The DIGNITY Series: Dismissed Warnings
This is the fourth of a 10-part series examining the loss and possible recapture of dignity in our public lives and political discourse. (Read the series from the beginning here.)
By Stanley Baran
4. Dismissed Warnings
More than a quarter century ago Jimmy Carter, who since having left the Presidency in 1981 has lived his life in service to others, confronted Americans’ collective loss of dignity, our “growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.” He reminded his fellow citizens that, “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.“
Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Rather than accept his call for a return to our better angels, we recoiled from the “scolder-in-chief,” rejecting his characterization of a nation in “malaise” (a word he never used), and we booted him from office in favor of Ronald Reagan’s morning in America, complete with its tripling of the federal budget deficit and the Gipper’s conviction that the growing hordes of homeless people, 600,000 on any one night and 1.2 million over the course of a year, “make it their own choice for staying out there.”
President Carter’s contemporary, Polish-born American rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Heschel, also worried about the disappearance of dignity under the avalanche of stuff. He believed that the Hebrew Prophets, in whose voices “the word of God reverberated,” taught that “self-respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.” Of the prophets he said, “The Prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered, and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions.” People today who argue the merits of self-denial are the ones deemed scandalous, occupying the fringes of culture and discourse.
We see this in the until recently-unquestioned truth of how our economy is supposed to work, in our cherished certainty in the holy, revered, and awesome institution endowed with supreme sanctity, “the market.” Nobel-Laureate economist Milton Friedman wrote, “So the question is, do corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible? And my answer to that is, no, they do not.” This child of Hungarian immigrants, graduate of public high school and state-supported college, the man The Economist called “the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century…possibly of all of it,” recommended the eradication of Medicare, welfare, the postal system, Social Security, and public education. He said that “there is no poverty in America.” We see it in George W. Bush’s national call to action after the attacks of September 11, 2001: restore trust in the economy, go shopping, “Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” In the 1987 movie Wall Street, insider-trading, rapacious capitalist Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas whose performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor) insisted that “greed is good.” Writer/director Oliver Stone had intended Gekko to repulse audiences. Instead, Americans loved him. In October, 2008, at the height of this country’s financial meltdown, the Providence Journal, the flagship newspaper of the state that had just that week surpassed Michigan as having the nation’s highest unemployment rate, editorialized using Gekko’s mantra, “Greed is Still Good.”
Stanley Baran is Professor of Communication at Bryant University. A Fulbright Scholar, he is the author of Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture and Mass Communication Theories: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. He writes frequently on the media, popular culture, and our understanding of ourselves and our world. He will happily provide citations for this series’ quotations and statistics. Simply e-mail him at email@example.com.
Text copyright 2009 Stanley Baran