Wednesday, August 15, 2012

“Values Still Matter”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Values Still Matter”
August 15, 2012

Years ago we were taught that values matter, because the ultimate judge of our behavior would be ourselves. We were asked, “Can you live with that decision?” It meant that immediate gratification should be considered within the context of any longer-term negative consequences of decisions made. It was the threat of those consequences that would keep excessive behavior at bay. If that seems like a distant memory, it’s because it is.

For many, the long term no longer exists. Wall Street reacts to short term events. Politicians have become adept at kicking the pail down the road. Democrats have pushed a culture of dependency. With half of all workers not paying any federal income tax, and half of all citizens receiving some form of government assistance, have we reached the point that Alexis de Tocqueville warned about in 1831? “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” Politicians understand that for voters a government that pays, but does not charge is difficult to toss out.

We have been fortunate as a society. We have benefitted from our geography, which is not only blessed with abundant resources, but has provided the natural protection of two oceans. We are an aspirant people that have grown wealthy due to hard work, a sense of personal independence and self reliance, and the ideals embedded in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. In a speech to the Alexander Hamilton Society in Washington, D.C. last summer (as cited by Bret Stephens in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal), Congressman Paul Ryan noted that America’s real interests are derived from our deepest values: “America’s foundations are not our own – they belong equally to every person everywhere.” It explains the concept of American exceptionalism.

Russell Kirk (1918-1994), political theorist, historian and author of The Conservative Mind, in a 1982 essay Virtue, Can it be Taught?, wrote “We Americans have grown very well fed, [but] very much starved for virtue.” In his essay, Professor Kirk questioned whether virtue can be taught. He wondered if it is adversity that opens the “impulse” toward virtue. He cited the example of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “The terrible adversity endured by decent folk in Soviet Russia forged the virtue of Solzhenitsyn, a hero for our age.” Nobody would disagree with that depiction of the man, but, also, no one would argue that Russia, freed from the yoke of Communism, has become a virtuous nation with values we can all admire. Our national values spring from the foundation of our souls, souls that were forged in the hardship of the American Revolution and in the wisdom that became our Constitution. It is why an understanding of that period is so elemental to all Americans.

Political correctness has provided an escape hatch through which many of our traditional values have disappeared. Two examples from Georgetown University manifest that loss. Congressman Paul Ryan spoke there this spring. Before he spoke, ninety faculty members signed a letter protesting what they claimed were points in his budget that disproportionately cut services to the poor and therefore failed to meet their “moral criteria.” The letter went on to claim that his budget reflected “the values of his favorite philosopher Ayn Rand rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.” In truth, the letter made clear that the authors could not comprehend simple math, had not read Mr. Ryan’s budget and had no understanding of Mr. Ryan’s philosophy. While Mr. Ryan admires Ms. Rand’s indictment of socialism and celebration of the individual; as a devout pro-life Catholic he totally rejects her secular, atheistic worldview, saying “…[it] is antithetical to my worldview.” On the other hand, when President Obama spoke at Georgetown he asked that the oldest Jesuit College in the nation cover all signs and symbols, including the Cross and the monogram IHS, which represents the name of Jesus Christ. Not a peep was heard from the faculty and/or administration that meekly complied with a request antithetical to the stated beliefs of the college.

What makes the upcoming election so distinctive and important is that the two parties are on very different trajectories. They both claim the same goal, in terms of providing a more perfect world, but the societies they each envision are totally different and are, in fact, incompatible.

My guess is that the President was speaking personally when he spoke of success being a collective effort, and that he was aided, as were so many African Americans, women and other minorities, by Affirmative Action. Affirmative Action was a necessary antidote for the decades of prejudice and exclusion that characterized our society for most of the hundred years following the Civil War. Women had always been treated as second class citizens. Participating in such a program was a right for those like Mr. Obama and is nothing to be embarrassed about. But it is also a program whose very success should see it disappear when it becomes no longer necessary. It was our collective values that created such a program. It is our individual values that should, at some point, render it superfluous. If affirmative action were afforded everybody, what advantage would that provide? I don’t know if we have reached that point, but at some time we will, or at least, we all better hope we do.

The values for which we as a nation should aspire are those in which equality means that we are equal under the law and are provided equal opportunities. Not all will seize that opportunity. Not all will have success. We do not have the same talents, nor do we share the same hopes and dreams. We work at different levels and we measure success in different ways. But it is the promise of opportunity that has driven people to our shores, people who have strengthened our nation with their reaffirmation of our values. To lose them is to lose our future.

The President seems to be mired in the past – in a time of the decade of his birth, when Civil Rights was the right movement at the right time. We have come a long way from that period, and we are far healthier as a nation for having done so, but part of that maturity means permitting more freedom to individuals, not less. As our children grow, we do not tighten the boundaries. We, perhaps reluctantly like my wife, let them go. Successful parenting means a child who can stand on his or her own. I believe our nation has increasingly been successful in its treatment of people – we are far from perfect, but better than we had been – so the tools we have provided should lessen, not increase, people’s dependency on the state.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have the interests of the American people at heart. Of that I am sure. Both are motivated by a belief that their vision is the best to achieve a productive economy that is fairest for the people. But, they are on very different paths, reflecting different values. One puts his faith in government; the other in the people. It behooves everyone to consider long and hard as to which society they would choose to live in and which provides the greatest opportunity for their children and grandchildren, and which one represents the values you would like to propagate.

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