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Two Letters on Our Moral Inversions

A young friend wrote to me recently, responding to a column in which I took less than a cheery view of a politics and culture sinking into a “moral inversion.” He drew on the usual record of vast wrongs done in the past, and wondered aloud whether we really are sinking now from moral heights: “Think how we treated Native Americans, Jim Crow laws, the NRA, Bill Clinton, anti-Semitic things.”

It is no revelation to discover, in the checkered history of our species, that fallen creatures will ever be sinful. But it should stir no astonishment on the other side that the same nature, marked by free will, also gives rise to acts of remarkable sacrifice and generosity and nobility. In the same way that individuals can be corrupted, certain circles and countries filled with those people may become corrupted in the same measure.

And so I wrote to my young friend: Yes, there is no question that the relations among the races are dramatically different today from what they were when I was a youngster in the 1940s and 1950s. I remember also, as a child driving with my family in Michigan, seeing signs saying “Gentiles Only” – i.e, No Jews allowed. Indeed, the moral changes can be reflected in my own case: As I became involved in the pro-life movement I encountered a Church and Catholic community, tutored anew by John Paul II, and far more welcoming of Jews.

But at the same time, for those of us who knew this country in the 1940s and 1950s, those “moral inversions” are so striking that one just can’t fail to notice them. I told my young friend that “you may not be in the best position to see. What was that old line? That the fish don’t know they are in water. They don’t see the medium in which they are moving. And in the same way, you’ve grown up in this culture getting coarser with each year – that is the medium in which you move, the culture that engulfs you.”

Silenced [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

When Adlai Stevenson was running for President in 1952, my parents told me of many serious people who didn’t think they could vote for a man who had been divorced. The surge of laws on Civil Rights, aimed to correct lingering wrongs, seem to have produced now the unintended effect of their own wreckage. With programs of “diversity” and racial preferences we have brought forth people with a material stake in playing the “race card,” sharpening “identity politics,” and with it, sharpening enmities on all sides.

The age of Jim Crow did not produce the wreckage we have seen now in the black family, with about 70 percent of children born out of wedlock. Nor did it produce the spectacle of black people killing their own young: there are more abortions than live births among black people in cities like Washington and New York. We have seen now the effects of young black males growing up without fathers, and we have only begun to recognize the vulnerability of girls growing up without the protection of their fathers

Red Skelton once told the story of a young couple: “They had a military wedding,” he said. “Or I think they had a military wedding. Let’s put it this way: There were guns there!” That joke is now an archeological artifact, the remnant of a culture that is no more. It reminds us of a time when even the denizens of Dogpatch U.S.A. did not think that they had a license to avoid the embarrassment by destroying the innocent issue of that pregnancy out of season.

And that matter of abortion connects to a second letter, sent to a friend, a writer on one of our newspapers of national standing. I was sending along one of my columns, hitting again on news that has gone remarkably unreported in the major media: 177 Democrats in the House voted against the bill to punish a surgeon who kills a child who has survived an abortion.

The Democrats have now taken the position that the right to abortion is not confined to the pregnancy; that it entails nothing less than the right to kill the unwanted child born alive. This is the position that Hillary Clinton should be made now to defend. And yet, this issue has not been sounded at all in the editorial pages of our major papers, either in editorials or op-eds. Nor has it been mentioned on cable television, even by prominent Catholics such as Bret Baier, Bill O’Reilly, or Sean Hannity.

What has evidently set in is a kind of screening. But as I pleaded to my friend, “it would be a grievous wrong if papers like the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post became complicit in that screening. For what would it mean to help teach this lesson: that one our major political parties has now accepted infanticide outright, with no fig leaves, and the rest of us have decided that there is no longer anything here worth noticing?” We have had our less admirable moments, but have we really sunk that far?

I’ve had no response yet to that letter, but this is not the time for the pleas and letters to abate. It is time rather for the drumbeats to sound, especially for Catholics in the media: Why are you not embarrassed by your silence?

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.