Back to Nature

After the winds, the rains, the floods, come the looters. The more enterprising of them arrive before the storm is over. They come, too, with a good earthquake, a good fire, a good riot; anything “good” like that. After a good smash-and-grab, and until the breach is closed, they may continue coming through the hole.

To the mind of the looter, there is free stuff inside. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

Free stuff means, anything unguarded. “If I don’t take it, others will,” is the looter’s equivalent to a moral argument. In his heart, he probably half-believes this. Man, freed from artificial constraints, in the complexities of social and religious order, reasons as any animal would reason. We might say that the catastrophe takes us back to nature.

Journalists work on the same principle. In the course of my failed career in that trade, I was many times confronted with temptation. I’d come across something that didn’t need reporting; “news” that could do no one any good. Not a large scandal, perhaps, but one with possibilities to the journalistic mind. A window had been left open, somewhere, on someone’s dirty little secrets. Call the cops, and lose the scoop? Or call city desk, and keep it? One wants to be “first with the news.”

For dirt sells, like stolen goods. People will buy, and not ask the provenance of it. I came to associate journalism with looting.

Including the news of looting. What is gained by the reports? Some argument might be made from the state of nature: if I don’t get it, my rival will. The news itself degrades everyone it touches.

Or, there is a public “need to know.” People need to know they must guard their possessions. The hacks present themselves as “watchdogs” to this end. Bow-wow, bow-wow.

And yet the people “knowed that already.”

I first heard this deliciously ungrammatical phrase from the lips of a very young lady, met under unlikely circumstances in my hitchhiking days, many years ago in the state of Georgia. She had washed into Atlanta from the hurricane coast. A little too cute, a little too simple, in my judgment – and now, on the road. A runaway, I surmised. I thought of a little sister back home; thought something must be done, for she was obviously in danger.

“Men are wolves,” I remember saying, among other quaint apothegms.

To which she replied, “I knowed that already.”

“Take this money, get on bus, go home.”

Alas, she would take the money, but not the bus. And said as much.

Toxic masculinity?

The criminal and the saint work on the same fuel. From Texas we see pictures of big strong men, carrying women and babies through the floods, to safety. A big bold caption reads, “Toxic masculinity.”

And yes, that conveys a truth – one-half of a great truth. Raise a boy into a man, and he will know what he must do in an emergency. He won’t even have to think. He must defend the defenseless, accept danger, risk his life.

Alternatively, he could grab free stuff while it is there for the taking.

One thinks of Jonathan Swift and his tract against abolishing Christianity.  He provided, “An argument to prove that the abolishing of Christianity in England may, as things now stand, be attended with some inconveniences, and perhaps not produce those many good effects proposed thereby.”

From the date of publication (1708), we may see that modernity is nothing new. Nor was it ever confined to England. The abolishing of Christianity in America, for example, has made a perceptible difference. To the great majority today, God might as well be Puff the Magic Dragon. He is neither the source of the moral law, nor its ultimate vindicator. Security cameras might count, but God is not assumed to be watching.

Often even fully catechized Christians act from unbelief. For the man who succumbs to a terrible temptation is playing atheist for the day. He might think himself Christian on other days, when there are no significant temptations. But he is fooling himself. For God IS watching.

And, to be perfectly practical, thanks to frightening advances in technology, even your refrigerator may be watching, too.

Still, like an animal, you take your chances. And should you get caught, blame the video, not yourself. The wolf blames the trap, not his own inattention.

“De-moralization” (in the old sense I inserted with the hyphen), is a stupefying thing. One becomes an idiot; one is easily caught. Basic intelligence is something that has been draining away with our Christian heritage. We are not merely bad – all humans are bad – we no longer “know any better.”

That little girl in Georgia, whom I think of now and then: she “knowed that,” but really knowed nothin’. What she learned would only be from raw human experience; and it wouldn’t be retained because, as I recall, she had no moral structure.

Moral instruction, though possibly tedious, is not dispensable. Without some structure, some thoughtful moral architecture, there is no place to fit the pieces of experience. It must be taught by prescription, as well as by example.

Call this religion, for that is what it is, whether the religion be Catholic or “other.” (And this makes a big difference, too.)

In the absence of an imposed training, this girl had become a walking victim, waiting to be exploited; but too, she was a walking perpetrator. A shoplifter, for instance, ready to exploit her own innocent appearance. A prostitute perhaps, within a few weeks. And a looter for sure, given half a chance.

A wild thing, who “knowed” in the manner of an animal; who takes, or is taken.

She was something of an anomaly in those days. But these days, she is the typical graduate of our public schools. And soon, perhaps, we’ll be able to say, that we’re all looters now.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: