Excesses of self-expression
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, December 26, 2007

America's pre-eminent social scientist James Q. Wilson observed in 1992 that "Society's fundamental task has always been to socialize its youth, especially during the tumultuous teenage years."

Back then, America's failures in this regard were legion. According to an article titled "Crime, Drugs, Welfare -- and Other Good News" in this month's Commentary magazine, massive increases in every negative social indicator from violent crime to abortion and divorce rates produced the inescapable conclusion that "the forces of social decomposition ... (were) ... overtaking the forces of social composition". Authors Peter Whener and Yuval Levin then report the good news, that the U.S. is starting to win, if not the war, then certainly battles everywhere except out-of-wedlock births, which reached an all time high of 37 per cent of all births in 2005.

Readers might think Canada is immune from similar pathologies, but two current books on guns and violence will quickly disabuse us of such notions.

Immersion into the world of hip-hop, the gun culture and overriding social pathology is rapid and complete when, on page two of Rodrigo Bascunan and Christian Pearce's Enter the Babylon System: Unpacking Gun Culture from Samuel Colt to 50 Cent, we learn how "On December 13, 2003, Clayton Kempton Howard was shot once in the head outside the Toronto apartment he shared with his mother, Joan, and younger brother, Kareem."

The second book, Young Thugs: Inside the Dangerous World of Canadian Street Gangs by Michael C. Chettleburgh, takes us into the trenches of Canada's gang problem. Both books show how a toxic brew of drugs, guns, media influences and socio-economic factors spit youth from dysfunctional families into lives on the street and in crime.

Canadians need to learn about this because if the forces of social decomposition plaguing the United States are on the mend, it isn't clear Canada is similarly blessed. Declining property crime rates pale beside a violent crime rate that has quadrupled through the last four decades even as car theft -- 40 per cent of whose perpetrators (75 per cent in Regina and Winnipeg) are between 12 and 17-years-old -- remains a billion-dollar-a-year problem. Today, Chettleburgh writes, 85 per cent of Canadian prisoners are gang affiliates.

Census information shows common-law families are increasing while 26 per cent of families with children are led by a single parent. Most worrying -- given links between fatherlessness and youth crime among unwed mothers -- 80 per cent of these single parents are women.

In the U.S., Whener and Levin report the effectiveness of strategies like welfare reform and drug prevention. Moreover, educated Americans are staying together for the sake of their children while a high school diploma and delaying pregnancy until marriage is increasingly viewed as the solution to poverty and crime.

But the definitive word on this subject belongs to James Q. Wilson, whose 1992 paper, "The Demise of Moral Culture," explored the question of why economic progress wasn't producing higher levels of "lawabidingness".

For answers, he looked to mid-19th century reactions to industrialization, urbanization, immigration and affluence in Britain and the U.S. Here he found an ethos of self-control, which in the U.S. spawned evangelical movements that ended slavery and reduced annual per capita alcohol consumption from 7.1 gallons to 1.8 gallons. (And you thought Prohibition failed.)

By contrast, the late 20th century produced an ethos of self-expression.

"The ethos of self expression was secular," he wrote, "but it was not secularism itself that led to the excesses of self expression; rather, it was the unwillingness of certain elites to support those processes of habituation that, even in the absence of religious commitment, lead to temperance, fidelity, moderation, and the acceptance of personal responsibility."

What changed most in modern times, then, was the culture. The logical consequence of the Enlightenment that honoured freedom was that it provided "no principle by which to define the limits to freedom ... (or) to defend moral orthodoxy." Committed marriage, society's premier institution for raising children, was among its first casualties.

Today, a modern era that abjures rote learning and discipline, much less moral training and social pressure, means young people not only go their own way but have no role models by which to establish their moral compass.

And now, with needles, guns and hip-hop music, they are shooting up in our streets, stealing our cars and knocking on our doors.

This coming year, take a child to church. Better still, enrol her in Sunday School and attend a few classes yourself.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

Let's make Canada shipshape for the 21st Century