Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A Needed Reversion In Cultural Values

Dear Colleagues:

Sixty-five years of life have caused me to think that what can be called a people’s culture is the most determinative aspect of a society. (Others might call it a people’s philosophy, or habits of mind, but what you call it is not the important point.) Huge industries, technological innovation, powerful armies, standards of living -- all these, and all else, are but the material reflection of a society’s cultural (or philosophical) ideas.

Today, very bad cultural aspects hold major sway in geographical and professional areas that I am familiar with: in large coastal and interior cities, in law, in business, in politics, in academia. In these areas, we have, to major extents, a culture of getting ahead by dishonesty, lying and spin, a culture of not having to live up to one’s responsibilities or to perform them competently, a culture of celebrification, self-celebrification and immodesty, a culture of caring about oneself alone and not at all about others. So we get the Enrons, World Coms and Tycos, the grammar schools, high schools and universities that fail to teach, the Lyndon Johnsons, Richard Nixons, Bill Clintons and George W. Bushes who lie and spin.

I don’t think our culture was always this way, at least not to anything like the same degree. It is hard to hold an overall brief for the 1950s, the time when those of us who are in our mid 60s were growing up. Minorities, women and gays were treated badly then, everyone had to conform to a single norm in thought, speech, action and dress, there was no environmental movement, and other problems abounded. Yet there was another side to the ’50s, a side stemming from many previous generations in America. There was in those days an American Dream which was to be achieved by talent and competence, by hard unremitting work, by honesty, by fulfilling one’s responsibilities, by caring, to some extent at least, about others as well as oneself, by maintaining an appropriate modesty instead of seeking self glorification and celebrification at every turn. I did not know it until decades later when I became an avid reader of history, but many of these cultural desiderata of the ’50s were most strikingly illustrated, historically, in the life of Lincoln. Today our society still worships Lincoln, but largely does not follow his traits. Presidents feel the political need, especially in wartime, “to get right with Lincoln,” but merely engage in propaganda, without a clue about Lincolnesque thought, speech or actions.

If we are to escape avoidable future debacles -- wars, ever greater plutocracy, ever increasing economic divisions between haves and have nots, continuing failures of education, etc. -- it is imperative that there be a cultural reversion. There must be a reversion to the prior cultural values of honesty, competence, hard work, fulfilling one’s responsibilities, concern for others, modesty. Correlatively, there must be revulsion against lying, spinning, cheating, bragging, celebrifying, not caring about others, not performing one’s duties, and letting the phonies, the non-competents and the lazy get ahead by using the now prevailing cultural values. It is cultural values, not the intricacies or pros and cons of this or that military, economic or foreign policy that will determine the future, and the future happiness, of our country.

For the necessary reversion in values to occur would require constant attention in the media, in our educational system, and among our citizens. It would also be useful if a political movement arose whose platform, and whose governing, were based on these verities, instead of depending on the hourly, weekly, monthly and yearly fluctuations of issues and opinions that have marked our politics for the last 30 to 35 years or so. For years the extremist, often religious fundamentalist, political right seems to have been the only people in political life talking about values, although not the values discussed here, but rather supposed “values’ such as unrestricted personal economic selfishness, unregulated devil - take-the-hindmost capitalism, imposing our views on the rest of the world by use of economic and/or military force, and imposing fundamentalist religious views and practices on other citizens by the force of laws and social pressure. It escapes one as to why nobody from the middle or the left has arisen to counter the right by promoting the kinds of values which used to prevail and should prevail again.

To urge a reversion to better cultural values is not hopeless idealism, although many will see it as that. Indeed, there are institutions in this society that are dedicated to doing things the right way and that are successful; they are examples to be followed. In any event, I believe Eugene McCarthy once said that sometimes idealism is the only practicality. So if what is espoused here is idealism, then so be it. For only a renaissance of better cultural ideas can protect us from avoidable future debacles of the kinds we have already experienced because of the bad cultural values which now prevail.

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