Americans are struggling in a sea of disruptions and a multitude of crises. Many challenges confronted us before COVID, and most will remain with us long after the pandemic is behind us.
As a people, we have always been a contentious lot. We have an uneven past to learn from. It is easy to forget the good and admirable that history has to tell, when injury demands attention. And here there is a hidden cost.
If we allow what has been positive and good to be lost from view—overcome by anger and confusion—we will lose our way on the road to justice and prosperity.
Without knowledge of the past, both the good and the bad, we are unable to understand the story that brought us to this place—or to consider corrective change.
Clarity does not come easily. History is often forgotten, but it can leave its’ influence etched indelibly in our national thinking.
The strength of our parents and grandparents in meeting hardship, in overcoming injustices or injury, is the foundation of our American heritage. This is our honor. And, it will be recreated ever anew as we navigate through the storms ahead.
More than ever today, we are confronted with questions of principle, of conflicting values, of the meaning of moral responsibility. Such concerns come into focus amidst disruption and conflict.
Human beings have never agreed on values. This is natural and inevitable. Yet, our personal principles are essential and inviolable. Like the virtues spoken of by the founders (see June 5 post), principles keep us steady in the storm.
The modern era has never been easy, but until recently its’ tensions have been largely submerged from view.
In my view, we have lost a sense of purpose and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends. This has made us vulnerable both to our own vices and to the predatory interests and manipulative power of institutions that know our weaknesses.
Increasingly over time, we have indulged ourselves in meaningless spectacle and thoughtless voyeurism—a wasteland of sex, violence, greed and materialism.
This is not what the founders hoped for.
In his book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson presents a persuasive view of what has come to pass in the United States. He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and loss of social stability have had devastating consequences.
I paraphrase his words here: 1) the loss of personal and social responsibility, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.
Dr. Ferguson reminds us of past strengths, and in particular the vigorous civil and cultural life of nineteenth century America.
“I want to ask,” he writes, “how far it is possible for a truly free nation to flourish in the absence of the kind of vibrant civil society we used to take for granted? I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of anti-social behavior becomes a problem for the state.”
He cites the historian Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous commentary, Democracy in America (1840):
“America is, among the countries of the world,” Tocqueville wrote, “the one where they have taken most advantage of association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of objects.
“Independent of the permanent associations created by law under the names of townships, cities and counties, there is a multitude of others that owe their birth and development only to the individual will.”
Niall Ferguson writes that “Tocqueville saw America’s political associations as an indispensable counterweight to the tyranny of the majority in modern democracy. But it was the non-political associations that really fascinated him.”
What happened? Once upon a time Americans succeeded in overcoming the constraints to freedom through their own initiative and sense of community.
A once vibrant culture of engagement has been replaced by a self-centered attitude and the isolating influences of technology, mass media, and corporate society.
Will we step forward now with positive initiative and a constructive attitude?
You may watch for the next post on or about July 5.