[This article appeared in the September/October 1993 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 16-22.]  


America’s Civilizational Crisis: The Rise of Internal Barbarism 

Dwight D. Murphey

            The newspapers are full of it—gang warfare, drive-by shootings, fatal carjackings, out-of-wedlock births, welfare and unemployment fraud, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, drug abuse, crack babies, declining educational attainment, the breakdown of family structures.  The list goes on endlessly.  In this article, Professor Murphey observes that it is time we thought of these things not merely as a series of separate problems, but as a larger, more generalized phenomenon—the rise of internal barbarism.  And it is time, he says, for Americans to come to grips with it through a realistic understanding of its causes and potential cures.


            This past Fourth of July, my wife and I and some friends drove to a spot two miles north of the giant fireworks display that is put on annually at Wichita’s Cessna Stadium.  From there, we saw all of the dazzling color at a distance.  We lost out on much of the awe-inspiring effect, but preferred that to becoming entangled in parking and traffic problems.

            As it turned out, there was an additional reason to avoid a large crowd.  When the show was over and thousands of people streamed out of the stadium to find their cars, a member of one of Wichita’s many gangs started shooting at another.  A reputed gang member was killed—and so, too, was a 53-year-old woman, a person totally separate from the gangs, whose last conscious act was that of helping a disabled friend walk back toward the parking lot.

            This killing has had a searing effect in Wichita.  Many such deaths have a remote quality about them, amounting in our consciousness to nothing more than another stranger’s being struck down by the great anonymous wash of violence that is “out there.”  But not this one.  It told hundreds of thousands of people just how close the horror has come.  It means that the flood of barbarism is lapping at all our doors.  The bullet that killed Barbara Gragg could just as well have killed any of us.

            It would be comforting to think of Barbara Gragg’s death as an isolated phenomenon, or even to think of “gang shootings” more generally as a generic sort of problem in itself.  In many ways, that is precisely what we do: The criminal justice system will treat her death as an individual case, prosecuting her killer if it can identify him; and much discussion is going on about how to combat gangs.

            But these things are more than specific incidents or even classes of incidents.  They are part of a general disintegration of the cement of our civilization.  Put together with a great many other facts about contemporary life, they take on a vastly broader dimension: it is not too much to say that America has been experiencing the rise of internal barbarism.

            In this article I will discuss the causes of this long-festering and now burgeoning barbarism, and will offer some suggestions as to what we should do about it.  But, first, we must review some of the specifics.  Many people still don’t understand that the widely varying details of the barbarism relate to a whole.  They see each separately, and just don’t perceive them as comprising a seamless web of civilizational decay.

            Most people refuse to think in terms of long-term cause and effect.  It is more comfortable simply to accept what is, and to consider the “worrier” as a mere ideologue or some sort of neurotic.  Most of the professionals around whom I’ve worked, in law and in academia, have been oblivious to the things that have concerned conservatives.

            There are other reasons, too, that the decadence isn’t generally perceived as such.  The fact that it is a human phenomenon has as an unavoidable corollary the further fact that many of our contemporaries either embody or embrace some aspects of it.  In order fully to understand the problem, they must come to grips with their own lives.  In part, for example, the rise in barbarism is a result of the disintegration of the family, itself the result of still other factors.  But do young couples who live together without benefit of marriage, or who give birth to a child out of wedlock, or who place themselves in welfare dependency through their self-destructive conduct, see themselves as part of a civilizational problem?  No, they just don’t think of their own behavior in those terms.

            Before citing specifics, it is worth noting that some of the particulars relate to concentrated centers of barbarism and others to our national life in general.  It is easy to spot the barbarism as it exists within the major pockets that have come into being; but it is manifested, too, in an overall decline. 

Some Specifics…

            Here is a representative sample of conditions and events, taken from recent press clippings, that illustrate the problem:

            1.  Violent crime.  The annual FBI study entitled “Crime in the United States, 1991” reported that in that year violent crime continued to grow rapidly.  The 1.9 million violent crimes that were reported constituted a five percent increase over the prior year—and a 45 percent increase over 1982.  A growing number of young people between 10 and 17 were arrested for crimes ranging from murder to rape, robbery, drug abuse and weapons violations.

