Editor’s Column: Flag Day - Fall 2012
Anguished debate about the future of American values has been flaring since the mud of Woodstock (1969), the heroism of the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56), the grinding worry of the Great Depression (1929-1941) – and long before.
The soul-searching scrimmage over American identity and moral destiny was at full-tilt during the Scopes Trial (1925), the Social Gospel movement (ca. 1898-1917), the carnage of the Civil War (1861-1865), the First Great Awakening (ca. 1730-60). It was there at the landing of the Mayflower (1620) and the founding of Jamestown (1607). Are we a secular republic or a divinely aided city on a hill? A community melting pot or a gaggle of rugged individualists? Who are we? There’s never been a moment’s respite from the question or from the urgency of making answer.
Lately, the values debate has stubbornly taken up space on unexpected ground – the economic crisis. What besets our economic health and throttles our outlook for the future? Is the culprit a weakened dollar, an unjust tax policy, perhaps a flaw in the American character? The stakes are high. A stack of new books and studies declares something has gone deeply wrong in America in the last thirty years, something more troubling than the failure of econometric models of GDP growth and rational self-interest. Income inequality has intensified. Hostility toward government solutions has deepened. The sheer scale of money itself – the personal debt incurred, the federal debt accumulated, the trillions lost in the 2008 crisis, the corporate power gripping Congress, the super-PAC funds now unleashed in election season – seems to have broken free from the available vocabulary to understand it, manage it, or predict its next moves.
Recent arguments warn about the nation’s widening economic division, and how it happened after the 1970s, and why it’s dangerous if it continues. Books that come to mind include The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future by Robert Reich, and The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It by Timothy Noah.
The authors look to the bad behavior of banks, markets, and government policy to find explanations for our financial meltdowns, our anxiety about the future, and the alarming levels of distrust that course through the body politic. But economic analysis only goes so far. As the reader discovers, such authors at least briefly glance at an elusive theme that’s larger than economics – moral values. Today’s market maldistributions are a betrayal of American ideals, they argue. We’re deep in a values crisis, a struggle to keep American life under the sway of humane virtues that can defy the stark Darwinian impulses of the new world order.
“There is a tradition in our not-so-distant past of fellowship and decency and shared commitment to fair play, a feeling that when the country prospers, everyone should prosper,” Noah writes.
“That tradition has been slipping away, and hardness and mutual suspicion and belief in markets as the infallible measure of all things have taken its place.”
In the economy’s recent free fall, a renewed scrutiny of the condition of American values has the ring of a national referendum. But with no national emcee to referee the discussion, the referendum is disorderly, unregulated, inconclusive, lurching in fits and starts. Still it manages to illuminate the country’s dreams, nostalgias, and potential.
What explains the growing gap between the haves and have-nots? Is it bad that the middle class is shrinking? Are we losing sight of who we are as a nation? Did we ever really know?
Various threads and responses come into view. One theme is: Let us lament the loss of the Protestant work ethic, which instilled self-restraint and thrift in American capitalist behavior but is now fading in the new multicultural, globalized milieu. Another theme: Today’s feverish inequality is a sign of the triumph of a ruthless, post-theistic ethic that will lead to social breakdown and dystopia. A counterargument is made: Let us cheer the reemergence of unfettered individualism, which is at last challenging the paternalism of nanny-state big government and returning liberty to America’s entrepreneurs. Still another: Inequality is efficient, fair, and inevitable in the economic game of life, and globalization’s untamed free markets are the unstoppable reality of our century; reform is futile, so stop trying.
The 60s, Again
Amid the sifting and sorting, scrutiny focuses on the state of values before and after the 1960s. We are getting clarity on its legacy. Before the 60s, a New Deal coalition that began in the 1930s forged a national narrative of community solidarity. The nation was roughly united by an expectation of shared prosperity, by the democratization of incomes, by a new safety net for the most vulnerable citizens – also by belief in God and, after World War II, opposition to Soviet expansion. The American experiment was a shared one no matter how perilous the times.
By the 60s, that unspoken social contract was beginning to fray. Many Americans refused to extend the contract to African Americans and other minorities. Libertarian opposition to taxes was gathering steam. An anti-war movement was corroding trust in government authority. Income inequality was starting to creep up again.
And the decade churned up a demanding new ideal that upended traditional patterns: personal autonomy. Witnesses of those times still marvel at what was fast happening everywhere – a suspension of old repressions. It was intoxicating.
“Some unjust severity had been overcome or bypassed,” poet Robert Bly writes of the Woodstock moment. “Fundamentalist harshness, Marxist rigidity, the stiff ethic of high school superintendents, had passed away.”
