Plague Days in Baltimore

Published May 1, 2015

National Review Online

What does the burning of Baltimore by feral young men have to do with the Supreme Court’s recent oral argument over so-called same-sex marriage and with the Book of Revelation? More than you might think.

Let’s begin with Revelation, which the Catholic Church reads day by day in the first weeks after Easter. Revelation, which some know as “The Apocalypse,” is often misunderstood as a kind of biblical movie trailer — a preview of coming distractions. And commentators of a certain cast of mind have spilled oceans of ink trying to fit the visionary John’s dramatic images to the affairs of the day, usually in aid of predictions of an impending, cataclysmic end to history. But there’s another, and I think better, way to read Revelation — and that is to read it as a panoramic view of all of history and of the great contest within history, which is the contest between God’s love and all that would deny God’s love. On that reading, Revelation’s “plagues” and the “bowls of God’s wrath” are not future examples of awfulness that presage The End; they’re the realities, here and now, that are death-dealing rather than life-giving and life-affirming.

I was born in Baltimore in 1951, when it was the sixth-largest city in the United States, and over the ensuing six decades, my hometown has endured any number of plagues that, taken together, seem somewhat evocative of the plagues of Revelation 15 and 16.

The Baltimore Sun was once a terrific newspaper; it’s now a parody of political correctness. Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point plant was once the greatest steel mill in the world; today, it’s a vast industrial wasteland, thanks to the plagues of management folly and union folly. Back in the day, Baltimore’s public schools prepared their students for Ivy League undergraduate careers, and high schools such as Dunbar were national models of African-American accomplishment; today, students graduate without elementary-level competencies in reading and math, and that plague known as teachers’ unions cruelly deprives students of the advantages of educational choice. Once upon a time, black entrepreneurship flourished in Baltimore (the capitalization sometimes coming from the numbers rackets, which have now been replaced by Leviathan in the form of state lotteries); today, the city’s African-American establishment is far more heavily invested in Big Government than in business and job creation. A crack-cocaine epidemic, unaddressed by a befuddled and paralyzed mayor, depopulated entire swathes of the city and turned the neighborhood where I went to high school in the late 1960s into something that, today, resembles Berlin 70 years ago. The city’s police department, and indeed its entire approach to rampant criminality, manifestly needs reform; Martin O’Malley made some efforts to do that and to bring Giuliani-style reforms to the plague of crime that was gutting the city, until he discovered that it was much easier to beat an incumbent Republican governor in a heavily blue state while indulging fantasies of the White House.

But the plague that has most devastated Baltimore is the plague that was on vivid and violent display recently: the plague of fatherlessness. At the funeral of Freddie Gray, the man whose death in police custody was the excuse used by violent young men for their destructive behavior, media attention focused on Mr. Gray’s sobbing mother. But where, I kept asking, was Freddie Gray’s father? And where were the fathers of those youngsters who were rampaging outside Camden Yards, burning down a home for the elderly paid for by the widow’s-mite contributions of the people of an inner-city black congregation, and torching drugstores that served their own communities? They were nowhere. Because that is what inner-urban life is like today in too many American cities: In a perverse reversal of Clarence Day, it’s Life Without Father, created by an anti-culture of sexual anarchy that, imported from the white world, has been far more destructive of African-American life than was Jim Crow.

And that brings us to SCOTUS and its arguments about who can marry whom under the Constitution. It defies rationality to imagine that the Congress, passing the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866, and the states which ratified it by 1868, imagined that they were authorizing “marriage” within a single sex. The campaign for “same-sex marriage” makes no sense constitutionally; but it makes perfect sense, if of a very destructive sort, as the next phase of the Sexual Revolution’s long march through the institutions of American life, and through the public moral culture those institutions once embodied as well as sustained.  That march has been supported by the Supreme Court in a host of decisions that have created a Republic of License, in which willful sexual expression is the ne plus ultra of that for which the Founders pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. And that brings to mind yet another plague: the identification of the campaign for “marriage equality” (soon to be expanded, without doubt, to polygamy and polyandry) with the classic American civil-rights movement.

This was, to be sure, an extraordinarily shrewd move by gay activists, who understood that, in a society riven by profound moral confusions, the one publicly available metaphor for America Getting It Right was the civil-rights movement that produced the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But the analogy between then and now, between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Human Rights Campaign, simply doesn’t work. The civil-rights movement was predicated on self-discipline and self-sacrifice; today’s agitations from LGBT activists are premised on the notion that the trumping claim in American public life is the claim to sexual expression: how I want, with whom I want, when I want, and, above all, consequence-free. The classic civil-rights movement took the Exodus as its metaphor of liberation; today’s campaign for “gay marriage” mocks the biblical understanding of marriage and finds its metaphor for liberation in what amounts to a new Egypt of self-constructed bondage to the passions.

As Charles Murray and others have shown through an overwhelming amount of empirical data, the well-off can survive, if unhappily, in a sexually anarchic society. It’s the poor and the disadvantaged who bear the burden of Life Without Father, in neighborhoods where even the most courageous of African-American pastors cannot begin to stem the tide of irresponsible sexual behavior. The results of several generations of that anarchy have been on display in Baltimore this past week.

The sexual revolution was an invention of the over-class that has had a devastating effect on the underclass. No amount of bizarre hypothesizing by E. J. Dionne, who blamed the Baltimore riots on globalization, can change that hard fact. And if there is white guilt to be felt over those feral youths rampaging through a city and making life harder for the very people they live among, it is to be found here: in the export of a culture of indulgence to those who could least afford it, rather than in memories of the segregation that marred the city when I was growing up there. That was bad; indeed it was wicked and immoral. But in an atmosphere in which educated white folk unconsciously used language that would bring a blush to their grandchildren’s cheeks today, African Americans often behaved with more dignity than their putative white betters, and eventually taught their white neighbors some of the moral truths that underlay American society.

White America’s support for the Republic of License is a plague of biblical proportions being visited on black America. Just as sadly, perhaps even more sadly, African-American political leaders’ acquiescence in the abortion license, the central talisman of the sexual revolution, is contributing to the decimation of black communities and to the plague of fatherlessness — and for what? So as to remain in sync with the obsessions of a Democratic party that has shown itself far more determined to defend abortion on demand than religious freedom? There is a biblical mess of pottage for you.

The plagues come, and you would think we would learn; but as Revelation 16 reminds us, repentance is often not forthcoming and the plagues continue. For the sake of those young lives that might have been creatively lived but are now being wasted, for the sake of all those young men who believe they have no future beyond heroin and crime and promiscuity, can we not, for once, learn some lessons? Can we not learn, from these plague days in Baltimore, that sexual promiscuity is a prescription for sexual anarchy, that sexual anarchy is a prescription for fatherlessness, that fatherlessness is a prescription for death-dealing chaos in poor communities — and that to acquiesce in all of this is a betrayal of the virtue of solidarity and the promise of America?

— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today