CHAPTER SIX (Draft)
Clearly it is necessary to address the questions, both posed and implied, in the previous chapter. Do we recognize the historical forces that led to the horrors of fascism, mass murder and total war that took place during the 20th century? Do we understand the destruction of individuality caused by the industrial civilization that individuality itself created?
These questions hover disturbingly over the anxiety and tensions in America today. Confusion about recent history becomes dangerous when confronted with economic loss, civil disorder, and irrational violence. What should the past mean to us when we face the complexity of multiple oncoming crises?
Can we prevent a repetition of catastrophic events without understanding how they were possible? How can Americans function rationally amidst adversity without a realistic understanding of how it came to this? What happens when a proud people experience the insults of economic injustice or unexpected poverty? And, are we conscious of our own vulnerability to irrational fears when the going gets tough?
Finally, Americans want to do more than survive. We need to anticipate and prepare for the future. It is quite challenging to invest energy and creativity when we are confronted with social degradation and disorder. Without a vision and a sense of how we came to where we are, the foundations we build for the future will remain subject to the instability and capriciousness of imagination and emotion.
These questions are embedded in our circumstances. They will be answered by Americans over time. On the following pages we will consider some of the realities that have brought us to the present, and we will do so as a reality check. A reading list is provided in the Appendix for those who wish to go deeper.
The starting point for us here, as for American history, lies in the social and philosophical upheavals of post-Renaissance Europe described in the last chapter. This might seem strange, but the new ideas that drove Enlightenment thinking in Europe were instrumental in generating the founding principles and popular mindset of the new American nation.
The paradox hidden in the Enlightenment vision of absolute freedom and unlimited prosperity has remained largely unconscious and unresolved, whether the implications be social, economic, or physical. The questions concerning the infallible perfectibility of science and reason have, in the words of Michael Allen Gillespie, been “overshadowed by the contemporaneous advances in the natural sciences and the rapid development of an industrial civilization that emphasized the benefits of increased human power but was more or less indifferent to the ways in which this power compromised human autonomy. As a practical matter, while the philosophical and aesthetic qualms of a few had some impact on intellectual life, little could shake the general public’s growing faith in a modern scientific enterprise that seemed to promise such widespread benefits to humanity.”[i]
The sense of self-conscious individuality that first gained credibility during the Renaissance gave impetus to the soon accelerating development of industry and commerce. Almost everything about modern society has come about by this means, for better or for worse. And yet, the ultimate outcome of industrial culture has led directly to the demise of the individuality and the human initiative that had originally brought it to life.
As early as 1941 the theologian and philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, warned us explicitly of this emerging challenge. Our attention was elsewhere then, and the cruel truth is only now coming to our attention. We are confronted with an outcome that may have always been inevitable:
“The social and economic destruction of individuality is a consequence of the mechanical and impersonal elaborations of a commercial culture which reach their culmination in the development of industrial civilization. Modern industrialism pushes the logic of impersonal money and credit relationships to its final conclusion. The process of production and exchange, which remained imbedded in the texture of personal relationships in a simpler economy, are gradually emancipated and established as a realm of automatic and rationalized relations in which the individual is subordinated to the process….
“Inevitably the early vision of capitalist philosophers (Adam Smith) of a process of production and exchange which would make for automatic harmony of interests is not realized. Man controls this process just enough to disturb its harmony. The men who control and own the machines become the wielders of social power on a vaster scale and of more dynamic quality than previous history has known. They cannot resist the temptations of power any more than the older oligarchies of history. But they differ from previous oligarchies in that their injustices are more immediately destructive of the very basis of their society than the injustices of a less dynamic age. Modern society is consequently involved in a process of friction and decay which threaten the whole world with disaster and which seem to develop a kind of inexorable logic of their own, defying all human efforts to arrest the decay.”[ii]
Yes, we have been blind-sided. Commerce and industry are an integral part of an advancing civilization. Why should this be a problem? We expect our autonomous freedom to be threatened by tyrants, as it often is, but not by industry.
A healthy society needs a productive economy. It does not, however, need repetitive financial crises, myopic planning, or mind-numbing extremes of wealth and poverty. And that is what we have been given.
For Americans, the freedom and autonomy of the individual is of central importance. There can be no liberty, no creative initiative, and no motivation to learn moral responsibility without it. We must respond to this problem rationally, intelligently, and not overreact. This book is about seeking a path forward, to preparing the way to finding a genuinely American solution.
The challenge is complex. Political philosophy and economics are major influences, but they are not the whole problem. Responsibility for the present has always been in our own hands. If we can understand how our thinking, (or failure to think), has led to the social, economic, and ethical difficulties we are experiencing, we will find that it is all fundamentally interrelated.
It is also important that we make ourselves aware of how we have changed, and our society with us.
A Time for Awakening
We have always been a nation of contradictions. Respect for political freedom and personal individuality has been a source of honor and pride in the American mind. Yet, as a nation, our thinking about these values has remained nebulous and superficial. Some commentators have suggested that Americans have until recently shown little interest in the major concerns that are now coming to our attention. More0ver, our assumptions about the qualities of American character and our identity as a people have been subject to little introspective examination.
The vibrant and spontaneous civic life that characterized much of the early American story has long since degenerated into the isolation and materialism of suburban living and uninspiring employment. Television has dominated our lives for more than half a century. More recently social media, has inserted rumor, innuendo, and ‘fake news’ where serious journalism has resisted it.
For generations Americans have been perceived as having a kind, big-hearted character and generosity of spirit. This been admired throughout the world. Yet, such an attitude has been far from consistent. A gradual trend toward social inclusiveness since the Civil War has stood in marked contrast to a long record of violence and an arrogance that defies accountability.
Who are we, really? Who do we want to be?
Clearly, the humanity that embraces mutual respect and civic responsibility will remain ever vulnerable to the dishonor of the undisciplined, arrogant, or immoral individual who abdicates his integrity and trustworthiness as a human being.
Extremely anti-social behavior will evoke revulsion in most of us. But, historically, the dark side of individualistic pride has been socially accepted in racist attitudes and practices toward American Indians, African-Americans, and other minorities. In addition, we have a continuing legacy of drug addiction, gun violence, and sexual assault that reflects mental and moral disarray.
The destruction we are now seeing in the United States has projected our internal confusion onto the world stage. We have witnessed an accelerating deterioration of moral responsibility and civil order over the past fifty years that transcends social and economic distinctions and shows no sign of slowing.
Children are growing up without effective parenting or civilized values. Each generation reaches maturity with less of the preparation needed to sustain a stable society. The lack of consciousness concerning personal responsibility, even among older adults, is especially disturbing. And, it does not stop there. Institutions we have depended upon are facing every form of 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 it is apparent that we have lost our sense of responsibility and commitment to a well-ordered society.
America has not always been the way we see it now.
We now find ourselves at a turning point. Handicapped by the consequences of generalized hostility, incivility, and the loss of mutual respect, we have lost an awareness of ultimate 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.
If Americans wish to regain a society in which we engage in meaningful discourse and cooperate to resolve shared problems, we will need to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and unite as a community to face the complex of dangers that now confront us.
Danger and Opportunity
The transition in which we now find ourselves will severely test our fortitude. We will not pass through it quickly. America has presented the world with a social vision and form of government that is unprecedented in history. Yet, the current instability driven by divisive hostility and a refusal to listen or cooperate has made effective governance impossible.
It is in this extraordinary context that I offer an extraordinary idea. The intensity of the growing danger also presents an unprecedented opportunity that might never again be repeated: a rare moment in history during which we are forced to examine and learn from the influences, perceptions, and attitudes that have brought us to this place.
I suggest that America’s last best hope may rest in this singular moment.
This is a challenge that calls upon us to rethink who we are and what we want of the future. We face some tough questions. The effort may not be comfortable, but it will be essential if we are to regain our balance and resolve. And so, before offering my own suggestions I will offer the observations of several perceptive thinkers on the following pages.
In his recent book, The Great Degeneration, economic historian Niall Ferguson has provided a compelling review of what has come to pass. He considers four areas in which the degeneration of values and social stability in the United States has had devastating consequences. Paraphrasing in my own word, these are: 1) the role of responsibility in the stability of social order, 2) the disintegration of the market economy, 3) the fundamental role of the rule of law, and 4) the essential qualities of civil society.
Looking back, Dr. Ferguson reminds us of 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.”[iii]
He goes on to cite Alexis de Tocqueville from his famous commentary, Democracy in America, which was published in 1840:
“America is, among the countries of the world, 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.
“The inhabitant of the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to struggle against the evils and obstacles of life; he has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to its authority only when he cannot do without it…. In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion. There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”[iv]
Dr. Ferguson observes 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”:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books…; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of great example, they associate.”[v]
What happened to the creative power and stabilizing influence of American civil society? And, what is the consequence of this loss? As Tocqueville reports so clearly, Americans succeeded in overcoming constraints on their freedom through their own initiative and sense of community.
Unfortunately, action has been replaced by inaction. A once spirited culture of engagement, based on committed interpersonal relationships, has been replaced by an increasingly self-centered and shortsighted attitude, accentuated by the loss of community, and the isolating influences of the automobile, television, and the digital age.
Is it technology that has isolated us from one another in the age of the automobile, the telephone, and ‘social networking?’ 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.”[vi] And he cites the uncanny and prescient vision of Tocqueville, who imagined a future America in which the spirit of community has been co-opted 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.”[vii]
Elsewhere Tocqueville added the following explicit warnings:
“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.”[viii]
I agree that government has had a part in the demise of the American soul. However, I do not think we can attribute the present condition solely to government. In my view, the degeneration of attitudes and behavior cannot be divorced from the isolating influences of large corporations, the dispersion of communities by the automobile, or the superficial diversions of mass media and social networking.
Telecommunications and travel by air brought the world together on a macro level, but they have also disinclined us to engage meaningfully with our neighbors.
And, I believe there have been more profound influences, which have impacted on everything else. These include the broad deterioration in standards of ethical integrity, as well as the enormous growth of unrestrained materialism. And, lying hidden behind these, the grandiose assumption that we are in control and know what we are doing.
Niebuhr writes of the assumed “self-sufficiency of modern man whose technical achievements obscure his dependence upon vast natural processes beyond his control and accentuate the perennial pride of man in his own power and security.”[ix] The catastrophes of human history following on the vainglory of this pride are too numerous to count.
These combined forces have brought about a steady degeneration of social vitality and trust. Finding a basis for moral standards will not be possible for those who want to make up their own rules as they go. And, the emergence of unbridled materialism has subverted the essential character of the American idea. The consequence has been unquestioning dependence on government and unsustainable economic policies.
Having thrown off the chains of the past, we are confronted with a turning point that may actually have been inevitable since the founding of the Republic. Still, we can only fault ourselves for accepting the trajectory that has led us here.
Our government is, after all, a creature of our own invention, served by people who have been subject to the same deterioration of values and abdication of responsibility as the nation as a whole.
The Price of Self-Indulgence
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. In my view an honest appraisal is in order.
Billy Graham put it bluntly when, at the age of 93, he wrote: “Self-centered indulgence, pride and a lack of shame over sin are now emblems of the American lifestyle.” [x]
Bringing a misguided and befuddled mindset to the attention of the average citizen is difficult because it is hidden in plain sight. Like an adolescent child, we naturally deny the validity or even the existence of the view that recognizes it. Immersed in materialism, we find ourselves submerged in a homogenized culture with little self-conscious identity. Lacking knowledge of history or personal engagement with American diversity, it is easy to be manipulated and lied to. We only know what we want to think.
Most significantly, 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 liability of personal debt seems to be of no concern. Any possibility of generating real wealth is abandoned in exchange for false appearances bought with future income.
Strange as it may seem, we have ignored the past and abandoned the future.
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 disaster, and our insistence on freedom from institutional and cultural restraints is fraught with contradictions. We have failed to recognize that the basis for personal integrity and privacy has been sacrificed to obscenity and titillation, lost in a fascination with “the raw stuff of life.”
