Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mall of America or American Republic?

The authors of the Constitution, deliberating in Philadelphia in the 1780s disagreed on many issues. But they were unanimous in their opinion that the new Republic they were establishing, would survive only if its citizens were virtuous.
We do not use the word “virtue” much anymore. But it is clear what the generation of the Founders meant: virtuous citizens distinguished clearly between self interest and the common good. They tried to discover what was the common good and to support it. Virtuous citizens were incorruptible. They displayed their dedication to the well-being of the Republic by volunteering to assure its survival.
This spirit of working for the common good, even to the detriment of one's private interests is, of course still with us. Think of the lawyers and law students who spent countless hours researching the cases of convicts on death row and succeeded in proving in a significant number of cases that persons were due to be executed for crimes they had not committed. The unjustly condemned were set free often after long years of incarceration.
The most recent example of this dedication to the common good are the Occupy Wall Street protesters, in New York and 70 other cities, who subject themselves to considerable discomfort and, often, unpleasant confrontations with the police. All this in order to express clearly that they see America turning its back on its traditional ideals in order to enrich those who care only for money, and not for virtue, or for democracy and freedom.
Much has changed since the 1780s. America has gone capitalist. In business you do not consider the well-being of all. You need to protect yourself and your own interest against the threats posed by your competitors. The businessman who thinks too much about the common good may well end up bankrupt.
Most recently we have become a nation of shoppers. We work all week to earn the money to spend it at the mall over the weekend. At the mall you act on a whim. You buy whatever seems attractive at that moment. When you bring it home, your whim may have passed. The next day you return your purchase, following a different whim. In the mall everyone has his or her own opinion. Each opinion weighs as much as the next. You do not need to defend your tastes in clothing, or home furnishings, or food. Do you like caviar or cheeseburgers? It does not matter. Your preferences are clearly yours and yours alone.
Capitalism has not only made us into shoppers. It has made us into different kinds of people. It has made us selfish and indifferent to the common good. Being shoppers at the mall has made us irrational. We do not act reasonably. We cannot and do not want to give reasons for what we do or say. Political convictions and policies have become consumer items. We take them up if it pleases us and surrender them when they are no longer new and exciting.
The selfishness of capitalist competition and the self-indulgence of the mall have invaded our political life. Competition for public office is as cutthroat as any commercial competition. The question is no longer: “what does our country need?” but “what is to my advantage?” Commercial competition often skates perilously close to illegality; frequently it employs clearly illegal means. Witness the recent sub prime mortgage scandal. The same is true in politics: no one thinks anything of spreading false rumors about competing candidates – remember Sen. Kerry and the “swift boat” campaign – of avoiding serious deliberation about our problems by encapsulating complex issues in a few snappy words. No one hesitates to mislead voters. During electoral campaigns most candidates tell huge lies. Virtue is not on their mind.
The spirit of the Mall has also invaded our politics. Everyone has his or her own opinion in politics just as they do when they shop for bathroom deodorizers. Giving reasons for one's opinion, researching the facts, thinking carefully and discussing issues dispassionately are no longer part of the citizens repertory. There is no room for being public spirited in the mall because it is all about what I feel like. People make their political choices in the same spirit of self-involvement, refusal to consider facts, or trying to discover what might be good for all.
The Founders believed that if citizens were motivated, not by virtue, but by self interest and their whims, our republic would soon fail and we would lose our freedoms.
They may well have been right about that.