The most serious charge against America isn’t that it is a racist society, or that it denies freedom and opportunity to minorities. The most serious charge is that America is fundamentally an immoral society. This critique is true. Islamic fundamentalists of the Bin laden stripe contend that America may be technologically advanced but morally degenerate.
The Islamic view of Western and specifically American immorality is supported by many American and European critics. One critic, Vaclav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic called the West “the first atheistic civilization in the history of humankind.” In 1978, in his famous address at Harvard, the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn charged that in the West freedom has become another word for recklessness, and “man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer.” Many Christians in America share these concerns. Not long after 9-11, the Christian weekly publication World called the WTC a modern Tower of Babel dedicated to the “false deities” of materialism, secularism, and relativism. In conservative circles, individuals such as Robert Bork, Bill Bennett, and Gary Bauer have proclaimed that American culture has descended to the level that, in Bork’s point of view, the US is “slouching towards Gomorrah.”
Is this a harsh critique? Is our country religious, and do we have the highest percentage of First World Countries whose citizens believe in God and go to church? Yes; however, we must recognize that America exhibits a good deal of religious and moral diversity, and this is the natural consequence of a society whose people come from different cultural backgrounds and practice different faiths. We must also recognize that Hollywood movies and TV shows are just entertainment—they should not be seen as representative of how people live. The people we see on TV every day are the equivalent of side shows at the circus. We should also note that in recent year’s crime and illegitimacy rates have declined, so that American culture is somewhat healthier in those respects.
These are valid points. However, the criticisms of Bork, Havel, and Solzhenitsyn cannot be dismissed. While Americans are probably more religious and conservative than Europeans, if we consider how decadent the Euros are, is that really saying much? Except for the “church on every corner” cultural landmark in the small-town USA, religion doesn’t seem to have much public authority over society. The “death of God” as Time Magazine proclaimed it appears to have resulted, just as Nietzsche sordidly predicted, and we have seen the collapse of traditional morality and the rise of moral relativism. Simply put, the moral relativist says, “Who are you to impose your values on me?”
Due to this objectionable worldview, the disastrous consequences of this moral upheaval have been compiled by Bill Bennett in his Index of leading Cultural Indicators. But they are not hidden. They are in plain sight. First, America has become a country where the traditional family seems to have been irretrievably broken down: the typical marriage ends in divorce, and illegitimacy is the new norm across racial and socioeconomic lines. Plato was wrong about many things; however, he said this correctly: “The saga of a nation is the saga of its families written large.” Whoever owns the family owns the future. The second result of this moral decline is the tolerance of debauchery. The “Greatest Generation” would never have allowed premarital sex, homosexuality, and the rampant use of pornography to be pervasive in its culture. What is worse is the fact that these behaviors are considered unacceptable in many countries, but are accepted in our own. However, the multiculturalist somehow wants us to study those cultures and to leave American Exceptionalism at the door. This doesn’t jive. Well, it does jive; it makes sene to the moral relativist. The last area that we have seen a marked decline in our morality is in our entertainment. “Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised at the barbarism and weirdness of many American teenagers—their role models are Howard Stern, Dennis Rodman, Madonna, and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”
Who is the critique of this moral decline? Perhaps this is felt mainly by conservatives. They tend to define morality narrowly in terms of what it is good to do, or, more precisely, not to do. But morality as classically understood also includes what it is good to be, and what it is good to love. The search for love is an interesting idea in America. Think about the shadow of divorce that seems to hover over every couple that gets married. The odds are seemingly against them today.
We live in America and we are free. Does freedom really lead to such deplorable moral results?
Is there a real critique? Many Islamic theorists and even Americans feel that capitalism is to blame. Early in the twentieth century economist Joseph Schumpeter predicted that technological capitalism would lead to massive social upheaval. In his mind, capitalism would lead to a “gale of creative destruction” that leaves behind traditional institutions and values. Is there any truth to this?
