Are Youth in America becoming more Materialistic?

In the Mecca of Capitalism that the U.S. is, it may perhaps be inappropriate to ask: Are young Americans becoming more materialistic? As I read David Brook’s column The Streamlined Life in the New York Times, just two days ago, this question is addressed, quite directly and his argument seems to suggest that indeed they are becoming more materialistic. With greater economic insecurity, lack of opportunities, are young people these days becoming more obsessed with wealth and economic stability? What is at stake here is how does this bode for the future of America’s role in the world?index

Is this greater focus on just material wealth and success going to make the future leaders of America more insular, inward looking and disconnected from the outside world. In his column, Brooks thinks out aloud whether American college freshmen are becoming too goal oriented and focused on success, to the detriment of other bigger questions such as ‘meaning of life’ and developing a coherent living philosophy. Based on the survey results of the survey by U.C.L.A., he says “Their overall values change. In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.” While there is a tendency among many Americans to think that their country is ‘exceptional,’ due to its super-power status, they also mistakenly assume that it is ok for them to be completely self-absorbed with their own problems and not care about the rest of the world. This is visible through various surveys conducted about Americans attitudes towards rest of the world, including the amount of foreign-aid that America should give, the role that U.S. should have in global affairs etc. Consistently, the average American seems to think that the lesser involvement, the better. While this is a normative question, where each answer can be equally valid, from a realist perspective, this seems foolhardy; as a super-power cannot afford to be self-absorbed. It not only hurts its ability to influence world events, but also hurts its moral standing.

The questions raised above, about whether greater individualism and focus on wealth is impacting American society are not new ones, by any means.In their classic book, Habits of the Heart (1985), Robert Bellah et al investigated the phenomenon of individualism and argue that Americans use their public and private aspects of life to make sense of their lives. They say “Our conversations with our fellow citizens have deepened our conviction that although we have to rely on our traditions to answer those questions, we have to probe those traditions much more critically than we are used to doing if we are going to make sense of the challenges posted by the rapidly changing world we live in.” (p.21).While identifying individualism as a uniquely American trait, that my well define the ‘American character,’ Bellah et al contend that “Whatever the differences among the traditions and the consequent differences in their understandings of individualisms, there are some things they all share, things that are basic to American identity. We believe in dignity indeed the sacredness of the individual. Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious. Our highest and noblest aspirations, not only for ourselves, but for those we care about, for our society and for the world, are closely linked to our individualism.”(Pg.142). This individualism is a consequence of the Western liberal tradition, which holds the freedom of the individual to be paramount, but has also been informed by the strongly religious traditions in the country. They have identified various forms of individualism such as ‘expressive individualism’ and ‘utilitarian individualism’ and Walt Whitman and Benjamin Franklin are given as examples of the two types of individualisms. So, in effect, individualism is not a hindrance to collective action or idealism; but it can rather help Americans deal with and make sense of the demands that their communities make of them. The trouble seems to arise when there is too much of individualism and it leads to people becoming self-absorbed to the extent that there is a total disconnect from society. This could have implications for democracy as such, as scholars such as Robert Putnam (2001) and Robert Wuthnow (2004) have argued in their books.

Another finding that troubles Brooks and bothers me as well is the following. “In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.” While the limitation of this survey, and any survey, by virtue of its methodology is that the results don’t capture a lot of the nuance in the answers given; they are definitely indicative of the broader ‘mood’ in the country. The mood among youth, of claiming their rights, while not remembering their obligations towards the country is captured by this quote by Amitai Etzioni, a staunch proponent of Communitarianism “Young people have learned only half of America’s story. Consistent with the priority they place on personal happiness, young people reveal notions of America’s unique character that emphasize freedom and license almost to the complete exclusion of service or participation. Although they clearly appreciate the democratic freedoms that, in their view, make theirs the “best country in the world to live in,” they fail to perceive a need to reciprocate by exercising the duties and responsibilities of good citizenship.” (p.3). While these debates will continue to play out in the years and decades to come, there is a growing realization among some scholars that civic engagement, responsibility towards one’s nation and fellow beings is declining and that is not a good thing – both for the individual and the community.

