Humanity Shrugged: America's Crisis of Character and Clash of Conscience
The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan had a very interesting article published April 20, 2012 discussing how America "seems to be on the wrong track, and not just economically." In light of economic and political issues in American culture, Noonan wrote that "more and more people are worried about the American character -- who we are and what kind of adults we are raising."
I. Crisis of Character
Noonan: "Every story that has broken through the past weeks has been about who we are as a people. And they are all disturbing." Citing various recent events such as a tourist being beaten in Baltimore while onlookers did nothing and issues with American government officials, Noonan's discussion suggests that America is in the midst of a serious crisis of character. In light of the recent Secret Service scandal in Colombia, Noonan implied that the quality of life in America is declining owing to lower standards of moral character. Noonan: "Special thanks to the person who invented casual Friday. Now it's casual everyday in America. But when you lower standards people don't decide to give you more, they give you less."
Noonan also noted problems related to education and sexual culture in America. In the midst of various news stories gracing the public stage recently, Noonan commented, "In isolation, these stories may sound like the usual sins and scandals, but in the aggregate they seem like something more disturbing, more laden with implication, don't they?" Noonan continued, "The leveling or deterioration of public behavior has got to be worrying people who have enough years on them to judge with some perspective."
Noonan ominously closed the article: "Something seems to be going terribly wrong. Maybe we have to stop and think about this." I wholeheartedly agree with Noonan. So let's stop and think about this...
Given developments in American society, one cannot help but notice a gradual decline from the 1950s to our current decade. And though every time period has its own problems, there do appear to be serious issues plaguing contemporary society. Whereas one may want to blame the mainstream media, Watergate, the feminist movement, the decline in the family as a social institution, or technology for changes in society, I think the issue of socio-cultural deterioration comes back to a question of the collective consciousness.
Whereas it may be difficult to pinpoint who is precisely to blame for socio-cultural deterioration, I think the mainstream media shares a significant portion of the responsibility. In terms of feeding into insatiable greed, sexualization, moral relativism, and disinformation, I think there is reason to believe that the mainstream media has done American society a great disservice; this makes for bad economic karma. That being said, the question has multiple dimensions; it would be unfair to say that everyone in the mainstream media is responsible for socio-cultural deterioration.
I think a major piece of the puzzle goes back to the rise of science replacing religion at the close of the Middle Ages. I've previously discussed how for centuries "atheists appeared to be tightening their stranglehold on political thinking, science, and worldly disciplines." That being said, the philosophers and scientists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries did not necessarily intend to bring down religion. But as it became apparent to thinkers that the world was not the center of the universe and that humanity was not specially designed for some divine purpose, the original notion of good and evil seemed to be compromised. As this line of thought developed, a world-spirit later emerged that all opinions are equal and that there is no objective reality.
Taking this loss of an objective morality in conjunction with familial and societal dysfunctionality, it should come as no surprise that our world is facing a number of immense problems. In a country where household pets of the wealthy may have more food and better access to health care than impoverished and homeless families, is it really any surprise that the nation is undergoing a crisis of character? According to Amnesty International USA, there are now five times as many vacant homes as there are homeless people in the US today. Something does seem to be going terribly wrong. So yeah, let's stop and think about this.
II. Socio-Cultural Frustration and the Loss of Faith
Despite the world's immense problems, reality is reality; it is what it is. In light of Noonan's somewhat roundabout analysis of recent events, I think the loss of some sense of objective, generally-accepted morality and societal functionality is what she is referencing. In other words, a lack of moral conscience and accountability. Whereas various thinkers have put forward a number of moral systems in the aftermath of religion's decline, e.g. Ayn Rand and Baruch Spinoza, the question comes back to enforcement and moral accountability between the heavens and Earth. I think Rabbi Harold Kushner's book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" really serves as a socio-cultural benchmark in terms of Americans' frustration with God's governance and the problem of evil. Likewise, the "death of God" theological movement in the 1960s serves as a symptom of Western civilization's attempt at reconciliation with the decline of religion in the midst of a world where God may appear absent.
