"[I]f you are dependent on people who do not know you, who control the value of your necessities, you are not free, and you are not safe." Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community
It's been almost two years since the financial collapse that precipitated the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and with no recovery in sight, America is faced with what might be the greatest existential dilemma of our time. Do we have what it takes to stop the corruption, recklessness, and greed that threaten to destroy our country? Are we willing to make the tough decisions necessary to regain our strength, or will we continue to plow obliviously ahead while our nation descends into economic insolvency and geopolitical vulnerability?
These are questions that all Americans are challenged to consider in a recent documentary entitled "Generation Zero." Based upon the premise that the indulgent parenting style of the Greatest Generation produced the self-centered risk-takers ultimately responsible for the collapse of 2008, Stephen Bannon and David Bossie's film "explores the cultural roots of the global financial meltdown – beginning with the narcissism of the 1960's, spreading like a virus through the self-indulgent 90's, and exploding across the world in the present economic cataclysm." As the documentary suggests, the consequences of our cultural decline are not merely economic. America's economic struggles are merely a symptom of a larger problem, a problem that threatens to undermine our national security and extinguish what's left of the American spirit.
America has, in some respects, become a soulless nation whose obsession with endless growth and unlimited material prosperity has displaced our sense of national identity. Even the most "patriotic" among us appear to have become addicted to a "quality of life" that is sustainable only by a kind of amoral, globally-scaled capitalism which has become allied with an increasingly pervasive nanny state. We are victims of what philosopher Richard Weaver dubbed "the spoiled child psychology," which affirms the notion that the ultimate goal in life is "happiness through comfort."
Our demand for happiness through comfort has not been lost on our representatives in Washington or on the multinational conglomerates in the business of feeding our insatiable appetite for "The American Dream – Made Somewhere Other Than America." The politicians want our votes and the moguls want our money, and by working together this dynamic duo has perfected the art of getting both. What the American people have failed to realize, however, is that the consequence of our decades-long exercise in materialistic self-gratification is that we now face the very real possibility of losing more than just our sub-prime financed houses, or even our jobs.
In giving up our American identity in favor of that of "entitlement beneficiary and global consumer," we've been complicit in the auctioning of America to foreign interests that have been only too happy to finance our spiral into insolvency. We have, in effect, been trading away our national sovereignty (and thus compromising our national security) in exchange for short-term material comfort, with little regard for the fate of future generations and total ignorance of the lessons of our forebears. We all reacted with outrage at the corporate malfeasance of Wall Street in the wake of the collapse, we fume at the corporate negligence of BP in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, and we rail against the politicians who continue to spend our tax dollars; yet as mindless consumers – as spoiled children – we have contributed as much as anyone to the creation of these monsters.
Bannon and Bossie are correct when they say that the only way to stop this runaway train is for the American people to decide that they are ready to make some truly tough decisions – that they are ready to reacquaint themselves with the traditional American values of thrift and responsibility and willing to elect leaders whose first loyalty is to America and who will make the tough decisions necessary to bring us back from the brink of disaster. We must replace some of our love of self with a love of country, with each doing our part to reclaim the unique character and spirit at the heart of American greatness.
For the longest time, the ultimate American litmus test of success was to know that you'd situated your children to be more "successful" than you, meaning that they would make more money and have more stuff. Perhaps it's time to revisit this notion. Instead of merely leaving our children a legacy of material prosperity, perhaps we should leave them with examples of lives that modeled integrity, hard work, thrift, discipline, and self-denial. That would be a rich cultural inheritance – one that would likely produce prosperity that is sustainable.