Hearing Ourselves Think Again

Be skeptical of glittering information sources that major in fear, anger and sentimentality. Talk to people who don't share your politics or religion. Take a breath, and reset imagination.
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Fifty years ago, the richest Americans paid higher taxes than they do now, but the money funded interstate highways, public schools and science research that made the nation strong.

A tax rate of 50 percent or more on the wealthiest citizens wasn't called socialism. It was called national purpose. It strengthened the middle class, and it kept America out of
ruinous debt

Abroad in the land is a cackle of disdain at those words: national purpose. We're in no mood for it. National purpose smacks of "the common good," and sneering at that is the new way to cut a dashing figure, change the subject, and evade self-assessments that might explain this creeping sense of national decline.

For decades, American productivity was built on a particular set of shared values, among them belief in God, opposition to Soviet communism, and, not least, middle-class prudence and goodwill. By now, two unifying factors -- a Protestant establishment and a Soviet enemy -- are gone. Life goes on. But quickly fading too is the middle-class itself, along with its ethos of discipline and modesty, a moldy throwback in the age of feverish cross-promotional self-promotion.

What values do we share now? It's a roster of default positions: trust in technology, belief in personal reinvention, a taste for media demagoguery, faith in market branding and state lotteries, proud hatred of government spending yet a love of government entitlements. And fear of Islam. Flailing bumpersticker moralisms abound: Restore honor. Restore sanity. Restore the constitution. Restore greed. A once-confident land is twitchy with scripted angers.

Running neck-and-neck right now are two competing moral impulses. The first one, because of media instantaneity, senses connection or empathy with far-flung nameless others -- the global poor, a thousand charities, causes, movements, creeds, platforms, rumors. The rival impulse is a libertarian style reinforced every minute by the hand-held tech revolution, which whispers fantasies of ultimate autonomy: "I make my own reality. I need no one else."

It will be argued that all this reflects the sure evolution of free-enterprise behavior. Rugged individualism 3.0. A glorious, winner-take-all chaos. Evidence of clear-eyed entrepreneurial pragmatism. And the result is impotent government, dangerous imbalances between rich and poor, a nine-year war that no one will talk about, and well-rehearsed fear and loathing of every opposition.

In such a climate, public life itself gets denounced as statism. By this logic, houses of worship will someday be called citadels of Stalinism just for lifting up community values and inoculating against extreme individualism. For decades, mainline churches (imperfectly) endorsed an unofficial social contract that valued fairness, decency and gradual reform as marks of the ethical life. Some such sense of public virtue -- also, a sense of shame -- kept corporations and CEOs in check. (Even today, religious Americans are more likely than non-religious citizens to vote, volunteer, give to charitable causes, energize community problem-solving and press for local political reform, according to findings reported in a new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell.)

Religious commitments -- allegiance to the example of sacred heroes, accountability to others -- perennially gave a believer a sense of proportion, a larger truth and a more permanent story than glum daily headlines and official hysterics. It offered cosmic meaning, spiritual realism, a grown-up seriousness.

It's obvious this sacred counterweight is losing force. The religious options are more polarized now, and worship attendance isn't what it was a generation ago. The media noise, designed as a mere background drone to real life, floods the foreground. On-air ideologues hand consumers a fierce ready-made political identity. It's a snug set-up, untouched by civic club etiquette or congregational open-handedness that used to teach civil interaction between people. It's enough now to stay home for the next fix of brave truth from a dazzling screen.

Some dissenters against this status quo say we need a more ambitious, global dream of the ethical life, or else shrivel inside a fuming isolation. Lesley-Anne Knight, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, dares us to embrace a Grand Project for the 21st century: eradicate world poverty. It won't be achieved in our lifetimes, she says. It will take the commitment of generations. The builders of medieval cathedrals understood this: whole communities across time fed the dream, made sacrifices, and trusted posterity to see it through.

"I would hope we could reach that goal in less than a hundred years, but the important thing is not to be deterred by the task," she writes in the current Reflections journal, which focuses on the theme of "No More Excuses: Confronting Poverty."

"It requires us to have the courage and conviction to begin something that we may not have the satisfaction of completing ourselves. It requires a selfless spirit, far-sighted vision, and, above all, faith."

Closer to home, national purpose -- Achieve energy independence? Guarantee free tuition? Fix the infrastructure? Pay down the debt? (That last one is Michael Kinsley's proposal to baby boomers, in the October Atlantic) -- won't find clarity in the midterm elections. We need to hear ourselves think again, and hear others. The curious status quo -- loud yet underachieving, livid yet cozy -- is a sputtering failure for one reason: It doesn't work. Be skeptical of glittering information sources that major in fear, anger and sentimentality. Talk to people who don't share your politics or religion. Take a breath, and reset imagination.

Columnist Ray Waddle is editor of Reflections, the magazine of theological and ethical inquiry produced by Yale Divinity School. See yale.edu/reflections for a free subscription.

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