Per the writings of thinkers like Rabbi Kushner and Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein, no longer is God perceived as an omnipotent, benevolent ruler over humanity. Interestingly in the contemporary world, "New Atheism" in the spirit of thinkers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins paints God as being a cosmic tyrant. The ideas of thinkers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Kenneth Copeland, Erich von Daniken, and even Joseph Smith only further complicate the situation -- as humanity would appear to be lost and confused in a cold, harsh reality -- not knowing who or what God is and what mankind's purpose might be, not being able to separate truth from falsehood.
The diversity of religious and moral opinions is overwhelming to the individual seeker. In this sense, despite the indirect way of saying it, Noonan's analysis seems to hearken back to the "death of God" as proclaimed by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. One might say that the "death of God" was really what Noonan was hinting at. But is God really dead? No...but this answer only raises further questions to which we do not have the answers.
Along this line of thought, National Journal's Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton recently published an interesting article entitled "In Nothing We Trust" regarding how "Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great." The authors discussed the plight of Johnny Whitmire and his family struggling to survive in a harsh economy. In the midst of adverse circumstances, "Whitmire is an angry man." Whitmire is one of many Americans who feel skeptical, betrayed, and estranged from the system. Whitmire: "I've lost my home. I live in a trailer now because of a mortgage company and an incompetent government."
Springing off of Whitmire's experiences, the authors discussed problems with the economy, organized religion, government, faith, trust, and confidence in American society. One sociology professor went so far as to say, "We have lost our gods." From the article: "People have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing. It's not just that the institutions are corrupt or broken; those cliches oversimplify an existential problem: With few notable exceptions, the nation's onetime social pillars are ill-equipped for the 21st century." It's as if we find ourselves in a socio-cultural twilight of the idols. And as institutions fail owing to a lack of faith and trust, "vibrant new institutions are not generally springing up to replace the old ones." Ay, there's the rub.
The authors wrote, "When people trust their institutions, they're better able to solve common problems." As institutions like the family and religion decline, "People could disconnect, refocus inward, and turn away from their social contract. Already, many are losing trust." The article took a somewhat cynical view toward organized religion -- whereas "traditional churches [are] struggling to keep pace with the times." Further, "Traditional churches often cater to people who no longer exist."
The article seemed to suggest that in light of changing times, discontent, and distrust, institutions are no longer functioning properly. From the article: "Voters don't like hard truths; so politicians spin us; so we don't trust politicians; so politicians pander and lie to us." At the end of the day, Whitmire and his wife remain unemployed and bankrupt. "His credit is destroyed. And he's living in a trailer, with no expectation of rejoining the middle class. He has been buffeted, again and again, by forces that never had his interests at heart." Thus, Whitemire "still has little reason to believe in the system that took so much from him."
III. A Matter of Perspective
In light of the analyses from Noonan, Fournier, and Quinton, I believe the issue of a moral crisis of faith, trust, and confidence in America has to be looked at from a proper perspective. One cannot help but feel that our current predicament is the result of a natural course of development and globalization. And in terms of global problems, it's as if humanity is shrugging owing to the weight of mankind's own growth and development.
Though Noonan did not mention it in the article, her commentary seemed to imply that something significant is missing from American morality. And as Fournier and Quinton alluded, with respect to morality and the American conscience, the notion of God remains hidden in the shadows; God would appear to be an absentee landlord. And though it may be easy to tag God's supposed absence as the reason why humanity's character has devolved in the contemporary period, the crux of the question comes back to the prospect of the afterlife. If "God" is the elephant in the room for Noonan, Fournier, and Quinton's discussion, then the afterlife is the elephant in the room hiding behind God's elephant. In other words, there is this shadowy notion in the collective consciousness that individuals will not be held morally accountable for their actions -- in this life or the afterlife.
