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Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 1999/8 Teves, 5760

Tony Snow

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The way it will be -- HERE'S MY CRYSTAL-BALL prophecy for the next generation: We will experience glories unimaginable today and revel in bounties that make our present prosperity pale. Poverty and discord will recede as causes of tension, but in their place will rise an overriding concern -- the desire to preserve the concept of dignity.

This challenge has three sources. One is the cult of pessimism. Our cultural and intellectual elites love dark linings. In the past 30 years, they have warned us that ice caps soon would encircle us, only to reverse field and declare the planet was ready to ignite like a struck match. They pelt us constantly with word of new threats to health -- warnings about water, air and the safety of everything from pacifiers to jumbo jets.

Typically, doomsayers use their forecasts not as alarms, but demands: Fund a new program! Issue a new edict! Salve the common wound!

Unfortunately, grand problems provoke arbitrary and inhumane "solutions." It is impossible to consider the feelings of real people when drafting rules that apply to an unfathomably diverse assemblage. Lawgivers routinely crank out regulations without pondering possible side-effects, confident that citizens, intimidated by the might and authority of the government, will submit quietly.

The result: We get laws that cannot accommodate the complexities of individual circumstance. People who receive government services or summonses often cannot plead their cases because the statutes don't envision or permit exceptions. If you doubt this, ask yourself: When was the last time you felt a surge of dignity standing in a post-office line or waiting for someone to call your number at the Department of Motor Vehicles?

But pessimism alone can't vanquish dignity. Another key ingredient is faithlessness. Elite culture has put a bounty on religion. It is more acceptable in Hollywood to slander the pope than to badmouth a rabid rat.

That's hardly new: Intellectuals for centuries have forecast the death of God. But despite such prognostications, the Almighty has outlasted Darwin, Marx and Lenin -- not to mention Aimee Semple McPherson, Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.

Religious faiths endure because they satisfy our thirst for holiness and our need to acknowledge our obvious weaknesses. They pave the way for "inalienable rights" by declaring that each person carries an ember of divinity, which no one has the right or authority to extinguish.

Unfortunately, these natural-law ideals are under siege. A few examples: The Justice Department refuses to defend the unborn, elderly or infirm -- all of whom are vulnerable to legalized extermination.

Federal authorities have revealed their view of "privacy rights" by asking lawmakers to let them compile extensive records on every citizen -- so the government might enforce laws and punish transgressors more effectively. Civil-rights statutes have become the basis of enforced inequalities.

Workplace discrimination laws foster the ills they set out to destroy. And yet the machine of state chugs on, oblivious to cries from those who stand in its path. And now, as taxes mount, philanthropic giving has tailed off -- as if workers were saying: "We are weary; we gave at the office."

One final factor in the fight for dignity: biotechnology. We're on the verge of creating life out of what amounts to randomly spliced cells. Researchers have taken nerves from a leech and integrated them into a computer (for the IRS, no doubt). In years to come, doctors may cure excruciating diseases with the aid of strangers' biological materials.

Somewhere in this din of innovation, we will have to answer questions about genetic rights, parental responsibilities -- and the government's role in deciding who qualifies as a person and who "owns" an organism.

Let me be clear: I don't believe these developments presage a new age of tyranny. But it's obvious that some trends in technology and governance aren't exactly congenial to acknowledging the uniqueness of every human life.

This is crucial, because democracy depends on a sturdy notion of dignity.

It establishes a social absolute. It limits what the weak may do to the strong. At the same time, it beckons us to help others -- to recognize their dignity by offering our time, muscle and even money.

Eventually, dignity will thrive, since we are more devoted to our sense of personal worth than to any ideology. But this leaves unanswered the key question: Will we defend other people's rights from the start of the 21st Century -- or look askance and risk repeating the horrors of the past hundred years, when millions died rescuing the ideal of dignity from the likes of Nazism, communism and Jim Crow.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate