Why is the tragically stupid effort at separating asylum seekers (and folks trying to cross the border illegally) from their children now a thing? What does it say about America? What have our values been in the past, and what should the wise person make of that? What are America’s real values? This blog is about the fraying social fabric and the society-wide cognitive dissonance it accompanies. I am trying to really understand what the full scope of American values is. Here is a taste: “I’ve recently been thinking and writing about the growing fragmentation of the social compact, of whatever it was this country had ever meant when it called itself a democracy: the shredding of the vision of government of the people, by the people, for the people”
“Our American government has strayed too far from American values. It is time to move forward. The country we carry in our hearts is waiting.” ~ Bruce Springsteen
The first consideration is human nature. Philosopher Alain de Botton noted, hauntingly, “Human nature being what it is, they reason, those who succeed in society will rarely be the wisest or the best; rather, they will be the ones who are able to pander most effectively to the flawed values of their audiences.”
One of my favorite quotes about human nature is by the late, truly great man Howard Zinn. He decried the use of the idea of human nature as an obvious and complete explanation for war. Clearly, human beings are warlike, but does that mean that war is an ineluctable part of society? What of Kibbutzim, or Crete, or Greenwich Village in 1970? How often does warlike behavior break out in stable and well-functioning families (you get my point)? He said the following, and I think it ably demonstrates that whatever is cultivated in a society will flourish, but that there is no unavoidable destiny to which human beings are captive: “Surely we do not need human nature to explain war; there are other explanations. But human nature is simple and easy. It requires very little thought. To analyze the social, economic, and cultural factors that throughout human history have led to so many wars – that is hard work” (Howard Z
“Philosophy as synthesis attempts to work out a correct and integrated view of the universe, of human nature, of society, and of the chief values individuals should seek.”
“It’s the shame of American schools that the young are not taught even the basics about pacifism and nonviolence. We raise our children in a culture saturated with violence and then wonder why individuals, groups, and nations keep opting for fists, guns, and bombs as the way to settle differences.” ~ Colman McCarthy
“Our democracy is a people’s democracy, and it can be as great as people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are.”
What I would like to do that is unique is to share the four stanzas of the incredible song “Beneath, Between, and Behind“, a fabulous song from the 1970s by the progressive rock group Rush (lyrics by Neil Peart). It is a stark encapsulation of the American values since the glorious days of 1782 when we created our Constitution and began this experiment in representative democracy. Here is the first:
Ten score years ago
Defeat the kingly foe
A wondrous dream came into being
Tame the trackless waste
No virgin land left chaste
All shining eyes but never seeing
How do we get information, stay informed, and learn? How are our norms, mores, standards, values, and customs passed on to the young? This is relevant to American values because, as journalist extraordinaire Helen Thomas said, “You can’t have a democracy without an informed people.” In this era of Fox News, fake news, and social media run amok, information is hard to come by and truth is hard to find, accept, and remain confident in. Further, these are ever-changing. Have you looked at three kids in a restaurant with parents, all looking at their own screens, giving rapt attention to some kind of dubious electronic stimulus created by Facebook or some other corporation? It resembles dystopia to some degree.
Is our education system adequate to the task? Clearly, clearly no. As the intellectual liberal Bob Herbert puts it: “Ignorance is in. The nation is at war and its appetite for torture may be undermining the very essence of the American character, but the public at large seems much more interested in what Martha will do when she gets out of prison or what Jacko will do if he has to go in.”
In a time when most elite colleges and universities are way out of control when it comes to competition to get in and tuition, 50% of freshman at Harvard are declaring economics or finance or marketing as their major. They want to get into JP Morgan or some foul institution and make bank. They seem to feel that $200,000 a year will make their parents proud and relieved, and that such “money values” will fulfill and comfort them. However, English professor Alan Nordstrom points out that “The point of the liberal arts and sciences, the point of your liberal education, is to liberate you.” There is no liberalism inherent in studying capitalism.
We also need to consider what values are being conveyed by our flagging and sclerotic and “me-oriented” institutions of higher learning (in other words, are American values about personal growth, capitalism, independence, wealth-achievement, and stiff competition, or their opposites?). We certainly need to make reforms in what students learn and what kind of character they are developing. Is community not important? Ethics? Love? Anything comparable to what a Waldorf or Montessori school tries to teach? For,
“A higher education is not necessarily a guarantee of higher virtue, or higher political wisdom.”
If American values are being manipulated and shaped by money (well, as my libertarian friend would correct me, “It’s not money, it’s the love of money that is the root of all evil”), then how do we right our path before we crash into something we can’t recover from? Remember, Rome seemed invincible in 100 A.D., but by 500 A.D. it was fragmented, crumbling, and dysfunctional. In fact, show me a civilization that was around 1,000 years ago and is alive and well today. Look at what modern philosopher Alasdair McIntyre has to say which I think is relevant to the way that wealth is often so easily gained (e.g., inheritances, trusts, CEO pay, banksters manipulating the very agencies they are supposed to be supervised by, etc).
Representative Alan Simpson (a bit conservative but by most accounts above the lobbyist-driven, corporatized “pay to play” system we now have) put it very succinctly: “Is this America [spending a billion dollars on a presidential election in the wake of Citizens United]? Not in my mind. I think it’s absolutely stupefying.”
“In a society where there is no longer a shared conception of the community’s good as specified by the good for man, there can no longer either be any very substantial concept of what it is to contribute more or less to the achievement of that good. Hence notions of desert and of honor become detached from the context in which they were originally at home. Honor becomes nothing more than a badge of aristocratic status, and status itself, tied as it is now so securely to property, has very little to do with desert.”
“The people on top get away with their absurd policies because they assume that people don’t know what’s going on—the media won’t report it—or that people have given up to such a degree that they’re not capable of fighting back, or that they could always raise enough money in a campaign to run lying, thirty-second ads and they’ll win anyhow.”
Beneath the noble birth
Between the proudest words
Behind the beauty, cracks appear
Once with heads held high
They sang out to the sky
Why do their shadows bow in fear?
Beneath the noble birth/ Between the proudest words/ Behind the beauty, cracks appear. Wow, that is just plain haunting. It says to me that to some degree, American values began with concepts such as freedom, opportunity, integration, and cooperation. Now would you say that those things mark American values, or are they really in name only; something you read on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty, but not really practiced?
I come down in a fairly pessimistic way on this. Ask a granddaughter of Italian immigrants (or Irish, Jewish, Polish, Mexican, or Japanese) how their grandparent was treated when they arrived stateside? Most of them were given a truncated last name by the WASPy customs official at Ellis Island and sent off, typically penniless, to take whatever menial job they could find. Countless were no doubt looked down upon, literally, by the bourgeoisie in their high rise apartments and office buildings, smoking their cigars and in their three-piece suits and wingtip shoes. Many faced brutal discrimination, stifling work conditions, and incessant poverty. You don’t read about those American values in the Declaration of Independence…
“Our American values are not luxuries but necessities—not the salt in our bread but the bread itself. Our common vision of a free and just society is our greatest source of cohesion at home and strength abroad—greater even than the bounty of our material blessings.”
“What the people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.”
Watch the cities rise
Another ship arrives
Earth’s melting pot, and ever-growing
Fantastic dreams come true
Inventing something new
The greatest minds, but never knowing
What to make of corporations, religion, and race relations? Venerable journalist and political wonk Bill Moyers wrote that “The corporate, political and religious right have converged, led by a president who, in his own disdain for science, reason and knowledge, is the most powerful fundamentalist in American history.”
Here is a gross summary of how corporate and ruling-class values affect the 99% of Americans who are just plain folks, stressed middle class members, or the marginal poor: “…deficits have all of a sudden become the source of enormous anger among people who said nothing about them previously, as the tax cuts for the wealthy, off-budget wars based on lies, and unfunded prescription drug Big Pharma giveaway transmogrified the biggest surplus in American history into the biggest deficit ever” (
“Patriotic rhetoric has sought to sanctify racism, sexism, antiunionism, excess profits, witch-hunts, religious bigotry, and environmental plunder.”
“Add up all the various forms of ethical and legal misconduct and you have a moral crisis of serious dimensions – one that underscores the poverty of today’s values debate. America’s crisis of ethics is no accidental phenomenon. It is organic to the way of life proselytized by the right. As free-market ideology has triumphed both economically and culturally since the late 1970s, such quintessential American values as fair play and honesty have sunk into decline.”
Though Napoleon pointed out that “Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich,” it also has a pernicious effect on American values. Think of the true and actual values the “religious Right” (evangelical Christians) represent, and ask yourself if they are less violent but equally contemptible goals and means as held by Islamic fundamentalists.
Perhaps this has not always been the case. Though I am sure that America was not founded on religious toleration, philosopher Michael J. Sandel does point out that “…conservatives have not always had a monopoly on the faith-based aspects of political argument. Some of the great movements of moral and political reform in American history – from the abolitionist movement to the Progressive era to the civil rights movement of the 1960s – drew powerfully on moral, religious, and spiritual sources.”
I am in fact quite torn about religion in America. I do believe that America should have been based on religious toleration and a true separation of church and state, but I tend to think those were only nominal guiding principles. Though I see that religion can bring out the best in folks, it is often intolerant, discriminatory, exclusive, homogeneous, hypocritcal, and irrational. It’s just not very psychologically well-developed, I think. “A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death”
“Time and again in American history, the definition of freedom has been transformed by the demands of those denied its blessings- racial minorities, women, workers, and others.”
The guns replace the plow
Facades are tarnished now
The principles have been betrayed
The dreams’s gone stale
But still let hope prevail
Hope that history’s debt won’t be repaid.
Yes, I too hope that history’s debt won’t need to be repaid. We sure do have a moral debt, which began with institutionalized slavery, “manifest destiny,” and religious intolerance (e.g., witch hunts). And seeing that this year Trump’s GOP is going to let the deficit rise to $1,000,000,000,000, we are in deep shit.
In the end, this fairly somber recapitulation of American values is relevant to wisdom. It seems plain that it is unwise to allow certain values to flourish in a society and others to be deprived of oxygen when the ones that make up the status quo are objectionable, immoral, lamentable, and destructive.
In sum, I come down on the side that Americans are human beings, and subject to the same genetic and species-wide influences and characteristics that anyone anywhere else would be. We have had a long history, but are still relatively young. We seem to be taking the ideals and qualities of Western civilization to the n’th degree, and for better for worse, we are in uncharted territory. Our country is deeply divided (and has been since the time of the Civil War), there is a progressive impulse countered by a more selfish and regressive impulse, and our technology is evincing a very dark underbelly. We really, really have to consider where this is all heading, and consider taking drastic action like bringing back the old Athenian concept of ostracism, getting big money out of politics, and aggressively prosecuting white collar crime. It’s not too late, but we’re getting there fast. And as the American Indian proverb goes, “If we don’t turn around now, we might get where we’re going.”
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world… indeed, it is the only thing that ever has!”
I would refer you to Chalmers Johnson’s website for more information on what he would call “the sorrows of empire.”
As well, I conducted an illuminating interview with Kevin Danaher, Ph.D., who as been called “The Paul Revere of globalization,” and he referenced America’s “money values vs. life values.” That can be heard in podcast form HERE. You might also enjoy my interview with Gar Alperovitz, Ph.D. entitled “America Beyond Capitalism,” after his book of the same name.
I would like to share a dozen or so quotes that demonstrate the American values with us since the start, as well as the way they are morphing and transmuting over time (and often not in a good way!):
In a society in which the narrow pursuit of material self-interest is the norm, the shift to an ethical stance is more radical than many people realize. In comparison with the needs of people starving in Somalia, the desire to sample the wines of the leading French vineyards pales into insignificance.
