Ben Barker is a practicing psychiatrist in Simi Valley, California.
The U.S. embodies both the greatest hope and the greatest danger that the civilized world now faces because of our unique ideological framework. Like all social orders, we are subject to thrusts of optimism, innovation and energetic expansion-but Americans take these thrusts farther, and often faster than any society ever before. Then we plunge into periods of denial, retrenchment, and even regression. These have been labeled by others as cycles, but a better analogy would be that we escalate over these episodes of alternating euphoria and depression in a jagged, ascending spiral of human development.
Even in primitive societies phases of breakdown and revitalization take place. In the early stages of breakdown individuals succumb in increasing numbers to stress-provoked mental or physical diseases. They lash out against authority, family and friends and sink into a whirlpool of withdrawal, drug and/or alcohol abuse. One by one the strands of the cultural network strain, stretch and break as marriages, families and institutions fail. The jails neither reform nor adequately imprison, there is no spiritual solace in the churches, and the government becomes tyrannical and oppressive. The people fight, bicker and separate.
Both the individual and the society at this stage lack the ability to anticipate events or to form a life or world strategy. Instead, they react in a poorly organized way to events—stumbling from one crisis to the next as in a drunken stupor. No great design emerges and the insane reactive lurching decays toward nonsensical chaos. It seems probable that the U.S. is now emerging hesitantly from precisely such an episodic breakdown into an era of growth and revitalization.
In the late 1950s we saw our last powerful era of national unity, stability and solid prosperity. We admitted that Catholics, Jews and even blacks were perhaps Americans after all and moved toward the spiritually cleansing civil rights struggles at the dawn of the sixties. What that entanglement brought about, however, was the greatest ideological antagonism to erupt in this nation since the Civil War of one hundred years before. White and black rebels in this societal confrontation forged powerful utopian links and struggled to bring us to a truer realization of the pluralism we had always preached but never really practiced. Their frequently shocking personal lives of drug and licentious sexual experimentation united the conservatives against the young rebels, and blood literally ran in the streets of our cities and universities. Most of us failed to perceive or delineate the nature or extent of that great rupture in our social fabric. As a consequence the Sixties Revolution was reported as a disjointed series of sporadic acts of anti- social violence or official retaliation.
The youth saw the Vietnam War and its concomitant draft as but an effort to herd them into Asian swamps for systematic execution, and so took their resistance from civil rights to antiwar as well. Heroin, LSD, acid rock and long hair became talismans of the revolutionaries. The conservatives, on the other hand, stumbled through outrage, retaliation, Watergate corruption and straight into the camp of hard-core materialism. By the late seventies both sides of the civil war were exhausted by their nearly two-decade ideological conflict and were ready for retrenchment. Interestingly, during the period of social turmoil a massive inflationary era had enveloped us.
The Lost War on Inflation
The debasement of the dollar naturally turned out to be a far more potent instrument of social realignment than confrontation had been. Hundreds of thousands were swept into the ranks of the wealthy by either planned or fortuitous involvement in investments that benefited from inflation. On the other side of the equation vast numbers of Americans on fixed incomes were swept beneath the poverty rug as their paper money rushed toward worthlessness. The politicians, ever ineffectual, waged a war on inflation, and lost. Meanwhile, the ever-expanding government bureaucratic class indexed their own salaries and hence became an elite walled off from the ravages of a plummeting dollar.
The battle for social and economic primacy and survival heated up considerably when industrial unions attempted to imitate the daring feats of government bureaucrats. What they did not understand was that local, state and federal government offices and functions are geographically fixed—private enterprise is mobile. So, corporate managements by the hundreds stripped the teeth of unions by shutting down their operations in one location, and opening up in another—often in another country. This accomplished what has been called the Deindustrialization of America. It also left government employees as the most stable and potent block of voters in the land. Their numbers, their perks, and their outlandish retirement benefits continue to escalate to this day in the midst of marked economic instability.
At the same time, inflation forced women out of the home and into the workplace. Previously unaware members of the female sex discovered that they were likely to receive unequal pay, have less power and be subjected to sexual dalliance in the office and plant. This fact of life was of course not new, but our liberal middle-class had for years refused to acknowledge the true terms of economic slavery. Additionally, these working women were obliged to leave their children in day-care centers. Recent sensational headlines have informed us of the too-frequent outcome of that tactic—sexual abuse and kiddie porn.
Faced with so many onslaughts from so many directions, even the flaming social revolutionaries of the sixties lost heart. Many sought solace in faceless religious cults which could feed and clothe them as they continued their dance of rebellion against the powers that be. Some even saw the evil of their ways, accepted the blame for the social chaos about them, put on three-piece fitted suits and came in out of the cold. Few recognized that they, too, had forsaken individuality for a cult identity, this time the cult of the corporate ideology.
A Reawakening of the Importance of Individual Responsibility
Those of us truly aware of the extent of cultural fragmentation that had taken place looked to ourselves as the sole form of transport through life that could be trusted. The government, academia, the military and the media elite were perceived as failed institutions that had betrayed our faith. We invoked our own physical or economic survival over civil law, church dogma or manipulated public polls. We refused court-ordered school busing by a variety of tactics, bought gold and guns, attempted to dismantle taxes, and often retreated to the foothills. We were a society in disequilibrium.
