One of the long-lauded attributes of this country was that we were a nation of laws. Our founding was built on a series of documents that attempted to create a society where “all men are created equal.” Well, we know that while the intent was revolutionary, the reality was a product of a very different time. All men may have been created equal, but they certainly weren’t treated that way, neither in life nor on paper.

In the intervening 246 years there have been many efforts to improve on the reality. Some successful, some not, and some only for a short period of time. Many of us had the hope of constantly moving forward to a more ‘perfect union.’ Some of the time it did feel that way. And when it didn’t, we could reference Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech where he quoted Theodore Parker, saying “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 

All the while though, there was an expectation—or shall I say an understanding—that even though the laws may not be perfect they were the foundational basis for a shared society. That even if we disagreed with them, they were commonly accepted and enforced until, and unless, changed. Of course, by now many of you are shaking your head. Laws are not perfect and they aren’t perfectly enforced. That’s always been true. “Rules for thee but not for me,” and all that. Money, power, and/or the color of your skin not infrequently dictate your relationship to our legal system.

But as much as these abuses rankle us, there usually was an acknowledgement that the laws existed for everyone, even if the definition of ‘everyone’ wasn’t consistent, and even as favored individuals or groups benefited from special treatment. But that isn’t as true now as it once was. There’s a disturbing trend to simply ignore laws, to not acknowledge their application or even their existence, and to expect not to be called out or suffer consequences. Every day, news feeds point out that politicians, corporations or individuals commit blatantly wrong and illegal activity. They deny the transgression. They don’t deny that they did it, however—they definitely admit to it. Instead, they deny that the action was ever wrong in the first place. They’ve decided that on their own. They take the attitude that their opinion, their worldview, is the only reality they need to live in. 

This trend is tied to the deeply concerning trend of “alternative facts” of which I’ve written before. Social media now allows literally anybody and everybody to create their own reality, their own facts and, in essence, their own laws. Laws should be facts that we all share. Like it or not. They require or proscribe certain acts. They exist to help create an ordered society so, unless you’re an anarchist, we want them. Otherwise, chaos ensues. And, in case you didn’t notice, chaos is more often the order of the day.

I think this is what is getting me so discouraged: Not that we aren’t perfect or that society isn’t just (that’s discouraging, but on a more foundational level), rather, I’m depressed and scared that the underpinnings of shared obligation and shared reality are fraying more each day. I’m disheartened that these incidents are occurring with greater frequency, that crimes are going unpunished and unacknowledged. We’re on the verge of not being a nation of laws but of might over right. It’s getting tougher to wake up each day and know what to expect. It’s becoming harder not only to know what the rules are, but whether any really exist at all. Not infrequently of late, George Orwell’s “1984” is invoked with its surrealist “future” where reality and history are changed by those in power, and individuals are left unmoored and unsure of what’s real and what isn’t. It’s very disturbing and, at this point, I’m not sure in which direction that arc of morality is pointing. 


Dr. Blecher is an attending surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital.