George Weigel (First Things) and I are not likely to agree often or on many things, but his article “Changing the Game” strikes me as a reasonable assessment of our nation’s current woes. Mr. Weigel begins by insisting that we are in need of “a frank acknowledgment that American political culture is sick,” and I’m hard-pressed to imagine anyone disagreeing with that.
The devil is always in the details, of course. Here are the details of our sickness, according to Mr. Weigel:
The sickness in our political culture is serious and it reflects the pathogens that have been at work for some time in the general culture. What are they?
- A raw individualism that conceives “freedom” as radical personal autonomy because it thinks of the human person as a twitching bundle of desires, the satisfaction of which is the full meaning of “human rights” and the primary task of government.
- A lack of commitment to the common good, which shows up in everything from bad driving habits to declining volunteerism to tax cheating to declaring a pox on politics and sitting out elections.
- The vulgarization of popular culture and entertainment, which has so deeply wounded our politics that they’ve become another form of reality TV, producing a spectacle that should shame us into a collective examination of our consciences as consumers.
- The confusion of “success” with sheer wealth by individuals, businesses, and corporate boards, which empties economic life of its vocational nobility and inculcates a counter-ethic of beggar-thy-neighbor competition that’s a grave danger to markets and a threat to the capacity of free enterprise to help people lift themselves from poverty.
- A grotesque misunderstanding of “tolerance” and “fairness,” rooted in an even more comprehensive delusion about what makes for human happiness, which isn’t “I did itmyway.”
One could quibble; that is, I could quibble—say, with Weigel’s take on what he characterizes as “raw individualism” or on his condemnation of our culture’s “grotesque” approach to “tolerance and fairness”. But I have no issue with the overall thrust of Weigel’s critique—that our culture has become trivialized and vulgar, and that we have neglected the common good—and so, for now, I’d rather put my quibbles aside.
Mr. Weigel summarizes our task :
We must rebuild American political culture so that, at its presidential apex, it is far less likely to produce such a mortifying choice as the one created by this election cycle. That requires the rebuilding of our public moral culture. And that is a task for several generations…
How do you rebuild a culture, political or otherwise? I suspect you have to begin with basic (but by no means easy) questions: What are people for? What is virtue? What is the common good and how do we promote it? Who is my neighbor? Why should I care? And then we have to answer one other question: How do we live together when we disagree on some or all of those basic questions?
We all know that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; the trick is to make sure we’re all journeying, not necessarily in lockstep conformity, but at least towards the same destination.