A SURE COMPASS – American Society Has Lost Its Sense of Direction
By JOHN A. HOWARD, Counselor, The Rockford Institute
Delivered at the 25th Anniversary of St. Croix Review, St. Paul, Minnesota , October 21, 1992
“But what more oft in nations grown corrupt
And by their vices brought to servitude
Than to love bondage more than liberty,
Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty.”
John Milton, Samson Agonistes (1671)
We have gathered to celebrate the founding of a modest journal by an Australian clergyman a quarter of a century ago. And we come to give thanks for the wisdom he has consistently disseminated. Wisdom is always a scarce commodity, but in this age when the worship of the individual has virtually abolished the conventions of civilized living, the wisdom presented in the St. Croix Review has been a godsend to readers who yearn for a revival of decent, moral and lawful communities.
Decency, morality and lawfulness were still commonly accepted patterns for living in 1967 when Angus McDonald began his magazine. Those virtues were woven into the culture. They described behavior that was simply expected of people. Their importance and their benefits were taken for granted. The value of standards which embody obligations to the community cannot be overstated. What people believe, what they cherish, what they will sacrifice for, what they regard as trivial – these are the influences which shape the destiny of a family, a business firm, a community or a nation. What they will sacrifice for, what they consider unimportant – those attitudes determine the fate of any group.
Now, however, decency, lawfulness, morality and many other ancient proprieties have been stripped of their authority. They have been supplanted by different views which glorify personal preferences with no consideration for the well-being, or even the survival, of the group. Just how different the new attitudes are was made clear in a recent interview with Michael Blonsky, an analyst of cultural trends. He is a professor at New York University. The interview took place at Nike Town, a glittering new store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue that sells wildly-expensive sneakers.
“This,”said Blonsky on entering the store, “is a church! A post-modern church!” Then pointing to a life-sized figure of Michael Jordan, the basketball star, he declared, “Look! There’s God!”
This was not just crude and blasphemous flippancy. He went on to explain that many people today are totally unpersuaded by any system of beliefs. For them flashy shoes are as important as anything gets. Beyond a fascination with the ownership of impressive things, Blonsky cites as other key values of the New Culture glamour, fitness, youth, power, freedom, eroticism and violence.
“In the 1960’s and 1970’s ,” Blonsky noted, “The human psyche began to be recorded, it got altered. The feeling is people are being produced that are different from before World War II.”
Well, I must admit the professor is on to something there. Something big! For anyone who was an adult before World War II, it is hard to believe the populace he is describing is from the same country as the Americans of pre-World War II vintage. Or even the same species. Violence and sneakers are some of the most important things in life? One is inclined to wonder if aliens have taken possession of new generations, deadening their souls and afflicting their minds with foolish notions.
How did this transformation of America’s beliefs come about? How was it possible so broadly and so quickly to discredit and displace the ancient settled concepts which for generations had guided and knitted together the common life? One solid account of that change is set forth by Todd Gitlin in a book entitled The Sixties, Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Gitlin’s bright mind surfaced early. He was valedictorian of his class at The Bronx High School of Science. He went on to Harvard University and in 1963, he was elected national president of the Students for a Democratic Society, or SOS as it was commonly known. That was the brain-trust of the revolutionary groups of the Sixties . Gitlin was in the thick of the protests and confrontations all across the country, including the shocking turmoil at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He visited Castro’s Cuba. His book is an effort to distill the significance of that decade of turbulence.
In the summary I offer here of the repudiation by young Americans of the established order, I am much indebted to Gitlin’s analysis. First, the context. During the 1950’s, America was prosperous . It was the one powerful, respected nation of the world. By and large, the population was comfortable, happy and confident about the future. Things were going well for the United States. Even so, the children growing up in that period became increasingly uneasy about the possibility of atomic warfare. There were bomb shelters and school evacuation drills and there was much public distress about the Soviet Union’s spreading its Marxist doctrines across the globe. The East West tensions took on the ominous title of the Cold War.
Another cause of distress was America’s failure to give a fair shake to its Black citizens, brought into sharp focus by the Civil Rights Movement and the cruel efforts to suppress it. In households like the Gitlins’ where the liberal parents had regularly voiced their sympathy for down-trodden peoples throughout the world, it was a natural thing for the children to rejoice when the repressive Batista regime of Cuba was overthrown by Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries. The humanitarian claims of socialism seemed a welcome contrast to the American reality.