The warning that Bellah and his colleagues sound in Habits of the Heart is relevant today, as it was when they wrote it. “We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous – that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities.” This may be a fair warning and given the results of this survey, policy makers, religious heads and educators and parents should all take heed and perhaps re-focus their attention on making the youth more ‘integrated’ into society, rather than ‘alienated.’ The stakes are very high and if this trend is not stopped, the very individualism that has made America the most innovative nation in the world may also make it the most self-absorbed and nihilistic one. That, the U.S. cannot afford.

Beyond the Melting Pot?

The recent Coca Cola Ad during the Super Bowl stirred up quite a controversy. While most of the negative reaction to the ad was misplaced racism, the ad did bring up an important question that for the most part, went un-examined: that of the myth of America as the land of opportunities and a place where hard work is rewarded.

The U.S. is a land where diversity is welcome and embraced. That is true, to a large extent. But it is definitely not a ‘melting pot’, where all cultures blend into one. The American immigration model is one where immigrants still keep their ethnicity intact, and are proud to be Italian-American, Syrian-American or Chinese-American. This is a fact that is taken for granted and widely accepted. Though there may not be much “Italian” “Syrian” or “Chinese” left in the second or third-generation Americans, they are still proud of what Herbert Gans called their ‘Symbolic ethnicity’. Unlike in European countries, where the immigrants are really expected to give up their traditions and literally ‘melt in’ the expectation in the U.S. is different.Melting Pot

This melting pot hypothesis has been widely accepted and bandied about, as an exceptional American trait. But upon close examination, it seems to fall apart, as I have pointed out. The ‘American mythos’ as the Princeton Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has called it is just that – a myth, one that has helped us navigate the growing diversity, but it has deep flaws in it.

Wuthnow’s argument is simple. He says that the narratives that we use to define immigration and also America as a nation are not accurate and we tend to make mistakes when we make these assumptions. The fact that hard work is rewarded in all cases is one such assumption, Wuthnow says in his book American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short. The book is based on narratives of immigrants and their efforts at assimilating in the U.S. There is a long-standing tradition of the immigrants assimilating in the country and making use of opportunities here, to succeed. To what extent is this part of the American mythos and how does it inform our understanding of America, is key, he points out. As Wuthnow goes on to say: “The deep narratives that shape our sense of national purpose are so inscribed in our culture that we accept them without thinking too much about them. The deep ways meanings of these stories influence how we think about ourselves, and at the same time bias us. For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” These assumptions become empty talking points or assumptions that we don’t closely examine and scrutinize, Wuthnow argues.

These myths, Wuthnow adds, are also about morality and about our rights and privileges and responsibilities. Taking the example of how early American thinkers imagined America, Wuthnow argues that there was a certain narrative that was created – of America as the land of for those who were saved. Material wellbeing in the newfound land was equated with spiritual health. This took on an emancipatory and religious tone, with the puritans claiming that the prosperity that they experienced here was due to their “passage,” through hardships. Walt Whitman wrote eloquently about the vision of America as a country that would welcome all and be a land that is full of ‘noble people’.

When Whitman wrote of America as:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time

 

He was also contributing to the American myth. Indeed, the trend of welcoming immigrants has been ongoing, despite a few hiccups along the way. Wuthnow also argues that the material progress that many immigrants made, instilled the belief in many of them that they were somehow superior to others. The immigrants also become ‘liminal figures’ who were quite literally between two places, the old home and the new ‘home’ in America.

The very notion of crossing over to come to a new ‘home’ in America is one that gives root to this idea. This is not always entirely positive, he seems to be saying. When he says “A society like this will always fall short of its aspirations, for our highest aspirations involve having a home, in which our values are nourished,” he could be interpreted as making a conservative argument. But one cannot deny that materialism and individualism in America has gone too far.

Wuthnow warns us that the success stories of the few cannot tell us the entire story of all those who came. Of course, there were those who didn’t make it, those who failed, destroyed their families to be in a new country. “ We must be careful how we approach these questions. Stories of the successful few are never accurate depictions of the many. They are not meant to be unvarnished truths even for their principal protagonists,” he says, pointing to the various gaps in this narrative that are often filled in by the ‘success stories.’

