The flawed texture of our civilization

The Norman Transcript January 12, 2008 12:24 am — America is a wonderful country, but is also its own worst enemy. We suffer more from self-inflected wounds than from Communists, Moslems or other external "enemies." We have accelerated declining democratic idealism through plutocratic politics, indifference to the future and neglect of realistic education. In so doing we are rending the texture of our society. Several breaches annul our right to stand before the world as the model of democratic integrity. We have foolishly let crime flourish. Our murder rate is a scandal. Our acquisitive and aggressive behavior reflects the shallowness of our professed religious convictions. We are a major military arsenal and the indifference with which we distribute lethal weapons is worthy of Bedlam -- a city of madmen. Only Bedlamites would tolerate the way we handle the arms and drug culture. Solutions to these problems are not likely to come from a Congress preoccupied with election first, reelection second and duty third. Nor are invertebrate political executives likely to contribute to the solution. Equally fracturing our culture is our inability to solve the problem of race. The roots of discord are deeper than we like to remember. Our Christian ancestors were bringing slaves to the colonies in the early decades of the 17th century. In a novel a few years back, perhaps it was in "Too Late the Phalarope," we were cautioned that the whites must learn to love before the blacks learn to hate. As of now the score is about a tie. This admonition calls to mind the fact that among American blacks there is a deep stain of national loyalty and patriotism which their treatment would have blotted out of people with less stamina. Still abuse often shows unanticipated ways of repayment. Mexicans are taking back some of what they lost in the Mexican-American War by slipping through our sieve-like border. The Indians are repaying their naive conquerors by exploiting the odds of the casinos. With the exception of the cadre of entertainers and athletes, however, blacks are not enjoying an equal requital. Added to these problems is the divisive cleavage between the poor and the rich. That chasm is too great for a healthy nation, for it puts too much financial and political power in the hands of too few people. In the fourth century before Christ Aristotle pointed out that good government is one serving all the people. Oligarchies seek principally to serve themselves. Americans do not seem to see what is taking place right in front of them; Yankee democracy is apparently evolving through Democratic-Republican plutocracy into plutocratic oligarchy. Plutocracy and oligarchy mix well; democracy and plutocracy do not. It is possible we are in the process of changing the fundamental structure of American society and government without realizing it. Nations as well as people change when subject to military pressure, economic crisis, industrial-scientific innovation, but minimized are psychological factors in cultural change. Morale is hard to understand and why it rises and falls is often elusive. One psychological force that slips into the historical equation all but unnoticed is hubris -- pride, a kind of self-assurance resulting in rash behavior. Frequently it is tinged with insolence terminating in tragedy. One of the worst consequences of hubris is impairment of intelligence -diminishing perspective and judgment. In international affairs few illustrations of hubris are more revealing than our freewheeling use of the Marines in the Caribbean, our support of authoritarians like Chiang Kai-shek and Franco, or the Diem family in Vietnam or today's invasion of Iraq -- justified on the pretense that we are promoting democracy, self-determination and freedom. The thoughtful citizen notices that politicians do not bother to define these words. As regards the Moslems, it is highly probable that we misjudge them. They have a fair share of the world's intelligence; they produce more able scholars and scientists than we like to acknowledge; and the history of Islamic scholarship is an illuminating subject. They do not want to be Christians nor do they want to follow the model of American democracy. They do not want to adopt the American way of life. Their preference is

Islamic theocracy. American pressure stemming from hubris probably assures rejection and promotes hostility not belief. Their hostility leads to aggression and aggression leads to violence. Although rarely recognizing the disability from which they suffer, hubris often reduces executives to authoritarians. Finding criticism or challenge intolerable most authoritarians want absolute control. Even serious discussion can be a threat and dissent is likely to be interpreted as disloyalty. Suspicion of disloyalty demands conformity. Independent reflection is diminished by conformity. When conformity prevails innovation is obstructed, new ideas are unwelcome and both individuals and organizations rigidify. A thoughtful study of the American military-political bureaucracy during the Vietnam War is a model of hubris and fear motivated behavior leading to disaster. Moderns are better off than those who lived in industrial-scientific society -- but we are plagued with deadening propaganda. The media hammer us day and night. The right and the left, sinners and saints relentlessly seek to make us over in their images. Few encourage us to be independent, self-reliant thinkers -the preconditions of life lived with integrity. One result is that American democracy now is a fading image of rational, humane and moral social order. The future of our civilization is not foreclosed -- at least not yet. We are heirs to a brilliant scientific tradition, to a vision of freedom and democracy and to a humanistic heritage resting on the genius of Homer, Plato, Cicero, Shakespeare and scores of others. But we still flounder. Two lines, lifted out of context from Shelley, vividly tell us why we are adrift and uncertain, lost in a sea of confusion: And we sail on, away, afar Without a course, without a star. If our course is sensible it is set by dreams of a better life for all; if a star is to guide us it must be the product of disciplined reason. Both require that we put the well-being of society above personal ambition and corporate profits. We have no capacity to stay change, but we have a wide latitude in controlling its direction. Our efforts in this latter have been half-hearted; they rarely exhibit a resolute spirit. Insight driven by will is the most effective weapon we have foreclosing our short comings, for closing our cultural fissures. We do not have to be an electorate putting the ill-informed, obstinate and naive into public office. We do not have to posture loyalty to democracy while corrupting government and society in the process. Nor do we have to forget that duty to our children is to make sure they are well cared for physically, cultivated morally and educated to be intellectually alert. If we do not close the cultural fissures weakening our homeland we have no one to blame but ourselves. In proportion as we close them we open the future to endless creative and fulfilling possibilities. Lloyd Williams is a retired educator. His principal concern since the Great Depression smashed the presumptions of the 1920s has been helping in whatever was possible to secure democracy. Copyright © 1999-2008 cnhi, inc.