Are we losing our soul?
I recently read an article about the current leadership in China. In passing the author mentioned that during the era of Mao, the Chinese people shared a socialist ideology. They were united, more or less, by common values and the commitment to see those values put in practice. Today, by contrast, the article continued, there are few shared values and projects among the Chinese people. In good capitalist fashion people want to get rich, they want to have a good place to live, and be able to procure a good education and good job for their child.
One cannot read that without asking oneself whether capitalism in our country, so far so much more successful than capitalism in China, has deprived us too of shared values and left each of us concerned only about family and children and getting rich. People may very well give different answers to that question. But asking it is really important. Are there common values that unite us, that many of us are committed to sufficiently to work to realize them or have we really, as so many people say, become mainly consumers, private individuals who care for family and children and not much else? Are we losing our soul?
Here are some thoughts about this. When the French aristocrat deTocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s he was struck by the lively participation of ordinary people in local affairs and projects and in politics, in general. Wherever he went there were meetings, people were arguing with each other. Everyone seemed to be participating. Today half of citizens do not vote in presidential elections. 80% stay home when only local candidates are to be chosen. 32% of Americans sign a petition or send a letter to a representative – activities that require three mouse clicks and about 20 seconds of your time. An additional 16% engage in four political actions. Only 13% are as active as our ancestors almost 200 years ago. A quarter of all citizens volunteer for some activity whether that be in soup kitchens, to help out in the public library, to tutor schoolchildren or immigrants who need to learn English, or to clean up trash on Earth Day once a year.
It certainly looks as if large numbers of Americans are quite passive with respect to politics, specifically, as well as with respect to community affairs. Their interests are turned inward on themselves and the family.
A few years ago I asked a class in an introductory philosophy course to write a page about what they thought the good life would be for them. I was struck by the fact that everyone gave pretty much the same answer: Everyone wanted a family, a house, two children – a boy and a girl – a job they enjoyed and a dog. ( No cat lovers in that class.) In the present context it is striking that no one was thinking about conditions outside the house and the family. There was no worry about schools, about safety. There was no thought about justice and fairness, about opportunities for the children. There was certainly no thought about the coming ecological crisis.
We live in a liberal democracy and that means that different sets of values are acceptable – obviously within limits. We are allowed to choose our religious affiliations and may reject all religion if that's what we want to do. Our society makes room for people who choose rather different lives – some are scholars, some ardent sports fans, some spend all their time enriching themselves. If they choose to be couch potatoes that is alright also.
We pride ourselves in being tolerant of fundamental differences. But often this tolerance takes the form of refusing to think about the important questions. As soon as, say, moral issues come up in conversation someone is sure to say "everyone has their own opinion." Most often that means: Lets not talk about that. Values are not worth thinking or talking about.
From being private matters, values have been turned into a subject we will not think about. Instead we allow advertisers to tell us what we should want.
Most Americans are not interested in participating in their community, locally or nationally. If they think about their life at all, it is centered on individual and family. Neighborhood, community, collective are nonexistent or not valued. We allow everyone to have his or her own set of values and, on the whole, we refuse to think about them. Our values are made for us by advertisers or perhaps by some minister or another.
Given these observations it is not unreasonable to fear that America too is losing its soul. We are no longer a nation but a large collection of individuals and families. There is not much we stand for, except a national chauvinist desire to remain the most powerful nation militarily speaking.
Could this be connected to the epidemic of drug addiction and of drug overdoses? According to government figures an average of 120 persons die of drug overdoses every day. For them and for the many addicts still alive, life seems pretty pointless and really quite unbearable without constant drug use. According to the National Institute of Drug abuse an estimated 22.7 million Americans (8.6 percent) are in need of drug treatment. Young people are disproportionately represented in that group.
A significant number of Americans, especially young citizens, cannot stand the life that the country has to offer them. That is a frightening fact.