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When it’s no country for old men

Once we decide we don't need to give up our bus seats, the societal safety lock’s already off

MARK STEYN December 10 2007
THE BACK PAGES

When it’s no country for old men

Once we decide we don't need to give up our bus seats, the societal safety lock’s already off

MARK STEYN December 10 2007

When it’s no country for old men

Once we decide we don't need to give up our bus seats, the societal safety lock’s already off

MARK STEYN

steyn

One of my all-time favourite observations on Canada’s brave new Trudeaupia came from the great George Jonas, apropos the good old days when the Mounties’ livelier lads were illegally burning down the barns of Quebec separatists. With his usual glibness Pierre Trudeau blithely responded that if people were upset by the RCMP’s illegal barn-burning, perhaps he’d make it legal for the RCMP to burn barns. As Jonas observed, M. Trudeau had missed the point: barn-burning wasn’t wrong because it was illegal; it was illegal because it was wrong.

That’s an important distinction, and not just for the Royal Canadian Taser Police. Once it’s no longer accepted that something is wrong all the laws in the world will avail you nought. The law functions as formal expression of a moral code, not as free-standing substitute for it. Last year, on a trolley car in London, a 96-year-old man was punched in the face and blinded in one eye. His 44-yearold attacker had boarded the crowded tram, tried to push past Mr. Chaudhury in the aisle and become enraged by the nonagenarian’s insufficient haste in moving out of the way. “You bastard!” he snarled, and slugged him. A month ago, Stephen Gordon was sentenced by Croydon Crown Court to three years’ probation, which means he’ll have to endure weekly chit-chats with a municipal functionary, assuming he bothers turning up for his appointments. Mr. Gordon was seen to smirk as he left court, notwithstanding the mental health issues entered in mitigation.

Much of the commentary concerned the leniency of the sentence. But consider George Jonas’s dictum: beating up a 96-year-old isn’t

wrong because it’s illegal; it’s illegal because it’s wrong. And, if a citizen of an advanced Western social democracy no longer knows it’s wrong, the laws are unlikely to prove much restraint. British society has come to depend on CCTVs—closed-circuit cameras in every public building, every shopping centre, every street, even (in some remote rural locales) on the trees. According to Theodore Dalrymple, England’s greatest living pessimist, the British are second only to the North Koreans as the most monitored population on the planet; Britain is said to be

home to a third of all the world’s CCTVs; in the course of an average day, the average Briton is estimated to be filmed approximately 300 times. Etc. So naturally the Croydon trolley had a camera, and it captured in vivid close-up the perpetrator attacking his victim. And a fat lot of good the video evidence did Mr. Chaudhury.

Look at it from the attacker’s point of view: why not beat up old people? Let’s face it, they’re a pain in the neck, clogging up escalators, revolving doors, sidewalks. You’re in a hurry, you’ve got places to go, people to see, and there’s always some old coot or withered biddy shuffling, shuffling, shuffling in front of you at 10 paces an hour. In Britain, in Canada, in Europe, in Japan, in China, the population is aging fast. So, if you think there are too many codgers taking 20 minutes to board the bus right now, just wait a couple of decades. Suppose five per cent of young men get irked at being delayed by geezers.

LOOK AT IT FROM THE ATTACKER’S POINT OF VIEW: WHY NOT BEAT UP OLD PEOPLE?

LET’S FACE IT, THEY’RE A PAIN IN THE NECK.

What restrains them from making grampawhacking merely the latest normalized pathology? A functioning civilization is like an iceberg: the unseen seven-eighths of codes and assumptions is the accumulated inheritance, the wisdom of the ages. Once it’s gone, what’s left just bobs around on the surface. Take a walk round any downtown or suburban mall and see it as Mr. Chaudhury’s attacker did: what’s to stop you?

Men in a hurry are not to be disrespected. On CNN a week or two back, a reporter in Philadelphia, the murder capital of America, was interviewing the grieving mother of a young black boy killed while riding his bicycle in the residential street outside his home.

