America, if it were a person, would be experiencing anxiety, self-doubt, egocentrism, confusion, self-loathing, and narcissism. Life has never been easy or uniformly positive for all but the wealthy, and even then, the rich aren’t any happier than the other social classes. It’s true, there was what some consider to be a “golden era” as we came out of World War II. The wealthy and corporations paid a large share of the tax burden, had more in common with the other social classes (e.g., “the Commons” were more robust then), and jobs were well-paying and fairly secure. Despite the racial, gender and sexual orientation problems that plagued America then, it was a time of general prosperity, social mobility, and optimism. Something has gone awry to an increasingly dire degree; if America were a person it would be spending a lot of time in bars, occasionally getting into a fight while intoxicated, and dealing with a persistent cough. The values and virtues America desperately needs are the subjects of this blog. It entails social criticism, but I think America can look to its “better angels”, as Lincoln put it. We have to do it.
You’ve heard the phrase “our better angels“? Here is what an interesting-sounding website has to say about this matter:
“The United States is disuniting. The last presidential election only made clear what many have feared – that we’re becoming two Americas, each angry with the other, and neither trusting the other’s basic humanity and good intentions. Today Americans increasingly view their political opponents not only as misguided, but also as bad people whose ways of thinking are both dangerous and incomprehensible. This degree of civic rancor threatens our democracy.”
They go on to tout that “Better Angels is a national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences, and making a strong public argument for depolarization.”
It’s a heartening idea. I think depolarization is certainly one of the values and virtues America desperately needs at this time. Indeed, as Abraham Lincoln pointed out, we do have better angels we can call upon and nurture to help us pull out of this mess of partisanship, misguided means to fulfillment, and self-centeredness:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
As I mentioned, there used to be a time when America was less polarized. We were more united; we shared a common cause to a much greater degree. You didn’t see the wealthy pulling down 300, 400, 1000 times what the average worker made (at the job they worked plenty hard at!). There was less ethnic and religious mixing, perhaps, but more integration of the social classes.
We have come a long way toward easing up on the vicious racism and anti-gay sentiment that once marked most of America. Now, it is relegated to a small number of people (more vividly seen though since Trump started speaking about what a lot bigots and fools feel in their hearts). Yet, the division between the rich and the poor is reaching awesome proportions (as is our debt, as spending greatly outpaces the share of the tax burden that the wealthy and corporations contribute to society). I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that there is a distinct feeling that “you’re on your own” and “it’s every man for himself.” These are not good values for us individually, and certainly not collectively.
Indeed, one of the values and virtues America desperately needs is a greater sense of personal sacrifice for the common good. Professor of critical hermeneutics at the University of San Francisco Ellen Herda believes that “Most of us need to exercise our sense of responsibility more than our rights in order to change and improve society.”
“There are seven things that will destroy us: wealth without work; pleasure without conscience; knowledge without character; religion without sacrifice; politics without principle; science without humanity; business without ethics.” ~ Mohandas K. Gandhi
Being compassionate and trusting in the intentions and the essential humanity of those who believe, live, or think differently from yourself is surely one of the values and virtues America desperately needs in this fractious, rancorous, polarized political/religious climate. Again, I think when America faced a common enemy in World War II or in the Cold War, and when we enjoyed greater income and wealth equality (the post-World-War-II era), we had a greater sense of unity, brotherhood, and “Americanness.” I don’t believe those are unrelated.
Scholar Gar Alperovitz believes that the democratization of wealth is a key factor that can get us back on track – what he calls America “beyond capitalism.” He writes: “At the very heart of the Pluralist Commonwealth is the principle that ownership of the nation’s wealth must ultimately be shifted, institutionally, to benefit the vast majority.” His book is still as relevant now as it was a decade ago when it came out, because our malaise, divisions, and enmity are just as significant as when Bush was ruining the social fabric of our country with his ill-conceived and patently partisan policies.
“… Only by market restrictions can the rights of the vast majority of people to effective participation in government and an equal role in the control of their social lives be protected. I say this because if we let the market run free in this way, power will pass into the hands of a few to control the lives of the many and determine the fundamental design of the society.” ~ Kai Nielson
Vice-President under Franklin Roosevelt, Henry A. Wallace, was an all-around good guy, a scientist, and a progressive person. He believed that “men and women cannot be really free until they have plenty to eat, and time and ability to read and think and talk things over.” We work too hard, are too anxious, and don’t have enough leisure in this country. Thus, one of the values and virtues America desperately needs at this late hour is freedom from our crony-capitalistic system that sends wealth up toward the few that really control vast amounts of capital and makes the rest of us work too hard and under insecure conditions.
