In the Belly of the British Tabloid Beast
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 completely dominating the news here.
Honestly, was anyone surprised by the depths to which the Tabloids would sink? Britain has been going down a tabloid sewer for years with scarcely anyone objecting. And the strange thing about the absolute national obsession currently gripping Britain about tabloid corruption is that there has been no national soul-searching among the populace itself. 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 are a nation with a formidable history. But over the past few decades public cynicism has become a defining characteristic. People wait around for everyone to be exposed as a charlatan and faker. When the tabloids employed extreme gotcha journalism, doing sting operations to prove that politicians and celebrities can be proven 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 feel-good factor of watching the mighty fall. The truth, of course, is that if you can’t pay your electricity bill, discovering that your favourite footballer is having an affair with his sister-in-law is probably not going to be much help. His downfall is not your payday.
In the United States 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 still remains, fundamentally, an aristocracy. So when you see someone with a royal title, you know that can never be you. All you can do, therefore, is resent the man who belongs to the lucky club and applaud when you discover that he told his mistress he wished 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 celebrity 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 that we in the United States rejected completely centuries ago. Simply stated, in America we are just not as obsessed with elevating people to a celestial plane, even as we sometimes unfortunately raise money and materialism to an undignified altar.
But 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 God and religion in Britain – a country where only 42 percent of people believe in G0d compared to America’s 92 percent and only about ten percent of the young regularly attend Church, a phenomenon that has been 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 corrosive, 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 belief that all act for selfish motivation. All it takes to prove it, then, is one journalist posing as, say, a businessman who needs a political favor to prove that all elected officials are on the take.
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, even if married. But is that the whole story? Is it not also true that every single day human beings give charity, politicians stand up for moral principles that may lose them votes, and men and women fall in love and honour their commitments? The human narrative is much more complex, and indeed more noble, than what the tabloids portray. But when you suck out the spirit and leave only an uninspired, desiccated corpse you get only one, mostly depressing, tale of human vice.
I am convinced that Britain is desperately in need of a spiritual renaissance. But whence will it stem?
The Church of England is passionless and dying. Islam is extremely passionate but in the UK, where it is growing gangbusters among immigrants, it still remains, for the most part, self-segregated, lacking any deep appeal to the average Briton. Evangelical Christianity? It’s growing in the UK, but it too lacks widespread appeal to the more staid British population.
Judaism perhaps? Well, the problem is that the British Jewish community is one of the most insular on earth. Few British Jews, if any, believe that their faith could have any widespread appeal beyond their own limited confines.
I disagree. I believe that the were we to spread universal Jewish values among the British it could provide the grounded spirituality that the British require at this juncture of their history. The British could start by turning Friday night into Family night, copying the national campaign we launched in the US, getting families across the UK to turn off TV’s and leave the nightclubs that are so popular among British youth, and having an intimate family evening of connection. Second, British families could start reading the Hebrew Bible with its insistence that no human is divine and that man is possessed of both G0dly and animalistic tendencies. He must therefore struggle – and the word ‘Israel’ means ‘he who wrestles’ – to act selflessly amid a natural predilection toward narcissism. Finally, the British could be heavily inspired by the Jewish concept of ‘mitzvah’, the power of a single good deed. A call to British youth could go out to volunteer to do a single good deed on a daily basis – from visiting a grandparent, to giving charity, to visiting a hospital, to helping parents around the home – that would make people believe in their capacity for goodness and demonstrate once and for all that, for all the sleaze that may surround us, there is so much more light than darkness.
Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ 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.