In addition to being troubled by the Bomb and America’s unfair treatment of the Blacks, the babyboom generation became increasingly worried as the Vietnam conflict expanded and the draft took a growing portion of the young men. Allegations that America was fighting an unjust war for the benefit of special interests were perhaps too readily accepted, without much thought about whether they were true. When it turned out that the “good guys” who had freed the Cuban people from oppression were, in fact, Communists, that revelation, for many who were nervous about The Bomb, raised doubts about whether America should even be trying to contain Communism. Maybe America’s anti-Communist foreign policy was a bad idea rather than a good one.
Further inciting the growing antagonism toward the government was the discrepancy between the 18-year-old draft age and the 21-year-old voting age. This was a foolish policy blunder that was skillfully exploited by radical leaders. Many college students came to look upon themselves as disenfranchised common fodder. They were old enough to fight and be killed in a war, but not old enough to have a say in their government. Before long, draft resistance and draft evasion came to be looked upon as heroic acts of integrity. Patriotism, in the old sense, was laughable, a thing of scorn. In such an atmosphere of hostility to the government, Todd Gitlin and innumerable other people on the campuses smoked their first marijuana. It was a gesture of defiance and contempt to use an illegal drug, particularly one they believed to be harmless. Radical groups such as the Black Panthers and the Young Socialist Alliance encouraged the use of marijuana, recognizing it would further alienate the young from their own society. Later on, the filthy speech movement and the campaign for sexual liberation and the enthusiasm for slovenly clothing intentionally and effectively drove additional wedges between the young people and adults.
These are some of the primary influences which energized the radical student leadership in America’s colleges. These student activists came to be called the New Left, marginalizing and displacing the older leftist radicals – socialists, Marxists and anarchists – as the principal enemies of the social order.
“The New Left ,” Gitlin wrote, “became the dynamic center of the decade pushing the young forward, declaring that change was here. The New Left valued informality, tolerated chaos, and scorned social order, forming the template for the revolts of hippies, women and gays.”
Tolerating chaos? Scorning social order? Truly, as Professor Blonsky noted, “the human psyche got altered.”
Concurrent with this ferment in the attitudes of political activists in college, there were other cultural forces that reshaped the beliefs and preferences of the whole mass of American youth. Gitlin wrote “nothing influenced the baby-boom generation as a whole as much as movies, music and comics did. On the big screen, on posters and in popular magazines, America was mass-producing images of white youth on the move with no place to go.” Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” and James Dean in ” Rebel Without A Cause” established the prototype of new anti-heroes who went looking for trouble because they had no other purpose in life. Both became idols of the youth culture. Indeed, James Dean became sort of a cult figure. A tremendous volume of fan mail was written to him for years after he died. This pattern of attractive renegades eventually included even the monstrous Bonnie and Clyde who were presented as sympathetic characters in the film which starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
Far more than the movies, the popular music of the Sixties turned American young people away from the beliefs, traditions and standards of the civilized order. Rock music became the one thing that a whole generation had in common, and that bond was perversely strengthened by the distaste and disapproval of older generations. They couldn’t stand the noise and were revolted by the calculated slovenliness. This is not the place to catalogue the full range of the attacks which rock musicians directed against everything that earlier generations respected and held sacred. It is enough here to note today’s immense popularity of the unspeakably coarse and blasphemous Madonna and the impassioned defenses provided for a Rap Music star who chants his advice to kill the police. As Tom Brokaw wrote in his introduction to Life Magazine ‘s book on the Sixties,
“A new form of popular religion flourished, the rock-and-roll church with its nocturnal, narcissistic, mischievous, anti-authoritarian creed financed by great gobs of cash offered up by faithful acolytes.”
Truly for many young people, Brokaw was correct, music became a substitute for religion, defining and constituting what is most important in life.
A curious and unexplained aspect of the cultural upheaval is how quickly and thoroughly the guardians of the moral order surrendered their authority to the youthful rebellion. On the campuses the dormitory rules which for generations had discouraged premarital sexual activity were abandoned, as were the standards of good taste which had kept the bulletin boards and student newspapers free of gutter language, and the campus theaters free of sexually explicit films and plays. Most churches and families either were disinterested or powerless to stand against the tide of uncouth and unzippered behavior which was tolerated and sometimes encouraged in the colleges. Probably the most crucial single default of the Sixties was the failure of government authorities to close down the giant 1969 national festival of sex, drugs and rock music in Woodstock, New York.
