All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1974

The Enigma

Mr. Bradford is well known as a writer, speaker, and business organization consultant. He now lives in Ocala, Florida.

Our country is experiencing a self-imposed malaise of massive proportions and suicidal import —a condition that is at once insidious and hard to define or explain. To state it simply and starkly, the Americans are doing their utmost to destroy America!

Intentionally? Deliberately? Of course not — except in the case of a relatively few dedicated revolutionaries. For the most part, the destroyers are people of good intention, who would be horrified at the assertion of their guilt.

“Who — me? Why I love my country! I’m only trying to save it from…” And then will follow the name or purpose of the organizations, interests or persons who have a different social, economic or political philosophy from that of the outraged speaker.

Unhesitatingly, he attributes evil purpose to all who dissent from his viewpoint; and millions of other zealots like him are equally busy castigating the opponents of their particular philosophies or prejudices. As a result, the composite picture of America that emerges to the world is that of a dishonest, hypocritical, wicked, and no longer to be respected giant. And the picture is being painted, not by the Russians, Serbs, Chinese or Albanians — but by the Americans!

Nobody would contend, I suppose, that this country has ever been free, or should be, from a certain amount of critical introspection. This is part of the process of self-government. The competition of political parties assures a lively and continuing assessment of our customs, practices, laws, principles and institutions — an accepted procedure, understood by the people, and largely beneficial.

But the current chorus of defamation goes far beyond such helpful self analysis, and often seems to be without identifiable reason or excuse. To be sure, our assets and resources have been impaired and depleted, in part by heedless exploitation, in part by statist brakes on development, in part by the ruinous fiscal policies of recent decades. As a result we have been assailed by the twin evils of doubt and inflation. Inflation, of course, is but the visible symptom of a general self-deception about the effect of unlimited Federal debt on the cost of living. The evil of doubt also results, in part at least, from inflation. When people see the value of their savings steadily shrinking they are troubled by doubts as to their personal future. In time the doubt becomes fear. The doubt and fear feed each other. People begin to question their ability to cope with life’s problems. And perhaps most devastating of all, they begin to be troubled about a thing that has always been an article of faith with them — namely, the rightness and justice and strength of their government.

But today’s incessant and strident diatribe goes beyond customary discontents. Never within the memory of this writer has there been such a persistent and wholesale denigration of the United States of America as we are now enduring.

Whence the Defamation?

Whence came all this vituperation of America by the Americans? Allowing for the human propensity to be “agin the government,” and discounting the bombast and exaggeration of partisan politics, what is the reason, after nearly 200 years of spectacularly successful national existence, for the constant defamation of our country by its own people?

One basic cause is to be found in the gradual conversion of our government from the simple form and purpose conceived for it by the Founders into the gigantic social welfare organization that now sprawls over the District of Columbia and dominates the national scene. In the minds of millions, the government is no longer the organized power of the people to govern themselves. In their view it has ceased being the simple but majestic instrument that was to uphold justice, protect citizens from aggression, insure their personal and political freedom — and then… let them alone. All that is now taken for granted, to be sure (except the part about leaving them alone), but it has become of secondary importance. In addition to its traditional functions, the government is now an aggregation of agencies whose job is to provide certain “benefits” — i.e., financial assistance — to… practically everybody! This means that its area of potential culpability has been enormously extended. There are now hundreds of things for which people can blame the government, either for its failure to do enough, or for having done too much, depending on the point of view.

Moreover, the government has been assigned the job of guarding the interests of farmers, students, laborers, artists, writers, old people, young people, racial minorities, housewives, inner city dwellers, suburbanites, ruralites — and especially “consumers” (which again means everybody). And this guardianship is not to be achieved as an ordinary matter of law enforcement, but through militant administrative activism. All this has meant a great proliferation of the bureaucracy, with attendant operating expense, plus enormous outlays to finance the innumerable programs that are generated. And it has meant hundreds of new targets and occasions for the exchange of abusive rhetoric.

Harmful or Helpful?

A great weakness in all this has been the failure to distinguish between those features of the societal structure that are harmful and those that are helpful to the growth of the individual — for that, if I understand the real import of our history, is what this country is all about. The freedom and fulfillment of the individual —this was the idealistic dream and the practical aim of those who organized the American State.

But the intrusion of government into all walks of life — our tax-supported and politically oriented and regulated schools; a subsidized and sharply controlled agriculture; vast housing programs, some of whose monstrously useless buildings are already being demolished; welfare programs that have little real concern either for the cost to the public or for the effect upon the recipient; all these and many other well-meant but disastrous and costly programs have not truly aided but served to defeat the great idea of an achieved social harmony through the exercise of freedom.

