AT THE HEART OF THE MATTER
By CHARLES H. WEBB
Charles H. Webb, Ph.D., is a professor of English at California State University/Long Beach. He wrote this for the Long Beach Press Telegram.
VALUES are much in the news these days: the general decline in them, some people's lack of them, the need to teach them to children, cross-cultural differences, etc. But of which values are we speaking? The "family" ones of Dan Quayle & Co.? The "politically correct" ones of the liberal left? My own answer is simple. Multiculturalism notwithstanding, if our greatness is to last, 21st century American values will need to be very similar to those that worked for us in the 20th, 19th and 18th centuries.
Despite widespread abuse of the term by politicians,-- Americans cherish the belief that all citizens should play by the same rules, suffer the sarne punishment for violations, and have an equal chance at all rewards. Fairness encompasses the belief that with hard work and talent, any citizen can rise to any position in this country. Programs such as Affirmative Action, implemented to offset past unfairness, provoke resentment and actually encourage racism because, by giving preference to some people, these programs are perceived as unfair to all others.
Although the work ethic has, in some circles, fallen into disrepair and disrepute, the idea that -- honest work of any kind is honorable remains deeply rooted. The work ethic declares that one is not owed a living; one earns it. Although public assistance may' be necessary for a limited time, the recipient must resume earning his or her living as soon as possible.
The United States began as a nation of underdogs, and has a long tradition of rooting for the "little guy." This value ties into the concepts of equal opportunity and the work ethic. Underdogs must have the opportunity as well as the industriousness to improve their lot. American compassion allows for the lifetime support of those relatively few citizens with profound disabilities, but does not extend to chronic -- loafers, complainers and malingerers.
Americans have always valued education, if not for its own sake, as a means to a better life. Yet they value common sense and practical experience over book-learning, and distrust anything elitist or highbrow, including artists and art. At its best, this distrust manifests as healthy skepticism; at its worst, as philistinism and anti-intellectualism. Still, with a few notable (and disgraceful) exceptions, Americans
have been content to let intellectuals and artists do their work, with the result that US. citizens have made enormous scientific, scholarly and artistic contributions to the world.
Even at the height of the pre-AIDS "sexual revolution," most Americans viewed sex as a significant act which should, ideally, be accompanied by love. There is no doubt that the United States has deep Puritan roots, and is sexually neurotic as a culture. On the other hand, sex has consequences which no society can afford to ignore. As a value for the future, the linking of sex with love is prudent, emotionally healthful and socially useful.
The importance of honesty is forcefully demonstrated in phrases such as "I cannot tell a lie," "Honest Abe," "Honesty is the best policy," "Crime doesn't pay" and "Cheaters never prosper" stress the American attitude toward honesty. Even in the cynical 1990s, "You're a liar" can be fighting words.
Hand in hand with the valuing of honesty goes the belief that it should be rewarded and dishonesty exposed and punished. One of the most demoralizing aspects of life in the contemporary United States is the perception that crime pays well, that cheaters frequently prosper more than, and at the expense of, honest citizens, and that justice rarely prevails. The morals and morale of citizens will continue to sink, and crime will continue to rise until our legal system proves that honesty is more than its own reward, and that dishonest people will pay dearly.
Americans love a winner. Money is valued not only for what it buys, but also as a means of keeping score; the person with the most assets wins. Thorough pragmatists, Americans admire what works and scorn what doesn't. If "nice guys finish last " and cheaters prevail, Americans will choose the winning method almost every time. Although the emphasis on winning exacts a psychological toll, it also has helped to make the United States great. Rather than reject outright this value and its materialistic/capitalistic corollaries, as many humanists do, it makes more sense to reward personal excellence, win or lose, and to make it harder for the dishonest to win.
. Americans have always mythologized rogues, pioneers, rugged individualists. In daily life, Americans share the common human discomfort with rogues, and try to enforce conformity. Still, the push toward conformity is weak compared to that in many other countries, where even myths discourage individuality. Any culture that values individuality must also value self-reliance and personal responsibility. The erosion of the belief that one can and should solve one's own problems is another cause of sinking national morale. The notion of government-as-public-udder, and the lawyer inspired notion that every misfortune is the fault of someone else, who must be sued, are turning us into a nation of whining victims, incapable of healthy initiative, innovation and growth.
Americans have always valued the family, for good reason. The less able the family structure, the less likely the child will grow into an honest, productive citizen. The family also provides support and community, both of which loom more important as the world becomes more complex -- ironically pulling the family further apart.
With the debacle of Vietnam in the 1960s, patriotism became uncool, a putative sign of empty chauvinism, fascist tendencies, selfishness and/or stupidity; Yet, for a country to prosper, its people must love it, and think themselves lucky to be citizens. Historically, Americans have believed the United States to be the greatest country on Earth. Honest self-examination can serve as useful quality control, but the wholesale America-bashing of the past 30 years has had a profoundly negative impact on the national psyche, and will do so as long as the bashing goes on.
Our currency proclaims "In God We Trust." Our "Pledge of Allegiance" states "One Nation under God." Faith cannot be legislated or willed, so it may no longer be possible for traditional religion to reinforce American values or exert the moral guidance it once did. Still, a people who lack belief in anything greater than themselves are unlikely to create, or to sustain, a great nation. Children raised to believe that values are arbitrary or that all values are equally valid, will likely grow up with weak values, or none at all. If Americans do not dedicate themselves to some higher power/higher purpose -- be it God, nature, the life-force, love, creativity, the nation itself -- history decrees that we will fall to a culture that does
For all its abundantly documented failings, the United States continues to be the most successful country in the history of the world at fostering individual human rights, and giving average people a chance at life's good things. But cultures are complex, vastly easier to destroy than to create. Yes, ours needs to evolve. Yes, it needs repairs and internal corrections from time to time -- but not so many as to destroy its character. Too much tampering may make a good thing worse. We've been No. 1 in the world for many years. Let's not give up the elements that got us there.
Reprinted by permission of the author, August 2, 1994.
Roanoke Times commentary, 99/10/10.
Last updated 2002/02/10.