            In part, this occurred among whites, but to a very large extent it was a black phenomenon, with a 145 percent increase.  For white juveniles, there was a 251 percent increase in heroin and cocaine arrests; for blacks, a 2,373 percent increase.

            A study by a University of Pennsylvania professor, based on arrest records of men born in Philadelphia between 1945 and 1958, found that two-thirds of violent crime is committed by a mere seven percent of those arrested.  This seven percent produces three-fourths of the rape and robbery—and virtually all of the murder.  The Rand Corp. has called these the “superfelons.”  If all of them were incarcerated between 16 and 30, a massive reduction in crime would occur—but it would require another 1,000,000 prison beds.

            2.  Carjacking deaths.  A news report in September 1992 tells of killings in Los Angeles, New York City and Maryland in which “carjackers” have shot and killed drivers to steal their cars right out from under them.  Car theft rose 23 percent in the five years from 1987 through 1991, and “carjacking”—unheard of until recently—has come to amount o two percent of the total.

            3.  Drugs.  The use of cocaine started to drop in 1986, but in early 1993 a federally-funded survey conducted by the University of Michigan found that eighth-graders are increasingly getting into drugs of all kinds, including marijuana, cocaine, LSD and inhalants.  11.2 percent of these 13 and 14-year-olds said they had tried marijuana.

            4.  Crack babies.  The figure is a little dated now, but in 1989 the United States Attorney for Kansas wrote a letter to Wichita’s leading newspaper telling of “200,000 babies born in the United States who are affected by cocaine and crack cocaine.”

            5.  Shoplifting rampage.  It is worthwhile to leave statistics occasionally to see the stark reality of individual cases.  One of the most ludicrous episodes occurred when the Texas Southern University “Ocean of Soul Marching Band” went to Tokyo to participate in the halftime ceremonies at the December 6, 1992, football game between Kansas State University and the University of Nebraska.  Just before the band was to fly back to the United States, its members were taken shopping at an electronics mall.  Approximately $22,000 worth of electronics products was shoplifted.  Japanese police didn’t allow the group to leave until the goods were handed out of the buses.  “One by one,” a police official said, “about 100 products were passed to the back doors of the buses.”  Back in the States, the University wound up abolishing its band program.

            6.  The Magic Johnson example.  Before we move on to the statistics about sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, and the number of children born out of wedlock, it’s worth noting excerpts cited in the press last November from Magic Johnson’s book My Life: “As long as nobody gets hurt, what’s wrong with sex between unmarried adults?... Just about every time our bus brought us back to our hotel,” he wrote, “there would be 40 or 50 women waiting in the lobby… Some were secretaries.  Some were lawyers.  Quite a few were actresses and models.  Others were teachers, editors, accountants or entrepreneurs… Most of these women were college-educated professionals… Every day, hundreds of perfumed letters arrived… Some of the mail got pretty explicit.”

            Our now non-judgmental vocabulary has dropped the word “whore.”  It is easy to see why.  Such a moral epithet made sense when the word applied to a limited class of women.  If Magic Johnson’s narrative is to be believed, however, that behavior has become so common that there is no longer a limited class of people to whom it applies.  What are we to think of the lawyers, teachers, editors and models he describes?  What are we to think of him?

            7.  Sexually transmitted diseases.  Reports are that three million American teenagers contract venereal diseases—now called “sexually transmitted diseases”—every year.  Syphilis is at its highest level in 40 years, with 134,000 new cases annually.  There are now 500,000 new genital herpes cases annually, cumulatively infecting an estimated 25 million Americans.  Add to this a total of 24 million cases of human papilloma virus (HPV) and 1.3 million new cases of gonorrhea every twelve months.

            8.  AIDS deaths.  The estimate in early 1993 was that, by 1995, 330,000 Americans will have died of AIDS, and about one million carry the HIV virus.  A hopeful report is that AIDS seems to be remaining centered in “socially marginalized groups” and isn’t spreading as quickly into the heterosexual, non-drug-using population as once anticipated.

            In July 1993, the Clinton administration proposed spending $2.7 billion in the next fiscal year on all aspects of AIDS.  This represents a 28 percent increase over the prior year.

