The Good Nation
I used to think that in the decade after World War II, the people of the United States had fundamental values in common.
I recognized that there were regional differences and class differences, urban, suburban, small town, farm, and ranch differences. I recognized that racism was an active element in federal, state, and local laws and sentiments; more in some places, less in others. Still, it appeared that the people, of all colors, classes, and communities, shared the values of patriotism, kindness, the golden rule, fair play, and the rule of law.
This turns out to have been a largely fictional view based in my ignorance of facts and the public school education I received. The excellent school system of Montgomery County Maryland taught a form of patriotic propaganda with omissions, rose-colored reality, and solid learning in non-social matters. We were taught civics, but we were not taught about Korematsu. We were taught Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but not that the cabin was just down the road from where we studied in Walter Johnson Senior High school, Bethesda, Maryland. We didn’t learn that Tom was able to escape to Canada and spend the rest of his life teaching other escaped black people. But we were taught The Red Badge of Courage, about a fictional 18 year old white Union soldier’s longing to overcome his cowardice and get a bloody wound in a fictionalized Battle of Chancellorsville, a goal he did not achieve. We learned French, typing, chemistry, biology, art, home economics, physical education, and English literature. At age 16 I delivered a book report on James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” in which I stated that I thought the author was exaggerating his descriptions of Harlem, a place as imaginary to me as Uncle Tom’s cabin.
Nevertheless, I maintained a view that we were all in this together, striving to enact the Good Nation. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that public schools must desegregate with all due deliberate speed, white people in the north and south rioted. In 1956, 101 congressmen issued the “Southern Manifesto” that declared, “We pledge ourselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.” The Good Nation worked to end segregation and racism, but, well, it takes a long time. The Good Nation delivers on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, reliably, with liberty and justice for all. There was McCarthyism, but there was Herblock making fun of him every day. The Good Nation respects the rights of workers, and unions were strong, representing about half of American workers. The other half of American workers, we did not read about. But we did seem to be “working it out.” Those of us who wanted to push for rights and values for all certainly faced resistance, beatings, and jail time, but federal laws got passed and there was some implementation…
Meanwhile the middle class was expanding like a dry sponge in a bucketful of water. After World War II there was a building boom; suburbs sprang up all over the urban edges. Long Island, Daly City, San Fernando Valley, Houston. The people wanted more; more and better goods, 24/7. Consumerism was suddenly the primary part of the Good Nation’s pursuit of happiness. It became a need. People wanted conveniences — credit cards, televisions, cars, toasters, egg beaters, carpet beaters, gasoline, vacations, cigarettes, power boats.
This is the moment to examine closely the time period between the end of World War II and the year 2000.
Larry Gonick and Tim Kasser have studied American cultural changes and summed them up pretty well in their cartoon book “Hypercapitalism — The Modern Economy, Its Values, and How to Change Them.” https://www.google.com/books/edition/Hypercapitalism/a70pDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover
I am going to summarize, but I do recommend reading the book, because pictures + words are better than words alone, and the full story is better than a 3rd party summation..
Hypercapitalism began with and depends on certain values. Those values are in conflict with, and intend to kill and replace, my values.
Here’s a set of 10 values. Equality (equal opportunity for all), Self-direction (independence of thought and action), Benevolence, Universalism (helping and supporting nature, the planet, all people), Tradition, Security, Achievement, Stimulation (novelty, thrills), Conformity, Hedonism, and Power. Some of these values are mutually compatible. And some are Not.
For example, between 1968 and 2012, freshman college students nationwide were surveyed about the importance they place on certain aspects of life. During that time period, the percentage of students who rated being financially very well off as essential or very important rose from 40% to more than 80%. Simultaneously, the percentage of students who rated as very important or essential “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” dropped from >80% to <50%. Getting rich drives out developing a meaningful philosophy of life.
Why? Well, I personally think it’s because of overpopulation + a cultural insistence on the individual over the common good. But what do the data show?
