For more than a hundred years Americans expressed their values and creative energy in numerous organizations and associations. As we saw in the previous post, Americans overcame constraints on their freedom through their own initiative and sense of community.
Generations later, however, action has been replaced by inaction. A once spirited culture of engagement has been replaced by an increasingly self-centered attitude, the loss of community, and the isolating influences of the automobile, television, and the digital age.
Is it these technologies that have isolated us from one another?
Economic historian Niall Ferguson argues no. Rather he suggests that it is “not technology, but the state – with its seductive promise of ‘security from the cradle to the grave’ – [which is] the real enemy of civil society.” He cites the prophetic vision of Tocqueville in 1840, when he imagined a future America in which the spirit of community has been co-opted and neutered by government:
“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone….
“Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood….
“Thus, …the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
Elsewhere Tocqueville added an explicit warning:
“But what political power would ever be in a state to suffice for the innumerable multitude of small undertakings that American citizens execute every day with the aid of association?…
“The morality and intelligence of a democratic people would risk no fewer dangers than its business and industry if government came to take the place of associations everywhere.
“Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.”
I agree that government has had a part in the deadening of the American spirit. But, I do not think we can attribute the present condition solely to government. I believe the degeneration of attitudes and behavior cannot be divorced from the isolating influences of corporate culture, the dispersion of communities by the automobile, or the gradual loss of a moral, metaphysical center.
Telecommunications and commercial airlines have brought the world together on a macro level, but they have also left us disinclined us to engage with our neighbors.
I believe the long slide to isolation is the consequence of social forces that have followed the trajectory of human progress since the founding of the American Republic, and which we can only fault ourselves for accepting.
Our government is, after all, a creature of our own invention, served by people who have been subjected to the same degraded values and demoralized sense of responsibility as the rest of us.
Next week: The renewal of core American values.
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