Friday, June 29, 2012

Maybe America Isn't So Great, After All

Like most normal, red-blooded American boys, I grew up with an understanding that this nation was a city on a hill, a supreme nation whose history and people separated it from all others. As I became more politically aware in my 20s, suffering several political defeats along the way (the continued growth of the welfare state, the curtailing of liberty, the moral decay) I held in the back of my mind a future turning point when things would get better. Just as an example, I remember writing President Clinton as a 13-year-old about the abuses of food stamps at my local grocery store in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Surely by now, such abuses would have come to an end. They have nearly doubled. 

Still, with the decay in the moral life, the cultural life, and the political life, there was always a stubborn insistence in my mind that the American will and persona would "take back the country." After yesterday's decision by the Supreme Court, that naivete is quickly disappearing. I am training my mind for a new reality, a reality in which there isn't a turning point in the future. True, I am probably overreacting to one man's strange judicial mind. And yes, the pundits remind me of particular silver linings. And yes, there are still political opportunities in 2012 and beyond. 

But there are far deeper problems that the sane person cannot ignore about our nation any longer. This particular law and Supreme Court decision have brought them to the fore. Highlighted now is our nation's desire to be acted upon, to become passive where we were once actors.

The nation we live in is one of increasingly weak minds and weak wills; "men without chests," C.S. Lewis said. Somehow, weakness has become acceptable to us. I always understand American to be a nation of strength; strong men and women, independent men and women, people who could accomplish and succeed on their own. Moreover, men and women who wanted to accomplish and succeed on their own. 

The American is active, not passive. The American seeks to do things on his own, without compulsion from others. He decides, he creates, he produces. He succeeds or fails on his own merits. He trades the promise of utopia for the risk of failure. Or he used to.

The American is also virtuous, defined by thrift and modesty. Religious life, now in a slow retreat, was once hugely defining for Americans. Will it continue to be so? Americans are charitable and compassionate. Americans are prudent, content to let the wisdom of experience guide their minds. 

These are the qualities that I assumed would come roaring back one day in enough numbers to turn the tide of our nation and to restore the city on the hill. The strong men - not the lazy ideologues who impose - would decide they prefer the risk of liberty. They would sacrifice to be free. While these traits are visible in many, especially our military, they are too easily being given up. Instead, other sins have won out. 

It begins with greed. We are a nation that consumes more than we produce. To be sure, capitalism is moral. But the consumerism we have embraced - defined by everything from sex-selective abortion to living beyond our means - is evil. We have gotten too lazy to distinguish between the two. Conservatives have lost the courage to defend capitalism and decry consumerism.

It continues with sloth. While many Americans, of course, continue to work hard, too many have become too lazy, relying instead on largess and unearned income. While a social "safety net" may be compassionate, sloth is immoral in any century, in any nation. 

Next comes narcissism. Read the works of Jean Twenge for a more comprehensive and damning summary. One anecdote says a lot. An international study that compared academic test scores and self-esteem found that Americans scored terribly on the tests, but had the highest self-esteem. South Koreans meanwhile scored much higher on the academic tests, but had lower self-esteem. A majority of young Americans are at best delusional about their abilities and their goodness. Nothing is more despicable to God than a proud sinner, a narcissist who lives by their own terms.

Most pernicious and pervasive of all is the sin of coveting. Where we once were content to earn what was ours and respect what others had, we have become a society that envies. Envy is at the root of our passive acceptance of sloth and the moral depravity of the vapid and lifeless celebrity culture. Our wealth has led us to believe that there is something desirable in material acquisition. That is a lie. 

Marketing, television, the celebrity culture and, of course, the politics of class warfare all have at their root the damnable sin of coveting. One cannot blame the marketers, the television producers, the celebrity or the politicians. They are complicit. But it is the American who covets. We own that sin. Until America becomes a nation of men who are content with their lot in life, we we continue to be a sick nation indeed. The material world is not, in and of itself sinful. But coveting is, and it is the root that must be destroyed if we will ever be a great nation again. 

