The alienated American is certainly a visible entity in American society today. He is faceless, opinionless, lacking commitment and independence. He is the man who watched the murder of Catherine Genovese and did not want to become involved. He is the nonvoter who avoided the polls in November because of a vague, frustrated animosity toward the American "choice." He is the affluent suburbanite, the blue collar worker, the dissatisfied farmer; he is the do-nothing, the silent, the forgotten American.
A December, 1968, Harris Survey reports that at a time of unprecedented affluence in our country, 28 per cent of adult Americans feel largely alienated from the mainstream of society. More than half of the voters polled felt that their lives were of little concern in the social structure and that their opinions were of little value to their "representatives" in government.
When did this malady strike the American public? How did the home of the free and the brave become a façade for the uncaring mass of "typical" citizens? Why has the proud America of yesteryear become an America of shame and violence? Where did the American people go wrong?
Is, perhaps, the American of today being pushed into a mold he does not want or deserve? Is our ever-growing government minimizing the American citizen to a point where he is nearly extinct? It is my opinion that big government, by offering effortless material happiness, undermines the individual’s right to do for himself. Are these materialistic standards really more important than the individual’s right of decision, his self-respect?
The government has evolved into a corporation surpassing the power of any private enterprise in land owned, in investments and income, in total payroll, and in employees. In Washington are officials who control the spending of nearly 200 billion dollars a year, which is a total of 350 thousand dollars a minute. They command one-seventh of the American citizens in their ever-growing army of employees. They manage 800 million acres of land—one-third of the nation—and spend one of every six dollars spent each year on goods and services.
Big Brother can provide you with an education, a job, or, all else failing, a welfare check. His power pervades every aspect of public, and private, life. He can even influence consumer goods by boycotts such as that against United States Steel last year. In this controlled existence of the American, individualism, spontaneity, and privacy from Big Brother are rare. You are told you should be ready for the world at twenty-one, ready for the armchair at sixty-five, and ready for the grave at seventy-six. All else is taken care of for you. With the problem of sustaining himself alleviated, man has lost touch with the "human condition" and he ceases to care about the world around him. If there is not an international catastrophe, material wants will be supplied by the omnipresent welfare state.
Handouts May Be Harmful
There is a time when welfare is necessary to help an individual and is, therefore, good. But there is also a time when this gift should be more than an unrestricted handout. There are often jobs available that pay less than the welfare check, so the individual’s reason tells him not to work. Should we not question the inefficiency of the government bureau that fails to find a solution to such a major problem or even to acknowledge the existence of such a problem? Is the Federal government really so distant from the situation that it cannot see these things itself? If so, then the management should be brought out of the heights of the governmental hierarchy back down to human size. F. P. Keppel, the president of the Carnegie Corporation, once noted, "We all know that foundation aid can increase measurably the pace of any social tendency, but we don’t seem to know when this artificial acceleration ceases to be desirable."
The handout, the idea of something for nothing, tends to undermine individual initiative. The American is denied the existence of a feeling deeper than hunger. He is told he is too small to be a significant force in our automated society, that he is a mini-person. It is small wonder that more and more citizens are in a mood of open revolt against the machinery and the men of government, against an increasingly impersonal bureaucracy, a top-heavy Washington, a statistical model of services that dehumanize man and perpetuate a cycle of dependency.
Relieved of Incentive
Program after program aimed at "establishing domestic tranquility and securing the general welfare" has had almost the opposite effect: less tranquility and more violence, more public "welfare" and less personal well-being.
For example, urban projects and computerized programs take the incentive and personalization out of bettering one’s own community. No longer can the individual contribute his services to the community structure. He is too small to be effective so he must pay taxes for outsiders to come and do the job. He becomes little more than a social security number, a life insurance policy number, a house number, and a telephone number. While the sense of community withers, the sense of personal identity and the feeling of being an active, determining force in one’s own life also diminishes.
It is becoming increasingly true that those protesting students who carry signs reading, "Do not fold, bend, staple, or mutilate; this is a human being," speak for the frustrations of Americans everywhere. Through all these complaints runs a common thread: that society is losing touch with the individual; that the sense of community has crumbled; that the power to control decisions affecting one’s own life is vanishing; that the precious, intangible thing—the individual human spirit is being neglected or injured.
As the state has absorbed man’s independence, our society has become more socialized. The epitome of this shift of dependence is the concept of pure communism where all responsibility is taken from the shoulders of the individual. He is told what to do in his work, his home, his religion, and his values. He need not care about business, church, or education because these things are no longer his responsibility; they are all controlled by the state. But what becomes of the man? Employment for all, poverty for none. Where is his incentive? So in this growing society man becomes apathetic to his environment because Big Brother always takes care of him. Because he is powerless, he loses contact with the power structure.
In his essay, The Cold Society, Nat Hentoff notes, "It is that indifference of power to man—the power of the state, the power of economic forces, the power of science that has been felt with chilling impact in this century. And the corollary of that coldness is man’s estrangement from himself, and from his society."
In this estrangement man is losing a sense of personal identity and of responsibility. Our heritage was founded on the basis of individual liberty, but will surely crumble if these liberties are infringed upon by the state. We were forewarned by Thomas Jefferson when he said, "Yes, we did produce a near perfect Republic. But will they keep it, or will they, in the enjoyment of plenty, lose the memories of freedom? Material abundance without character is the surest way to destruction."
Dissect and Control
This materialism, the trademark of our modern society, has encircled the religious life of America as well. Gradually, as man’s identity in the secular world becomes more and more indistinct, he finds it harder and harder to find God, because science tells him that in time there will be no more mysteries. Our society has become secularized and materialized to a point where everything can be dissected and then controlled.
The basic axiom of the new religion of technology is that the system cannot break down. We have faith in the system. It can be proved whereas God cannot. As the image of God becomes less important, so do the other basic values of man. Science has given rise to a new breed of man. I would call it homo technicus because it is a man that, in the species sense, is technologically self-sufficient. Man can, by his technology, master nature and control the environment, subduing nature to his will. He has learned to cope with all questions of importance without recourse to God as a working hypothesis: everything gets along without God, and just as well as before. The supreme being of homo technicus is the system, and men are merely its servants. It is this lack of identity and of relating to an outer force, this existing only as an economic unit in society that makes man insufficient for the demands of life. He becomes the alienated American.
A comment that Jacques Ellul made in his observation of homo technicus struck a very tender spot. He said, "When the edifice of the technological society is completed, the stains of human passion will be lost amid the chromium gleam." Man can advance materially and still lose ground if he does not also advance spiritually. He is now in the process of losing his human spirit. Can he continue to exist like this? I think not.
A Challenge to Youth: To Live in Dignity
What is the answer? There is no simple solution to this dilemma, but the answer lies in today’s youth. Significantly, the young adults of the present are not only fighting for an end to poverty and war, but just as urgently, for de-centralization of decision-making, less Federal government. They are radically questioning the welfare state in its present form, and are searching for ways by which men can live in dignity as well as economic security.
Can we succeed? I firmly believe that we can. Simply fighting for these things, dropping the mask of apathy, and becoming committed to this idea is, in itself, a victory. Self-respect can grow only out of courage; dignity can develop only from conviction. "The reward," remarks a young folk singer, "is the act of struggle itself, not what you win." In this case the stakes are high enough to merit the risk.
This article, "The Alienated American," grew out of a civics class discussion and a strong conviction that this is one of the most urgent problems facing our nation’s youth today. It is her hope that not only the experienced politician but also the youthful crusader will be motivated to take a good, hard look at the present American system and then initiate action for the preservation of a government of, by, and for the people rather than over and against the individual.