I'll argue later on with William Bennett about drugs in America. (He believes, because the overall numbers are down, that we're coming out of our fling with cocaine; I look at the population hardest hit by illicit drugs and see little improvement.)
But for now I want to say "amen" to what the federal drug policy chief said in a recent speech at the University of Notre Dame.
What he said is this: Many -- perhaps most -- of the problems that so worry us today are rooted not in institutional bigotry, governmental neglect, societal hardheartedness or disease, but in behavior. And their solution depends on our willingness to reassert the moral and ethical values of family, community and individual character.
His point is perfectly clear when you think about it. But too many of us refuse to think about it, preferring to focus on the surface similarities between now and earlier times, while neglecting critically important differences.
We see uneducated and under-educated minorities, neglected infants, despairing children, young men dying like dogs, and we are reminded of earlier periods of similar horror. But while earlier generations suffered at the hands of bigots, or lax law enforcement or such unmanageable medical problems as tuberculosis, smallpox or polio, today's grim maladies are generated largely by the disastrous behavior of their victims.
And too many of us cannot see the difference. For example, the KKK march scheduled here for Sunday will draw thousands of righteously indignant counter-demonstrators who have never marched a step against the drug merchants that plague our communities. Yet it is the traffic in drugs that has claimed the lives of hundreds of Washington's young men; the white-sheeted cowards who will attract our active opposition haven't killed (or even menaced) a soul in Washington.
As one report cited by Bennett put it, "never before has one generation of American teenagers been less healthy, less cared for or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age." For too many of our children, that is to say, things are slipping backward. But the culprit is neither the Klan nor lack of educational opportunities nor mysterious disease. The menace to our youth is personal behavior: excessive drinking, drug use, reckless sex and wanton violence: a cultural breakdown.
What can be done about it? Says Bennett:
"Cultural problems demand cultural solutions. ... We must speak and act on the family's behalf. Seek viable substitutes for the family when absolutely necessary but seek to sustain and fix the family first. The family, after all, is the original and best department of health, education and welfare."
In addition, he argues, we must reestablish as the mission of our homes and schools the development of sound character in our children.
"We've done a reasonably good job in recent years teaching our children the tender-hearted latitudinarian virtues like tolerance, understanding, self-esteem and sensitivity. And that's fine. But I believe we are still waffling on the need to teach the tougher-minded, resilient virtues, like self-discipline and self-control, individual and civic responsibility. Children need to recognize that they are more than mere observers in their own lives, that they must act for themselves and not simply be acted upon. That lesson cannot be conferred. It must be learned through effort; it must be earned."
The natural suspicion is that Bennett, after all a government executive, is seeking to get out from under the responsibilities of his office; to offer up family and community as scapegoats for his own failures. He denies it.
"We must develop a fair appreciation for the real strengths and limitations of government effort on behalf of children," he insists. "Government, obviously, cannot fill a child's emotional needs. Nor can it fill his spiritual or moral needs. Government is not a father or a mother. Government has never raised a child, and it never will."
And that makes sense. There are things the government can and must do when it comes to raising healthy and hopeful children, but government can never play more than an auxiliary role.
"Families, churches, schools and individuals are the primary agents and means" of instilling values in our children, he says. "Nothing more powerfully determines a child's behavior than his internal compass, his beliefs, his sense of right and wrong. If a child firmly believes, if he has been taught and guided to believe, that drugs, that promiscuity, that assaulting other people are wrong things to do, this will contribute to his own well-being and to the well-being of others.
"The character of a society is determined this way: by means of individual morality accruing social capital from generation to generation."
And that requires investment: not just in our children's education and physical health, but also in their moral development.