Thursday, September 3, 2015

"A Culture of Meanness"

                    Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“A Culture of Meanness”
September 3, 2015

“Meanness” is defined as unkindness, spitefulness and unfairness. It can also suggest stinginess, as in depriving students of contrary opinions and of ignoring their need to be challenged and to think independently. The word describes today’s political and cultural environment, one characterized by divisiveness between the elite who govern and the masses that are governed. When George Bush exclaimed “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” he was referring to those who were committing acts of terror or who were harboring terrorists. Now it means Republicans, or at least it does to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Unlike most countries, the United States is a nation of immigrants – we come from all places, races and religions. The heritage we share is the history of our founding, which was based on the concept that “all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…that governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers by the consent of the governed.” It is a heritage of ideas. Whether our ancestors were present in Philadelphia, or whether we arrived in the past decade, it is the knowledge that our basic rights do not come from government, but from a larger power, and that government is subservient to the people. It is that that distinguishes Americans. No matter our political differences, no matter whether we are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican we share this history. We have an obligation to encourage its persistence. But today that sense of commonality seems at risk.

People in all societies need a bonding agent – something that provides unity. Some, as the Nazis did, do it through militarism and nationalism. Others, like Communists, do it by forcing cohesion. Still others, like Islamists, use religion. The people of the United States, a polyglot nation of citizens who have come here of their own volition or who are descended from those who did, created that bond by emphasizing the exceptional aspects of our country: its government, its history and its people.

Now, we are told by President Obama that we are not “exceptional,” at least no more than are the Greeks or the British. The word exceptional does not mean we consider ourselves superior to Brits or Greeks, but that our history and people are singular. We are not all religious and those that are worship different Gods, but inherent in what makes America America is a belief in a power greater than man. Otherwise, by default, we would have to assume that our rights have been conferred by man. So, when we are told we are not “exceptional,” the ties that bind loosen. Not only have those been loosened, but with his memorandums, directives and executive orders Mr. Obama has rent us asunder. And he has offered no substitute to keep us together.

We read a great deal of the polarization that infects our nation, but when we read our history we find that men and women have always expressed ideas forcibly. There is nothing new in polarization. The greatest example was the Civil War. But today, unlike previous eras, the divide is between governors and governed.

Certainly, we face serious fiscal and political issues, but the real problems are cultural. Government has abetted these concerns, rather than dissuading them. From our beginnings, there have been those who fawned over government officials that controlled purse strings. Cronyism may be worse today, but it is as old as the Republic. Other issues are more recent and we see their consequences manifested in the attraction of fringe candidates: It is the culture of “identity politics,” where people are taught to become victims and where they learn that dependency is more attractive than responsibility. It is the hubristic elitism that has infected the DNA of Washington politicians, mainstream media and academia. It is manifested in teacher’s unions and the politicians they support, who care more for school teachers and administrators than for the children they teach. It is the coddling of college students that presumes a fragility of their psyche, and that ill-prepares them for the future. It is the social degradations that encourage childbirth without marriage. It is a welfare system that discourages work. It is the abandonment of religion – an unspoken arrogance that implies we have advanced to a point where we no longer have need of a greater power. It is the unambiguous assumption that man can control nature. It is the government official who caves to popular whims, rather than adhering to the rule of law. And, perhaps saddest of all, the fact that birthrates have fallen close to or below the replacement rate suggests defeatism and pessimism regarding the future.

Good men and women serve government because they believe in the ideal of service, of giving back to a system that helped them succeed. Bad men and women serve government because they seek personal power. Deciphering the difference is critical for the future of any free nation. The ability to do so requires an educated citizenry. It is why public education was so important to the founding fathers – a movement then led by my four-great grandfather, Noah Webster. A government of, by and for the people demands an electorate well-versed in current events and with knowledge of history. It requires an understanding of human behavior that can best be acquired through studying the Old and New Testaments and reading classical thinkers like Adam Smith and John Locke. It has become common to emphasize the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects – and there is no question as to their importance – but it has also become popular to ridicule liberal arts. For the young, it is not just learning how things work, but it is seeing the way men and women – across all cultures – behave when confronted with malice, hatred, greed, obsession, jealousy and a host of other emotions – good and bad. Those traits can be best learned when we read authors like Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoi and Austen. Their novels also help us anticipate change that is inevitable. Understanding the evil men can do helps prevent the rise of a Mao, Stalin or Hitler.

Has the dumbing-down of American public schools been a function of neglect, a focus on unions and benefits, or a deliberate policy decision – to keep the people stupid? Millennials are supposed to be the best educated in American history. That claim may be true in terms of years spent in classrooms, but it doesn’t appear true in terms of their understanding of our history, or the way in which our government functions, or in their lack of familiarity with great literature.

The consequence of supercilious elites in Washington and the two coasts – a group comprised of politicians, big business, big banks, big unions, the Press and Hollywood – has been a culture of meanness, in both definitions of the word. Our society has become less fair and more spiteful. It encourages exclusivity; it fosters conformity; it denigrates those who disagree and it risks giving rise to a generation incapable of making choices based on a clear understanding of their country.




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