Shortly before 1980, per a survey of 5 million English-language books published between 1800 and 2000, the use of the words “citizen” and “consumer” were approximately equal. Since that date, the word “consumer” has more than doubled the word “citizen.” So we are consumers, more than citizens, since about 1978.
Simultaneous with the Baby Boom, of which I am a member, and the demand for goods, conveniences, and More, federal government policies began to again favor extreme economic inequality, passing tax cuts for the wealthy in 1962 and 1982. The author of my being co-authored both of those. These tax cuts fostered the separation of classes, the increase in social inequality, stagnation in middle class wages, and gated communities.
But what about personal values? Which values go together, which values are antithetical to one another? Is someone who seeks Power likely to care about Benevolence? In a circumplex of values, it turns out that each of the 10 values is consistent, positively correlated, with its immediate neighbors. See the circumplex itself at https://www.google.com/books/edition/Hypercapitalism/a70pDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=which%20values%20go%20together
Self-direction is consistent with universalism and stimulation. A person who highly values Power is likely to also value Security and Achievement. But values on opposite arcs of the circle are experienced by individuals as being in conflict. Someone giving high value to Power is unlikely to care about Universalism. The greater the wish for Power, the lesser the interest in Benevolence. . and so we see how the values of a society wanting More Stuff, Money, Status, Thrills, Pleasure, can drive out Benevolence, Universalism, Self-Direction.
And there’s experimental evidence that thinking about money will result in giving less money to charity and less time to a stranger who asks for help. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Hypercapitalism/a70pDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=which%20values%20go%20together .
OK, so these are experiments that show the consequences to individuals of choosing different values. We can see these as internally directed choices. But what does this tell us about the changes in values by external forces, such as Congress, industries, business, advertising, television, social media?
We looked at large-business-friendly tax cuts. We also have to look at the deliberate intentions to change the nation that are reflected in the Powell Memorandum, the Southern Strategy, the end of the Equal Time provision, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and so much more.
These malevolently intended groups of people were always here, among us. We can name some of them — the Republican Party, the National Rifle Association, the Christian Right, Fox News– but they aren’t the biggest, the worst, the most effective. That title goes to the American people who believe in this stuff. They’re the people who hated and feared Communism and supported Tailgunner Joe McCarthy, who turned out to by a liar. They’re the same people who spat at the Little Rock Nine, who voted for Nixon, who supported every war, who elected Ronald Reagan, who elected Donald Trump. They have more power now, because of the help of their own beliefs being useful to people like Trump and McConnell, who want Power. They’re the people who believe that their outraged entitlement and anger is righteously aimed at immigrants, homosexuals, non-Christians, elites, people who go to Ivy League schools, people who aren’t white. You can explain that it’s the people they sent to Congress who sent their jobs overseas, and the jobs aren’t coming back; that it isn’t immigrants who took their jobs or threaten their jobs. But your information falls on deaf ears because you are an outsider. You’re not a member of their tribe.
I should recognize my country; Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Fox News, they are just the excrescence of the pustule. The question is can we recover the best parts of our nation and deliver our best to the planet?
Only if we want to. Who are the “we” who need to want to? Per the polls, that’s most of us, with the least money. How do proceed? Well, there’s the domino effect. You start with a small mass, line it up with the next incrementally larger mass, and ensure alignment with the next incrementally larger mass, and so on. Then you tip over the first domino…in theory. In practice, we still haven’t overcome white supremacy, ignorance, malice, organized evil, greed…but it’s ultimately irrelevant, all of it, unless we face climate change together. And that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to fight climate change side by side with the banks, financiers, corporations, retirement funds, schools, individuals, small towns, states, and every other aggregation of humans with whom we can align ourselves, on every level. We have to. The alternative is simply Hell. This being so, and the mass of people who have come to know it being the majority of American voters, I am going to stick my neck out and forecast that Donald Trump is the end of an era, I’ll call it the Individual Uber Alles period of American history. I am going to forecast that the year 2020 and the election 2020 usher in the Humanist period of American history, for which we have been longing — the advent of the Good Nation.