“The topic of economic inequality has been inescapable in recent years. It’s become a talking point for everyone from famed economists to President Obama. And with good reason: The gap between the nation’s wealthiest and everyone else has been growing. And in the wake of an economic crisis that left scores of Americans unemployed and vastly devalued their largest assets, the rapid recovery of the wealthy as so many continue to struggle can feel painfully unfair”, claims
It’s no coincidence that unionization is down to 10% of private sector workers. Corporations are moving to “red states” like mine (South Carolina) not because the people are particularly educated or because of the weather; they know they can pay less and offer fewer benefits than they would in other, more progressive states (Boeing moving to South Carolina is a good example). The states that lure these top-heavy, now flush with cash employers offer a boatload of costly incentives that primarily fail to protect the citizens’ best interests. It’s more about politicians enticing huge corporations for financial reasons.
“To be the master of one’s own fate — a fair definition of liberty — means not simply being free from overt coercion (though that is a precondition); it also involves being given the means to overcome various external forces that impinge on freedom of choice and self-sufficiency. It means being free to set one’s course.” ~ E. J. Dionne
Kate Bahn, an economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, shows that “Union density stands at just higher than 10 percent as of the end of 2017, down from nearly one-third of households in 1950. Alongside this decline in worker bargaining power is the rise of economic inequality, stagnating wages, and a declining share of national income accruing to workers.”
The values and virtues America desperately needs include a commitment to better education, love of one’s neighbor, peace, and prosperity.
The above might make me sound like a dreamer, but isn’t that what Lincoln was getting at when he spoke of “our better angels”? He was reaching; he was vocalizing something spiritual and aspirational.
“Social class is probably the single most important variable in society. From womb to tomb, it correlates with almost all other social characteristics of people that we can measure,” scholar James W. Loewen points out. It is relevant to our predicament because the middle class is under great pressure, and the lower social class is harried, encumbered, and enervated in the new millennium. Automation and outsourcing are on our doorstep. These are hard times unless you are one of the 30-35% of Americans who own a significant amount of stock. In fact, only 27% of the middle-class own stock, whereas 10% of the population owns 84% of all stocks. I will let you guess if it is the rich or the poor I am referring to. (source)
The less access to resources individuals and families have — such as decent pay and working conditions, education and day care, maternal leave, health care, etc. — the worse their health, mental health, and social adjustment outcomes will be. This is sociology, industrial psychology, and health psychology 101. I am confident the stress economic pressures cause divides us as a nation. It pits neighbor against neighbor as we struggle against each other to fight for the leavings of the plutocrats.
“Conservatives want to narrow the definition of security to mean only protection from domestic criminals and foreign terrorists. But Americans understand that protection of our health and well-being is also security.”
Really, what is the point of working for a corporation for $11 an hour? Why would someone do that? Clearly it is because they have few good alternatives on their radar. If one tends to feel that folks do the best they can and that given better opportunities, one’s better angels will lead them toward greater performance, success, and excellence (like I do), that postulate leads to certain conclusions.
Thus, it isn’t that the old man greeting customers at a Walmart is failing to take personal responsibility for himself (and get a better job), it is that his options are relatively foreclosed, and it is either face a dismal retirement, or work for a $600 paycheck. Similarly, a single mother isn’t just a person who failed to use adequate birth control, she is a fellow American who likely only wants the best for her child, and, given proper opportunities and support, will probably make good choices that lead to greater success and higher levels of achievement. This is political progressivism 101.
If “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”, as the now-defrocked Kevin Spacey said in The Usual Suspects, then the greatest trick the wealthy ever pulled was convincing the lower social classes that the true nature of their woes is each other. It’s the age-old ploy: pit brother against brother and they will not notice you bribing politicians, making a $25,000,000 salary, and preventing real reform of the health care system in America. Not very Christian, I must say.
In an era of unprecedented wealth, why are so many people poor, mentally ill, and using prescription and non-prescription drugs? Are they just foul individuals, or are they lost? Should we spurn them, or bring our fellow travelers in from the cold? Is not one of the values and virtues America desperately needs now love of one’s neighbor?
“It has even been regarded by our species that the emotional side of life certainly is as important and is as central to our well-being and flourishing as the intellectual and cognitive sides of life. We are, after all, not merely computational devices spitting out solutions to arithmetic problems. We are creatures that feel and fear and love and seek happiness and get angry and tell jokes and the like….”