This was not just a mass offensive against morality and decency, it was, in fact, an insurrection, an open defiance of public law. In my judgment, the default of law enforcement on that occasion made it inevitable that drug use thereafter would be uncontrollable. In the World Series contest for dominance of the culture, Woodstock won and decency and lawfulness lost. The civil order was trampled to death at Woodstock.
Looking back now, it is clear that the schools and churches and other value-forming influences early in the 20th century had changed the basic substance of what they taught the young. Citizenship education and character education no longer were the heart of the curriculum. As a result, twentieth century Americans have turned out to be cultural orphans who were not given a full understanding of the institutions of a free society nor any idea of the importance of the principles of virtue and civility that undergird those institutions. Not understanding human nature, nor the restraints that must be imposed on human behavior in order for any common enterprise to operate, the leadership in education, religion and the government in the 1960’s saw no reason to defend the established standards of civilized conduct. The problem, as Gordon Chalmers so aptly described it was “the ethical ignorance of persons thought to be learned” who had become the leaders of the colleges and churches. When the young attacked the whole range of traditional virtues, moral authority turned out to be a hollow shell and collapsed.
The casualties of that collapse were numerous. A broad segment of vocabulary has simply become obsolete because the concepts which it embodied have been rejected. Modesty, decency, probity, rectitude, honor, politeness, virtue, magnanimity, chastity, piety, righteousness, propriety – these and many other terms of approved behavior have been consigned to limbo. They don’t even enter into the calculus of public discussion and decision-making. Naturally, their opposites have suffered the same fate, terms such as vile, licentious, malign, dissolute, roue, shame, disgrace, evil, sin, stigma, ostracize, iniquity, and so on. Those designations and the concepts they represent have also been cancelled.
It is interesting to note that the concepts of praise and potential which the New Order has raised in their place are totally devoid of any substance. Excellence, diversity, innovation, empowerment, change, caring – some of the most frequently used rhetorical promises of today’s leadership – can be aimed in any direction since good and bad, wise and foolish have been abolished. Everyone talks about excellent education, but what is it? As Gertrude Stein said, “There is no there, there.”
Having done away with morality, the New Order has proclaimed its own single standard of acceptability, unique and comprehensive, the absence of any moral judgment, variously known as tolerance, inclusiveness, open-mindedness, and non-judgmentalism.
The interesting and entirely logical exception to this new standard of virtue is the refusal to acknowledge the existence, or even the possibility, of any other virtues. Open mindedness cannot countenance any advocacy of morality. If a person speaks out about right and wrong behavior, that heretic must be exposed as an enemy of tolerance and freedom, and must be scorned into silence. “Whose values do you intend to impose on other people?” is the withering response used to checkmate any affirmation of virtue. That such an effort to stifle an opposing view is a repudiation of free speech – which is said to be the very essence of freedom – isn’t supposed to be noticed, or must be buried under obfuscating gibberish.
An example comes to mind. After Vice President Quayle gave his now-famous speech to the Southern Baptists, columnist Anna Quindlen was incensed that he had accused the cultural elite of believing that moral truths are relative.
“No they don’t!” dhe wrote, “The great strength of this country is that we believe moral truths are individual.”
A moral truth, by definition, is universal. It applies to all. It cannot be individualized. Anna Quindlen is undoubtedly too bright not to understand that. Perhaps she assumes that her readers are simply stupid and will be persuaded by the fervor of her indignation.
Of course , it isn’t just the language of the moral order that has been lost. The elimination of moral and ethical commitments from the lives of the citizens has crippled every organized endeavor of the society. That large claim must be illustrated. For openers, consider the economic system. The critics of capitalism assert that it is a heartless operation through which the rich get richer. With an eye only on the bottom line, the capitalist entrepreneurs sell shoddy products at inflated prices, underpay the employees, disregard safety factors in the workplace, rape the environment, discriminate against women and minority groups and are callously indifferent to less fortunate folks in their own neighborhoods and elsewhere. The only protection the people have against these inherent failings of capitalism, say the critics, are laws through which the government can try to force the companies not to do all those bad things which the profit motive compels them to do.
If one judges by the news of recent years, it is not easy to defend the system. The list of appalling instances of self-serving chicanery keeps growing – the savings and loan catastrophe, insider trading, the tax-payers fleeced by government contractors including some universities, the BCCI bank scam, shamelessly contrived lawsuits. A few weeks ago , The New York Times printed a map of an industrial park in Boca Raton, Florida in which ten different firms in just this one location were all alleged to be engaged in some form of dishonesty. It is hard to muster two cheers, or even one, for an economic system honeycombed with cheats.
