Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable. Some truths are not pretty. But, revitalizing core American values and the restoration of a once vibrant civic spirit will require that we recognize what has been lost and why. I believe an honest appraisal is in order.
The current difficulties have developed over a long period of time. The gradual loss of a commitment to integrity in all areas of life has left Americans without the interwoven fabric of community relationships, without a soulful center or shared sense of purpose.
We find ourselves dominated by materialism and immersed in a homogenized culture with little conscious identity. Where is there a meaningful commitment to community, to the dignity of mutual respect, to embracing shared responsibility for local needs?
Most significantly, in my view, Americans have become obsessed with immediacy. We want what we want and we want it now. Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on material appearances, and yet we are unabashed about entertaining ourselves with violence and degrading behavior.
Even the once humiliating liabilities of personal debt seem to be of no concern. All possibility of generating real wealth is abandoned in exchange for false appearances bought with future income.
Strange as it may be, we have essentially abandoned the future.
The moral bankruptcy and distortions of logic represented by this posture have influenced almost everything in our national life. An undisciplined attitude has led us to the brink of disaster, and our insistence on freedom from institutional and cultural restraints is fraught with contradictions.
For example, our respect for the individual requires that we honor the independent integrity and privacy of each citizen, and yet we have abandoned this principle out of fear for our own safety.
Similarly, we have failed to see that privacy has been sacrificed when we welcome the obscenity and titillation of mass media into our homes. Personal integrity is lost to a fascination with “the raw stuff of life,” in the words of the conservative American 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.”
Richard Weaver wrote these words before the advent of television. And he was not the first to make such an observation. A quarter century earlier George Bernard Shaw commented that “an American has no sense of privacy. He does not know what it means. There is no such thing in the country.”
Weaver warned Americans of a self-destructive streak 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 whole-heartedly 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.
Consequently we have descended into the financial profligacy of the past 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. And, the implicate outcome remains ignored.
If we are to recover our balance, it is essential that we recognize the wrong-headed thinking that got us here.
Values and principle are not in question; only wisdom. What we are challenged to do now is to reconsider the way we think.
Next week: Freedom or paralysis.
Dear readers: I would be grateful for your thoughtful remarks and feedback.