Answering questions about what has gone wrong is never comfortable. Some truths are not pretty. But, revitalizing our core values and the restoration of a once vibrant civic spirit will require that we recognize what has been lost and why.
The current difficulties have developed over a long period of time. The gradual loss of a spirited civic life has left most Americans without a shared sense of purpose or the interwoven fabric of community relationships.
Americans have become obsessed with immediacy. We want what we want and we want it now. We seek to be entertained with melodrama and spectacle, or violence and degraded behavior.
We find ourselves dominated by materialism and immersed in a homogenized culture with little conscious identity.
Reason and foresight have been eclipsed by a fixation on material appearances. Even the once humiliating liabilities personal debt seems to be of no concern. We live on false appearances bought with future income.
Strange as it may seem, we have essentially abandoned the future. Where is there a purposeful commitment to neighborhood, to responsibility for local needs?
The moral bankruptcy and distortions of logic represented by this posture have influenced almost every aspect of our national life. An undisciplined attitude has led us to the brink of financial 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 individual, and yet we have readily abandoned this principle out of fear for our own safety.
Similarly, we fail to see that privacy and integrity are sacrificed when we welcome obscenity and titillation into our lives on television, in film and web-based media.
Personal integrity is lost to gossip, backbiting, and 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 in the late 1940s, before television existed. And he was not the first to make such an observation. A quarter of a century earlier the renown Irish playwright 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 crisis.
He pointed out our fascination with specialization, 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 Weaver’s words, “It is not to be anticipated that rational self-control will flourish in the presence of fixation upon parts.”
Until we understand how things function as a whole we will have no capacity for good judgment and no control over outcomes.
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.
Consequently we have descended into the financial profligacy of recent decades and are now the most indebted nation in history by a wide margin.
Ours has been a twisted path with a clearly visible end. Yet, the inevitable outcome remains ignored.
If we are to recover our balance, it is essential that we recognize the attitudes and thoughtlessness that got us here. Will we continue to choose illusion over liberty? Would we rather be ruined than to think?
It will never be too late to turn the corner – to clear our minds, to straighten up and step forward with purpose.
Please look for the next post on or about April 7: Responsibility with dignity, or apathy and paralysis?
A note to new readers: A project description, an introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts are available on this page.