Sometime between the time I was a teenager (that would be the 1950s and 60s) and today, my perception of America’s social and political environment changed from one that seemed more sharing, loving and mutually supportive to one that is, today, almost terminally corrupted by fear, violence, and greed.
To be exact, I do not say things have actually changed in those ways, only that my perceptions have changed. It is an important distinction since the world of my teen years was viewed through a lens of privilege that blinded me to the violence, racism, sexism, and poverty that many people in our country already dealt with on a daily basis. Maybe things are not so different now, only the lifting of the curtain to allow the rest of us to see and share the suffering more directly.
There have been, however, some undeniably real changes that will have to be addressed by rising generations. Today’s ruling powers have proved unwilling and unable to lead changes that would save our world from choking its own greed.
When my generation was rising into the age of control, hope was an almost tangible quality of our social milieu. A good many of us, at least, believed that we could achieve a world of peace, social justice, and prosperity through political action.
It is difficult to see much hope in politics anymore. Our constitutional checks and balances have been undermined through gerrymandering, dark money influence in political campaigns, and the systematic corruption of public education. An exhaustive list of the deficiencies would be much longer.
The Enlightenment values that framed the design of our constitution assumed an educated electorate able to think critically about issues of social policy. Throughout our history, we have expanded the franchise to include more citizens (women, former slaves, younger voters, for example) as we sought to bring more fairness and broader participation to our discussion of public policy.
But we have seen our foundations eroded by a number of poor choices and, in many cases, the purposeful subversion of the system by particular citizens who found ways to make government work for personal enrichment at the expense of the public. So many things have gone wrong with American government that it is difficult to know where to begin a critique that can be useful to the young inheritors of the system.
Discussion in the media has focused mainly on the politico-constitutional issues. The focus on constitutional mechanics and power structures often overlooks the values that are meant to be their real load. And when the value issues are discussed, the discourse quickly descends to ad hominem. But the values rising young citizens take to the contest will determine social and economic outputs of the system and the qualities of the society they build. We must help them talk about the values in meaningful ways.
I will focus a few comments on these values issues in the days ahead. The next in the series will talk about how I have gotten to know a little more about this rising generation and arrived at the conclusion that I must find a way to speak with them.