Look, I am facing a huge tax burden in 2019 because I am an investor as well as a writer. It will be very hard to write that check to Trump’s and Paul Ryan’s government in D.C. I assure you. I can either tighten up, circle the wagons, and become more libertarian/self-concerned, or I can stay true to my progressive and liberal values and a) pay now and b) work toward cleaning up the political system later. Conservatives would do it in the opposite direction; they typically say, “Why should I contribute to that mess in Washington? They are all corrupt or crazy or inept. Why should I pay [20%, 30%, or 40%] of my hard-earned paycheck to help folks who don’t really make the effort to help themselves? Why should I pay for wars and illegal immigrants and welfare?”
That is a point worth considering, but I believe that the values and virtues America desperately needs now should include a robust, socially-democratic, politically-progressive, and fiscally-liberal reorientation toward the common good, not one’s own personal best interests.
It is difficult to get there, mentally, especially now. In 1950, it wasn’t much of a stretch. But 50 or 60 years later, we feel like it is “everyone for themselves” and “me against that out-of-control government in Washington, D.C.”. Our survival instincts mix with our greed and our mindlessness, resulting in a cold shoulder for everyone we don’t know personally. We are suspicious, judgmental, and callous. This is no way to live.
Living in this way is not accessing our better angels. Can you not imagine a little red devil with a little pitchfork sitting on your shoulder, whispering in his hoarse little voice: “Fuck those people! They aren’t your family; they aren’t your responsibility!! Look our for Number One because no one else will! It’s every man for himself! The Christian theology you hear on Sundays is complete bullshit; it’s liberal nonsense! Fuck all that! Get yours!”
This is where my skepticism runs headlong into my compassionate better angels. I believe that:
“The manifest existence of evil — the daily drama of pain and suffering that surrounds us — suggests that, if there is a god at all, it is far removed from the perfect being described in the Judeo-Christian tradition” (The best practical advice I can give to the present generation is to practice the virtue which the Christians call love.”
To practice the virtue which the Christians call love. Certainly, love would make the Top Five List of the values and virtues America desperately needs now. It just so happens that there is a huge correlation between red states with all the conservatives living there and belief in Christian teachings. It’s a natural and powerful correlation. How it gets so off-track when folks in states like South Carolina leave church on Sunday afternoons I can not fathom. Somehow, they go from brotherly love to screw healthcare for all! I know because I drive amongst these people. It’s “Get out of the way, asshole!”
Listen to this story Atul Gawande tells about speaking with liberals and conservatives on what we need now in America:
“So did he feel that he had a right to health care? No. ‘I never thought about it as a matter of rights,’ he said. ‘A lot of these things we think are rights, we actually end up paying for.’ He thinks that the left typically plays down the reality of the costs, which drives him crazy. But the right typically plays down the reality of the needs, which drives him crazy, too. In his view, everyone has certain needs that neither self-reliance nor the free market can meet. He can fix his house, but he needs the help of others if it catches fire. He can keep his car running, but he needs the help of others to pave and maintain the roads. And, whatever he does to look after himself, he will eventually need the help of others for his medical care.”
Economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz wisely believes that “Everyone possesses self-interests in a narrow sense: I want what’s good for me right now! Self-interest ‘properly understood’ is different. It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest — in other words, to the common welfare — is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being.”
Stiglitz notes that 19th-century French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville referred to this spirit of thought as “a mark of American pragmatism.” He hits it out of the park with this communistic viewpoint:
“The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this has been something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Often, however, they learn it too late.”
Professor Stiglitz also points out that there are two visions of society, and he believes that “this second vision is the only one that is consistent with our heritage and our values.” The first vision is about “the haves” and “the have-nots,” one of gated communities and working poor. He refers to the alternative when he writes the following: “The other vision of a society where the gap between the haves and the have-nots has been narrowed, where there is a sense of shared destiny, a common commitment to opportunity and fairness, where the words ‘liberty and justice for all’ actually mean what they seem to mean….”
The essayist and environmental activist Margaret Atwood gave America some sage advice, and it is quite relevant to this topic: the values and virtues America desperately needs in this time of divisions and selfishness and misinformation. I will end with this hauntingly powerful quote:
[America], if you proceed much further down the slippery slope, people around the world will stop admiring the good things about you. They’ll decide that your city upon the hill is a slum and your democracy is a sham, and therefore you have no business trying to impose your sullied vision on them. They’ll think you’ve abandoned the rule of law. They’ll think you’ve fouled your own nest. The British used to have a myth about King Arthur. He wasn’t dead, but sleeping in a cave, it was said; in the country’s hour of greatest peril, he would return. You, too, have great spirits of the past you may call upon: men and women of courage, of conscience, of prescience. Summon them now, to stand with you, to inspire you, to defend the best in you. You need them.
Here are two additional blogs that might interest you: