In August 1981, Ronald Reagan carried out his threat and fired 11,000 air-traffic controllers who had gone on strike, demanding higher wages and a shorter workweek. This assault on a vital service early in his presidency set the tone that characterized the Reagan legacy. Not only did it augur the destruction of the American labor movement, it virtually deified the business class and the values that flow from an unfettered free market. In the spirit of the market uber alles, Reagan declared government as the true enemy of American society, ushering in an age of deregulation. It is a series of phenomena that has metastasized beyond Reagan’s dream in the extremist, unhinged, policies of the White House’s current occupant.
But Reagan’s empowerment of the corporate culture has had a powerful spillover effect that seeps into the moral fabric of the psyches of Americans and is hashed out in forms of hyper- individualism. One does not have to be a Marxist to discern a thick line between capitalism’s frenetic ethos to maximize the bottom line at virtually all costs, and the shaping of a society in which individuals are forced to fend for themselves, in what Thomas Hobbes referred to as “the war of each against all.”
The sad condition of American society is that the individual stands increasingly alone, vulnerable to predations of a heartless culture and bereft of the social bonds that traditionally provided strength, security and the balm of human solidarity. Families, communities, even churches as refuge from the harsh realities of the work-a-day world are unraveling or growing weaker. The death of unions, and with it secure entitlements, especially a guaranteed pension, now ensures nothing but the anxiety and fear of facing advancing years without a means to keep one’s home or to find medical care and to enter life’s final stage with dignity. One cannot even find refuge in common dreams — the dream of a better future, if not for oneself, then for one’s progeny. The vaunted American dream has stalled or maybe is even dead. And with the door slammed shut, one is thrown back on hopelessness, cynicism and brooding anger.
There is another side to man alone. It is not as pathetic, but it is also enervating to the spirit, if not in the moment, then, I submit, in the long range. And that is the culture of relentless self-promotion. It seems that one cannot utter a word without proclaiming an advertisement for oneself, whether traveling to France or eating a spaghetti dinner.
Waiting in vain
This supervening regard for the individual self is painfully evident in those who would be our political leaders. There is hardly a statesman among them. We wait in vain for the single politician to rise up and denounce the dangerous, profoundly incompetent, demagogue who is our president for what he is, even if he or she needs to resign to make the point. Yet, individual careerism and the petty pursuit of power supersede commitment to democracy, freedom and the welfare of America and its people; craven, cowardly, dogmatically stuck on crimped ideologies and their own self-interest they are. We yearn for the fresh air of political vision, and all we see is strident individualism all the way down.
I see the Internet as both a symbol and purveyor of this individualist ethos. Technological advance has always been a promoter of the good and the bad. Each advance is pegged to its liabilities, and the digital age cannot escape this dialectic. I know the response. “He’s a Luddite.” “He refuses to change.” “He lives in the past.” Name-calling it is. Though I admit that I am fascinated by the past and how elements of it shape our current lives and values that frame society.
Without this context, we remain impoverished and unmoored, buffeted by the waves of the moment and seduced by the blandishments which a superficial culture relentlessly throw at us. I admit that the “Age of the Computer” is in many ways an “Age of Miracles,” and one is a fool to deny its power as an organizing tool, as a mode for instantaneously sharing ideas, and resolving life-saving problems that are lightyears beyond the slide rule.
On the other hand, much has been aptly said about the paradoxical power of the Internet to silo knowledge; paradoxical because the ocean of information one can tap with a click leads, not to greater wisdom, but confirmation of biases and a narrowing of intellectual vision. Information is not knowledge, and devoid of context, it has no depth.
We have become a society on electronic steroids. The obsession people have with their gadgets, morphing into addiction, I submit, thins out authentic social relations. There are those who contend, of course, that the absence of face-to-face encounter is more than compensated for by the expansive networking social media provide. I don’t believe it. And my humanism doesn’t let me believe it.
A winnowing of the social bond is the result, which leads to my finale: We suffer an absence of public figures who can articulate with conviction and power a moral vision for American society; a vision of the common good that transcends deracinated individualism, egoism and the superficial ethos of individual fulfillment.
Where are our moral heroes? Where is our Gandhi or our King, our Dorothy Day, Jane Addams or Albert Einstein? The moral hero, so defined, grabs public attention because she or he powerfully projects a vision of social ideals; ideals that transcend appeal to the individual self and who proclaims with courage and conviction a moral universe of persons joined together in a common society, in a web of social bondedness, whereby my fate is tied inextricably to yours and yours to mine. We are in this together. It is a sublime vision, but not abstract. The power of such moral idealism is that it has us looking up while keeping our feet firmly on the ground. Its strength comes from the intolerableness of injustice tied to a vision of what can be, and morally must be. It soulfully inspires.
These voices are almost nowhere to be heard. We are too caught up in our atomized lives, too preoccupied with the allurements of consuming, owning, and with the next gadget that comes along, to hear these voices even if they call to us. Their voices are too easily drowned out or scattered in a cacophony of voices. For many, the anxiety of our times diverts attention from the malaise that plagues us.
For my talk of May 7, I will speak on “Individualism, Duties and the Search for the Common Good.”