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The barbarians among us


(RNS) I love the cartoon that shows a hapless customer in a bookstore facing three shelves. One is labeled FICTION. The next is NONFICTION. The third: NOT SURE.

Everything these days is relative, even fiction. Consider the recent case of the lobsterless lobster salad at New York’s famed Zabar’s food emporium.

It turns out that for 15 years, Zabar’s has been selling lobster salad that contains no actual lobster – and getting $16.95 a pound for it!

Doug MacCash, a reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, made the discovery while on vacation in Manhattan. As a good Louisianan, he could tell the difference between lobster and crawfish when he took a bite of his lobster salad on a bagel.

The resulting fracas hasn’t stopped Saul Zabar, the 83-year-old president and co-owner of Zabar’s, from mounting a spirited defense, however. Selling lobsterless lobster salad, he told The New York Times, is not dishonest.

Our society is unraveling partly because we have abandoned the virtues that produce noble lives. We do not treat others as we wish to be treated.

On a more serious note, evangelical culture critic Chuck Colson attributed the recent riots in the U.K. to relativism, calling it the “attack of the feral children.” He quotes British historian and journalist Max Hastings, who said rioters and looters “have no moral compass to make them susceptible to guilt or shame.”

It’s hard to disagree that we are witnessing a widespread deterioration of common moral decency, and that it is fueled (in part) by a zeitgeist of self-interest and radical individualism in a Western world that has abandoned the idea of absolute truth.

British Prime Minister David Cameron took a more balanced approach, attributing the recent rioting to a moral failure of the powerful for not addressing the issues of the powerless. The rioters, too, he said, had not protested within the bounds of the law and basic human decency.

We have lost our common moral ground; at times, too many of us look more than a little barbaric. It’s worth remembering that ancient civilizations viewed the pursuit of common virtues as the path out of barbarism.

Too often, I fear, we’re headed the other way.

The Hebrews aimed for the righteous life and defined it as being right with God and right with your fellow humans. Later, Jesus boiled the law down to this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart ... and love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Greeks saw a virtuous citizenry as the bedrock of a democratic republic. “The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts,” the philosopher Heraclitus warned. “Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day.”

The Apostle Paul, following the Greek maxim that you are what you think, advised first-century Christians: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

Closer to home, George Washington organized his life around 110 rules he wrote in a little book called “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” They were based on lists made by French Jesuits in 1595.

Our society is unraveling partly because we have abandoned the virtues that produce noble lives. We do not treat others as we wish to be treated. That’s true for the rich who lack concern for the poor, and the powerless who take the law into their own hands.

When a society abandons the common good for radical self-ism, the result is the decline of that civilization.


Dick Staub is author of “About You: Fully Human, Fully Alive” and the host of The Kindlings Muse ( His blog can be read at