In times gone by, men and women were motivated by a code of honor. People sought to increase their dignity and distinguish themselves through accomplishment. Money, like power, was pursued because it bequeathed a certain status upon its possessor. It was a symbol of success, of being a winner, of having attained society’s top tier. For that reason, the millionaire captains of industry were expected to assume communal responsibility once they made their fortunes, either by using their wealth to build temples of learning, like Andrew Carnegie, or using their financial clout to selflessly rescue a collapsing market, like Pierpont Morgan in 1907, or bringing their 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 honor and as the result of exploitation of the public, a man whose riches actually compromised, rather than enhanced, his dignity.
Truth regardless of consequences 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 for a buck.
Man, if only we rabbis, ministers, and priests were also rewarded for failure. Given the new poll just released that shows atheism increasing in America, we’d get a bonus.
It’s clear that our lust for wealth has now superseded our hunger for honor. We’re making the mistake warned against by Eric Fromm of 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 near-total collapse of our principles and 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 can motivate us any more. Not a code of honor, not civic responsibilities, not even love. More than 90 percent of women say that they would not marry a man who earned less money than they do.
Indeed, I see the failure to address the deterioration of our values as the greatest omission of the Obama presidency thus far. Those of us who thrilled to Obama’s speeches, who were mesmerized by his golden tongue, and who went with him to the mountaintop are wondering why he has failed to use that eloquence to urge America to 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 to 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, a dream of being freed from the accumulated prejudices of generations, a dream of liberation from the social castes and class restrictions of Europe.
We have not had an orator of his caliber in American life. Until now. Yet President Obama speaks daily from a teleprompter about derivatives and subprime mortgages, almost consciously omitting the larger, existential questions. And I am left pondering why. Have the president’s counselors told him that it would sound alarmist, defeatist, to tell Americans they have become bloated? Could it be that he really doesn’t agree that a 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 and prefers to lay all the blame for the economy on Wall Street culprits?
I believe none of the above since Obama has many times demonstrated serious moral courage, like the time 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 neglected by parents who spend far too much time in the office? Are our marriages similarly broken? Are our children suffering from the soullessness of the 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 re-consecration of the time-honored American values of thrift, saving, hard work, family, and high moral character.
In the same way that Lincoln inspired the North to fight through the sheer power of words and Churchill and Roosevelt stirred a generation to resist tyranny through the influence of oratory, Obama should find his voice to move Americans to free themselves from greed and material insatiability.
He could begin with a major addresses enjoining young people to commit to a year of national service in schools, homes for the elderly, beautifying parks, and working in synagogues and churches. By doing so he would be teaching our children the old American code of personal nobility that says that real honor in life comes from giving rather than taking, in service rather than consumption.