Dignity

Ours is becoming an undignified culture.

I’m not referring solely, or even primarily, to the protests, looting, riots and general hair-rending now so conspicuously on display in our cities and media. Nor am I narrowly focused on the lurid absence of self-restraint, sexual and otherwise, in our public culture – or even on the astonishing speed with which we are going ever-more deeply into debt as a nation. Those I see more as symptoms than as causes of the debasement of our culture.

One fundamental cause, I am convinced, is our culture’s gradual abandonment of the twin virtues of self-reliance and self-respect as the hallmarks of personal maturity. Another, closely related to the first, is the new (or, perhaps I should write, very old, as in: pre-Enlightenment) tendency to see people first and foremost as members of permanently separated groups, each of which has its particular entitlements, rather than as individuals possessing their own rights, one of which is to determine their own paths in life based on their particular merits, efforts and decisions.

Personal dignity was once prized. “Never complain; never explain,” was Disraeli’s maxim – an attitude that helped people “keep calm and carry on” in the face of adversity. And, as recently as my parents’ generation, Americans (and many others) faced adversities – the Depression and World War II – almost beyond the imagining of today’s young people.

I sometimes wonder what that generation – now almost entirely gone – would’ve thought of the whining of today’s young. Trigger warnings and safe spaces had different meanings for them – and nothing, up to and including food on the table, was to be taken for granted.

But I don’t think it’s the absence of such adversities, per se, that caused the relatively sudden, dramatic shifts in our culture. Young leftists aren’t toppling statues and throwing Molotov cocktails at police cars because they’re pining for a new world war or another depression. They’re doing those things because destroying the symbols of our traditional culture helps them feel good about themselves, which they hadn’t. They now have a purpose, though not one we should celebrate.

***

I trace the nihilism of the young, would-be revolutionaries – and that’s what they are – to the horrifying ways that two or three threads of our recent history and present circumstances are coming together.

The first of these threads is the precipitous decline of belief in traditional Judeo-Christian faith traditions among America’s educationally-credentialed elites – and the constant derision in our public culture directed at those who hold to such faiths.

Most people need to find meaning – a sense of purpose – by seeing their lives in a broader context than simple solipsism or materialism; traditional faiths provide(d) that context. In the absence of such faiths, people will unconsciously substitute newer, (more destructive) ones like Marxism or radical environmentalism, in either case mistakenly thinking that they are following the dictates of Science. By so doing, knowingly or otherwise, they reject the codes of right and wrong, going back to the Ten Commandments, that formed the basis of our social compact and civilization by according equal dignity to every person. The dignity or rights of any particular individual are weighed as nothing in the broader calculus of the newer religions; their mantra is that the goal of the common good as they see it justifies their means, however hard on some.

The second thread was the transformation over the last sixty or eighty years of our nation into what may broadly be described as an entitlement state. If you meet certain criteria, you are entitled certain benefits, in many cases irrespective of whether or not you need or paid for them. If you’re old, you’re entitled to Social Security and Medicare even if you’re Bill Gates. If you’re a member of a group deemed to be disadvantaged or under-represented, you’re entitled to certain admissions or hiring preferences, again, whether or not you, in particular, have been disadvantaged relative to somebody else who isn’t entitled to the same preferences by virtue of his or her group membership. What matters is not your merits, it’s your membership in a designated group. Where victimhood has tangible benefits, it will naturally be prized, even (or in such cases, especially) at the expense of personal dignity.

Finally, the new combination of technological savvy as a relentless economic sorting device and a public education system that – for almost all of the poor and many non-poor – is irredeemably broken, deprives millions of the personal dignity that accompanies hope. For many members of our new underclass, who face the many nonsensical, culture-changing incentives of the entitlement state and often insuperable obstacles to improving their circumstances, anger and lawlessness can come naturally. The deck is stacked against them, and they know it.  

***

Deep down inside, we bear profound resemblances to each other. We have basically the same physical needs and very similar psychological needs. (Our cultures vary, but that’s another matter). The amazing wealth our society has produced has met most Americans’ physical needs to an extent that previous generations would never have believed possible. Where we are falling down, I believe, is in meeting the psychological needs of an increasing percentage of Americans for the sense of personal dignity that flows from the freedom to choose one’s own path and the reasonable hope of individual betterment.

We are individuals. We have agency as of right – Jefferson wrote about it, right there in the Preamble to The Declaration of Independence – until and unless we let it be taken away from us by a political system that treats us as no more and no less than members of arbitrary groups with entitlements and limitations defined thereby.

We must never forget that like rights, but not entitlements, dignity is personal.

M.H. Johnston        

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