David Klinghoffer is worried about “the atmosphere of secularism” that “rains down like nuclear fallout, spreading contamination” and offers the Ten Commandments as a “desperately needed diagnostic tool” to combat it. In Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril, Klinghoffer uses his city of Seattle as a snapshot of a ailing culture in need of a back-to-spiritual basics retreat. Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and former literary editor at National Review, recently took questions about the book, his city, and our culture from National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s so sick about Seattle?
David Klinghoffer: Imagine secularism as a religion without a deity. You could hardly find a city more pious in its secularism than Seattle. That’s why I use the Pacific Northwest, where just 30 percent of the people are religiously affiliated, as a case study. I ask what happens to a culture when it detaches ideas about right and wrong from any grounding in a belief in God. The answer is, you get a place like this where, for example, people can’t explain why murder is wrong. My friend Dan Sytman did a series of street interviews on this. Sample reply from a guy standing outside the Federal Building: “Good and evil and right and wrong are simply another way of saying ‘like’ and ‘don’t like.’ So I say, when you ask me about murder, I would say ‘I don’t like murder.’”
Lopez: Is it sicker than New York City, where you previously lived?
Klinghoffer: Yes, isn’t that amazing? I lived in New York under Dinkins and Giuliani, so I saw the moment when New Yorkers got fed up with the rule of the street by the Youths, that wonderful euphemism. In Seattle, the city government — an extension of the citizens — doesn’t believe it has a moral right to clean up the street outside the building where I work. It’s right smack in the middle of the top tourist district but it’s a gathering place of all the city’s scariest Youths, along with meth addicts, crack dealers, stumbling drunks, crazy people, and so on. This neighborhood, in terms of tourist traffic, is the New York equivalent of that stretch of Fifth Avenue from St. Patrick’s up to the museums. New York would never tolerate letting that corridor become the way Seattle’s Pike and Pine Streets are.
Lopez: What could the Ten Commandments do for Seattle?
Klinghoffer: Primarily, teach us how to order moral priorities.
Here’s a vignette of Seattle. The other morning an work-colleague of mine got off the bus at 8:15 — in the A.M., mind you. This was a couple of blocks from our office. First thing she saw was a couple having sex against the side of a fountain across from Westlake Center. She then walked a few feet and saw a huge, shaven-headed, tattoo-covered guy screaming at and threatening a man who was holding a briefcase. She walked a few more steps, and saw a cop. What was the cop doing? Writing out a parking ticket.
Lopez: On that point, explain your statement: “If you want to gauge the moral health of a society, look at its policemen.”
Klinghoffer: The Ten Commandments explain the basis for the authority we need to see, but increasingly don’t find, in politicians, parents, and police. It used to be that these people felt infused with an authority that came from a source much greater than themselves, greater than the government, greater than people. I mean God. The Chinese phrase for this is, “the mandate of Heaven.” In a secularized culture, authority figures such as cops lack confidence in their authority. It’s like a magical spell has been broken. People don’t listen to them, at least not the people who really need to be listening — the bad guys. That’s what you find in Seattle, and elsewhere too of course.
Lopez: What’s “moralesque”?
Klinghoffer: A burlesque of morality. No society can do without a code of rules to live by. It’s our nature. So when they turn away from the ancient code of the Bible, a substitute needs to be found. That’s the code of moralesque. It makes things like health and diet — which traditionally would have been left to personal discretion — into these very, very heavy moral commandments. Being fat isn’t just unwise. It’s a moral offense. Same for smoking, drinking, etc. This is the Purell culture, the peanut-free school culture. Health becomes a substitute theater of moral action, taking the place of the things that really matter.
Lopez: What’s the point of a First Commandment protest rally?
Klinghoffer: Oh, I attended one, though it wasn’t spoken of explicitly. It was a rally for Richard Dawkins, the atheist Darwinist bestseller guy, at Seattle’s town hall. The First Commandment — “I am the Lord your God…” — really sticks in the craw of materialists like Dawkins, much more so than any other of the Ten Commandments. Everyone was bundled in flannel and they were applauding him for applauding them for being such a bunch of sophisticated geniuses who can explain the existence of everything in the universe in purely material terms. This is what Darwinism, a sort of secular religion, is all about. The First Commandment is the focus of the conflict between secular dogma and the more open-minded view that’s willing to entertain the possibility that God’s hand may really have left evidence of His work in the heavens, in our bodies.
Lopez: What happened to Jason Gilson?
Klinghoffer: Gilson is the disabled 23-year-old Iraq veteran who was booed and called a “murderer” by a rabid liberal crowd at a Fourth of July parade on Bainbridge Island, an affluent Seattle suburb directly across Puget Sound. So you see what meaning that word has for some Seattlites. For whatever it’s worth, the mayor of Bainbridge subsequently apologized.
Lopez: What could the Ten Commandments do for Britney Spears?