            9.  Children out of wedlock.  In excess of one million babies are born out of wedlock in the United States every year.  This is an enormous problem within the black community, where 65 percent of the babies are illegitimate (as much as 80 percent in certain cities).  It is worth noting, however, that more than half of the million babies are born to white mothers.

            There is a strong connection between out-of-wedlock births, low birthweight, high infant mortality, and poverty.  A January 1992 article by Nicholas Eberstadt in the Wall Street Journal reported that “infant mortality in 1988 was two-fifths higher for blacks than for babies born in Puerto Rico… Among blacks, the incidence of low birthweight is not only higher than that of virtually any other Western population but also twice as high as that of U.S. whites.  Yet the incidence among U.S. whites is high as well—nearly twice that of Norway.

            10.  Black disintegration.  Although there has been a growing black professional class, much of the rest of the black community is a “disaster area” so far as the disintegration of civilized values is concerned.

            William Bennett observed last year in the Wall Street Journal that the “Great Society [is] now well into its third decade—at the cost of more than $2.5 trillion.”  Despite (or arguably because of) this historically unprecedented effort, “blacks comprise almost half of the prison population.  The homicide rate for black males aged 15 to 24 has increased by 40 percent since the mid-1980s… Forty percent of those murdered in the U.S. are black men killed by other black men.”

            Charles Murray pointed out three years ago that even during the economic boom of the 1980s, 37 percent of young blacks stayed out of the labor market.  “What are they doing?,” he asked.  “While they are out of the labor force, they survive off relatives, girlfriends, hustles, maybe drugs or crime.  What they aren’t doing is saving for the future, marrying the women they get pregnant, supporting the children they father.  Neither are they acquiring the job skills….”

            This is a matter of grave concern to the excellent circle of black conservatives whose writings appear in, say, the Issues & Views journal.  They ascribe that deterioration to the disincentives of the welfare state itself and to the “blame white society” attitudes inculcated by the sort of “leadership” that has prevailed, in league with the American Left, among blacks.

            11.  Crumbling families.  The disintegration of family structure has by no means been limited to the black minority.  A representative of the Wichita School District reported in 1986 that “the largest number of women in U.S. history—67 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 34—are in the labor force.”  He said that “marching along with these couples are young single-parent families maintained chiefly by women” and that “the number of divorced mothers more than doubled between 1970 and 1982.”

            There is a direct correlation between unmarried parentage and poverty.  An article by Robert Rector in the Washington Times in September 1992 told how “the poverty rate for married-couple families was just 5.6 percent [in 1990].  For married couples with a full-time worker it was just two percent.  By contrast, the poverty rate of female-headed families was a staggering 32.2 percent.”  He pointed out that “in 1959, 28 percent of poor families with children were headed by women.  Last year, 60 percent… were headed by single mothers.”

            12.  Astronomical increase in spending on “the poor.”  A recent chart prepared by John Cogan of the Hoover Institution shows that, in constant 1989 dollars, governmental expenditures for the poor increased from approximately $18 billion in 1962 to $140 billion in 1991.

            13.  Declining academic achievement.  Michael Novak, in a 1990 Forbes magazine article, tells us that “hardly a day goes by without some test showing how incompetent our youngsters are in math, geography, history, politics—or almost anything worthwhile… This dumbing down is not for want of opportunity, years in school, money for books, travel and massive exposure to the media.”

            14.  Loss of integrity.  Honesty and personal integrity have little appeal to a major portion of American society.  A February 2, 1992, report in the Wichita Eagle observed that “critics say that fraud has been an important force in pushing up the premiums Americans have to pay for auto insurance, from $40 billion to $100 billions since 1980.”  The article points to “fraudulent claims—everything from reporting accidents that never happened, to exaggerated car damage to faked injuries.”  “In Massachusetts, the insurance commissioner estimates that fraud and abuse account for as much as 40 percent of auto insurance claims.  The insurance industry has long estimated fraud at 10 percent of auto claims filed.  On Long Island, N.Y., Nassau County police have concluded that 50 percent to 60 percent of the hundreds of people who report their cars stolen from the Green Acres shopping mall… have actually abandoned or destroyed them for the insurance money.”

            The manifestations of barbarism are all around us.  They reflect a spiritual condition in which millions of people see nothing beyond their own immediate urges, and feel themselves a part of no common morality.