Robert Bellah et al in their book Habits of the Heart seem to be making similar arguments and Wuthnow borrows liberally from Bellah. Bellah argues in his book that there is a great emphasis on the individual in America and this needs to move away, and we need to re-focus our attention on groups, institutions. But there is a way for Americans to balance this individualism with commitment to the community, Bellah points out. While some exceptional people do it all the time, others struggle with this balance, he adds. Similarly, Robert Putnam, another political theorists has focused on the group and reaches the conclusion that we cannot bring about any change in the community unless the individual changes, for instance by deciding to watch less TV

Tensions in American society

Wuthnow’s argument is similar to the one made much earlier by Daniel Patrick Moynihan the New York Senator and academic, who wrote the famous book Beyond the Melting Pot with Nathan  Glazer. The core thesis of the book is that immigrant groups retain their ethnicity and that in fact this is not a bad thing. The duo studied ethnic groups in New York City and found that the rise of Irish, Catholics could be attributed to their group cohesion and the fact that they were able to retain group loyalties. This was a controversial statement to make in the 1960s’ – a time of heightened sensitivity about topics related to race, ethnicity. But it seems that their prediction has come true and we are all the better for it.

While immigrants have made this country a truly unique and blessed place, the myth of the ‘self-made’ man or woman that so pervades our capitalist economy is dangerous, Wuthnow seems to be pointing. He says that like Horatio Alger’s self-made men, we are all motivated and inspired by this image of the person who picks himself or herself and starts all over again. While alluring, this is not entirely true, as it decontextualizes the people – removing from the picture all those who helped the person, the family support, the friends who helped this person or the banks that lent the person money, not to mention the unique economic conditions, including market conditions that made this success possible.

Wuthnow’s observations about the materialism, growing individualism and lack of connection with others as being a danger to our democracy are incisive, sharp and clear. As he poignantly says :“The inner-directed Americans of today must become other directed. An individualistic ethic should be replaced by a social ethic. The solution to individualism therefore is not to become more fully identified with a group of one’s peers. When that happens, individuality is lost. The person becomes weak, not strong. What is needed is interaction with the group, not identification with it. Interaction implies give and take.”

This may as well be a prophetic prediction. While the America of 2014 is resilient enough to rise up to the occasion and denounce those bigots and racists who balk at a TV Advertisement that shows diversity, it still does not have the depth of understanding to step back and look at the myths that it believes in. And more importantly, the America of 2014 assumes many of the taken for granted narratives about immigrants, materialism and sense of privilege that are part of the mainstream discourse. This needs to change and people need to be more self-reflective and nuanced in their understanding of these issues.

 

Is “God Bless America” problematic ?

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom-symbolizing an end as well as a beginning-signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.” – John F Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961

“ Now, here, as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion.  And, yes, this freedom safeguards religion, allowing us to flourish as one of the most religious countries on Earth, but it works the other way, too — because religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.” – Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast meeting, February 6, 2014

 

Photo courtesy: Reuters.com
Photo courtesy: Reuters.com

The two speeches quoted above were made with a gap of  more than fifty years. Despite this, one can see the reference to God, America being a religious nation and the rhetorical use of faith in both these speeches. This rhetoric of religion goes back to the founding of the nation itself, one could argue. Why does an American President have to invoke God to appeal to his own people and the rest of the world? Despite constitutional separation of religion and state, why does this occur so often? What role does this “Civil Religion” play in America. I will examine these questions in this short article and look at the intersection of religious and political rhetoric in the American public sphere and explore whether this is problematic and why.

Civil religion can be defined as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its own purposes[i].” Since Rousseau coined the term and used it in his The Social Contract, the concept has become useful in describing this phenomenon of politics coopting religion. Robert Bellah, in his essay Civic Religion argues that “every nation and every people come to some form or religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not,” by this he means not the self-worship of nation, but conscious subordination of the nation to ethical principles. He uses the example of John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech (quote above taken from this speech) to demonstrate that civic religion seems to be alive and well, in the American political space. He says that the mention of God three times in the beginning para of his speech itself is not just symbolic or empty, but points to a value system that most Americans share and to that extent, it is an acceptable form of speech.

