News of the World 311R.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I came to the UK for a debate on the future of the Anglo-Jewish Chief Rabbinate,
but quickly got mired in commenting on the News of the World closing and the
tabloid scandal that is dominating the news here.
Honestly, is anyone
surprised by the depths to which the tabloids have sunk? Britain has been going
down a tabloid sewer for years.
And the strange thing about the national
obsession with tabloid corruption is that there has been no national
soul-searching among the populace. Yes, editors and journalists may have behaved
criminally and must be held accountable. But they were feeding a public
insatiable for scandal.
The British people have a formidable history, but
over the past few decades public cynicism has become a defining
When the tabloids employed extreme ‘gotcha’ journalism,
conducting sting operations to prove politicians and celebrities were
financially and sexually corrupt, the people bought millions of copies and
licked their chops. It was all based on the ridiculous belief that if you bring
someone else down, you automatically lift yourself up, the bizarre feelgood
factor of watching the mighty fall.
The truth, of course, is that if you
can’t pay your electricity bill, discovering that your favorite footballer is
having an affair with his sister-in-law is probably not going to help. His
downfall is not your payday.
In the US we certainly have our scandals and
tales of obscene public corruption, and lately it’s been particularly bad. But
there’s a difference.
At its core, America is a meritocracy, which means
that when you see someone owning a giant yacht your reaction is often, “Gosh, if
I work hard enough, that can be me.”
But Britain is still fundamentally
When you see someone with a royal title, you know that
can never be you. All you can do, therefore, is resent the man from the ‘lucky
sperm club’ and applaud when you discover that he told his mistress he wishes he
were a tampon.
Coupled with this is the seeming British need to idolize
human beings. Don’t get me wrong. Hollywood worships people too. But in Britain
the fixation with celebrity occupies a different constellation. There is, for
example, no celebrity couple that has been at the absolute apex of obsession in
America the way that David and Victoria Beckham have now been in Britain for
over a decade. Much of this need to treat people as demigods stems from the
British legacy of royalty and, perhaps, lingering notions of the divine right of
kings – something we in the United States rejected centuries ago. Simply stated,
in America we are not as obsessed with elevating people to a celestial plane,
although we sometimes raise money to an undignified altar.
alarming aspect of the tabloid jungle that is Britain is what it says about the
British belief in humanity. I am convinced that the death of religion in Britain
– a country where only 42 percent of people believe in God, compared to
America’s 92%, and only about 10% of the young regularly attend church – a
phenomenon accompanied by the rise of a militant atheism – has produced a deep
skepticism about the human condition.
Once you rob people of a soul, what
you’re left with is corrupt flesh. When a public deprives itself of a belief in
the inherent majesty of the human person and the human capacity for soulful
altruism, you are left with a pessimistic conviction that everyone acts for
selfish motives. All it takes to ‘prove’ it, then, is one journalist posing as,
say, a businessman who needs a political favor.
Let’s not be naïve. Of
course there is human corruption, and there can be no doubt that men especially
may gravitate toward sexual conquest. But is that the whole story? Is it not
also true that every day human beings give charity, politicians stand up for
moral principles that may lose them votes, and men and women fall in love? The
human narrative is much more complex and noble than what the tabloids portray.
But when you suck out the spirit and leave only a desiccated corpse you get only
one – mostly depressing – tale of human vice.
Britain is desperately in
need of a spiritual renaissance. But from whence will it come? The Church of
England is passionless and dying. Islam is extremely passionate, but in the UK
it remains, for the most part, self-segregated, lacking any deep appeal to the
average Briton. Evangelical Christianity? It’s growing, but it too lacks
Judaism perhaps? Well, the problem is that the British
Jewish community is one of the most insular on Earth. Few British Jews believe
that their faith could have any widespread appeal.
I DISAGREE. I believe
that were we to spread universal Jewish values among the British, it could
provide the grounded spirituality they require. The British could start by
turning Friday night into Family night, getting families to turn off TVs and
leave the nightclubs that are so popular among British youth, choosing instead
an intimate family evening. Second, families could start reading the Hebrew
Bible, with its insistence that no human is divine and that man is possessed of
both godly and animalistic tendencies. He must therefore struggle – and the word
‘Israel’ means ‘he who wrestles’ – to act selflessly despite a natural
predilection to narcissism. Finally, the British could be inspired by the Jewish
concept of mitzva, the power of a single good deed. A call could go out to
British youth to do a single good deed a day – from visiting a grandparent to
giving charity, to visiting a hospital, to helping parents – that would
demonstrate once and for all that, for all the sleaze that surrounds us, there
is much more light than darkness.The writer was the London Times
Preacher of the Year at the Millenium, and is the international best-selling
author of 25 books, including Judaism for Everyone.(Basic Books) Follow him on