America seems to be running out of gas. A deadly lethargy is creeping into the national bloodstream. We seem beset by problems we can’t fix. First, we’re practically broke. With a deficit of $13.9 trillion, every American newborn is now saddled with a debt of $33,000.
Economists believe that the recent trillion-dollar federal bailout of the banking industry will be chicken feed compared to the coming bailout of state and municipal governments, whose profligate ways have all but bankrupted them as well. Forbes reports that New York City alone has a debt of $64.8 billion, or $7,760 per resident.
The American human rights agenda is stymied by this debt, with China successfully preventing even American beneficiaries like Afghanistan and Iraq from attending the Nobel Prize ceremony for dissident Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese have embraced the thrift, hard work and excellence in education that once made America great, while we have become more indolent and ignorant.
Rather than focusing on personal development, Americans seem obsessed with the lives of others. Social networking sites distract us with the goings-on of friends and acquaintances we may not have seen in decades (or minutes), and the Internet is cultivating our youths trifecta of exhibitionism, narcissism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Nielsen observed that online social activity has increased from about three hours a day in 2008 to five and a half a year later.
Reality TV is assaulting the very notion of human dignity, with millions of Americans prepared to subject themselves to public humiliation to garner some money and fleeting attention. There is even a growing trend among teen girls to get pregnant just to qualify for MTV’s Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant shows, where the price of “15 minutes of fame” is a lifetime of responsibility.
Our schools are a shambles, with American high school students now ranking 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading worldwide. While we trail Croatia, the Czech Republic and Liechtenstein, China is number one in reading.
American families are fractured, and marriage is a rapidly deteriorating institution; 40 percent of Americans now say it is obsolete.
Our kids are raised on junk food and junk TV; the lack of basic nutrition in the diet breeding a uniquely American form of insatiability. We eat but are never satisfied, so we have an epidemic of childhood obesity.
And when we grow up, we continue leaving no itch unscratched, no thirst unquenched, rarely asking ourselves what hole inside is so bottomless that no matter what we shove in, it can’t be filled.
BUT WHERE the American malaise is most felt is in skyrocketing levels of depression. It may seem incongruous in a nation with the world’s largest economy and highest standard of living, yet we consume three quarters of the world’s anti-depressants; one in three American women is on one. And still, the #1 ‘cure’ for unhappiness in America remains shopping – which explains why, even with all our credit cards maxed out, we cannot curtail our craving to buy.
On Black Friday 2010, millions of Americans got up at the crack of dawn to spend (according to Shopper- Trak.com) $10.66 billion on things they probably don’t need, just because they were 20% off.
I know, I know, we’ve had bigger problems. During the Civil War we slaughtered each other with abandon. During the Great Depression at least a quarter of the population was unemployed. And during World War II we faced a threat to global civilization itself.
But there’s a difference.
Previous crises always had an identifiable, external cause that could be remedied, however painfully. During the Civil War it was slavery, during the Great Depression it was easy credit and high tariffs. In World War II it was Hitler and the Japanese.
This time there is no external cause; the enemy is us. Americans are suffering from corrupt values. The Tea Party blames our problems on spending-addicted politicians. But all our other woes arise from a similar lack of discipline. Rotten principles are at fault.
Thrift has been replaced with indulgence, spiritual longing with material consumption, genuine curiosity with learning skills merely to pursue a career. Being a blessing to others has succumbed to a single-minded focus on self. Character has been supplanted by charisma. The loud and audacious get attention, while those of quiet virtue are overlooked.
And hovering over all this decadence is a hell-bent obsession with money at any cost, and fame at any price.
America has been the greatest country on earth, but no nation has yet surmounted the challenge of success. Prosperity replaces hard work with a sense of entitlement, a yearning for knowledge with a passion for luxury. It was abundance, rather than invading hordes that slowly corrupted the heart of Rome, and it is ironically our vast American achievements that are now eroding the moral fabric of the nation.
The Talmud expresses it succinctly: When you have not enough to do, you do what you ought not to do. America’s sense of high moral purpose has been replaced with the drive to sustain our high standard of living, even at the expense of our neighbors, and of the environment itself.
But there is hope. No country can match America for determination and resilience, and we can reverse this American fade-out into renewal by again grasping the values that made us great.
Foremost among them is a sense of adventure and discovery. We need teachers who can excite students about learning, a government that encourages innovation rather than penalizing hard work, families that turn off the TV and get their kids out hiking or playing.
Mindless passivity is the enemy; stimulating mental, spiritual and physical activity the solution.
Second, we need to recapture a sense of gratitude, remembering to appreciate what we have instead of being always greedy for more.
Third, we must instill within each of us the virtue of living a life that is a blessing to others. The quickest way might be to establish a mandatory year of national or community service immediately following high school.
Americans must also foster an identity defined by the good deeds we do, not by the things we own. This will likely come from religion, which must stop wasting time in fleeting cultural squabbles and get back to teaching people the nobility of living a purpose-filled life. We must reinvigorate real communities – not only groups of on-line ghosts ‘talking’ to each other – by reinvigorating synagogues and churches, community centers and charitable volunteering.
We need a national Sabbath – a day on which all stores are closed and people spend time with friends, family and self.
Finally, we need to teach our youth about human dignity and the
necessity of having and living by values. Public schools should
institute mandatory values classes imparting a nonsectarian
understanding of Right and Wrong – the moral bedrock on which this great
but now tottering nation was built.The writer is founder of This World: The Values Network. This week he is publishing his newest book
Honoring the Child Spirit: Inspiration and Learning from Our Children. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.