Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What's Wrong With America?

It’s no secret that America is in trouble. Its problems are not just political and economic. America is suffering from advanced culture rot.

I am not using the term “culture” to refer to the arts, the media and the entertainment business.

Culture is the set of customs and mores, rules and guidelines, values and precepts that we use to conduct our lives.

By now we all know what’s wrong with American culture.

A fun ethic has replaced a work ethic. Victimhood has replaced heroism. Empty assertions of self-esteem have replaced earned achievements. A need to self-actualize has replaced loyalty, to community and country.

We as a nation have allowed the principles that guide our actions and define our lives to be sabotaged. Our values are warped. We no longer know who we are.

Some see the problem as political. If we elect better candidates  we will soon return to greatness.

Unfortunately, the culture rot goes deeper. A few good politicians are not going to cure it.

Yesterday, in one of his best columns, David Brooks analyzed the problem brilliantly. Since the column is very good, it will probably be ignored. It deserves better.

Our problem, Brooks says, is that we no longer esteem authority and achievement. How can we esteem the true authority and achievement of others when we are expending all of our energy esteeming ourselves?.

In the past we idolized the heroes of the republic. We built massive monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. We looked up in awe at those monuments, and aspired to better ourselves, to be worthy of their achievements.

Nowadays, in our therapy-addled age, we fear that celebrating one man’s achievements will make others feel bad. Thus we systematically diminish our heroes and reduce them to the least common denominator.

Brooks shows us the culture shift by taking us on a tour of recent Washington memorials and monuments:

The World War II memorial is a nullity. It tells you nothing about the war or why American power was mobilized to fight it. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial brutally simplifies its subject’s nuanced and biblical understanding of power. It gives him an imperious and self-enclosed character completely out of keeping with his complex nature.

… the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial transforms a jaunty cavalier into a “differently abled and rather prim nonsmoker.” Instead of a crafty wielder of supreme power, Roosevelt is a kindly grandpa you would want to put your arm around for a vacation photo.

The proposed Eisenhower memorial shifts attention from his moments of power to his moments of innocent boyhood. 

He continues:

Even the more successful recent monuments evade the thorny subjects of strength and power. The Vietnam memorial is about tragedy. The Korean memorial is about vulnerability.

America no longer stands for authority, success, strength and power. It is home to people who wallow in guilt… about authority, success, strength and power. It harbors far too many people who believe that power corrupts and that success must involve cheating.

Americans idealize vulnerability and weakness. They consider themselves moral if they have the right feelings about helping those who are disenfranchised and oppressed.

In Brooks’ words:

We live in a culture that finds it easier to assign moral status to victims of power than to those who wield power. Most of the stories we tell ourselves are about victims who have endured oppression, racism and cruelty.

Such a culture is not in the business of producing great leaders. It will not produce fierce competitors or even problem solvers.

It is going to produce people who want to heal the sick, console the oppressed, sympathize with the downtrodden… and who do not much care if their efforts yield the promised help.

If you were to tell them that the best way to raise people out of misery is through a competitive system of free enterprise they will glare at you in utter disbelief.

Just as bad as this idealization of weakness, Brooks says, is our fetishization of equality.

In his words:

Then there is our fervent devotion to equality, to the notion that all people are equal and deserve equal recognition and respect. It’s hard in this frame of mind to define and celebrate greatness, to hold up others who are immeasurably superior to ourselves.

Somewhere along the line we confused equality with sameness. We decided that all people and all cultures are of equal worth. Thus, if one culture seems to be more successful or more exceptional that can only mean that it is an organized criminal conspiracy.

On a micro level, schools shower students with trophies, regardless of whether they have won or lost. Every child is told that he is a winner, because otherwise he might feel badly that someone is better than he is.

The net effect is that children grow up thinking that adults in authority are all pathological liars.

If everyone is a winner then competition does not matter. No one needs to try harder or to work more. If everyone is the same no one has any real motivation to excel.

Ever since the 1960s Americans have been taught to question authority. But, they have not, as Brooks says, been taught the difference between the just and the unjust exercise of authority. They seem to have learned that all external authority, all authority beyond that of their personal whims is bad.

Christopher Lasch famously called it a culture of narcissism. Our new value system tells us to trust no one over thirty, to respect no one over forty, and to ignore everyone over fifty.

Thereby we fetishize the ability to make our own mistakes. Not learning from those older and wiser is ultimately a waste of time. In common parlance it is called: reinventing the wheel.

Our culture instructs us to get in touch with our feelings, to follow our bliss and to actualize our full creative potential. This means, if I may extrapolate, that we are told that we can make up and follow our own rules. If other people are offended they need to get over being so judgmental.

Brooks agrees with Lasch when he faults our cynicism and vanity:

Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.

Beyond pretending that they are better than everyone else, many people believe fervently that they really are better than everyone else.  Woe be unto you if you disagree.

Brooks is well aware of the fact that being vain does not stop you from paying lip service to authority. What really matters, he declares, is your ability to follow someone else’s lead.

If you don’t learn how to follow you will never know how to lead. If America’s vain youth refuses to learn how to follow anyone in authority it will never learn how to exercise leadership.

Brooks quotes Eisenhower on learning to be a leader:

In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice.

You will never learn how to give orders if you do not know how to follow orders. You will never learn how to make rules if you do not know how to follow rules. You will never know how to make policy if you do not know how to implement policy. You will never know how to offer advice if you do not know how to take advice.


Hamlet's Fool said...


I think that one of the reasons we as a society have become "obsessed" with sports is that it is the one venue where differences in performance are impossible to ignore. Sure, we as a society may try to award everyone equally (especially at the younger levels) but in the end nobody is fooled. Everyone knows who the better athletes are.

At least that's been my observation both as a coach and parent of 4 sports-loving kids.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree. I think that that is also the reason why so many children spend so much time playing videogames-- the games will not reward them for failure.

LordSomber said...

It's also telling that today's parents are more upset with their children smoking (physical vice) that cheating (character deficit).

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Great observation...

Bizzy Brain said...

Chalk it up to liberalism and the quest for autonomy. Liberalism has diminished our lives by making what matters most not matter. According to liberal autonomy theory, a fully human life is one that is self-determined. What matters therefore is that individuals have a life and a self which are variously described as self-created, self-defined, self-authored, self-chosen or self-directed.

The aim is to remove impediments to individual autonomy. Whatever defines us in important ways that we do not choose for ourselves is thought of negatively as something limiting and oppressive that we must be liberated from.

What, after all, are the impediments to autonomy which liberalism seeks to abolish? They are those aspects of our own self and existence which we do not get to self-determine. And there is a lot that we don’t get to self-determine, including what we inherit as part of a tradition and what is given to us as part of an inborn human nature. Thus, as stated earlier, liberalism must make what matters most not matter.