Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Sheriff McDougall's Website

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 28, 1999

Posted on newsTrolls, 28 September, 1999

It is a plea for action, the reaction of a good man against what he sees to be an increasingly corrupt and morally decrepit society.

And it is hard not to feel sympathetic with Florida Sheriff John J. McDougall's manifesto, posted on the Lee County Sheriff's Office website.

McDougall is outraged by increasing drug use, youth crime, sexually transmitted diseases, violent crime, and more. Faced with these realities every day, we can see how he would seek a solution - any solution - which would rehabilitate society.

We can't fault McDougall's intentions, however, his solution - and the manner in which he posts it - are drawing ire across the country.

McDougall blames homosexuals, radical feminists, atheists, civil liberties, and in particular, Planned Parenthood and similar pro-choice advocates for the decline in social values.

In order to restore society's sense of value and decency, he argues, religion must be restored in government and in the classroom. He writes,

Daily we learn of the mass killing of students in our schools, shootings taken place in day-care centers, and places of worship. Is there any wonder why so many young people are committing such horrible crimes against innocent victims, when we protect the rights of atheists, and abolish the recognition of Almighty God in our classrooms?

To its credit, the American Civil Liberties Union, an agency criticized by McDougall, defends his right to post his opinion, even if it is on an official department website. In an interview with ZDTV, Florida ACLU representative Andy Kayton points out that it's probably better for the community if McDougall's views are clearly stated.

I agree with the ACLU - to a point. McDougall should have the right to publish his views. He should even have the right to publish his views on the departmental website. I say this not because I think that the website should serve as a platform for political philosophies, but because we should see McDougall's views in context: he, as Sheriff, is trying to lower crime, and this, he feels, is the best way to do it.

But that said, his views are political, and in the United States, at least, the office of Sheriff is a political office (in most nations, law enforcement officers such as Sheriffs or District Attorneys are not elected, and are expected to be non-political). So if his article were posted in a forum which granted him unique or special privileges, then there would be an issue.

But the web is the web, which means that anybody can post a rebuttal. Unlike a "Sheriff's Department TV Show", people who oppose McDougall's views are able to do so with equal effectiveness and force.

And that's what I'm about to do...

McDougall believes that the court-sanctioned abandonment of God is a cause of the moral decay we see in society:

I cannot help but wonder: is there a correlation between the sickening moral bankruptcy of today and the liberal court decisions that began in the 60-s? As a people, we have failed to accept the hard evidence of subtle but dramatic destructive change that commenced in this country with those decisions of the United States Supreme Court.

One is tempted to argue that this is a correlation without a cause, that is, to say that the timing of the two events is coincidental, and that therefore, the court decision is not the cause of the social decay.

One is tempted - but the timing is too striking, and there is a common thread: religion, whatever else it may be, is undeniably a moral code, and the problems in today's society can be plausibly argued to be caused by a moral decay.

And there is a sense in which it can be said that society as a whole has lost its direction. It seems pretty clear to me, at least, that the ethos reflected by contemporary society as a whole is one of selfishness, dog-eat-dog neoDarwinism, a social jungle red in tooth and claw, where the senses of decency, honour and propriety have been lost.

Where I disagree with McDougall is in his suggestion that society's abandonment of religion is the cause of this.

McDougall writes longingly about the 150 years before the court decisions as though they were better times.

The U.S. Supreme Court after 150 years of bible study in the public schools of this country banned bible reading and prayer in our public classrooms and declared in 1962, 1963, and 1992 the following practices to be violations of the first Amendment: The recitation of prayers composed by anyone including school officials, bible reading and recitation of the Lord's Prayer, and prayers at public school graduations.

Since the first of those Supreme Court decisions, Juvenile crime has sky-rocketed, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases have increased dramatically, over 400 %, violent crime (including Domestic violence) has risen 600% over the last 30 years, teen suicide is up 300%, and depression among children is up 1000%.

First, I really doubt the accuracy of some of those statistics. The reports which I have seen, for example, say that youth crime is on the decline. Same with violent crime. And I have no idea what to make of a statistic which tells us depression is up 1000%.

And second, it is reasonable to argue that for others of these cases, reporting - as opposed to actual instances - is what has increased. In McDougall's golden age, a battered wife stayed home, shut up, and took her lumps. Now she takes her husband to court. Sexual diseases were not talked about or acknowledged. And teen pregnancies were accompanied by secrecy and shame.

Moreover, the pre-1960s period was not the crime-free idyll McDougall seems to suppose. People like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano were good God-fearing Christians who probably studied religion in school, but who launched their own private crime sprees. If there is a youth gang problem today, the reason may be that adults have now (finally!) gotten out of the business.

Beatings, lynchings, organized crime - these were all the hallmarks of the pre-60s America. Women were oppressed. Blacks and Hispanics were oppressed. Native Americans were oppressed. And it was not just the United States - a social, religious and ethnic oligarchy held sway over vast populations in Canada, South Africa, and beyond. Religion didn't matter; the same forces brutally suppressed any sort of dissent in societies as divergent as China, India, and Russia.

It was an OK world if you were one of the oppressors. Less so if you were one of the oppressed.

The period between the end of World War II and the Sixties marked the gradual liberation of peoples around the world. In a sense it was inevitable - World War II only made sense if it was fought for a noble cause such as freedom (otherwise, it was just a senseless slaughter of millions of innocents), and having won freedom, people expressed a desire to experience it.

World War II also saw the introduction of nuclear weapons. An entire generation - my generation - grew up with the expectation that life could at any moment end with the wail of an air raid siren and a blinding flash. Planning for the future and residing one's faith in established authority pale under such circumstances.

Not that the established order did anything to engender such trust. The ongoing horror of apartheid, the senseless stalemate in Korea, the illegal (and secret) bombings of Cambodia, the Watergate scandal and concordant ham-fisted backroom politics of the Nixon administration - all these led to a generation which saw its leaders - God-fearing men, all of them - as selfish, cruel and morally deficient power-brokers.

People - at long last - wanted to be free.

Religion, whatever else it may be, does not engender freedom. Religion is about obedience and acceptance. Sure, there are exceptions - Latin American liberation theology being a good example - but in the name we are taught that God must be obeyed, that the Pope is infallible (or since Vatican II, mostly infallible), that there is "one way" to Jesus.

So it is not surprising to find people rebelling against religion at the same time they are rebelling against every other source of authority in society. It is not surprising to see people search for alternative paths - the Beatles' experimentation with Transcendental Meditation is a classic example - or with no path at all.

Finally, there came an increasing awareness that prosperity in America was bought at the expense of suffering in the world, and that prosperity in middle and upper class America was bought at the expense of the working or unemployed poor.

As new media and new technology permeate our lives, there is a growing awareness of what could be as compared to what is. The privileged - and improving - lives of the few are no longer seen as some expression of social value and decency; it is seen for what it is: an often soulless disenfranchisement of those with less economic muscle and political clout.

Skyrocketing bank profits are seen as evidence not of good management but rather as proof of a back door into Washington; a bank failure is not viewed as an inestimable tragedy, but now more accurately as an expression of greed gone overboard. Currencies rise and currencies fall - leaving the unemployed in their wake - not because of essential market soundness, but because of foolish investments, speculative lending, and outright foolishness (I am thinking of Barclay's Bank, which collapsed because of ill-advised derivatives, but also of Centra Gas, which had the audacity to ask for rate increases in order to recoup its losses on the same market).

What religion bought us - and in this McDougall is right - is acceptance of all this. And were religion once again to become the dominant force in society, then with the exception of a few rebellious whiskey priests, we would once more return to our quiet servitude. This is why forces like the ACLU and Queer nation stand so diametrically opposed to religion: to endorse a theocratic government is to abandon the hope of freedom.

McDougall justifies his position in the words of the American Constitution and the wishes of the founding fathers. But i would suspect that such luminaries as Franklin, Jefferson and Paine would react in horror to the idea that government ought to take its place as the artifact of religion. And I suspect that those same august three would argue in favour of the same fundamental freedoms as fought for by the ACLU and its ilk.

The very freedom McDougall has to post his sincere and earnest plea is the freedom McDougall would sacrifice in his search for law and order. The very principles he is sworn to uphold are those principles he would abridge, and eventually, abrogate.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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