Consider the one invention that has done more to undermine morality in America than the combined works of Darwin, Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche: The Automobile. Before the invention of the car, most Americans lived on farms and were connected due to the “small-town” atmosphere. When someone went by their house either on foot or by horse, you might hear “Isn’t that Tom and Betty Carter’s son?” or “I wonder what he’s up to?”—“How many fish does he have in his basket?” There was a certain moral supervision that drove virtue and chastity in this era. Once the era of the automobile came this was over. The point I make is that technology can be responsible in part for moral change.
A second institution that has influenced the morality in our country is the integration of women into the workforce. This has essentially helped to destabilize traditional “family values.” The women’s rights activists fought for the right for women to have careers, and their success was made possible by birth control, the vacuum cleaner, and the forklift! Technology has played a key role! More so I have to say than the feminists themselves would like to take credit for. Only twenty years ago, house-work was a full-time occupation—cooking and cleaning up took a whole day. With technology and the advent of vacuum cleaners and dishwashers, this just isn’t so. There is more time to work. Likewise, due to technology, Women are able to do many of the jobs that men were the sole occupants of two decades ago. Women can conceivably operate a crane or a fork lift today on a construction site. The final point is that before the arrival of birth control, reproduction was not predictable; therefore, a full-time career was out of the question.
Aside from technology, Capitalism has had an incredible transformative effect on morals. Basically, the capitalistic structure provides the opportunity for affluence, and this affluence provides normal people with the same lavishes of instant gratification and decadence that was once only known to the upper class. Capitalism also leads people to live in places far away from their birth. The average American may more a dozen times in their life! Only the “nuclear family” holds together; the extended family is scattered. This amount of mobility makes it incredibly difficult to create lasting friendships or build a sense of community. In fact, in capitalist societies, most relationships are based on contracts or mutual conveniences. In Third-world countries people visit for months at a time. In America we expect them to leave after two days. While we tend to treat people with respect, I wouldn’t say that we are known for our hospitality.
While all that I have mentioned is true, there is still more to be seen. We must examine what occurred in the 1960’s in America to truly understand the fundamental shift that took place in the minds of individuals. “You can see physical evidence of this change at the Yale Club in New York, where the photographs of Yale graduates are displayed. Through the 1950’s and 1960’s, these graduates present a neat, clean-cut appearance. Then, around 1969, the photographs tell a different story. The hair of the men gets longer, the hair of the women gets shorter. The hippie and the freak become recognizable social types. By the 1970’s these changes have shaped virtually the whole class: the vast majority of graduates are seen sporting a languid, disheveled, rebel look (think Occupy Wall Street, Bill Ayers, or Obama with the cigarette). We can see a similar change by comparing the Beatles in the early 1960’s with the Beatles in the early 1970’s. By themselves these changes are merely cosmetic, but I am suggesting that they are outward manifestations of a much deeper alteration of outlook.”
This time period underwent a “moral revolution” that extended beyond anything that the founders ever intended. The founders basically felt that all people share fundamentally similar human nature, and therefore they want the same things. In line with this, the founders set up a system dedicated to three elements of freedom: economic, political, and speech and religion. They felt that this would enable people to pursue happiness or the “American dream.”
The founders had a great plan; however, in the 1960’s this idea went radical. This change was brought along by the “counterculture” the mélange or antiwar activists, feminists, sexual revolutionaries, freedom riders, hippies, druggies, nudists, and vegetarians. They were basically rebels or in a broader sense, bohemians. This brings us to the great philosopher who stood behind them all—the champion of their worldview. The philosopher of bohemia was Rousseau. I am not here to say that Rousseau caused social revolution; however, he articulated its critiques and goals in a systematic way. By deconstructing Rousseau’s framework for his worldview and what he called “romantic” philosophy, we can better understand the moral departure that took place in America.
All Quotes From
D’Souza, Dinesh, “What’s So Great About America”, Regnery Publishing, Washington DC, 2002