The title of this brief essay, “No Character, No Culture,” is of course an overstatement of the prevailing atmosphere in American life today. However, there are many Americans from all age groups, all economic and educational strata who would agree there is much truth in it.
In fact, it is likely that many people, if probed beneath the outward confidence they project in everyday life, would agree: America, for whatever reason, is in decline. They might express this concern in moral or spiritual or religious terms. But the malady they refer to would be the same for each of them.
The symptoms of this decline are abundant and obvious. The obesity epidemic, the bloat of public and private debt, a corrosive dependency on mind altering drugs–both illicit and prescribed, an astonishing homicide and incarceration rate. America, after all, has a far higher percentage of its population in prisons than any other country in the world.
Even actions of the national government are reflective–and even precipitous–of this decline. It can be seen in the extent to which elected officials have become the captive of highly influential and well-funded interest groups. Decline is also apparent in the general tone of policy in both domestic and foreign matters.
For example, the basic premise of domestic policy often seems to have fallen to little more than pandering, and thereby doing for people what they might better do for themselves. The point here has nothing to do with creating an equal and just society. Instead, it seems to have more to do with placating the large multitude, keeping them quiet, so the basic structures of inequity are left undisturbed.
In the realm of foreign policy the trend is equally disturbing. One need not hope for dexterity, finesse or diplomatic brilliance. Even average intelligence or common sense would be quite sufficient. But to continually resort to brute force, or at least intimidation, as the initial and primary instrument of external policy belies not merely a lack of knowledge, but almost a moral deficiency as well.
However, if all of these observations about America today are true, or even if there is substantial truth in them, then why does not this country simply collapse inward and upon itself? In fact, how does it have the strength and capacity to be the leading economic power of the world, the primary arbiter of popular diversion and taste, a main source of technological innovation, and the single hegemony of global order?
One answer to this question is that despite a generally deteriorating condition among the population at large there are emphatically several aspects of the American system that work very well–even exceptionally well. Together they form a kind of framework in which the mass of Americans have their existence.
There are probably other aspects of this sustaining structure but indisputably there are at least five. In no particular order of priority they would include the following:
First, America has a financial and banking industry whose resources, whose inventiveness and the expertise with which it is managed may be unrivaled in the world. It not only exerts a predominating influence within America itself, but it also wields vast power over the realm of global commerce generally.
Second, America has a legal and judicial structure which is unequalled in terms of the confidence with which it imposes order and the deference with which its authority is yielded to by the public. In terms of the intensity of its professional training and the bond of ethos which ties its practitioners together it is a bedrock of American stability.
Third, Americans enjoy an unparalleled atmosphere of entertainment and sport with a widely admired pantheon of media and sport celebrities. This kind of diversion mostly by way of electronically transmitted sound and image provides an important relief from mundane cares and a retreat from the larger, seemingly unending crises that afflict the world today.
Fourth, America has one of the most emulated systems of higher education in the world. In fact, an ever-increasing percentage of foreign students come to America to pursue the opportunity it provides. Steeped in a tradition of intellectual rigor, devoted to the pursuit of timely learning, it produces leaders for a world which has come more and more to be shaped by American values and methods.
Finally, America has an unparalleled atmosphere of journalistic accessibility. Nowhere in the world are the issues and personalities of public life more extensively and ardently examined. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, this perpetual surveilance of ever-changing events becomes, in effect, a kind of electronic reality that exists unto itself. While it focuses objectively on the upheavals of the world it provides a stable frame of reference separate from the world.
In setting forth this rather pessimistic assessment of American society and postulating a structure that provides it strength and coherence, many question arise: For example, one might ask whether there is a way to improve the situation? Is there something better or is this all we can hope for?
There are, of course, many possible answers to these questions. But at least one thing seems certain. That is, to treat a crisis of character and culture in America–if such a condition actually exists–it may be necessary to examine not only the internal maladies that prevail among the people generally, It may also be important to examine those institutions and and practices which shape and sustain it.