Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Can There Be An Age Of Responsibility?

I recently read Matthew Continetti's well done article on the Age of Irresponsibility and the need for a new cultural maturity. Continetti does a fantastic job of laying out the damage that our current irresponsibility is causing, and why we need to change. What is left unclear, however, is how to make those cultural changes.

Is an Age of Responsibility even possible? Continetti provides us with no clear example of a past culture or society that has acheived this golden age, choosing instead to focus on individual failures of our political, moral, and cultural leaders (President Bill Clinton and heiress/whore Paris Hilton get a lot of deserved atttention). Contrasting those negative cultural influences, Continetti again offers not a society, but individual examples of how we ought to be: General David Petraeus and Captain Sully Sullenberger.

It is interesting to note that both of these examples are men with earned titles to their name, already placing them apart from the population at large, just like the celebrities and political leaders Continetti cites as negative influences on our culture. But in America, anyone can be president, or a movie star, or a slutty heiress. It takes training, skill, and leadership to become a general, and hundreds of hours of training to become a pilot of commercial aircraft. Petreaus and Sullenberger, therefore, may be held up as ideal role models, but their skillsets place them apart from us in a way that typical celebrity-hood or fame does not.

It also seems a little odd to me that an heiress can damage society merely be showing off her hoo-hoo, while in order to save society we have to win a war or land a crashing airplane. It seems like the negative and positive role models Continetti refers to are more than a bit off balance. Do our positive role models really always need to engage in life-saving or world-changing events to have an impact on society and culture?

More importantly, do we even need role models? Does not being responsible require us to "put away childish things"? Mitty-esque fantasizing and fascination with the famous has cheapened and made juvenile the American Dream (as discussed in David Kamp's Rethinking the American Dream). A responsible adult doesn't take their moral cues from their President, a movie star, or an airline pilot. Responsible adults don't require role models, they are role models. Mature, responsible, reasoning, and rational adults don't require a certain number of role models in society before they begin following their example. They are the example.

This is where the idea of a Responsible Age runs headlong into the reality that we are a generation with few compelling reasons to be responsible, thanks to (among other things) technological innovation, the American ideal of industry, government bureaucracy, and a cultural tolerance of selfishness that would make most of our ancestors turn away from us in embarrassment. These factors (and note that there are most certainly benefits to these factors as well) affect us in a thousand different ways: I don't need to remember when our best friend's birthday is; that's what my Blackberry is for! I don't need to make sure that the poor in our community have food on their table, that's one reason I pay taxes. I'd love to stay at home with my kids, but we both have to work to make it. I don't want to stay at home with my kids when I have such a promising career. She's 2,000 miles away... she'll never know about what happens tonight.

We keep saying that we need to change, we keep explaining why we need to change, but to date I haven't seen anyone articulate how we're supposed to change society. I wonder if it's because it may be impossible to do so.

We may truly be moving towards a new Dark Age, where instruction and knowledge has become so specified that little common ground can be found. Instead, we fractiously debate (and increasingly just yell) over every debatable social, cultural, and scientific trend. There is no right or wrong, just different ideas. Cultural consensus means that you have 51% of the voters on your side, which is a far different definition than we have had throughout most of human history. At the same time, our genuine knowledge has become so specialized that many Americans are arguing passionately about issues that they know very little about. As society becomes less knowledgeable, our concept of knowledge is changing. Someone with what was considered cursory knowledge of an issue 100 years ago would be seen today as a lay expert on the subject. Just look at how many pundits on our cable news shows are expected to opine about all kinds of subject matter, even if they aren't too familiar with the topic at hand. Ignorance and expertise are no longer mutually exclusive states of mind, at least on our broadcasts.

Responsibility and maturity may not be the exact same thing, but as a friend of mine says, they're in the same zip code. Maturity comes in part through experience, but in our modern age we don't often rely on the experience of past generations. In fact, most of us feel that the past doesn't really matter much these days. As Diane Ravitch says:

We can't have thoughtful public discussions of issues when the public is so woefully uninformed about the past. We have allowed our culture to be seduced, ensnared, and dumbed down by a vacuous popular culture. If we gave tests that asked about rock stars and movies, our students and the general public would get high grades. We can be certain that the public knows more about Paris Hilton than George Washington.

Without a public that knows its history, without political intelligence widely dispersed, we can anticipate a future in which our politics is continually degraded to the lowest common denominator.

Our lack of historical knowledge helps to keep us irresponsible, because our ignorance acts like a pair of blinders, narrowing our focus towards the unknowable future while paying no mind to the (somewhat) knowable past.

This, of course, is just one aspect of our irresponsibility. Another aspect is the fact that our cultural spirituality is dying. It doesn't take a Christian to be a good person, and sitting in a pew on Sunday mornings won't automatically make someone responsible, but Christianity is better than no spiritual or moral code at all, isn't it? This Gallup Poll certainly suggests that regular church attendance has some bearing or relationship to how one feels about various social issues.

Can "virtuous" be used interchangeably with the word "responsible"? I believe our founders certainly thought so. Public virtue was seen as necessary for the future of the Republic, and men as disparate in their views as Benjamin Franklin ("Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.") and John Adams ("Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.") believed that the United States needed virtuous citizens, who in turn would become or elect virtuous leaders.

In my next entry, I'll take a closer look at the philosophical foundations of public virtue, and whether or not our society can reasonably be called virtuous in nature.

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