Between 1946 and 1961 roughly 64 million infants were born in America. Joined by increasing hordes of immigrants, they were labeled the Baby Boom generation. Having been raised in a period of prosperity, they walked into the job markets of the late sixties and early seventies and had doors slammed in their faces. Behind them they left a bloated educational bureaucracy which may prove increasingly redundant, and in front of them they faced an en trenched labor force unwilling to allow them easy entry. To make matters worse, many of them had not learned to read or write, and few knew the meaning of hard work. They are now our voting citizens, and they are filled with rancor. They are also now part of America’s middle class.
The Indomitable Individual
Unlike the French and Russian nobility, the U.S. middle class is acutely aware of the pressures upon their privilege, and do not intend to be simply overrun by a fascist central government or the lumpen proletariat. We value our liberty highly, and recognize it as the ultimate standard of wealth in a globe of diminishing distances and co]lapsing values. Like all things of value, liberty must first be earned, then defended.
Gail Sheehy, the author of Pathfinders (Bantam Books, paperback, 1981) captures the stubborn essence of Americanism in one paragraph:
Much of the message of America’s consensual ideology is conveyed non-verbally, through a continuous spring of cultural imagery: the lone silhouette of George Washington in a boat taking him to battle; the pioneer wife of the “big sky” movies, who draws a weary hand across her brow, straightens her apron, and tramps back through the flood-stricken fields determined to get the new seed in the ground; the lonesome cowboy after whom Kissinger patterned his shuttle diplomacy; the tight focus of two men in a space shuttle; right up to the hero’s welcome given President Reagan by Congress a month after his stunning comeback from mortal attack. Our reverence is saved for victories of the indomitable individual over fate or circumstance, victories that are often beyond politics and religion. Mantras, prayer wheels, Tibetan death verse, martial arts, Muslim fervor, flowing Indian or African robes, and kids cavorting about Yankee fields draped in Siddartha loin-cloths—they are all remnants of value systems unconnected with the individualistic spirit that is in the American blood.
What this observation pays special heed to is the powerful, unique nature of the U.S. ideological framework: the magical belief system that the dedicated individual can overcome all odds by dint of stubborn dedication and hard work and transform his world. This dream includes inventors, singers, dancers, oil-field roughnecks, athletes and even politicians. It is the concept that if we can immerse ourselves with single- minded determination into our own very special niche and return to the social system more than we take out then lightning will strike and we will become winners. It can happen to us at any age, so the secret is to persevere.
The credentialed elite who exposed the Baby Boom generation to nihilism and existentialism benefited from this dream themselves by virtue of achieving status and privilege through conformity to academic rote. Awash with envy, however, they lusted for greater status and privilege and taught the youth to doubt seriously the articles of faith in the American dream. Left with no ideological framework, the youth went on a destructive suicidal binge until their anger was spent. That’s why Johnny can’t read. He was taught by a member of the Flower Child generation who had lost all faith in the system—including the belief in the human need to communicate effectively.
The present conservative backlash is a reaction phase to the era of confusion and nihilism. If it accomplishes its task, and I’m certain that it will, then we will move into an era of growth and prosperity in which pragmatic realism is spiced with imaginative beliefs in the unique power of the. individual. Such a formula will allow America to move beyond the limits conceived by doom-sayers who have lost the ability to believe in the indomitable human spirit. We will grow beyond the limits of their imaginations into vistas of achievement that will dwarf present accomplishments. We will prevail.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
The fact that the American dream is still alive, and growing, is amply proven by the number of small businesses that open each day across our land. No educational system teaches us to open and operate small businesses, or to deal with failure if we flop. We just do it. And if the lightning strikes and our enterprise moves toward success we draw unto ourselves the skills needed to overcome our growing pains. The danger of losing all and starting from scratch once again haunts our every step, but like the lonesome cowboy we buckle on our belt and spurs and tackle another day because we believe in ourselves.
Confronting the passionate individualistic dream of the American entrepreneur is the growing rat-pack of government and pseudo-government bureaucrats. Unable to even dream, much less achieve the nebulous task of winning, the bureaucrats make a career of stopping others. Will the Fed kill the recovery with escalating interest rates? The staid civil servant hopes so. There are already too many haughty millionaires, flamboyant technology ge niuses, high-riding athletes, and unstable show business personalities. In the dry, dull world of civil service there are no greater sins than wealth and flamboyance.
Our present economic and social background, then, contains powerful antagonist forces pulling us on the one hand toward self-expression, transcendence and growth and on the other toward socialist repression. In a very fundamental sense whether we continue to grow or involute and die depends upon which force has the upper hand. Your time, energy, talent and financial investments can either be involved in the growth and development sector or in the repression and dominance sector. As individuals or as a people we can grow a little each day toward self- realization or we can die a little-depending upon how we direct our energies.
Individual or family-owned business enterprises are the economic backbone of our country because they fit so smoothly into the ideological framework that is in the American blood. When we lose sight of our strong point and move toward the dead-end structure and caste systems of older nations we are condemning ourselves to their same fates. There is genius and growth in diversity. We will decay and fall if we stifle small enterprises through repressive tax structures. If and when we become a country ruled by government and massive corporations our growing pains will cease, and our death throes will begin.