Come To Terms With It
Everybody talks about reform but nobody wants to change.” Garry McCarthy, Brick City: Circus
Ain’t it the truth? This is America! You have the right to do whatever the hell you want to do, provided you’re not breaking the law and you’re paying your taxes. Damn right. But that’s not because you’re you. It’s because this is America. And it’s fragile. Naomi Wolf puts it this way: “The Founders did not see Americans as being special in any way: They saw America—that is, the process of liberty—as special.” [1. The End of America, Chelsea Green, 2007]We’re at a critical time, economically, environmentally, and socially. We have to find a way to bridge our individual rights to do the bare minimum and
• our national debt, forty-four percent of which is owned byJapan and China (which amounts to more than $10,000 per American family).
• our food industry, which keeps us in cheap, fattening food.
• our educational system, which spends more than any other and yet doesn’t produce top students.
It’s easy to brush this off and think it comes down to the underachievers in our society. But it’s not about them; it’s about you and me. It’s about a status quo to which we’ve become dangerously accustomed. It’s every middle class worker who’s about to be outsourced. It’s every would-be innovator who’s content to sit on his haunches for another year. It’s every one of us who goes to networking meeting after networking meeting to talk about marketing without talking about behavior. We have to buy our asses back and that isn’t going to be easy. It means we have to start producing more than we consume; it means we’re going to have to produce what we do consume on our own soil. In May, political commentator Rachel Maddow delivered the commencement address to Smith College Class of 2010. She made the following remarks:
I would like to offer the hypothesis on this beautiful graduation day that [mere] personal triumphs are overrated.Gunning not just for personal triumph for yourself, but for durable achievement to be proud of for life, is the difference between winning things and leadership. It's the difference between nationalism and patriotism; it's the difference between running for office and devoting yourself to public service. It's agreeing that you're part of something, taking as your baseline that you will not seek to reach your own goals by stepping on your community. It means coming to terms that your country needs you…
Her choice of words struck me. Those words sound like something that may have been said to a group of women whose young husbands were off fighting in World War 2, not several hundred extraordinary academics graduating from a women’s college in 2010. Maddow knew it when she was saying it; after all, she used the phrase “coming to terms” with it. After 9-11, we were urged to “keep America rolling” by spending spending spending. We managed to find a special sense of heroism in propagating our own consumerism. I’m pretty sure that that with which we need to “come to terms,” according to Ms. Maddow, is not an ever-renewed burden to buy but, in fact, the initial call to cut it out. We have to come to terms with the fact that complacency, that spending on imports, that credit cards, that constant disposability, that refusing to manufacture, that tracking intelligent kids away from industrial arts, aren’t working. Good enough, that notorious enemy of excellence, isn’t cutting it. It’s really an ethical issue. This is about our behavior, our choices, and what compels us to act. This is about everything that can’t be legislated in the United States. We have to remember that just because the Framers set up the Constitution such that our positive ethical behavior can never be dictated [and how wise of them to do so] doesn’t mean that the prosperity and realization of the dream that is America doesn’t rely wholly on our behavioral and positive ethical choices. Philip Hallie, a former professor of philosophy at Wesleyan, puts it this way: “The negative ethic forbids certain actions; the positive ethic demands certain actions. To follow the negative ethic is to be decent, to have clean hands. But to follow the positive ethic, to be one’s brother’s keeper, is to be more than decent—it is to be active, even aggressive. If the negative ethic is one of decency, the positive one is the ethic of riskful, strenuous nobility.” The hard work of “riskful, strenuous” reform may be why we’re so great for chatter about reform but not great at cutting down on oil usage. It may be why we’re still buying a lot of bottled water, driving thru, and letting the Chinese manufacture our toys. Talking about the difficult stuff is difficult. But doing something about it is even harder. We’re going to have to get used to doing some hard work. As Americans, we’re not accustomed to that. Come to terms with it.