Our shift to self

Posted on February 26, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Jockeying for the American mindset has begun in earnest.

With presidential approval ratings tanking and pigs almost literally flying-a Republican senator elected in Massachusetts!-there seems to be a political identity void among millions of Americans.

Political opportunists of all stripes are rushing to fill it. Most recently, a group of conservative leaders promulgated the Mount Vernon Statement, a formal recommitment to founding principles signed by its writers in a retreat at the first president’s Potomac mansion.

To some, the document seems superfluous, since it essentially restates many principles already espoused in our founding documents, which are still in force. Others have characterized it as drawing the political battle lines for the next few elections.

But there is universal agreement that the document is fashioned after the Sharon Statement, penned 50 years ago at another mansion, that of William F. Buckley Jr. in Sharon, Conn. In that simpler, more intellectual manifesto, written by the co-founder of the conservative organization Young Americans for Freedom, ideas loomed larger than text and type.

A mere 14 lines long, the word “Constitution” appears in three of them, but the spirit of the 1787 U.S. charter permeates every sentence. The statement’s tenets, as applied to the tumultuous time of its creation, shaped conservatism for decades even as it failed to halt a decidedly liberal lilt at the federal legislative level.

One phrase in the Sharon Statement bears repeating: “When [government] takes from one man to bestow on another, it diminishes the incentive of the first, the integrity of the second, and the moral autonomy of both.”

G.K. Chesterton said that a fallacy that became fashionable did not cease to be a fallacy. Likewise, a truth that falls out of fashion remains a truth.

A couple of years after the Sharon Statement took stage right on the national political scene, Tom Hayden and the left-leaning Students for a Democratic Society hatched the Port Huron Statement. In contrast to the young conservatives’ concise treatise, the SDS proclamation is just short of 5,000 words, among which “Constitution” is not found at all.

Despite its explicit avowal against deifying man and preaching egotistical individualism, the verbosity out of Port Huron mustered only one little irreverent reference to god (little “g”) and whole mouthfuls of psycho-babble condemning nearly every group capable of restraining individual misadventure.

Still, America’s youth was at least signing on to something besides “American Idol,” and perhaps the best service the Mount Vernon Statement will do is cast new light on the question of whether society today has become intellectually incapable of self-government as originally conceived.

A reader forwarded me a timely reference to an article written in American Educator 10 years ago about student learning. In it, author and teacher Vincent Ryan Ruggiero explored student views that hindered their education. One component of what he characterized as “bad attitudes” that poison classroom instruction was a shift in the concept of self improvement.

Ruggiero recalled the 1911 “Devil’s Dictionary” entry for “self-esteem,” which Ambrose Bierce mockingly defined as “an erroneous appraisement.”

“A revolution has taken place in the vocabulary of self,” he wrote, which is especially evident and pertinent in the concurrent replacement in the popular psyche of responsibilities with rights.

Responsibilities imply self-action and a host of words that are connected with accountability in some way or another: self-discipline, self-criticism, self-control, self-respect, self-sacrifice, self-denial. Those terms have fallen from modern grace, replaced with a new generation of hyphenated suffixes to self that exalt an introspective, if not altogether self-absorbed, view.

Much if not most of our primary cultural influences on youth-education, entertainment, advertising-now adoringly embrace words like self-expression, self-indulgence and, of course, self-esteem. In study after study, American students score below other countries on test material, but score higher on self-esteem.

The immense apparatus established to make students feel good about themselves has proven very successful, more so by some margin than the system set up to actually teach them knowledge. The ubiquity of “feeling” as a more significant criterion than fact is today’s self-evident truth. Notice how many polls ask what people think rather than what they know.

This train of thought has become top of mind in television news interviews, too. Watching the Olympics, the first question normally asked of an athlete about winning or losing is some variation of “How did you feel?”

Whatever obstacle the shift regarding self presents for education is multiplied for republican government. Chesterton, always incisive, declared, “Self-denial is the test and definition of self-government.”

There’s probably nothing as out of vogue today as the practice of denying or sacrificing one’s own needs or interests. Is that a test we as a society can continue to routinely fail?

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