America the Beautiful
NOT ONLY has the unrestrained impulse to self-gratification (discussed by both David Brooks and Kurt Andersen, below) been bad for our country, but also is it positively un-American. It neglects the virtues of thrift, mutual sacrifice, and the kind of civic mindedness that built these United States. It is civic mindedness that is missing most of all, civic mindedness of the sort that holds loyalty to one’s family, community, and country on a par with prosperity and personal success. Indeed, prosperity is seldom an individual accomplishment, but a communal one: the adjective “prosperous” we hear used most commonly in connection with a family, or a town, and very seldom do we hear of a prosperous loner.
More to the point, however, is the fact that not very long ago, in the shadow of the Gilded Age, even (if not especially) the richest families among us exercised acute restraint in their public lives. As Kurt Andersen writes, “rich people who could afford to build palatial houses did not and wouldn’t dream of paying themselves 200 or 400 times what they paid their employees.” These new rich are doing a very poor job of taking up the mantle of leadership, instead retreating to the usual suburbs and pleasure grounds to ply their trades and live their lives far from the both the public eye and the eyes of their geographic communities. Indeed, in this day we would seem to have no leaders: our modern pluralism wipes out any serious argument for a common moral code. We are left only with individuals, businessmen, and politicians, but no one with the gravitas and moral authority required of real leadership.
But it is not just the rich who are at fault. The breakdown of community (well described by William Leach in his 1999 book, Country of Exiles) has hurt the sense of common duty to ourselves, our neighbors, and our nation from the top of the social and economic ladder to the base. Last week, Frank Bruni wrote that “overarching interest in gaming the system at hand” is seen in the behaviour of ordinary Americans everywhere. This illness afflicts us all.
Indeed, unfettered self-gratification is positively un-American. How do we know? Because one of our cherished national songs says so, in its oft-overlooked second verse:
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.