The idea of individualism has been an emotional force in the American experience. Indeed, respect for independence and individualism has been a source of honor and pride in the American mind.
Yet, there has been an obvious divergence between the vibrant and spontaneous civic life that characterized much of the early American story, and, at the same time, a record of violence and brutality revealing an arrogance that defied accountability.
Who are we, really? Who do we want to be?
Extremely anti-social behavior will evoke revulsion in most of us. But, historically, the dark side of individualistic egoism has been socially acceptable, even conspicuous, in racist attitudes and practices toward American Indians and African-Americans. And, we have an unfortunate legacy of gang violence, accentuated by the Mafia, drugs, and prostitution.
The destruction we are seeing today goes far deeper, however. We have witnessed a profound deterioration of moral character and social responsibility in recent years, impacting society at every level.
We live in a time of extremes. Mass murder and sexual crimes are proliferating on an appalling scale. Prior to 1960 there were apparently no more than 3 instances of mass murder in the United States per decade.
Definitions have changed, but so far in 2015 I count 42 instances in which 4 or more people died during single events (shootertracker.com). Many more were injured in 353 shootings this year where less than 4 people died.
This is but one example of a profound deterioration we can see all around us in attitudes toward honesty, trustworthiness, and responsibility.
The degradation of the social order has been a gradual and complicated process. But in my view a significant factor has been a lack of effective parenting. Children have been growing up without civilized values or emotional grounding.
The growing loss of moral responsibility even among older adults is especially disturbing.
And, it does not stop there. Institutions we have depended upon are facing financial bankruptcy; systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.
How is it that we have so completely lost our way, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the integrity of our place in the world? The answer is not simple, but there has surely been a shift in attitudes. America has seen the loss of a once dynamic and thriving civil society, followed by the debasement of social discourse in the face of overwhelming materialism.
Clearly, the individualism that requires mutual respect and embraces civic responsibility will remain ever vulnerable to the dishonor of undisciplined individuals who lose their moral compass.
If Americans wish to regain a civil society in which we engage in meaningful discourse and join one another to resolve problems, we will need to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and face the complex of dangers that now confront us.
Some have suggested we have inherited attitudes leading to fragmentation in the way we see and understand the world. Certainly early American settlers were influenced by the loss of religious and cultural roots, the dangers of frontier life, and the nomadic and transient qualities of American life generally.
But, the debasement of the social order we are seeing now is a recent development. America has, most certainly, not always been the way we see it now.
A healthy nation depends on an engaged and upbeat civil society. But, civic activities have nearly vanished from community life. Instead we have witnessed a steady erosion of values, the loss of civility, and accelerating disorder.
We now find ourselves at a critical turning point, confronted by the practical consequences of generalized anger and, at times, the emotional rejection of any perceived restraint. Most importantly, we have lost a sense of ultimate purpose – and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.
All this has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.
I will enlarge on these thoughts in the new year with observations from the early American chronicler Alexis de Tocqueville, historian Niall Ferguson, and the iconic conservative philosopher, Richard M. Weaver.
I will be taking a short break, and I wish you all a happy, peaceful, and reflective holiday season. We have a lot to think about. I hope to post here again on January 1.