Digging a deeper hole

Two young boys allegedly being viciously beaten by two other young boys is just a single, shocking incident. Yet it may strike us as a symbol for a society which has gone seriously wrong.

At one end of the scale we have bankers who have thrown us into a fearful economic mess while emerging wealthy with bonuses and pensions, and politicians who, quite legally, milk the allowances paid for by us for every penny they can get – while claiming that their sole interest is the good of society.

At the other end we have overcrowded prisons, a high rate of teenage pregnancy, cohabitation swiftly replacing marriage, and fearful difficulties in many schools with undisciplined pupils. Killing the young before they are born is considered acceptable – even admirable, by people who are horrified by the memory of the Holocaust. You can make your own list.

Yet we have a legal structure which appears to cover every human activity, and a surveillance system through camera and database to ensure that Big Brother is always watching you. (After all why should you worry if you’re not doing anything wrong?) Even many local councils use terrorism laws, which were designed for tracking terrorism and serious crime, for the spying out of petty offences.

The old saying “If you’re in a hole, stop digging” seems to apply. We all have some general ideas of how society ought to be, but it’s harder to discern practical ways through which that could be achieved. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the way we’re travelling now.

So what do you see as the major problems, and ways in which they could be put right or at least alleviated? And what can we do personally to contribute?

I should really like to know.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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10 Responses to Digging a deeper hole

  1. Frank says:

    Just back from a trip to Poland, where I stayed on a former Communist council estate. Built in the 70’s, it had the grim conventional feel of that era and society. Yet it was, and is, a safe and even ‘civilised’ place to live: the Communists designed the anonymous high rise flats with playgrounds and sports areas around them; a local shop; walkways (no-one could afford cars then); there has to be silence after 10 pm for the sake of the neighbours; everyone is responsible for keeping the corridor in front of their flat clean; and (reluctantly) the Commies allowed the locals to build a parish church in the midst of all this. The result? The opposite of our ‘sink estates’ over here, with their run-down, neglected appearance and atmosphere of incipient violence.

    Perhaps the answer is a totalitarian government.

  2. tim says:

    Frank, when you say that, smile!

    A totalitarian government of competent people with high motives may (if you are exceptionally lucky) be fine for a bit. But it is in unstable equilibrium, like a cone balanced on its point. Inevitably mistakes are made, and people are distracted, or corrupted. Then the situation deteriorates, and cannot be corrected without bloodshed. Better have democracy, where it is easier to change an incompetent or venal Government.

  3. Frank says:

    Well – I was writing slightly tongue in cheek, but only ‘slightly’.

    Tim mentions ‘bloodshed’. How many young men (usually black) have been stabbed to death on the streets of our cities this last year, in our democratic country?

    Of course I don’t endorse totalitarianism; but when you have a democracy without agreed values – e.g. that marriage is preferable to cohabitation in the stability and wellbeing of children – you end up with the moral chaos that Quentin refers to; and moral chaos leads to acts of physical violence – the bloodshed we would prefer to associate with Communist countries.

    I understand Poland has problems with alcoholism – but so do we, as A & E units at NHS hospitals constantly testify. Perhaps Poland is in a (temporarily, alas) stable equilibrium at present for two reasons: the puritannical oppressiveness of Communism has not quite disappeared; allied to a newly free society in which the Church plays a large social role, it makes for government and good order by consent.

  4. Horace says:

    Perhaps Distributism might be a better alternative than a totalitarian government.

    In a closely knit society this kind of behavior is simply not tolerated, whereas in our present society we don’t KNOW these people or their parents, relatives or friends – and therefore feel that it is someone else’s problem, the police or the government, to deal with it.

  5. Trident says:

    Quentin asks us what we can do ourselves. So let me suggest some possibilities.

    1 If we are believing Catholics we should make sure that all our social and work contacts should be aware of that. We don’t have to exhibit pride but a firm confidence.
    2 In the light of that we have to show by our way of life that we live up to high Christian standards. We must give others the opportunity to see that our beliefs help us to be good people.
    3 We do not need to force our beliefs on anyone, but we should be ready to answer questions when we are asked.
    4 There will be times when, in social discussion (for instance about abortion etc) we should state our beliefs firmly but not aggressively. Silence is often apparent collusion. We should be ready to be unpopular for this – though I think we rarely will be.
    5 We should be clear about our beliefs, distinguishing between those which require faith (and therefore cannot be imposed on others) and those (probably in the moral area) where we can demonstrate reasons which non believers can understand.
    6 We should know our religion well and distinguish between what the Church teaches, and does not teach, and what is our own interpretation. We therefore should know our Catechism well.

    I realise that it is hard to live up to this. I also realise that each Catholic individual will only make a tiny contribution. But we should not be concerned about outcome, because that is up to God.

  6. Frank says:

    Trident is spot-on.

    I recall a Catholic priest telling me that the times he found it hardest to bear witness to the practise of his faith in public was when he was dining out with other Catholic priests who did not say Grace before and after the meal.

    I have been thinking about the Christian example (and martyrdom) of Sophie and Hans Scholl in Munich in 1943, for standing firm against Nazi Germany.

    How much less is our sacrifice if we stand up for our faith in public – and yet we often hesitate to do so…

  7. The story of Sophie and Hans Scholl is indeed a moving one. They died (along with others) courageously and for a good cause.
    But is there not another lesson to be learnt here? They had lived through the Nazi regime, had been enthusiastic members of the Hitler Youth, during the persecution of the Jews, and the manifestly unjust invasion of Poland before they made their protest.
    I am not comparing our post-Christian society with Germany in the 1930s (though I think that abortion runs it too close for comfort) but I wonder if we share with them a blindness not just about what is happening now but the direction in which our society is travelling. Indeed many God-fearing German Catholics did not see the signs of the times.
    I have written for a number of years now in the CH about the encroachment on individual freedom in this country – without receiving a single word of support from any reader. Am I too cynical in suspecting that many God-fearing Catholics today would in similar circumstances have joined the Nazi Party and somehow rationalised its perfidy away?

  8. RMBlaber says:

    In the 19th Century, the Italian anthropologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) tried to argue that all our actions were determined by heredity, and that criminals were biologically atavistic specimens, whose criminality was a function of their lack of genetically acquired civilisation.
    His thesis was soon subjected to vehement opposition, not least from his fellow positivists, who called it crude and unsophisticated.
    Such opponents were, for the most part, sociological determinists, rather than biological ones. Their thesis was that criminality was caused by social factors such as poverty and bad housing conditions. They found support for this idea in the work of such pioneering social observers as Mayhew and Booth (he of the Salvation Army).
    Doubtless there will be many who will argue that the two boys allegedly responsible for the attack on the young victims in Edlington come from deprived families, as did Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of little Jamie Bulger, and Mary Bell. What such theorists will be unable to account for is all the poor, unemployed, badly housed and socially deprived people who do _not_ commit crimes.
    This leaves us with free will – with an ‘I’ that exercises personal choices, and who must accept responsibility for them. Responsibility has, however, become a dirty word. Responsibility is all right as long as it belongs to someone else – but it’s not all right if it belongs to you. In fact, it never belongs to you in our society these days.
    Our politicians lead by example in this regard. If a mistake takes place in a Minister’s Department, it’s not the Minister’s fault, as once it would have been, and nor is it the Minister who resigns, as once he or she would have done. No, a civil service underling confesses to the misdeed, and carries the can for it.
    A child is not doing well at school. This must be the fault of the teachers. The parents, who permit the child to stay up late at night playing computer games and watching television, thus missing out on vital sleep, are not to blame, and anyone who suggests otherwise will be rewarded with an earful of bad language, if they are fortunate, or physically assaulted, if they are not.
    There are many more examples one could give of this shirking of responsibility: yet it has been given a veneer of respectability by the fashionable determinist theories of academia. As Julien Benda (1867-1956) pointed out long ago in his ‘Trahison des Clercs’ (1927) , academia has a lot to answer for.
    To make this point might sound anti-intellectual, but it is not: it is to argue for the right use of reason. All of us have a moral sense – a conscience, which, as the Venerable Cardinal Newman argued, is the voice of God. We can either listen to it, or ignore it. If we do the latter, we must accept the consequences.

  9. claret says:

    This is a vast subject and nearly everyone has a view bordering on despair as to what to do next and which way to turn.
    The latest scandals involving MP’s expenses have brought politics in this country to a new low that , for me anyway, can never be recovered by most of this present bunch of hypocrites.
    If we can’t trust our law makers to have a sense of decency in their financial affairs and a sense of morality in their private lives then we don’t have much left to show as an example.
    How can we condemn benefit cheats and tax evaders when MP’s are doing the very same thing but bleat that ‘they are doing nothing wrong’ or that “he/she is only doing what their predeccessor did! ( as in Gordon Brown’s case.)
    If we are going to change society then we need to expose our politicans for what they are so that the greed and immorality can be replaced by those who want only to provide a public service aimed at making our lives better.

  10. pnyikos says:

    Quentin, your opening sentence reminded me of this article that appeared the first of this month in Catholic Exchange:
    http://catholicexchange.com/2009/05/01/118146/

    The opening paragraphs speak for themselves:

    When a Connecticut schoolboy gave another student a below-the-belt kick a few weeks ago, the victim was rushed to the emergency room.

    Meanwhile in response, the principal sent a note home to parents reinforcing the school’s “No-Touch” policy. The policy prohibits any touching at all on school grounds—including “hugging” and “horseplay.” Violators could face “parent conferences, detention, suspension and/or a request for expulsion from school.”

    According to the Washington Post, some students report that even high-fiving and pats on the back have been outlawed.

    Have we come to the point in our schools where a pat on the back is the moral equivalent of a kick below the belt?

    Now, this Connecticut school isn’t alone in banning touch. School districts all over America have issued similar policies in recent years. In fact, one school reportedly disciplined a 5-year-old for giving another child a hug after her grandmother died.

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