These days we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralized, interactive and democratized. The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.
What cultural supremacy could be claimed by the Europeans of yore? From the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries Europe certainly was “ahead” of Africa, Asia, and Latin America in a variety of things, such as the number of hangings, murders, and other violent crimes; instances of venereal disease, smallpox, typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera, and other such afflictions; social inequality and poverty (both urban and rural); and frequency of famines, slavery, prostitution, piracy, religious massacres and inquisitions. Those who claim the West has been the most advanced civilization should dwell a bit more on all its achievements.
We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
[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.
Our acquiescence in Native American dispossession has molded the American character.
If we’re all to be members of the same economy, should we not think of ourselves as the same society? If we did think like that, then it would immediately become obvious to us that we couldn’t live in a society with such discrepancies. In fact, “discrepancy” is a weak word with such glaring gaps between the standard of not just living, but justice and expectation.
…willingness to fight against tyranny, and sacrifice safety and comforts for liberty and freedom, is the essence of the American character. These are the values that define strength, courage, and resolve in our country, and they always have.
…the poor were reminded that the rich were thieving and corrupt and had attained their privileges through plunder and deception rather than virtue or talent. Moreover, they had rigged society in such a way that the poor could never improve their lot individually, however capable and willing they might be. Their only hope lay in mass social protest and revolution.
“In a society that venerates competition and solitary effort, the suggestion that we ought to work together is regarded as either refreshingly humanistic or suspiciously un-American.”
When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
In a society marked by inequality, people who have endured less-than-equal opportunities may become restive. Members of favored groups may become ashamed of the unfairness, unable to defend it to the oppressed or even to themselves. To maintain a stratified system, it is terribly important to control how people think about that system.
Paideia is based on the idea that a healthy democracy requires a certain sort of honorable citizen – that if we’re not willing to tell the truth, devote our lives to common purposes, or defer to a shared moral order, then we’ll succumb to the shallowness of a purely commercial civilization; we’ll be torn asunder by the centrifugal forces of extreme individualism; we’ll rip one another to shreds in the naked struggle for power.
think that we can see quite clearly some very, very serious defects and flaws in our society, our level of culture, our institutions, which are going to have to be corrected by operating outside the framework that is commonly accepted; I think we’re going to have to find new ways of political action.
Most people want to live in a society where the government insures not just equal rights but equal opportunities: for decent health care, good public education, the ability to live to old age in comfort and serenity.
The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests. Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America’s most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security.
To make matters worse, the flow of power to large-scale institutions coincided with the decline of traditional communities. Families and neighborhoods, cities and towns, religious and ethnic and regional communities were eroded or homogenized, leaving the individual to confront the impersonal forces of the economy and the state without the moral or political resources that intermediate communities provide.
If the United States were to look into a mirror right now, it wouldn’t recognize itself. The [presidential] administration that thumbed its nose at the Geneva Conventions seem equally dismissive of such grand American values as honor, justice, integrity, due process, and the truth.
…in a society that elevates acquisitive selfishness into its chief virtue, the Hobbesian war of all against all lurks just beneath the surface.
These distinctly American ideas became the often unintended instruments for splitting the country into two classes: the protected and the unprotected. The protected overmatched, overran and paralyzed the government. The unprotected were left even further behind. And in many cases, the work was done by a generation of smart, hungry strivers who benefited from one of the most American values of all: meritocracy.
Yes, I’m a liberal, and I’m proud of it. It’s a term we need to reclaim. Because I believe most Americans are liberals just like me. Most Americans believe in helping people. And most Americans believe that government has a role to play – to create opportunity, to protect our environment, to provide for the common good.
Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks.
Capitalism is out of control, thanks in no small part to Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision which said that a corporation is a person, even though it doesn’t eat, drink, make love, sing, raise children or take care of aging parents. You can’t have a people’s democracy as long as corporations are considered people.
keywords: American values, moral values, progressivism, societal decay