            It is a problem of the “underclass,” black and otherwise; but it goes much further, too.  I am reminded of a case told about on television a few nights ago: An agricultural employer hired illegal immigrants to do farm labor, but without health insurance; when one of the workers developed a health problem, he ran up a $50,000 unpaid medical bill at a local hospital.  No doubt all of us who do pay our medical bills and do have medical insurance are picking up the tab for that $50,000.  But do you suppose that farm employer cares?

            The honest American stands, in effect, like a giant oak covered by parasitical, life-sucking vines.  Add up the fraud, the passed-along costs such as the medical bill, the enormous volume of shoplifting and the equally voluminous employee theft, and what do we have?—a vast incubus on the backs of productive people.

            15.  Why our civilization endures.  This recital of barbarism is not intended to suggest that there are not millions of people who are honest, responsible, hard-working and productive.  Indeed, it is due to them that we are able to go on as a civilization at all.  

The Causes: An Analysis

            The Left’s misdirected analysis.  One of the causes of this civilizational disintegration lies in the fact that there are so many wrong-headed analyses of its causes and of what should be done to correct it.  The Left, and all those among our “educated public” who so glibly parrot its ideas, generally blame it on defects in the mainstream of society, and call for ever-increasing intervention and therapies as a “cure.”

            Thus, in the article from which I have quoted in which a representative of the Wichita Public Schools gave the details of the chaos of the family system, the author concluded by calling for more daycare, more Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), more preschool programs.

            Along the same lines, the prescription for school children who are “sexually active” is to give them condoms; for drug addicts who are threatened by AIDS, to give them “clean needles.”  The greater the pathology, the more the remedies of the therapeutic state are called for.

            A penetrating column by Mike Royko on April, 6, 1993, saw through to the core of it: He said that the Clinton administration had noted that many pre-schoolers aren’t immunized, and accordingly wants to furnish free vaccine to all children, apparently in the belief that parents are presently deterred by the high cost of vaccinations.  Royko pointed to a surprising fact: “In Chicago, low-income children can get the shots free at city clinics.  In fact, they might not even have to go to clinics because medical vans go into low-income areas and offer curbside immunization service.”  The fact that so many children aren’t immunized has nothing to do with a lack of free vaccine, he said; it is due to the stupidity of their parents.

            A 1989 article by Warren T. Brookes in Human Events observed that “if sheer amount of social spending were the key to urban harmony and well-being, Washington would be the Eden of western democracy.  Instead, it is one of its most dismal swamps.”  Among the facts he cited: that the District of Columbia spends almost $5,800 annually for each pupil in the public schools, almost half again as much as the national average; that it pays teachers an average of $35,000 per year; “yet its drop-out rate is the worst in the nation and its SAT scores are third from bottom.”  Washington D. C. spends more than twice the national average on health care, but produces an infant mortality rate “30 percent higher than in the rural South.”  More than two-and-a-half times the national average is spent on welfare and food stamps, but still poverty remains far above the rest of the country.

            A conservative’s analysis: summary.  In the discussion that follows, I will point to several specific causes, but first it is worth noting that there is a common underpinning that ties virtually all of them together.  Our civilization’s plight has not been brought about by a coincidental arrival, simultaneously, of many unrelated causes.  There is a connection.

            I have said it before: For a century-and-three-quarters, the predominant intellectual culture of Europe and America has propounded a deep sense of alienation against the middle class, and has excoriated, not simply its faults, but most especially its virtues—responsibility, independence, hard work, devotion to family and community.  The average American may not know that these values have been sneered at—in which case I would recommend his reading Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt or George Bernard Shaw’s Candide, just part of an enormous literature demonstrating this problem.

            At the same time, the alienated intellectual culture, lacking numerical power in itself, has sought an ideological-political alliance with every disaffected group.  This, in turn, has molded the content of its ideology: millions of people have been seen as entrapped and exploited, have been held to have little or no responsibility for their own lives in what is described as an overwhelmingly deterministic existence, and have been promised assistance in their “plight” from the state (which to the Left is seen as the instrument of its ideology).

            This fundamental dislocation—the failure of modern bourgeois civilization to have an intellectual culture appropriate to itself—has been manifest for a long time.  The cumulative effects permeate our national life.

            “Entitlement.”  The basic orientation of millions of people in America today is to expect life to come to them.  Although there is necessarily some hyperbole in describing people in categorical terms, they are takers, not givers.  As Jose Ortega y Gasset made clear about so many Europeans in the 1920s, such people are ready to accept—indeed, to demand—all that is possible within an advanced civilization, but they place few, if any, duties upon themselves.  It is worth noting, too, as Ortega did, that such people are quite ready to make force the first, perhaps even the only, resort, reversing the desire of civilized society to make it a last resort.

            Among the affluent, when it occurs, this mentality takes the form of “spoiledness.”  Those infected see the possibilities, expect immediate gratification, blame others if the gratification is not forthcoming, and throw a tantrum either to get their way or to make others feel guilty for depriving them.  The difference between this and constructive ambition lies in the blaming of others and the willingness to use tantrum-like (less than fully civilized and constructive) methods.  This state of mind describes the millions of “gimme” types we see around us, pounding the walls of our homes with their boom-boxes, throwing their expended cups on the parkway, bearing down on our rear bumpers to show us how little right we have to occupy the same roadway with them.

            For others, it reflects directly the Left’s pandering ideology, which offers excuses for every sort of human dereliction.  A wonderful thing is that so many of the “downtrodden” don’t succumb to it; historically, in one situation after another, the intellectual culture has had a hard time getting “the masses” to embrace its view of them.

            The political ramifications of this mentality are easy to see.  Only in part is the welfare state a response to genuine human needs in a free society; more than anything else, it is the institutionalized expression of this inner spiritual condition.

            Welfare system disincentives and dependency.  By now, it is clear that the trillions of dollars that have been spent have been counter-productive.  They have deflected many of the recipients of welfare, in its multitudinous forms, from productive effort and have played upon their inertia to mire them, and their succeeding generations of offspring, in dependency.  In the meantime, while the taxpayers pay, the underclass is expanded and becomes more and more steeped in barbaric behavior.  We are subsidizing a substantial part of the “rising tide of barbarism.”

            Concentrations of barbarism.  The disintegration of civilization isn’t uniformly apparent within our society.  It appears most strikingly in certain concentrations, primarily in what has come to be known as “the inner city.”

            The debasement of so much black life is a large part of this.  We should note, too, that we are seeing an extension and intensification of a white underclass.  Example: recently, I talked with a 35-year-old bearded man, dressed in black leather, who has eked out a living as a bouncer or as an assistant manager at a massage parlor, who has been in and out of jail and of the emergency wards of hospitals, and who now sits in his own home with the rooms darkened and with a loaded .45-automatic on the floor at the base of his chair.

            Since World War II, the United States has benefited from an influx of the most intelligent minds from much of the rest of the world.  But more recently we have allowed a suicidal immigration policy, augmenting the barbarism of our inner cities with literally millions of legal and illegal immigrants who bring with them illiteracy (even in their own language), poverty, crime, gangs, a vast demand for social services, and an ideology and culture that ultimately must prove destructive of our own.

            These concentrations of barbarism have been born out of the ideological, political milieu that nourishes and protects them, and out of the passivity of the American mainstream, which has allowed it to happen.  The problems that stem from them have become well-nigh intractable.  They have come to seem overwhelming even to “liberalism” itself, since there is no way that liberal politicians can milk enough out of our productive economy to provide all of the mopping-up services they require.

            The failure of offsetting mechanisms.  If we look back historically, and especially if we keep in mind Ortega’s analysis, we are justified in thinking that refined civilization is for much of humanity not necessarily the natural state.  Like water in a basement where there is a high water table, barbarism may well be expected to rise like a flood in any civilization when the “sump pumps” are removed or fail to work.  These sump pumps are family, church, culture, true education, morality, law, and an ethic of individual and civic responsibility.  It has been one of the great disappointments of the modern age that the “perfectibility of man” that was anticipated by the great rationalists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has proved so fateful an illusion.  Contrary to the aspiration, a lot of people resist civilization, and prefer to live in other ways.

