London Burning By Derek Jeter

August 15, 2011

Feral Youth on the Underground

Like many others, I’ve been watching and thinking about London burning. There seems to be no shortage of commentary or explanation – my personal favorite is the “feral youths” comment promulgated by the Daily Telegraph that has become part of the current secular short hand to explain “how a generation of violent, illiterate young men are living outside the boundaries of civilized society.”

The cause was not injustice; this was not a revolt of the downtrodden masses, breaking into stores looking for food. The causes were greed, selfishness, a respect and even lust for violence, and a lack of moral grounding. Conscienceless predators preyed upon the weak. The weak were anyone who happened to be passing by, and those, many of them immigrants, who tried to defend their shops and neighborhoods. The iconic scene was the 20-year-old college student in East London who was beaten for his bicycle and fell bloody to the ground. His tormentors, with a sadistic imitation of gentleness, helped him up. Then they rifled through his backpack to get his phone and wallet. It was cruelty out of Dickens. It was Bill Sikes with a million YouTube hits.
Peggy Noonan, Après le Déluge, What?Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2011

Some American commentators are moved to say the same phenomena could easily happen here, although the practice of flash mobs who use Twitter to descend upon sports and mobile phone shops to make off with sneakers and iphones is virtually the same activity minus the burning of the shops when they leave, so the question seems fairly moot IMHO.

Here is Max Hastings, in the conservative-populist Daily Mail: “The depressing truth is that at the bottom of our society is a layer of young people with no skills, education, values or aspirations… Nobody has ever dared suggest to them that they need feel any allegiance to anything, least of all Britain or their community.. Not only do they know nothing of Britain’s past, they care nothing for its present.”

Part of the sheer intellectual joy of being Catholic in the midst of all this gnashing of teeth and wailing about is the way that our faith leads us to regard all of this. Seen through the eyes of faith, these events are no cause for despair or shocked amazement but simply a testament to the bankruptcy of secular culture and its atheist roots. In fact, Christopher Dawson, who has been featured repeatedly on this blog recently, objected to the bracketing of those two words. There is no “secular culture” he protested at one point:

“The society without culture is a formless society — a crowd or a collection of individuals brought together by the needs of the moment (good working definition for a “flash mob”) — while the, stronger a culture is, the more completely does it inform and transform the diverse human material of which it is composed,” Dawson wrote in Religion and Culture. A culture without a common faith may linger for a while, but eventually it must dissolve, for all other bonds between men, especially political bonds, are tenuous at best without a common faith. In other words, there is no such thing as a culture that is secular. A secular culture would, by definition, mean the absence of a culture.
Sanctifying The World, Bradley J Birzer

You can’t read Simone Weil’s declaration of our obligation toward human beings a few posts back to realize that secular culture has failed to provide many of the basics she lists. Here’s the list again:

  1.  The human body is above all in need of food, warmth, sleep, hygiene, rest, exercise, clean air.
  2. The human soul needs equality and hierarchy.
  3. The human soul has a need for consented obedience and for freedom.
  4. The human soul is in need of truth and of freedom of expression.
  5. The human soul needs, on the one hand, isolation and intimacy, on the other, social life.
  6. The human soul needs personal and collective property.
  7. The human soul needs punishment and honor.
  8. The human soul needs disciplined participation in a common task of public interest, and personal initiative in that participation.
  9. The human soul needs security and risk.
  10. The human soul needs above all to feel rooted in various natural milieus and to communicate with the universe through them. The homeland, milieus defined by language, by culture, by a common historical past, by the profession, the locality, are examples of natural environments. Everything that results in the uprooting of a human being or which has the effect of preventing him from growing roots is criminal.

Thinking about that list and our “feral youths:” Religion shapes almost all our norms and mores, language, and family structure. Even material things, such as food ways or courtship customs, ultimately have a religious root. Bradley Birzer notes that a culture that by and large rejected its religion or has secularized itself has merely substituted some form of false religion — most likely an ideology of some kind — for its lost faith.

Once this is understood, Dawson argued, the process of a man fulfilling his destiny is rather obvious: God calls each person; each person has the natural law written on his heart; and each human person best expresses his religiosity within the natural and inherited community. Real community is not based on some freely-entered social contract between equals, but instead is natural, organic, hierarchical, and driven and governed by proper authorities. The community in which a person’s religiosity is best expressed could be rooted in the here and now, or it could transcend the particular, partaking of the universal, much like the Burkean community of the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. Both forms of community are equally valid and necessary in God’s economy of grace. Each plays its own role, and each person is called to play a unique role within each. “The Catholic conception of society is not that of a machine for the production of wealth,” Dawson wrote in 1933, “but of a spiritual organism in which every class and every individual has its own function to fulfill and its own rights and duties in relation to the whole.”

At the root of every society lies the cultus, defined as the group of people, usually based on kinship, who band together to worship the same deity or deities. “Therefore from the beginning the social way of life which is culture has been deliberately ordered and directed in accordance with the higher laws of life which are religion,” Dawson explained. Culture “is essentially a viral phenomenon — a way or order or pattern of social living. It is a way of gaining preserving, and extending life.” Further, it is a “network of relations,” again, in the Burkean sense, connecting person to person, in and across time. Economics, politics, and law proceed from the culture. American cultural critic Russell Kirk, influenced by Dawson in a variety of ways, explained Dawson, views well:

A cult is a joining together for worship — that is, the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power. It is from association in the cult, the body of worshippers, that community grows…. Once people are joined in a cult, cooperation in many other things becomes possible. Common defense, irrigation, systematic agriculture, architecture, the visual arts, music, the more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and government — all these aspects of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie.

Christopher Dawson's Understanding of Culture

Further, “religion is the key to history,” Dawson claimed. “We cannot understand the inner form of a society unless we understand its religion.” `A social culture is an organized way of life which is based on a common tradition and conditioned by a common environment,” Dawson wrote in 1949. “It is therefore not identical with the concept of civilizations, which involves a high degree of conscious rationalization nor with society itself, since a culture normally includes a number of independent units.”

Have we not simply observed in London (or in Philadelphia where the city is on curfew due to “flash mobs” and the inability of police to suppress these sudden attacks)  the rise of youthful secular cults who have banded together to worship deities of greed, selfishness, and a lust for violence? Next up a government program to move them all into careers in Wall Street Day Trading. I’ll keep you posted.

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One comment

  1. Excellent post, dj.

    My dad’s family live in England. I well remember spending summer evenings in downtown Sheffield in the late Sixties and early Seventies — people of all ages were out and about, and there was no fear of assault, no public drunkenness, no vomit on the sidewalk, no urinating on war memorials.

    A couple weeks ago, I was grateful to have these memories, but all the sadder, too.

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