Apparently, a couple of cars had got backed up behind him, and a tetchy passenger in one of them pulled out a gun and shot the kid dead. Inevitably, CNN followed this with a report on how easy it is to buy guns in Philadelphia and how local politicians are reluctant to do anything about it. This is an argument only the experts could make: in the 1990s, the number of firearms in America went up by 40 million but the murder rate fell dramatically. If gun ownership were the determining factor, Vermont and Switzerland would have high murder rates. Yet in Montpelier or Geneva, the solution to a boy carelessly bicycling in front of you down a city thoroughfare when you’re in a hurry is not to grab your piece and blow the moppet away. Once a relatively small chunk of the populace has decided it’s okay with offing grade-school scamps, “gun control” isn’t going to cut it: the societal safety lock is off.

But guns, sentencing, CCTV surveillance ... that’s how we expect to talk about these issues. Yet that wasn’t what caught my eye about the story. In a statement to the court,

the victim “said he had been standing in the aisle of the tram because nobody would give up their seat for him.”

Let us give his fellow passengers the benefit of the doubt and assume he was an unusually spry and vigorous 96-year-old. Nevertheless, he relied on two walking sticks. How can it be that, prior to his encounter with his attacker, not one of the other fortysomethings in the car thought to offer his seat?

Because that, too, is one of those codes and assumptions we’re no longer agreed upon. Back when Mr. Chaudhury was merely in early middle age, there was a big hit movie called Meet Me In St. Louis, set at the time of the 1904 World’s Fair. It had a famous song about public transit:

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley Ding, ding, ding went the bell...

Well, that part hasn’t changed much. But how about this?

He tipped his hat And took a seat

He said he hoped he hadn’t stepped upon my feet...

Ah, if only.

He crushed my hat And punched my head He said he hoped he wouldn’t have to leave me dead.

If you’re Shah Chaudhury, the 1904 World’s Fair isn’t that long ago: it’s six years before he was born. But even those who wear hats no longer tip them. And in the public conveyances of Toronto and London and Paris, young fit men sprawl across the seats while pregnant women and shopping-laden spinsters and nonagenarians with two bad legs straphang down the line. Our acceptance of that is a small blow to civilized life which enables the larger ones, literally so on that Croydon tram but psychologically so in a thousand other instances.

England is a sad case study because it managed to spare itself all the most obviously malign infections of the age, beginning with

fascism and Communism. But the statistics speak for themselves. The number of indictable offences per thousand people was 2.4 in 1900, climbed gradually to 9.7 in 1954, and then rocketed to 109.4 in 1992. Most crime goes unreported, and most reported crime goes unsolved. Yet the law-breaking is merely a symptom of a larger rupture. “It is my biased opinion,” declared Alan Jay Lerner, writer of Gigi, Camelot and My Fair Lady, “that British society is the most civilized on the planet earth.” Heigh-ho, he’s just a sentimental Yankee anglophile. But, recalling his own hometown, John O’Sullivan, one of the founding editors at the National Post, said that when his grandmother ran a pub in the Liverpool docklands in the years around the First World War, there was only one occasion when someone swore in her presence. And he subsequently apologized.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L. P. Hartley in his famous opening sentence to The GoBetween. But to read how the English themselves wrote of England the day before yesterday is to visit not a foreign country but an alternative universe. In Exploring English Character, published in 1955, the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer analyzed his country thus: “When we think of our faults, we put first, and by a long way, any lapse from our standards of non-aggression, bad temper, nagging, swearing and the like. Public life is more gentle than that reported for any society of comparable size and industrial complexity.” The past is not just a foreign country but a lost civilization.

“A society’s first line of defence is not the law but customs, traditions and moral values ,” wrote Walter Williams of George Mason University recently. “They include important thou-shalt-nots such as shalt not murder, shalt not steal, shalt not lie and cheat, but they also include all those courtesies one might call ladylike and gentlemanly conduct. Policemen and laws can never replace these

restraints on personal conduct.”

“Restraint” is an unfashionable concept these days. I was lunching with an elderly chap in the early stages of dementia recently. He’s someone who in all the years I’ve known him has never used any vulgar language in public or private, but the waitress’s generous embonpoint caught his eye and he said to me (and half the restaurant) with all the blithe insouciance with which one might remark on the weather or the traffic, “I like big tits, don’t you?” Dementia removes inhibition, and so your private thoughts are now publicly expressed. Society at large has lost its inhibitions: whether that is a symptom of civilizational dementia will be for future generations to judge. M