But it uncorked other forces too. Woodstock optimism, Bly admits, gave way to darker impulses in every decade after: a declining regard for the common good, a trend of adolescent posturing among adults, a wised-up connoisseurship of conspiracy. Tones of snark and sarcasm became a national style. “Cultures with depth have firm codes,” Bly writes. “One can feel the codes in old movies; promises must be kept, pleasure comes after relationship, you talk in a polite way to grandparents, there is something more important than money … “
Exalting the Self
A revised America was rising on the giddy discoveries of emancipation. This freedom was personal and sexual. It was also political and financial. Americans found it easy to harmonize them all as the decades unfolded. According to author Mark Lilla, the “liberal” 1960s revolution of personal autonomy and the “conservative” 1980s revolution of economic autonomy share a decisive trait: both exalt the self.
Woodstock Generation, for its part, gave us private freedoms but also more out-of-wedlock children, a soft-porn pop culture, and poor neighborhoods destroyed by drugs.
“Others wanted to be free from taxes and regulations so they could get rich fast, and they have,” Lilla wrote in 2010, “and it’s left the more vulnerable among us in financial ruin, holding precarious jobs, and scrambling to find health care for their children.”
The new dispensation’s celebration of individual- ism accounted for the curious revival of novelist Ayn Rand as its totem and evangelist. Defenders saw her version of selfishness as a principled rebuke against hippie communitarianism and government hand-outs too. She believed self-sacrifice is morally inferior to self-interest; altruism leads to socialism. A remarkable number of American Christians, ignoring her contempt for their religion, embraced her ideas of individual power and anti-liberalism.
“A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite,” she declared. She dreamed of a world of market purity: “Not only the post office, but streets, roads, and above all, schools, should all be privately owned and privately run. I advocate the separation of state and economics.”
The noisy jostle of arguments about American spiritual politics and well-being – the dispute of routine facts, the split between religious and secular voters – signaled a disappearance of old touchstones. Value debates appeared increasingly unmoored from familiar referents such as biblical monotheism, mainline Christianity, neighborly trust, personal modesty, or skepticism of too-big-too-fail solutions. A Time poll last year reported Americans turning decisively pessimistic about their future.
Despite a famous national flair for positive thinking, a certain strain of pessimism has been hiding in plain sight for decades, reconfiguring the horizon of America’s values. This intrigued writer/educator Earl Shorris, who by the mid-2000s noticed a trend: “In half a century America has gone from love of God and one’s fellow man to fear of God and one’s fellow man.”
The Unholiness of Pessimism
In his book The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times (2007), he describes a vast new political movement now afoot that has virtually replaced New Deal optimism. He does not give the new movement a political label, but it is built around an impossible search for existential security in a nuclear age and the yearning for certainty about a heavenly afterlife. It has redefined our politics.
A plausible birthdate of this movement was the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima. At that moment we learned that we now lived in a world where nuclear death could come with a flash at anytime. A new sort of dread descended, a fear of untimely death and sudden catastrophe. (A subconscious question stirred even more anxiety: “If we are good and we did this to our enemies, why should our enemies, who are not good, hesitate to use nuclear weapons against us?” Shorris asks.)
Fifty years of Cold War hardened the worry, and nightmares of nuclear terrorism in the new century only elevate the fear. This represents a break with the past. In the 1930s, America had two fears, Shorris says. The wealthy feared revolution, and the poor feared hunger. The New Deal was the answer to both fears, delivering a measure of security and political unity. Now, though, the goal of security in a nuclear world is more sweeping, demanding, harsh: It means security only for the fittest, the mightiest, the militarily superior. The inconsolable dread of atomic annihilation makes for a gnawing loneliness and isolation, a forerunner to a politics of despair unredeemed by other values.
Yet this doesn’t get the last word. No movement is permanent. It is well to remember, Shorris says, that the New Deal’s hopeful ethical vision was supplied by the Social Gospel, the Christian-infused social movement of the late nineteenth century. That buoyant spirit of religion, which declared a ministry to body as well as soul, lived on until the 1960s. The death of Martin Luther King represented the end of Social Gospel hopefulness. But the American bloodstream carries memories, a recoverable resolve that flows into the open-ended future. There a treasure of values, including courage embodied by King’s words and actions, remains in play in the name of defiance and healing.
“An undercurrent of optimism still exists in America,” Shorris declares. “To avoid despair, Americans will have to abandon the practice of capitulation to the movement. Millions of citizens will have to be as brave as old men or smooth-cheeked children. There is an American sermon to deliver on the unholiness of pessimism.”
Ray Waddle is Reflections’ editor-in-chief.
 Mark Lilla, “The Tea Party Jacobins,” New York Review of Books, May 27, 2010. Writing in the New York Times in July, writer Kurt Andersen made a similar point this way: ” ‘Do your own thing’ is not so different than ‘every man for himself.’ If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at fifty with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed ‘Me’ Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the ‘Me’ Half-Century.” Op-ed column, “The Downside of Liberty,” New York Times, July 3, 2012.
 In The Pregnant Widow, novelist Martin Amis ponders the psychological fallout of the nuclear presence: “Everything could vanish, at any moment. This disseminated an unconscious but pervasive mortal fear. And mortal fear might make you want to have sexual intercourse, but it wouldn’t make you want to love. Why love anyone, when everyone could vanish?” The Pregnant Widow (Knopf, 2010), p. 132.