In the words of the iconic 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.”[xi]
Richard Weaver wrote these words shortly before the advent of television. And he was not alone in observing this propensity. A quarter century earlier George Bernard Shaw is reported to have said, when visiting New York: “An American has no sense of privacy. He does not know what it means. There is no such thing in the country.” [xii]
And so, we have sought to indulge our appetites for immediate gratification without consideration for the consequences.
Richard Weaver warned of a self-destructive trend 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.
We have descended steadily into the financial profligacy of the last 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. The outcome was foreseen only by a few, who were usually regarded as crackpots.
If we are to restructure our civil order and economic life following the destruction and confusion of the recent past, it is essential that we recognize the wrong-headed thinking that got us here. Principle is not questioned here; only wisdom. The United States Constitution provides a firm foundation from which to work. What we are challenged to do now is to reconsider the way we think.
Media Incoherence and Fragmentation
For close to a century Americans have been inundated by mass media, which has told us what it thinks we want to hear. This has had powerful effect. First newspapers and radio, then television and the internet, have dominated our lives with a seductive and spoon-fed conception of social reality.
But, what is most insidious is the constant stream of incoherent stimulation that batters our minds: images, news bites, and unrelated discordant information, the totality of which discourages thoughtful reflection or synthesis.
As Americans our customary inclination is to dismiss the value of coherent process and form, to ignore the interconnected significance of history. This has led both to the unconstructive character of mass media and our vulnerability to it. Some knew we were watching too much television, but did we understand what it was doing to us?
Over the course of several generations a few simplistic and endearing tendencies gradually morphed into to an economic, moral, and mental quagmire of nightmarish proportions. A fragmented understanding of reality has been perpetuated in a self-reinforcing downward spiral.
Richard Weaver wisely recognized that the ideas forming our view of the reality of things are what determine our sense of proportion and purpose in the world. If our sense of purpose is weak, or poorly formed, we put ourselves at an immense disadvantage. Then it is easy to fall prey to those who would profit from our vulnerabilities.
There is great irony in the fact that our way of seeing the world has influenced the institutions that dominate our lives. Our institutions have quite naturally come to reflect the way we think. We often complain bitterly about institutions, which we perceive as corrupt, ineffectual, or predatory, but which are, as I have pointed out, managed by people a lot like ourselves.
How do we suppose the corporate world is so effective at taking advantage of us? If we are unaware or undiscriminating in our relationship with the world around us, it becomes easy for others like ourselves to exploit our weaknesses.
Institutions generally serve their own self-interest before all else. By design, large public corporations are organized solely for the purpose of maximizing profit. Any employee who compromises this goal will most likely be replaced. Those who work for institutions know they must attend to customer perceptions and public relations. But, beyond this their job is to be consistent, even ruthless, in service to institutional purpose.
After seeing how corrupted institutions can become when they are served by people without principle or sense of personal responsibility, we cannot avoid recognition of the relationship between the personal and the political, the idea and the institution.
A Resilient and Responsible Maturity
We all know the discomfort of unwelcome constraints imposed on us by our families, our workplace, and society in general. Freedom for the individual, it seems, is relative. But as we mature with age we come to see purpose in the underlying order of things and recognize that often we cannot advance our interests without it.
There are reasons to keep to the right side of the road and to respect rules that allow us to progress safely and effectively in the world. The norms that govern interactions in the workplace make it possible for us to function productively and to advance in our careers. The rules that guide everything from athletics to the marketplace, when respected by all participants, make it possible to strategize, to ensure fairness, and to compete.
There are problems of course. A free society is never a completely settled place, and will never be free of the bruises and abrasions caused by unwelcome rules and difficult personalities. However, social forms and accepted procedures allow us to engage in problem-solving and, ultimately, to influence one another.
Our skill at conversing with others, sharing our truth such that others can understand, will always require that we engage in respectful discourse. It can be frustrating and sometimes wearing. Yet, if we have no interest in dialog with those we differ with, what is it we want? Would we prefer to tear down all social constructs and live in chaos?
