The dysfunctional family known as America

Sam Smith 2015 – It is hard to think of a time in modern history when there have been so few prominent figures – in politics, academia, business or the media – who seemed worthy of trust, let alone admiration. Consider the matter of fact manner in which much of the major media treats ethical questions that arise – as though they had only procedural content, i.e. what is the best way for major figure Y to handle the possibility that he or she has been caught lying or ignoring the law on some matter. Manipulative skills currently rank well above moral values in the media’s mind.

Then we have the most rapacious business leadership in American history, as well as the most disloyal, given its desire to move jobs, wealth, and business overseas.

The best metaphor for all this may be the dysfunctional family. It, too, can be indifferent to logic, morality, kindness, cooperation, courage and decency. Much of our behavior as victims of the elite mimics the frustrated reactions of familial victims. We respond with increasing anger, aggressiveness or, on the other hand, apathy and surrender, but in either case with a striking lack of liberation from the community that brought us down. And we easily turn on other victims for having failed to save us.

There are alternative choices. In the past these have included the creation of countercultures in which a new generation declared its cultural independence from the past. Nothing of that scale exists right now. Or we have had efforts such as the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements that redefined an era by collectively vomiting its old evils in favor of new dreams.

Part of the secret of these past efforts was that you could join without inspection, without clearance or correctness, and with an understanding that change included in the transformation of misguided or indifferent hearts. It was what you did now that counted far more than where you had once stood.

We live now – thanks to a variety of factors ranging from cellphones to activist group competition for funding and media – in a far more atomized world in which it is easy to ignore or suspect people and groups that once would have naturally been seen as allies. And so we are often even dysfunctional in working for change. And from right to left, it is increasingly common simply to diss those who do not share our presumed virtues. The fact that in this rejected pool are the very people we need to convert is increasingly forgotten and ignored.

This phenomenon is not to be condemned, merely cured. It is easy in a dysfunctional community to be trapped by doubt as much as by anger or apathy. We are so used to seeing the mistakes and cruelty of those around us, that we fail to see the potential of others and how to share and build upon it.

Part of the trick in changing all this is to understand our past but not to let it rule our present and future. If our only response to the evils we know is anger and protest, then we have added little to the story. But if we take the past and figure out how to redefine and redraw it for time to come, then we not only defeat the wrongs of the past but create a worthy alternative. We learn to treat anger and protest as the alarm, but not the ambulance.