Renewing Core American Values

Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable. Some truths are not pretty. But, the renewal of core American values and restoration of the vibrant civic spirit we have had in the past will require recognition of what has been lost, and why.

After an honest appraisal, we are called to affirm the values and principles we have understood, but abandoned.

The present difficulties have developed largely unnoticed over a long period of time. A gradual loss of vision has left us without a collective sense of purpose or the strength of interconnected community relationships. It has left us vulnerable to materialism and the domination of an institutional culture.

Most significantly we have become obsessed with immediacy. We want what we want and we want it now. The weakness of indebtedness seems to be of no concern. And so, we have discovered reality the hard way, neglecting reason and foresight. We have abandoned the future.

We acquired an undisciplined attitude toward almost everything, from parenting to fiscal responsibility. And our attitude infected our government and many institutions.

Our insistence on freedom from institutional and cultural restraints has led to contradictions. For example, our respect for the individual requires that we honor the independent integrity and privacy of each citizen, and yet we have readily abandoned this principle out of fear for our own safety. Similarly, we have failed to see that our very own privacy has been sacrificed to the obscenity and titillation in mass media, lost in a fascination with “the raw stuff of life.” In the words of the iconic conservative philosopher Richard Weaver:

“The extremes of passion and suffering are served up to enliven the breakfast table or to lighten the boredom of an evening at home. The area of privacy has been abandoned because the definition of person has been lost; there is no longer a standard by which to judge what belongs to the individual man. Behind the offense lies the repudiation of sentiment in favor of immediacy.”  (1948)

Richard Weaver actually wrote these words before the advent of television. And he was not the first to observe this propensity. A quarter century earlier George Bernard Shaw was quoted as saying: “An American has no sense of privacy. He does not know what it means. There is no such thing in the country.”  (1933)

Is it any wonder today that we have sought to indulge our appetites for immediate gratification without consideration of the consequences?

Professor Weaver warned of a self-destructive trend that would ultimately lead to a crisis. He pointed out our fascination with specialization and with the parts of things at the expense of understanding and respecting the whole. He argued that an obsession with fragmentary parts without regard for their function necessarily leads to instability. Such instability is insidious, penetrating all relationships and institutions. In his words, “It is not to be anticipated that rational self-control will flourish in the presence of fixation upon parts.”

This is not the fault of government — except to the extent that government, managed by people like ourselves, has joined wholeheartedly in the party. In a democracy it is tragically easy for government policy to degenerate until it serves the worst inclinations of a self-interested electorate.

And so we have descended steadily into the financial profligacy of the last fifty years, and are now the most indebted nation in history by a wide margin. Ours has been a twisted path but with a clearly visible end. Yet, the outcome was foreseen only by a few who were regarded as crackpots.

If we are to restructure our civil order and economic life following the destruction and confusion of our recent past, it is essential that we recognize the wrong-headed thinking that got us here. Values and principle are not in questioned; only wisdom. The United States Constitution provides a firm foundation. What we are challenged to do now is to reconsider the way we think.