How Do Our Values Define Us?


     As a people, Americans like to think of ourselves as pragmatic, hard-working and  individualistic. These are the values that Benjamin Franklin extolled and that foreign observers such as de Tocqueville and Lord Bryce chronicled as essential components of the American project.

     As a value, pragmatism - finding common sense, practical solutions to existing problems -  helped to launch the Industrial Revolution in the United States in the early 19th century and later the Technical Revolution in the 20th century that spurred generations of inventors and tinkerers such as Whitney, Watts, Edison, Ford, Marconi, Goddard, Jobs and Gates. Because of their curiosity, imagination and resourcefulness the power of the engine and machines was harnessed, production standardized, and new modes of transportation and communication were created.  

    So, too, the value of hard work. the nostrums found in Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack, as Max Weber noted, embodied the spirit of the Protestant Ethic. The successes of Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller during this country's First Gilded Age inspired the myth of Horatio Alger and similar rags-to-riches fantasies that advocates of unbridled capitalism continue to apotheosize.  

    Individualism, to the present, is the sine qua non that defines the American experience in contrast to that of all of the other advanced democracies that share in the tradition of Western political philosophy. Individual rights, enshrined in Bill of Rights, sent a radical, clarion call to oppressed people everywhere.  A belief in the singular importance and centrality of the individual enticed millions upon millions of ordinary people - peasants, artisans and uneducated laborers -to forsake their ancestral homelands and kin folk and to emigrate to the United States. Their quiet optimism and self-confidence helped to forge the American Dream.  

     These three values are regularly touted by pundits in the popular media and by gaggles of politicians as the quintessential American Creed to which children and adults are regularly prompted to genuflect and to show obeisance. But there is also a dark side to these three values that, all too often, is blithely ignored.

    The notion of common sense as a value worth cultivating is a legacy of John Locke. Locke, who emphasized  the importance of "common sense," denied the existence of innate ideas. Instead, his theory of knowledge was based upon a conviction that meaningful knowledge is acquired by the self through sensory, tactile experience.

    Locke's ideas about the importance of the individual, how one learns, and what one should learn have entwined themselves in the fabric of American culture and, by and large, have had profoundly leveling, and at times, anti-intellectual effects. His ideas have been invoked by a number of disgruntled and irate advocates of "American values," who denigrate professional elites and oppose government control of education.

    Not surprisingly, many of these same zealots are as unable to distinguish between a scientific theory and a theological conviction as they are to understand that the infinitive "to educate" is not a reflexive verb. The decisions of the Dover, Pennsylvania school board to enforce the teaching of a purely theological concept "intelligent design," and the 1999 decision of the State Board of Education in Kansas, to delete references to evolution and to the geological age of the earth from the state's science standards, are but two cases in point .

    More recently, the BBC reported State Senator Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and State Delegate Chris Stolle, a Republican, worked together to secure legislation that provided $50,000 for a "comprehensive study of the economic impact of coastal flooding on Virginia and to investigate ways to adapt." The bill's original draft contained the term "relative sea level rise," but the version that was ultimately adopted instead, used the term "recurrent flooding" at Stolle's suggestion. "Other folks can go argue about sea-level rise and global warming," Stolle told the BBC. "What matters is people's homes are getting destroyed, and that's what we want to focus on. To think that we are going to stop climate change is absolute hubris. The climate is going to change whether we're here or not." Still later, in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot, Stolle stated that "sea level rise" is a "left-wing term."   

    Over the past two centuries, the meaning of hard-work and the importance of the self as values have also been twisted into ugly concepts. Since the advent of the Protestant Reformation, as R.H. Tawney and Max Weber chronicled, there has existed a pronounced link between the dour predestination of Calvinism and a work ethic which has emphasized material success: The accumulation of wealth was incontrovertible evidence that Providence had blessed the successful and marked each as one of those as chosen for redemption.

    But a preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth and the things that wealth buys often inures us to the reality that none of us really made it solely on our own. At every critical turn in life, as Senator Elizabeth Warren reminded us, family, teachers, clergy, friends, and business colleagues helped to guide us and enabled us to succeed. In addition, without public goods - the critical infrastructure, including the transportation and communication systems; public education and the public health systems; the military, police and fire fighters who have helped to keep us safe; environmental regulations; and yes, even the government regulators, public persecutors and the legal system that sometimes tries to protect us from the worst depredations of the marketplace - are all the product of communal investment and collective effort.

    At its most extreme also, a preoccupation with the self blinds us to the suffering and misfortune of others and we lose the capacity to experience empathy. At that point, individualism descends into narcissism and solipsism; violent and destructive forms of anti-social behavior become acceptable as the norm; and civility, as an essential public virtue, is lost.

    President George W. Bush once confessed that he disdained  nuances. But without an appreciation for nuances - the ability to understand and evaluate the interplay of important values and ideas, to grasp them in all of their ambiguities and subtleties - values are reduced to their lowest common denominator. The inability to understand subtleties and nuances - and to think critically - has reduced American politics to a food fight.

    The slogans and cant that all too often pass for political discourse in the United States today are now a part of the accepted repertoire of what Paul Krugman has described as the Ignorance Caucus. The shrill shouts that now echo and reverberate across our public square increasingly sound more like the angry protests that one hears in the Arab Streets throughout the Middle East rather than the thoughtful reflections of informed citizens who are determined to understand, embrace and celebrate our common values in all of their complexities.          

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