In this sense, the rub comes back to the egoist mentality -- the individual asking, "What's in it for me?" We can color the issue of a crisis of character as greed or immorality, but the crux is the perceived absence of there being an afterlife, i.e. that individuals will not ultimately be held accountable for their actions, or alternatively, that one will not be held responsible for his or her good and/or evil deeds in this life. In a time period where science has told us that there is no fiery pit beneath the surface of the Earth and no dome-like metallic firmament above our heads hammered out by God, the conception of an afterlife can seem like a pipe dream. In a world where "if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is", the conception of an afterlife sounds like a hopeless fantasy.
That being said, the issues of a crisis of character and a loss of faith could be perceived as natural responses to the way humanity currently perceives the world. Without getting too deep into a theological discussion, I do believe that this prospect of a lack of accountability is crucial to how the American consciousness is developing in terms of morality (or lack thereof). This discussion also has economic implications -- whereas an economy requires a certain level of faith, trust, and confidence in order to remain viable. One might say that rampant immorality and distrust is bad for business.
If there is indeed a crisis of character, faith, and trust in American society, I am not too sure what is going to restore that sense of morality, faith, and trust. Yes, we have Wittgenstein, Spinoza, and Rand, but how many people read Wittgenstein, Spinoza, and Rand? Aside from some radical divine intervention or extraterrestrials landing on planet Earth akin to the situation in Arthur C. Clarke's novel "Childhood's End" (where extraterrestrials manage to establish a quasi-utopian system on Earth), I'm not too sure what anyone could hope for in terms of restoring a viable standard of morality, faith, and trust in humanity. And even then, what are the aliens going to do, wave their magic wand and make everyone behave? Dare I say it, our global predicament may be beyond repair at this point.
Given the depth of the world's greed, distrust, malice, and immorality, it's as if our species is an abject failure. What may be even more worrisome for some observers in terms of humanity's viability is that if the human species can be perceived as being an abject failure and if humanity was created in the image of God, what does this say about God? As with the observations of "death of God" theologians, God's existence would appear to be tied to His relevance; the silence from the heavens can be deafening. Such observations may seem harsh, but such observers are responding to the fact that we find contemporary humanity shrugging in the midst of a cold, harsh reality. And per the commentary of Noonan, Fournier, and Quinton, it's as if humanity is in dire need of restored direction, restored faith.
Even so, if the global situation is beyond repair, perhaps this is merely part of humanity's growing up. I have previously suggested that from a big picture perspective, it's as if humanity today is in a state of adolescence. As I've previously written, "I think our current array of global problems is part of a greater period of macrocosmic adolescence in the human species. As such, all these growing pains are part of humanity's growing up -- this time period is thus akin to a dark age of adolescence. And with hope, as individuals grow out of adolescence, humanity will one day grow out of our current state of adolescence." From this perspective, humanity may have some serious growing up to do, but as with an individual's adolescence, I'm not too sure that there's anything that can be done to speed up the growing-up process. That being said, maybe current problems on planet Earth are simply growing pains for the human species (perhaps portending some forthcoming rite of passage for humanity) -- and at some point, maybe the growing pains will subside.
Going along with the thoughts of Noonan, Fournier, and Quinton, our socio-cultural morality dilemma brings to mind the words of Arthur C. Clarke: "It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God, but to create him." Perhaps humanity will have to grow up to restore some sense of morality, faith, and trust. Maybe humanity needs to grow up. Humanity has come a long way, but it feels like humanity still has a long way to go to fulfill Clarke's vision. Per Noonan's suggestion, we can stop and think about America's crisis of character, but what really can we do? Is our situation simply the natural result of historical events? Should we simply try our best to be good individuals and wait for some otherworldly higher intelligence to arrive and set the world right, to bring about the global redemption that so many are seeking? Yes, God will provide -- if only He would provide until He provides.
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