put bars on our doors and windows and barricade ourselves in at night so the lawbreakers can move with hardly a let or hindrance anywhere. Today it is the honest people who are behind bars: try and insure your house if you lack bars or alarms!
I remember my childhood, when doors and windows were left open as a matter of course. We came home from school and even if no one was in, the back door was unlocked and probably open. Neighbours were in and out of each other’s houses, and everybody kept the key under the mat. You could take a walk without the slightest thought of gangsters and terrorists. Nobody had ever hear of checking bags and parcels when you entered a public building. You could spend the day on the beach without the remotest fear of discarded syringes. It wasn’t an ideal society by any means, but it was a safe society. There were larrikins around, but fear did not stalk the streets.
Thinking people today are indignant, and they ask, “What is the law doing? What is the government doing?” Rabbi chanina was right, in the Ethics of the Fathers (3:2), to tell people pray to for the government, for without government (and a legal system), “men would swallow each other alive”. But that is possibly too cynical.
It isn’t only the law-makers and the lawyers who are guilty of sins of omission or commission. Surely the safe, orderly society depends on the moral commitment of individuals and families. If people are honest, decent, truthful and just, these moral principles will reflect in the laws and public institutions.
In the Frightened Society, who teaches moral principles any more? Religion tries, but so many people automatically dismiss whatever religion says as reactionary and wowserish. Youth groups like the scouting movements try, but so many people think they’re mere anachronisms. Parents try, but life is so perplexing for parents that it’s hard to fight against the “everything should be allowed” philosophy. The media don’t even try. And the schools? Insidious forces are at work there to insist that “Whatever is, students must be exposed to”. It’s democracy gone mad.
It’s no answer to say somebody else should take the responsibility and find the solutions. The men of Chelm once decided to give the local governor a barrel of wine. The barrel would be placed in the village square and every citizen would come and pour in a glass of wine in honour of the governor. But one fellow had an idea. He said to himself, “Why waste good wine on the governor? I’ll pour in water; no one will notice, and it won’t cost me anything!” But in Chelm everyone was equally clever, and when the barrel was full – of water! the governor was angrily ungrateful…
If any one of us, on whichever echelon of society, fails to contribute towards the moral climate of society, we will not only have children who, to use Norman Lamm’s words, “grow up as ethical illiterates and moral idiots”. We will also allow our children and our civilisation to fall prey to amoral movements and cynical demagogues who will bring life crashing around us in ruins.