However, it isn’t the fault of the system. The market economy is nothing but the economic element of the free society. It has no moral dimension of its own. If the people who are engaged in it are fair and honest and compassionate, that will be the character of corporate endeavors. If the people are selfish, callous swindlers and crooks, those traits will be evident in the business activities. Some years ago when integrity was highly prized by the populace, individuals in the work place who strayed from the standards of honesty and fairness were disgraced and excluded, as still happens in Japan. In those days, corporate misdeeds were infrequent. In a culture where the moral fabric has been shredded and the common expectation is that everyone will serve his own interests by getting everything he can, dishonesty, when it surfaces, isn’t all that surprising. Alas!
For the family, too, the elimination of standards of acceptable behavior has wrought havoc, reducing its capacity to perform its natural and necessary functions and compromising its place as the one essential building block of a good society. It is within the loving family that the child best learns that he cannot have everything his own way, that he must accept responsibilities to the people around him. In fulfilling those responsibilities, he develops self-esteem and a trusting, cooperative relationship with others. As long as marital fidelity and a life-long commitment to one’s spouse were the publicly accepted norms, the institution of the husband-and-wife family was able to give to most American children critically important preliminary training for productive and stable lives.
Now the triumph of sexual liberation and the enactment of no-fault divorce laws have doomed a large and growing percentage of American babies to severe disadvantage. It is established beyond challenge that the child reared at home by a father and a mother has a substantially better chance than other children do for emotional stability, for success in both school and employment and for avoiding delinquency and jail and suicide. Given this fact and the tragic statistic that nearly two-thirds of all black children live in single-parent households, it seems that the New Order which scorns morality may have done as much to relegate our Black populace to cruelly sub-standard living as slavery once did. We need to understand that sexual liberation and the family cannot co-exist. The one will become dominant or the other will. At this time, the family is losing the struggle and its defenders are being zapped by the cultural elite. Government, too, has been denatured by the Age of Aquarius and finds it increasingly difficult to perform its proper tasks. Consider, briefly, three crucial problems America faces: crime, drugs, and the national debt. Crime is what happens when somebody breaks the law. It is a behavioral problem. It is a little late to teach the person to abide by the law after he has robbed the bank. America needs to train its youth to abide by the law and to observe the other basic responsibilities of free citizens, as it once did. William Bennett, bless his heart, when he was Secretary of Education tried to persuade educators to pay attention to this kind of thing, but since his tenure, the plans and the rhetoric from the Department of Education have reverted to the mechanics rather than the substance of education, directed to such matters as model schools, innovation, vouchers and school choice, all of which avoid any consideration of what is taught.
Since government cannot or will not address questions of character education and citizenship education, its response to crime is restricted to nibbling at the edges of the problem, through more sophisticated techniques of crime detection, police training, improved rehabilitation of criminals, gun control laws and so on. And crime increases. And living becomes more suspicious and more uncomfortable. And insurance rates soar.
In trying to address the pestilence of drugs, once again, governmental timidity in the face of cultural non-judgmentalism seems to foreclose logical remedies. For example, there are certain segments of the population that have proven to be virtually immune to the use of illegal drugs. Common sense would suggest an analysis of what these groups have in common that could result in their drug-free condition. As you might guess, the drug-free populations belong to religious or cultural groups that place a high emphasis on self-restraint, lawfulness, parental authority and other civilized norms, but information of that kind seems to be blacked out in the halls of government. Basically, the drug catastrophe is a question of behavior and motivation and must be dealt with accordingly, but the New Order wants no part of that.
As to the national debt, Mr. Micawber summed up the problem and the answer very simply in the novel, David Copperfield:
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings and] six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
If your outgo exceeds your income, you’re in trouble. Thrift, fiscal integrity, and belt-tightening for all are the requirements for a government, in financial trouble, as for a family. Non-politician, Ross Perot, has carefully explained this to the American people, but American politicians have lied to the voters for so long, promising benefits and services and privileges beyond the resources of tile national pocketbook that truth and integrity have simply disappeared from the fiscal plans of the two dominant political parties. Today, the bamboozling of the public has reached the shameful stage that some states, in order to pump up their sagging treasuries through lotteries, are engaged in high-pressure sales campaigns to convince the citizens that they can get rich quick through the purchase of a lottery ticket. They have institutionalized and reinforced the something-for-nothing mindset that produced the governmental deficits in the first place. As Clare Booth Luce noted years ago, government has become an economic wino that overspends compulsively.
