Our lust for wealth has superseded our hunger for honor.
By SHMULEY BOTEACH
In times gone by, people were motivated by a personal code of honor. People sought to distinguish themselves through accomplishment. Money, like power, was pursued because it was a symbol of success, of having attained society's top tier. For that reason, the captains of industry were expected to assume communal responsibility, either by using their wealth to build temples of learning, like Andrew Carnegie, or using their financial clout to rescue a collapsing market, like Pierpont Morgan in 1907, or bringing one's managerial skills to the political arena for the public's benefit, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York is doing. What was thought reprehensible was the man or woman who became wealthy at the expense of their honor or by exploiting the public - someone whose riches compromised, rather than enhanced, their dignity.
But what the AIG bonus scandal and the never-ending stories of Wall Street corruption have taught us is that the only thing to be ashamed of in financial circles today is simply not being rich enough. It no longer matters how you make your money, just as long as you have it. You can destroy billions and demand millions. You can suck the last drop of life out of a company and then sell the rotting carcass.
If only we rabbis, ministers and priests were also rewarded for failure! Given the way atheism is increasing in America, we'd all get huge bonuses.
IT'S CLEAR that our lust for wealth has superseded our hunger for honor. We're making the mistake warned against by Eric Fromm - entering a 'having' as opposed to a 'being' mode of existence, where you begin to believe that 'the more I have the more I am.' If Descartes were alive today he'd modify his famous pronouncement to read, "I have therefore I am."
Yet, amid the daily revelations of greed and graft on Wall Street and politicians who spend billions on pork even as our country borrows from China to pay for it, there is a deafening silence. No one wants to talk about rotting American values. No one wants to confront the true cause of the breakdown of our economy - the bastardization of the American dream into the endless pursuit of gold.
It seems that few things other than money motivate us any more. Not a personal code of honor, not civic responsibility, not even love. More than ninety percent of women say they would not marry a man who earned less than them.
I see this failure to address the deterioration of our values as the greatest omission of the Obama presidency. Those of us who were mesmerized by his golden tongue, who went with him to the mountaintop, are now wondering why he has failed to use that eloquence to help America reach for something higher. Will we forever live for plasma TV screens? Will we work each year to update our cars? Will making and spending money remain our most deep-seated pleasure?
FORTY YEARS AGO Martin Luther King articulated a dream that had nothing to do with money. He asked white America to reach for justice and find it in their hearts to look at their black brethren as equal children of God. In other words, he reaffirmed the true American dream, a dream of liberty, freedom from the accumulate prejudices of generations.
We have not had an orator of his caliber in American life. Until now. Yet Obama speaks daily from a teleprompter about derivatives and subprime mortgages, almost consciously omitting the larger questions.
And I am left pondering, why? Have the president's counselors told him that it would sound too defeatist to tell Americans they have become bloated? Could it be that he really doesn't agree that loss of values lies at the heart of our economic meltdown? Might he be pandering to an electorate that finds it easier to watch TV than look in the mirror?
I believe none of the above, since Obama has many times demonstrated serious moral courage, like when he followed in the footsteps of Bill Cosby and addressed the breakdown of families in the black community and the need for fathers to step up to the plate. But does he think the white community doesn't have similar problems? Are our children not neglected by parents who spend far too much time in the office? Are our marriages not broken? Are our children not suffering from the soullessness of modern consumer society?
Whatever the reason he is silent, history will judge the president harshly for his failure unless he decides to act now and help inaugurate a reconsecration of the time-honored American values of thrift, hard work, family, and high moral character.
In the same way that Lincoln inspired the North to fight through the sheer power of his words and Churchill and Roosevelt stirred a generation to resist tyranny, Obama should find his voice and move Americans to free themselves from insatiable greed.
He could begin by enjoining young people to spend a year in national service at schools or homes for the elderly, beautifying parks, or working in synagogues and churches. By doing so he would be teaching them the old American code of personal nobility that says real honor comes from a life of giving rather than taking, of contributing rather than consuming.
The writer is the founder of This World: The Values Network, and has just authored a new best-seller, The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets to Reignite Desire and Restore Passion for Life.
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