I admit to being a national schizophrenic, an affliction I share with many others.
As I look out of my living room window I can see the Statue of Liberty standing with a welcoming torch to this land of liberty. Nearby is Ellis Island, the place where my grandparents began their romance with America. I too have had a long standing love affair with this once “new” nation.
The American creed is bred in my bones – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution stand as my armor against the tide of tyranny. I have read The Federalist Papers again and again to remind myself that common sense, the accumulated wisdom of the past, resides in this nation. It is a cliché to say America is an idea when in fact it is a home for the victims of persecution, a land where the full flowering of human potential is possible.
Yet I demur. My confidence in this nation is waning. Is it simply old age? What has happened to my undiluted enthusiasm for all things American?
Lady Liberty still stands in the harbor and Ellis Island is now a museum that tells the story of the wave of immigration. There is still a Constitution, albeit tattered by misunderstanding. But there is a nagging feeling that I am holding on to a dream that is fading before my eyes.
There was a time not so long ago when the dollar had real purchasing power. Compare, for example, the one hundred thousand dollars earned by Mickey Mantle with the twenty-eight million paid to Alex Rodriguez. I can recall when my mother insisted I help elderly women carry packages into their apartments. There wasn’t any expectation, but a thank you. If being polite is contagious, one doesn’t have to worry about catching it today.
In cultural life women were on a pedestal. Irene Dunne was America’s mom and Mrs. Goldberg would shout sensible advice to her neighbors. It is hard to believe that popular music reviles women, treats them as chattel and to make matters worse, the progenitors of this cultural poison are rich beyond Croesus.
Modesty is a casualty of the new America. Whether you have it or not, you flaunt it. What would embarrass, alas mortify, a previous generation is common place. Sex in public? Why not. Pornography on billboards? Sure. Nudity on Forty Second Street? Okay. There aren’t any boundaries. Norms flew the coop. Women wear skirts no wider than what were once belts.
Everyone curses. Language has been put into a garbage dump. The “f” word is so common place it has been cast as an adjectival phrase for everything from lunch to the weather. It is as if the typical teenager cannot speak without reliance on this word. In fact HBO productions, often lauded for the quality of its programming, cannot get off the ground unless the “f” word is bandied about as a sign of realism. When I was a kid, you tasted soap if you used this word. Now you are chastised as prudish if you don’t use the word.
I can remember when a handshake meant a deal, a genuine understanding on which you could rely. Today laws are routinely disobeyed; even written contracts are no more binding than pie crust.
Technology, on which economic progress depends, has produced a generation of morons. These youngsters are taught to think in 120 characters. They tweet, but they cannot reason. So-called social media are designed to enhance narcissism and simple mindedness.
If I wear emotional blinders, my love of country can remain intact. When these blinders are removed, it is hard for my love affair to continue. I am a hopeless schizophrenic trapped by time and circumstance. At once, I know too much and too little. I love and I detest simultaneously. You might say this is no way to live. But hope springs from a memory of an innocent past. Can we reclaim what America was? Probably not; yet Don Quixote lives in my bosom fighting against windmills. It is unlikely, but I still believe that someday he may knock one down.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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