The government’s ineffective attempts to deal with one social pathology after another bring to mind the story of a young and eager medieval knight. One evening he was returning to the castle for dinner. His armor was badly dented, the proud plume on his helmet was broken and bedraggled, the horse was limping, the knight’s face was bloody and filthy and he was riding skewgee in the saddle. The lord of the castle happened to look out and was alarmed. He ran through the gate and with deep concern asked, “What hath befallen you, Sir Knight?” “Oh Sire,” said the Knight, “I have been laboring all day in your service, robbing and raping and pillaging and burning your enemies to the West.” ” You’ve been doing what?” said the Lord . The knight repeated his response only much louder in case there was a deafness problem. “But I haven’t any enemies to the West!” shouted the astonished nobleman. “Oh!” said the knight. And then, after a minute, “Well, I think you do now.” There is a point to this story. Enthusiasm is not enough. You have to have a sense of direction.
The American society has lost its sense of direction. Forward has been cancelled. With no public consensus in support of specific ideals, virtues and principles, politics has fallen into base and tawdry squabbling. Who can outpromise whom with regard to the troubled economy? Who can curry favor with the largest number of self-serving interest groups? Who can most persuasively undermine public confidence in the opposing candidate? These are the qualifications for the most influential position in the world? America needs to find its way back to the solid ground of civilized, honorable and intelligent living. It will be a difficult journey and it will need guidance of a quality that is in scarce supply nowadays.
One sure compass for that trip back has been provided, and still is, by The St. Croix Review. For twenty-five years this little magazine has presented to its readers the commentaries of people marvelously suited to lead us home. The authors include Robert Nisbet whose books, Quest for Community, and Twilight of Authority are prerequisites for understanding the road we must take, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose Commencement Address at Harvard University painfully and precisely analyzed the moral collapse of Western society, Russell Kirk, the author of Decadence and Renewal in Higher Learning, Duncan Williams whose Trousered Apes first described the brutalization of culture in the Sixties, Margaret Thatcher, the gallant head of state who forcefully commended and defended the institution of marriage, N. Scott Momaday, the eloquent American Indian novelist who understood human dignity, Leopold Tyrmand, the Polish author who, having suffered under both Hitler and Stalin, tried to help the people of the West understand the blessings and the requirements of liberty. These and dozens of other writers of principle, depth and wisdom have all been published in the St. Croix Review.
Angus McDonald’s editorial commentary for the first issue of the publication discerned with astute accuracy the disintegration of the moral and civil order that has taken place. Here are several passages from his essay:
“From the founding of this country until some time after the war of Revolution, our thinking was dominated by religious precepts… But the clear and certain faith that religious precepts should rule society has been absent for the lifetime of every living American . . . The problem of society was to live in the everyday world by principles derived from a superior world. That wisdom has been lost…
“The abandonment of the old religious traditions has not brought mankind together into a natural and moral unity as the rationalists hoped; rather it has allowed the differences of race and nationality, class and private interest to appear in naked antagonism without any softening by religious inspiration.
“Under the old order, the Christian faith operated as a brake on the power of the state. Under the new order, the wisdom of religion rejected, the modern state has arisen – monolithic, intolerant, unprincipled, ignorant, corrupt. What else could we expect when there is no recognized guiding wisdom?”
Wisdom! That has been the ultimate casualty of the New Age. Wisdom, the understanding of what will be of benefit to everyone, rising above the claims of individual wants and passions, and the demands of special interest groups. The wisdom which used to infuse the American experiment in liberty and enabled it to become the hope of the world was drawn from the Christian heritage of the Colonies as Angus noted. Morality and honesty and civility and the work ethic, all distilled from the Christian wisdom, became folkways in America and guided and benefitted the lives of all Americans, regardless of their religious affiliation, if any.
It is wisdom that we must resurrect in order to reconstitute decent, moral and lawful communities.
In the British Coronation ceremony, there is a point at which the Archbishop tenders a gift to the new monarch,
“We present you with this Book, the most valuable thing the word affords. This is wisdom.”
The book, of course, is the Holy Bible.
Through twenty-five years, Angus McDonald has presented an extraordinarily rich array of wisdom to his readers. An editor can do no more than that.