Sam Smith – The past five years have been among the worst in our history. Add four years of the Trump regime to the pandemic to the GOP efforts to undermine voting rights to the attempted coup at the Capitol and we have seldom been faced collectively with so many problems we are unable to solve. To offer just one example: we have lost nearly 50% more lives in the pandemic than we did in World War II.
But bad as all this is, what troubles me even more has been our failure to handle our problems with pragmatic wisdom. Part of this has been the rise of an anti-vaccine, anti-black and pro-Trump constituency undermining rationality in a manner we haven’t seen since the last days of formal segregation. But less noted, yet just as important, has been the decline of the wise, the decent, and the perceptive.
I covered my first Washington story in 1957 and even back then the capitol had voices of common sense, fairness and virtue that you could actually admire and had some influence. Elsewhere there were educators, journalists and ministers providing alternative voices to the cynical at the top. Today I sometimes wonder whether the national media would even cover Martin Luther King if he started his campaign now.
I trace the decline of wisdom, decency and virtue to a number of factors, among them
- The Reagan administration that attacked not only traditional policies but traditional values.
- The rise of business schools that created a huge MBA culture taught to put profits ahead of fairness and the values of big corporations ahead of those of small businesses. As Robert Reich has noted, American CEOs make 351 times more than workers. In 1965 it was 15 to one.
- A media –aided by the rise of journalism graduate schools– that increasingly identified with the powerful and found the average American increasingly boring to write about.
- An academia that also increasingly identified with the interests of the powerful rather than with the wisdom they were once expected to pursue, accompanied by a decline in the humanities and other subjects once considered essential.
- A decline in organized religion resulting in much more self centered attention to parish problems such as income and attendance loss rather than to the broader issues of the community and nation.
- With the rise of the television, political corruption increasingly served not the powerful of one’s constituency but the source of one’s contributions.
- The replacement of facts, and their respect, with the rise of public relations and propaganda.
- The rise of the Internet and programs like Facebook that sometimes became deep wells of deceit.
- The rise of identity politics with an accompanying decline in politics featuring issues shared by various cultures.
- The loss of civics education in our school and the failure to teach children about the multiculturalism they will grow into.
To start to change this disaster, it helps to look at those groups that offer alternatives such as socially involved ministers, teachers, local politicians, young activists, union leaders and responsible journalists. What we really need is a new counterculture of the decent, created by those who recognize the crisis and can come together and seek ways to change it. They won’t be recognized at first because of the way the system has evolved, but not every revolution has to be political. It can, instead, reflect a cultural change of the sort we badly need. The first step is for the decent to discover their allies and act together.