For The Transcript
Disarray abounds. But our country still nurtures millions of honorable men and women, many thousands of dedicated teachers, sensitive religious minds, creative personalities, masters of science, mathematics and engineering, and millions who earnestly plod their way through the grind of life.
Sometimes choices are so difficult, and ideas are so controversial, so threatening we do not want to deal with them. Turning on television, going to the "game" or idling hours in the mall are less stressful alternatives. The trouble is these are often a waste of time and resources. The vast majority of what is offered on television is an affront to good taste and reflective judgment. As for the game, it makes little difference who wins, although emotions are warmly massaged by the challenge, the conflict and the "victory." And the mall, although providing useful services and playing a helpful role in our economy, is often an escape valve. It is filled with multiple retail outlets selling much the same merchandise mostly made by "slave labor" in China, Indonesia or other Asian countries. The irony is we do not need most of it. As the world gets more complicated, congested and interdependent the more important emotional balance and maturity become. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that our growth in emotional maturity ? an indispensable foundation of good judgment ? is proportionate to our intensifying stresses and strains. One notes with regret that "talk shows" and numerous commercial diversions are intended to deflect attention from the war, from the rapidly expanding national debt and the corruption of government by money.
The United States was scarcely a nation when Wordsworth wrote "She Was a Phantom of Delight" ? a tribute to his future wife. He said she saw life with "eye serene," and although he understood she was a pilgrim between life and death he recognized her strong will and her strength, endurance and foresight. These are the qualities that can carry us through perilous times. Foresight is perhaps the most critical. It requires that we subordinate our egocentric ambitions to the larger good, that we undergo self-imposed deprivation, and that we bring psychological maturity to our uncertain future.
Many of us immersed in the luxuries of the 21st century suffer cultural myopia. Like numerous rulers, kings, dictators and their loyal followers we seem led by moral blindness, and we may undergo their same fate. Only by careful reflection guided by humane sentiments are we likely to avoid this outcome. One of the greatest ironies of existence is our presumption that what we have ? our institutions, our comforts and our freedom ? are permanent. The first lesson of reality and maturity is that nothing in this world is permanent. Nothing abides, for change transforms everything. Growth, change and erosion are inescapable qualities of the great cosmic processes of which we are a part. Paradoxically enough, the threads of change seem to be the tie that binds together the seemingly infinite elements ? objects, items, "things" ? of our universe.
The years speed by, even the centuries seem to hurry past, and although long historical periods slip only slowly by they nevertheless pass. With the speed, the hurry and the slip of time, our lives and our institutions are inevitably modified. That the dynasties of the Manchus, the Bourbons or the Romanovs would prove temporary never occurred to their powerful, self-confident, authoritarian and narrowly focused rulers. Never in his wildest fancies did Louis XVI think his fellow countrymen would detach his head from his body. Napoleon's ego never permitted him to anticipate defeat at Waterloo or the humiliation of St. Helena. The "coon-skin cap psychology" of Lyndon Johnson blinded him to the importance, complexities and realities of Asian geography. And Hitler corrupted what might have been an honorable love of his Fatherland with psychotic hate and brutality. If Americans can learn to think beyond profits to be made in the stock market or in the oil business, and the soothing comforts of conspicuous consumption, it may occur to them to study the geography and anthropology of the Eastern Hemisphere before seeking to reform our oriental cousins whom we mistakenly consider inferior. Recently one of the top cabinet officials in Washington has been presuming to instruct the Chinese on how to run their government and handle their finances. That the Chinese might resent this unsolicited advice does not seem to illuminate the Washington mind. As George Orwell might put it, Newspeak conceived inside the Beltway is Nonthink in the Celestial City.
Like the infinity of space and time, our national future is a mystery. Only the bold or perhaps the brash attempt predictions. Still, the better part of wisdom is for us to try to understand present tendencies and conjecture where they may be taking us. Three institutions in particular command attention ? the religious, the political and the economic.
In theory, America is a religious nation. More than 90 percent affirm belief in God ? but they don't necessarily act like it. And in American churches divisive denominationalism is deeply imbedded, internal dissent is widespread, secularism is steadily infecting the religious mind and verbal ceremonialism is tending to supplant the performance of moral duty. These conditions weaken the constructive influence of religion and may be subtly shifting the religious mind toward uncertainty, even skepticism.
In theory, America is a democratic society. Certainly since the Pilgrim Fathers the American political system has, somewhat reluctantly, evolved into an imperfect representative democracy. But the great danger today is the substitution of plutocratic democracy for equitable representative democracy. Present tendencies suggest further widening of the distance between the rich and the poor and further use of government to enrich the privileged at the expense of the less privileged.
And in theory, America is a capitalistic country. But the use of government to serve private economic interests is a violation of a fundamental principle of capitalism, the orthodoxy that government is to play a neutral role in economic affairs. As classically conceived government is to protect property, enforce contracts and guard the nation. If like stumbling zombies we continue to waste lives and money on senseless wars, waste resources indiscriminately for pleasure and play politics with loaded dice, then we impair our future as we jeopardize our status in the world. This kind of behavior is unpredictable in outcome and could prove disastrous.
We can direct our society and assure our future best through the use of unbiased reflection and reliance on a realistic education. Benjamin Disraeli, speaking to the House of Commons a decade after the American Civil War, pointed the way: "Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends." As a parting provocation, it is worth noting that in our confused and bristling political world, where the objective meaning of words seems less and less respected, Disraeli was a politicaleconomic conservative. Still his educational council for England is equally relevant for America.
Lloyd Williams is a retired educator. His column runs in The Transcript every other Saturday.
For The Transcript