American Malaise

Previous American crises always had an identifiable, external cause that could be remedied, however painfully. But this time there is no external cause. The enemy is us. Americans are suffering from corrupt values.
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America seems to be running out of gas. Lethargy is creeping into the national DNA. We seem beset by problems that we can't fix and won't go away.

First, we're going broke. With a deficit of $13.9 trillion dollars, every American child is now born saddled with debts of $33,000. Economists believe that the trillion dollar Federal bailout of the banking industry is chicken feed compared to the coming bailout of state and municipal governments whose profligate ways have all but bankrupted them as well. Forbes reports that New York City alone has a debt of $64.8 billion, or $7,760 per resident.

The American human rights agenda is stymied by debt, with China successfully preventing even American beneficiaries like Afghanistan and Iraq from attending the Nobel prize ceremony for dissident Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese have embraced the values of thrift, hard work, and excellence in education that once made America great while we become more indolent and ignorant.

Rather than focusing on personal development, Americans seem obsessed with the lives of others. Social networking sites addict us with the goings-on of friends and acquaintances we haven't seen in decades and the internet is cultivating among our youth the trifecta of exhibitionism, narcissism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Nielsen observed that online social activity of consumers increased from about three hours per day in 2008 to five and a half a year later.

Reality TV is assaulting the very notion of human dignity, with millions of Americans regularly prepared to subject themselves to public humiliation to garner attention. There is even a growing trend among teen girls to get pregnant just so as to qualify for MTV's Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant, where the cost of fifteen minutes of fame is a lifetime of responsibility.

Our schools are a shambles with American high school students now ranking 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading worldwide. While we trail Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Liechtenstein, China is the world number one in reading.

American families are fractured and marriage is a rapidly deteriorating institution with forty percent of Americans now saying that it is obsolete.

Our kids are raised on junk food and junk TV, the lack of substance in the diet breeding a uniquely American form of insatiability. We eat but we're not satisfied and we have an epidemic of childhood obesity. And when we grow up we continue the trend of leaving no itch unscratched, no thirst unquenched, rarely asking ourselves what hole has opened up inside that is so bottomless that no matter what we shove inside it cannot be filled.

But where the American malaise is most felt is in the area of human happiness. Skyrocketing levels of depression seem incongruous in a nation with the world's largest economy and highest standard of living. Yet we consume three quarters of the earth's anti-depressants and one out of three American women is on one. Still, the number one cure for unhappiness in America remains shopping, which explains why, even with credit cards maxed we cannot curtail our spending addiction. On Black Friday 2010 millions of Americans got up at the crack of dawn to spend, according to, $10.66 billion on things they may not need because it was twenty percent off.

I know, I know, we've had bigger problems before. During the Civil War we killed each other. During the Great Depression a quarter of the population was unemployed. And during World War II we faced a threat to civilization itself.

But there's a difference.

Previous crises always had an identifiable, external cause that could be remedied, however painfully. During the Civil War it was slavery, the Great Depression high tariffs. In the Second World War it was Hitler and the Japanese.

This time there is no external cause. The enemy is us. Americans are suffering from corrupt values. The Tea Party blames our problems on spending-addicted politicians. But other woes in America belie a similar lack of discipline that has no relationship to finance. Rotten principles are at fault. Thrift has been replaced with indulgence. Spiritual longing with material consumption. Genuine curiosity with obtaining knowledge merely to pursue a career. Being a blessing to others has succumbed to the single-minded focus on self. Character has been supplanted by personality. The loud and boisterous get attention while those of quiet virtue are overlooked. And hovering over the decadence is a hell-bent obsession with money at any cost and fame at any price.

America is the greatest country on earth, but no nation has ever surmounted the challenge of success. Prosperity replaces hard work with a sense of entitlement, a yearning for knowledge with a passion for luxury. It was abundance, rather than invading hordes that slowly corrupted the soul of Rome and it is ironically vast American achievement that is now eroding the moral fabric of the nation. The Talmud expresses it succinctly: when you have not enough to do, you do what you ought not to do. America's sense of high moral purpose has replaced with sustaining a standard of living. But plush carpets and plasma TV screens cannot nurture the human soul.

But there is hope. No country on earth can match America for determination and resilience and we can transform American malaise into American renewal by rebirthing the values that made us great.

Foremost among them is America recapturing a sense of adventure and discovery. We need teachers that excite students about the horizons of learning, a government that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship rather than penalizing hard work, families that turn off the TV and get their kids out hiking in national parks. Passivity is the enemy, strenuous activity the solution.

Second we need to recapture a sense of gratitude, appreciating what we have instead of being always greedy for more. America has many blessings. It must now the blessing of enough.

Third, we must instill within our citizenry civic virtue, living a life that is a blessing to others. The quickest way is to establish a mandatory year of national communal service that immediately follows High School.

Americans must also foster a new identity defined by the good deeds we do and not the things we own. This will most likely come from religion which must stop wasting its time fighting cultural battles like gay marriage and get back to teaching people the nobility of a purpose-lived life. We must create communities that are not on-line by reinvigorating Synagogues and Churches, community centers and charitable volunteering. We need a national Sabbath, a day where all stores are closed and where people don't shop but spend time with friends and family.

Finally, we need to teach our youth about human dignity and the necessity of values. Public schools should institute dress codes that emphasize dignified dress and there should be a mandatory values class imparting non-sectarian, universal values of right and wrong, the moral bedrock upon which this great nation was built.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network and one of the world's leading relationships experts. This week he is publishing his newest book "Honoring the Child Spirit: Inspiration and Learning from Our Children." (Vanguard) Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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