Progress toward social and economic reconstruction in our communities and our country will require that we work with one another in a civil manner, regardless of our differences. Most of us would prefer to live in a rational world in which we can engage with one another respectfully. Problem-solving cannot take place in the midst of conflict. We cannot assure safety in our communities or create effective organizational structures if form and structure, or differing opinions, are perceived as limitations to liberty. Consequently, a respect for liberty and independence of thought must be internalized both in the mind of the citizen and in facilitating structures.
Freedom is realized first in our sense of moral responsibility and through our responses to all the other constraints we encounter in our personal lives, and then by building relationships and engaging constructively in ways that embody the ideals we seek.
Richard Weaver would say this goal represents a formidable task; that it would require us to confront a national character uncomfortable with form, resistant to leadership, and impatient with any systematic process. He called America “a nation which egotism has paralyzed.”[xiii]
We have seen how this egotism has diverted our attention from serious purpose: in our infatuation with expensive toys, in our descent into personal and public indebtedness, and in a sordid media voyeurism that forgoes all pretensions of privacy. Weaver called it “the spirit of self, which has made the [citizen] lose sight of the calling of his task and to think only of aggrandizement.”[xiv]
Is it this “spirit of self” that has led us to the meaningless disorder in which we now find ourselves, where self-indulgence overwhelms motivation, judgment, and foresight?
I see some truth in this, but I believe we must look more deeply into the character of a people who have risen to every test in the past. Americans are smart, resilient, and creative. In the difficult years ahead, I expect we will gain a deeper commitment to freedom and will respond with a maturity imposed by necessity.
The Essential Questions
The problem described by Reinhold Niebuhr at the beginning of this chapter is not standing still. We must come to terms with a rapidly changing reality. The loss of 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. And now we find ourselves in an entirely new world without guidance or direction.
We have long had a good opinion of ourselves and grown accustomed to an easy conscience. Our complacency has pitched us into difficult and dangerous circumstances. Niebuhr commented that, “no cumulation of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself. He considers himself the victim of corrupting institutions which he is about to destroy or reconstruct, or of the confusions of ignorance which an adequate education is about to overcome. Yet he continues to regard himself as essentially harmless and virtuous.”[xv]
We seem unaware that we are, indeed, human beings and that contemporary history is filled with manic hysterias, the inclination to break the harmonies of nature, and the defying of rational restraint.
Each of us will need to take responsibility for seeing with our own eyes and thinking with our own minds, rather than accepting the views and perceptions of others. The best of what Americans have been in the past and can choose to be in the future is a reality that we ourselves can illuminate. Nothing ever remains the same. The future can be allowed to slide unconsciously forward with sloppy, irresponsible thoughtlessness or it can be influenced by the honest effort of citizens working hard to make intelligent, responsible choices.
The worst mistake we can make would be an attempt to hang on to the petrified remains of an impossible past. A genuinely American future will depend on our readiness to step forward with a vision founded on principle and generosity of spirit.
In the next two chapters we will consider the meaning of freedom when our lives are constrained — both by social and economic dysfunction and by responsible personal choices.
[i] Michael Allen Gillespie, op.cit., p. 7.
[ii] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941), vol. I, p. 66-67.
[iii] Niall Ferguson, The Great Degeneration (New York, 2013), p. 114.
[iv] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago, 2000), book I, part 2, ch. 4.
[v] Ibid., book II, part 2, ch. 5.
[vi] Niall Ferguson, ibid., p. 124.
[vii] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, book II, part 4, ch. 6.
[viii] Ibid., part 2, ch. 5.
[ix] Reinhold Niebuhr, op. cit., p. 139.
[x] Billy Graham, My Heart Aches for America, an open letter dated July 19, 2012, (third paragraph).
[xi] Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, 1948), p. 27.
[xii] George Bernard Shaw, Speech in New York, April 11, 1933.
[xiii] Richard M. Weaver, op. cit., p. 72.
[xv] Reinhold Niebuhr, op. cit., p. 94.