In the belly of the tabloid beast

No Holds Barred: Britons would do well to worship God instead of celebrities.

News of the World 311R (photo credit: REUTERS)
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 characteristic.
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 an aristocracy.
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.
THE TRULY 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 widespread appeal.
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 Twitter @RabbiShmuley.