It seems as though we spend all our time these days finding remedies for problems that, while gravely serious, nevertheless baffle us both as to their cause and as to their solution. We suffer mass killings at a rate greater and more devastating than any other place in the world not at war. We have a health program that is ridiculously more expensive and patently less effective than any other developed nation. We have an economy that is outrageously successful for the wealthiest few and yet only muddles through for the rest. We are one of the world’s wealthiest nations, and yet our public school system is beleaguered, our infrastructure cries out everywhere for repair, our government is thoroughly debt-ridden and there are still outrageous levels of poverty and prejudice across the country.
The steps taken to solve these problems, both liberal and conservative, have done little or nothing, and in many instances seem even to have made things worse. We are, for perhaps the first time in this nation’s history, handing over to our children a world substantially worse than the one into which we were born. It is they who will have to pay that debt, repair that infrastructure, improve that school system, salvage that climate, lessen or eliminate that poverty and prejudice.
Why? What have we done to our nation? There are temporizing answers. We have fought wars in which we should never have become involved. We have followed economic programs for political rather than sound economic reasons. We have sought temporary solutions rather than seeing things on a long-term basis.
I suggest, however, that there is something deeper going on here, something that seems to resonate with all of our most serious problems. We have let our culture drift.
This nation was born with the very highest of ideals, that of equal birth and the inalienable rights of all human beings. Granted it did so while allowing, and actively carrying out, programs directly and openly violating those ideals. The authors of our founding ideals were also slave holders, and those who followed them engaged in genocide and permitted economic programs based on such hideous practices as child labor and indentured servitude. Nevertheless, the ideals remained, and the history of the country includes a gradual movement to see those ideals realized. The elimination of state-supported slavery, the prohibitions of child labor, the recognition of the rights of women, the national programs to provide basic income and health care — all of these things were driven by a national recognition of the ideals of the dignity of every human being and the obligation of every human to her or his fellow human.
I suggest that the root cause of each of our most substantial current problems is the drift of our culture away from those founding ideals. It is not the economy. It is not jobs. It is not the traditional family structure. It is not religion, at least not the kind of doctrinal religion being sold by the TV evangelists. It is, rather, a creeping worldview of egocentrism that is bringing us down. We have, gradually, been more and more willing to surrender our ideals for a mess of pottage. We would accept bigotry for a minor tax break. We would let our schools founder, our infrastructure deteriorate, our environment worsen — all for a few dollars here and there.
Where, then, is our hope? It lies where it always has, in our youth. Some talking head recently grounded his faith in our youth in the fact, as he said it, that they are “not yet corrupted.” What a sad description of maturing in America. Is that what adulthood means, being “corrupted”? By our conduct as a nation, by the conduct of our elected representatives, it would seem so. Here is the thing, though. As “corrupted” as we may be, it is still a fact that those ideals actually define what it is to be a human being. We still define our real heroes by their commitment to those ideals — Jesus and Gandhi and King and Parks and on and on. Greed and the many other forms of self-interest may pull us away from those ideals, but we will always know, deep down, that we are only truly human when we are directed toward those ideals.
So it is not the economy, stupid. It is not your taxes either, stupid, or your wealth or your cars or clothing or house or social position. It is a culture defined by a striving toward the ideals of equal birth and inalienable rights that defines us as Americans, and our hope lies in the fact that that striving is an ultimately irrepressible desire of all of us. This country will rise or fall in direct relation to its cultural commitment to those ideals.
problems, both liberal and conservative,