            The tenuous grasp of traditional religion.  Many conservative philosophers would make the secularization of society the center of their analysis.  They believe that there is no compelling morality and no stable civilization without religious faith, hopefully impressed through a variety of social mechanisms.

            Fundamentalist religious belief has been resurgent both in America and throughout much of the world; but this coincides with an abiding secularization of society at large.  I agree that the declining role of church and religious belief has left a void that is of vital significance.  What fills that void is, unfortunately, fashionable, shallow, silly, conveniently leftist ideology.  Although philosophically a secular society should be able to generate a moral consensus and code for reasons that are quite obvious from the imperatives of civilization itself, this has for the most part not come about.

            The reason it has not is, in my opinion, tied directly to the fact that our society lacks an intellectual culture suitable to itself.  Our alienated intellectual subculture does not seek to elevate, but to debase; not to regularize, but to attack.  There is no morality that emerges from a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine.

            Cynicism; loss of meaning.  When society becomes more and more a matter of dog-eat-dog, there is less and less basis for people to have faith in each other.  Ideals give way to cynicism.  It comes to look ridiculous to feel loyalty to, or to believe in, anything or anybody.

            This in turn produces a loss of meaning.  The rootless individual, centered inevitably on “me” as the only thing he knows, and seeing repeated proofs of why he should repose no confidence in anyone else, is hardly the stuff of which advanced civilizations are made.

            Cumulative build-up.  For quite a long time, a civilization can, in effect, “consume the intellectual, moral, cultural capital of the past.”

            As time goes on, the disintegration has a cumulative effect.  Ruthlessness, cynicism, loss of meaning, destructive behavior both to self and others, dependency, irresponsibility—these things affect others, and come to be replicated in succeeding generations.  

What Can We Do About It?

            Much can be done—but only if the great passive mainstream comes alive and only if ideas come to be embraced that support and advance our free society rather than undermine it.

            These are enormous “ifs.”  The American public is like a lobster placed into lukewarm water in a pot in which the heat is being turned up.  There is every possibility that we will be boiled alive before we know what is happening to us.

            The center of the crisis lies not in the inner cities or among the inflooding millions; it lies with those who will not see and will not move themselves.  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

            The measures that could be taken are endless.  And many of them don’t require money:

            1.  We could vow to go into marriage with a permanent commitment both to our husband or wife and to our children.

            2.  We could demand an end to the culture of pornography, violence and hate-America propaganda, and support its opposite.

            3.  We could make our schools places of learning, insisting upon discipline and solid content.

            4.  We could return to a code of personal honor and civility, formulating a common morality that we are prepared to enforce through expectations and social pressures.

            5.  We could regain control over our borders and over our future as a people.

            6.  We could take away the supports for dependency and irresponsibility, refusing to accept “guilt” if we demand a reasonable quid pro quo from the recipients of public assistance.

            7.  We could stop tolerating “flights from reality” through drugs and alcohol.

            8.  We could, God forbid, get tough on criminals.  This means that we must stop feeling guilty and apologetic about any effective measure.  While retaining all of the protections of genuine due process, we could:

            a.  Give real, not sham, meaning to the death penalty as the only penalty appropriate to much of the heinous brutality committed around us every day.

            b.  Lock up the seven percent of superfelons for so long a time as reliable studies show they retain their criminal propensities—and make them work to pay the costs of their incarceration so that we don’t all have to bear the burden of their upkeep.

            c.  We can’t afford to incarcerate all of the others who deserve to be, and we have no destination to which to exile them, so we need to discover non-incarcerative, and yet effective, ways to deal with their barbarism.  The problem is not in finding ways—they are plentiful—but in convincing ourselves that we “aren’t being mean”  when we adopt them.  We need fewer jails, substituting other penalties that sting badly and that simultaneously convey a message, to the criminal and to all who know of him, that uncivilized conduct is intolerable.

            9.  And finally, in addition to the countless other things that can be done, it is imperative that we reaffirm our commitment to a free society and to civilization.  The barbarism must not be allowed to define our existence, even as we combat it.  For example, our recourse must be to law, not to the vigilantism that will inevitably grow if lawful measures aren’t taken; to an increased demand for what is truly valuable in art and music, films and literature, not to censorship.  Otherwise, the barbarism will have struck its worst blow within our own souls.