What of religion? Aren't Americans still a religious people. Americans may be religious, but in so many ways, it is often the mere form of religion that passes for Christianity. Many Christian charities are largely government-funded. Megachurches and charismatics preach a false gospel. We have turned religious faith into a consumerist model like everything else. Even the Catholic Church contributed greatly in justifying the welfare state. Their efforts to fight it now are almost certainly too little too late.

Is it still possible that America can change? Of course. But it will require a majority of people willing to live lives of risk and independence. That corner may always be turned. But it seems naive and probably even ignorant to see it anytime soon. And not because a particular law has been upheld. But because that law represents a nation handing over something as fundamental as their health to others. That is profoundly un-American. Or at least, it used to be.


Rick Warden said...

This is a message a lot of Americans don't want to hear. Living in Ukraine for 10 years helped me to see the US from a different perspective, a more objective one.

Many Americans do not want to be aware of the true state of the US, both spiritually and politiclly, and are content to be occupied with the window dressing while the foundation is crumbling.

Anonymous said...

Astonishing that in the same article the author talks of their 'fully formed' attitudes at 13 years of age alleging welfare abuse by those in poverty (and still actually thinking Clinton would have paid any attention to his ignorant childish rubbish), and then quotes a study he has become aware of much later in life stating that Americans are generally at best delusional about their abilities.

Does it not occur to the author that he is suffering from the very same hypocrisy he alleges is bringing the nation down. As an outsider from another English speaking country we all know what he's only just 'discovered' and we've known it for at least three generations that I am aware of.

What then gives this author the right to pronounce the health of the American nation. Again as an outsider I see plenty of evidence that America is indeed a great nation, but it has nothing much to do with the clap trap that is being lamented as lost and worthy of retention by this author. Good riddance to most of it and just let the best of America get on without that sort of loathsome hypocrisy.

relieveddebtor said...

Anonymous, your vitriol doesn't help your cause. My silly story from being 13 was not intended to make me look to be especially intelligent, though it seems extremely cynical to call a 13-year-old out for daring to write to his president. Forgive me for still being innocent at 13, hoping that such a letter would make a difference. For that matter, I still have not embraced the idea that we should sit back with a cup of tea and watch the world die Have you? That I wrote to my president 20 years ago doesn't make me a hypocrite. It just means some of my optimism has worn off. Don't gloat in that. It is unseemly. And thank you for your outside perspective. What would we do without it! You should be glad some Americans have finally caught up to your brilliance!

Benedict Augustine said...

This was a good post, and your reply to the baffling anonymous comment was enjoyable as well. I have similar fears about the course of American culture. I look at it from an educator's standpoint, thus witnessing more an intellectual decline than a moral one, though they frequently overlap. I knew about your study concerning the preening conceit of American youth in their abilities compared to the South Koreans. It's rather alarming. We care more about psyching ourselves than bettering ourselves. It really is a delusion and it makes the future seem somewhat bleak. I just wonder when and how reality will come crashing down of these little navel-gazers.

I always appreciated your points about covetousness, which accounts for some strange entertainment and even stranger lifestyles. Americans seem to have big appetites for everything and patience for nothing. What happened to the simplicity of Thoreau? What happened to the penetrating reflections of the American identity Melville or Hawthorne? There're nowhere to be found. Now we vegetate in front of screens, think as little as possible about our souls, and bark at people who tell us to act otherwise.

I don't know if Americans will rouse themselves out of their stupor, but I think this kind of complacency will end at some point. It's simply not sustainable. Just watch for all sorts of bubbles to burst: the deficit, higher education, healthcare, etc. Until then, fight the good fight, be the change you want to see in others and hope for the best (all cliches, I know, but applicable).

By the way, shame on that Anonymous writer for lambasting your efforts to write the president when you were younger. That was a nice anecdote and to the point. Better to develop a political consciousness at that age than frittering away one's attention span on a stupid cellphone.

Rick Warden said...

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