Will Our Media Moguls 'Do the Right Thing?'

Beyond simply obeying laws lies a commitment to public 'Manners' necessary for a society to thrive

IWANT to talk to you about the standards by which we measure the strength and quality of American life - the greatness of our civilization. Seventy-five years ago, John Fletcher Moulton, Lord Moulton, a noted English judge, spoke on the subject of "Law and Manners." He divided human action into three domains. The first is the domain of law, "where," he said, "our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed." At the other extreme is the domain of free choice, "which," he said, "includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom." In between, Lord Moulton identified a domain in which our action is not determined by law but in which we are not free to behave in any way we choose. In this domain we act with greater or lesser freedom from constraint, through a sense of what is required by public spirit, to "good form" appropriate in a given situation.

Lord Moulton considered the area of action lying between law and pure personal preference to be "the domain of obedience to the unenforceable." This domain between law and free choice he called that of Manners. While it may include moral duty, social responsibility, and proper behavior, it extends beyond them to cover "all cases of doing right where there is no one to make you do it but yourself."

All of us can recognize at once that the middle land of Manners, as Moulton calls it, is threatened by two tendencies: On the one hand, there are those who wish to extend the realm of law to regulate everything. The Congress and the agencies that have mushroomed from its legislation exhibit this tendency to an alarming degree. On the other hand, there is the tendency to claim that anything not ruled by law is a matter of personal choice. This tendency can be seen in the relativism and unbridled hedonism voiced in our schools, universities, newspapers, movies, and on television.

Both the domains of law and free choice threaten to encroach upon the middle domain of Manners. Moulton's central point, one of capital importance, is that "The real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of obedience to the unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its area testifies to the way they behave in response to that trust."

In America today the domains of choice and of law have eroded the domain of manners. And the consequent weakening of the central domain has resulted in a diminution of the authority and effectiveness of the law. Indictments [for law-breaking] number only a small fraction of the crimes committed; convictions only a fraction of the indictments; punishments, except in the case of first-degree murder, typically light - a few years, probation, suspended sentence or community service. Even fines are rarely collected.

Standards in the profession of law have eroded, as lawyers, judges, and juries have become less obedient to the unenforceable. Judges have accommodated to the delays and improper importunings of counsel by frequently excluding from jury duty persons of education and professional and business competence, leaving jury panels composed of the relatively inexperienced and uneducated to try civil cases of great complexity. In criminal cases, worthy jury men and women are rejected by lawyers concerned not to impanel a jury of 12 good persons and true, representing a cross-section of the community, but a carefully selected jury of persons most likely to respond sympathetically to their side. Impaneling a jury in a murder case, which takes no more than an hour in England, takes weeks in the United States. American trials now drag on endlessly, making jury duty a burden beyond the means or endurance of most individuals.

The O.J. Simpson trial, if held at the Old Bailey, would have taken a few weeks. It is now the reductio ad absurdum of our system of criminal justice, a bonanza for broadcasters who are provided a year-long soap opera without the expense of producers, writers, actors, or directors. Even more alarming than the comedy of the courts is the tragedy of the streets: the random violence, the children killed in drive-by shootings by persons they have never met, the acts of terrorism which demonstrate the inability of a sovereign nation to protect the lives and property of its citizens.

We cannot end this state of violence and restore the authority of law simply by getting tough on crime, by relying on the police power of the state, or by calling for capital punishment.

Authority and civil order depend in a significant measure on the consent of the governed, that is, on obedience to the unenforceable. The more civilized and enlightened the country, the greater its dependence on the voluntary respect and support of its citizens for law and civil order. The rule of law depends upon the morality of the people.

We must not attribute all our social ills to a single cause, however, for the causes are many. If families had not broken up, if churches had not lost much of their influence, if there had not been an extensive spread of secularism and materialism, if the quality of our schools had not declined despite substantial increases in financial support, if drugs had not become easily available, if some or all of these factors had not been present, we might have withstood the degenerative effects of television and its indiscriminate advocacy of pleasure.

Television is the most important educational institution in the US today. Since the beginning of human history mankind has known what Aristotle later set down as the fundamental fact about education, that we learn by imitation. Imitation is the dynamic of all education. Nevertheless, if the influence of television and films were countered by a strong family, a first-rate educational system, or good job opportunities in inner cities, the impact of television would be far less significant and perhaps even negligible.

It has not had an equal influence on all children by any means. Children from strong homes, children attending vital churches and deeply nurtured in religious traditions, children who have developed sound study habits and who in consequence have little time for television, children who have developed a moral center to guide their choice seem remarkably immune. I do not advocate altering the First Amendment, nor do I advocate congressional limits on what television stations can program. But isn't it time for those who own television stations and networks and those who own motion picture companies that supply material for television to demonstrate their obedience to the unenforceable? The moguls of television and movies should recognize that they are contributing directly to the erosion, not only of morals and manners, but of the rule of law itself.

If the television and the entertainment industries do not control themselves in obedience to the unenforceable, we shall reach the point in the not too distant future where programming on television threatens the life of the Republic. But will the American people recognize that it poses a clear and present danger calling for decisive, corrective action? There is still time for self-correction. But those with positions of responsibility in these industries should understand that we cannot continue indefinitely to tolerate their trashing of our and our children's sensibilities without endangering our survival. The barbarians television has nurtured and continues to nurture are not at our gates but in our midst.

We face a crisis of the spirit. Its resolution far transcends the power of the state; it is too important, too far-reaching, to be resolved by mere governmental action. Rather, it lies within the grasp of each of us. [Control over ourselves] will never come to pass, however, without faith in the importance of honor and truth and in the essential role of duty and obligation in our lives. What we are, what we do, and thereby what we become depends heavily on what we believe about ourselves.

Are we Edwin Markham's man with a hoe, "A thing that grieves not and that never hopes/ stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?" Or are we not rather "... the Thing the Lord God made and gave/ To have dominion over sea and land;/ To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;/ To feel the passion of Eternity?"

The crisis that will confront graduating classes for years to come lies not in the state or in the stars, but in ourselves.

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