Bellah asks: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all?” The answer, he points out, is that the separation of church and state does not deny the political realm a religious dimension, meaning that there is no prohibition in using religious rhetoric, as long as it is not used to suppress others religious rights or freedoms. Further, Bellah clarifies: “Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share.” He further argues that civil religion in America is tied to the history of the founding of the country itself, and manifested very strongly in instances when the very meaning of the nation has been questioned. Subsequently, through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, in Bellah’s view represents the very best of the civil religious tradition- as his motives were drawn from the Declaration of Independence and the desire to hold the country together, and not from a particular religious dogma. This tradition seems to have continued till today, with a few aberrations in between.

Bellah is also quick to remind us that it is not all rosy with civil religion. “It has often been used and is being used today as a cloak for petty interests and ugly passions. It is in need-as any living faith-of continual reformation, of being measured by universal standards. But it is not evident that it is incapable of growth and new insight,” he adds.

As a country that has constitutionally separated religion and state, some critics point out,  civil religion blurs these boundaries. Former President George W Bush came under attack in the media and from scholars for the use of religious rhetoric and in particular, use of the word ‘Crusades,’ to describe the Iraq War. Commenting on the Bush years, this NY Times article further contends that “ Too often, though, American politicians and moralists have reduced faith in Providence to a religious sanction for raw power. In the 1840’s, with the emergence of the idea that the United States had a manifest destiny to expand to the Pacific, the hand of God was no longer mysterious (as in traditional Christian doctrine) but ”manifest” in American expansion. As for the natives who unproductively occupied the Great Plains, Horace Greeley, the journalist, said in 1859: ”’These people must die out — there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against his righteous decree.” Both these historical examples point to the ugly use of religion to justify actions that could not stand the test of high moral principles that they promised to uphold.

Moving to contemporary America, President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 6 are indicative of the importance of civil religion in the U.S. Civil religion has arguably made a significant contribution towards the discourse of religious freedoms, as Obama’s speech demonstrates. Obama uses his rhetoric of civil religion to build on his argument for greater religious freedoms both in the U.S. and abroad. He mentions the recent uptick in violence in the Central African Republic, Persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Burma as egregious instances when the states are not doing enough to protect those who are vulnerable. As he says: “ I’ve felt the love that faith can instill in our lives during my visits to the Holy Land and Jerusalem — sacred to Jews and Christians and Muslims.  I’ve felt it in houses of worship — whether paying my respects at the tomb of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador, or visiting a synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or a Buddhist temple in Bangkok.” This device works, one can argue, to not only bring people together in a shared value system, but also to politically send out a message that all religious groups and faiths will be tolerated. So, in effect, civil religion in this instance can be seen as upholding the First Amendment provision of freedom of speech, which by implication means freedom of religious choice or to not believe. In a post 911 world, where religious intolerance in the U.S. is quite high, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has documented, this rhetoric may be necessary.

Some of the benefits of civic religion are obvious: a) It gives us a value framework that is shared by all, irrespective of a particular faith tradition. b) It could also provide a safeguard for religious freedoms, and not letting the state trample on religious freedoms of people. President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast 2014 is a classic case. His entire speech can be seen as a call for religious freedoms both in the U.S. and around the world. While in a global context, this rhetoric may be seen as being hegemonic, it is not in contradiction with globally agreed norms such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion. The only glitch, it seems is that this ‘values system’ leaves out the non-believers and those who are strongly opposed to any mention of religion in the public sphere. This is truly a sticky wicket.

Finally, it helps to remind ourselves what Bellah has said about civic religion and its place in American society. He advises that rather than being cynical and denouncing civic religion, which is in any case inevitable, given the highly religious nature of American society, it is better to seek within the civic religious space, those principles that may prevent national self-idolization. Bellah’s point that civil religion is becoming more activist, rather than theological is another interesting and perceptive insight. Looking back at recent history, we can see this in the case of civil rights movement, labor reforms debates, immigration reforms debate and several other initiatives, where religious leaders from various faith traditions have come together to create a discourse based on rights, often acting politically and similarly, politicians using religious rhetoric of ‘god given rights’ to argue for equality and ‘dignity for all.’ In this regard, civil religion can actually be helpful both as a social and political tool. There is no need to fear this public expression of a benign religious value system. What we need to fear is extremism- from both sides : the religious and the atheists.

 

Notes


[i] From Beiner, Ronald, Civil Religion, A dialogue in the history of political philosophy, Cambridge Uni Press, 2011