Thus the floundering and sometimes the blundering of a nation that is still striving to find itself, not on the world stage only, but especially in the important matter of what is the proper relationship between government and the governed — whether or not the posture of the State as a generous uncle can best serve the true interests of the citizen. Growing numbers of thoughtful people are convinced that full freedom and not paternalism is the best insurance of individual growth and development. Certainly the practice of governmentalism, with its concomitant plethora of regulatory bureaus and departments, will continue to provide fuel for the fires of controversy and bitterness.

Unpopular War

It has been the fashion in recent years to blame all our American doubts and dissatisfactions on war, especially the Korean “Police Operation” and the subsequent Viet Nam exercise in frustration. Those wars did indeed make their disastrous contribution to our national discontent. But they were only a current phase of the perennial unpopularity of America among the Americans. The shrill chorus of defamation was on stage long before the Geneva Accord; and it will still be heard when the Mekong Delta and the Central Highlands are but a fading memory. As Southeast Asia was phasing out, the Watergate scandal was phasing in as a center of dissatisfaction; and when its course is run new occasions of critical discontent will arise or be manufactured.

First and always, there will be the voices of violence and revolution. These fall into two main divisions: the sincere, if deluded disciples of Karl Marx and supporters of every regime that even pretends to follow the Marx-Lenin, Mao line; and second, the hard-eyed, communist-trained agents who care little for Marxism as a political theory, but are determined upon the destruction of any government that is not communist in form and purpose. These are the activists, trained in the techniques of revolution, one of which is to infiltrate and use any movement that has a cause for grievance, real or fancied.

But of even greater destructive impact, though not so intended, will be the continuing clamor of our many special-interest groups. I am not referring now to such “special interests” as agriculture, or manufacturing, or labor, or banking, as the term is ordinarily used. I mean rather the many groups that have as their special interest the promotion, prevention or abolition of this, that or the other policy or program which, in their belief, threatens (or insures) the health, welfare, happiness, freedom — even the permanence — of the American nation. Such people are not communists. They wish no harm to this country. Indeed, most of them have as their main purpose and mission a program of “saving” the American people from… something.

A Chorus of Defeat

It is not possible or desirable in an article of this brief compass to review and assess all these “movements.” Some of them have a valid basis for the dissatisfactions they express. Some of the changes advocated are long overdue. But that being granted, one who loves this country is appalled at the extent to which their voices are directed, not at a particular evil, but at the whole American scene, its institutions, its people, and its government. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the emotional effort that was made, following the assassination of President Kennedy, to load the whole American people with a sense of guilt for the brutal act of one evil man.

The result of all this is that the audible voice, certainly the most quoted voice, of our country today is usually one of condemnation, hardly ever one of hope. The composite chorus of propaganda damns America generally, praises it seldom. Whether there is a South Asian War, a Middle East conflict, a shortage of fuel, or a problem of international credit, our country is customarily the villain, almost never the hero.

Certainly that is the impression one gets from watching television or reading newspapers and magazines. I am not at the moment criticizing those media. By and large, with notable exceptions, they report what is happening — the news. On the old man bites dog formula, bad news inevitably comes front and center. This much can be conceded to media that have plenty to answer for in the way of sensationalism and distortion.

But beyond the media are those who make the bad news — the shouters and ranters; the critics and defamers; the promoters of evil causes who defame with deliberate intent; the supporters of worthy causes who also defame, not with evil intent but by ascribing the worst motives to all who oppose them. Thus we hear that there is poverty in the land, not because some people are unfortunate, but because wicked and rapacious men are growing fat by despoiling the poor. There is pollution, not because we all throw our waste about indiscriminately, but because the producers of goods don’t package them properly. There are shortages of fuel, not because we burn it up wastefully in our cars and furnaces, but because reckless producers of fossil energy are keeping oil and coal off the market. The cost of food is high, not because we have all accepted government induced inflation as a way of economic life, not because transportation and all other costs have soared with a dwindling dollar, but because selfish farmers, scheming wholesalers, and retailers without conscience have conspired to drive prices up.

And so on, and on, and on… in a cumulative jeremiad that strips our country bare of good intent or high purpose and presents it to the world and to its own people as a nation sunk in selfishness, iniquity and dishonor.

And it is a false rendering! It simply does not reflect the reality of America. This statement is no Pollyanna pretense to national perfection. We have our sins and follies to answer for, like other nations. But a ranting voice on a loud speaker; a screaming revolutionary with a bull horn; a murderer with a smoking gun or dripping knife; a sneaking arsonist setting fires; a cowardly terrorist planting a bomb to kill innocent people; a minority mob of students seizing offices, destroying records, spreading excrement, shouting obscenities — these are not America.

The Real America

America is in those millions of homes where love and decency and pride and parental concern and filial affection prevail — and it is nonsense to pretend, as some do, that such homes do not exist, or that they are diminishing in number. America is in those grade and high schools where girls and boys by the millions are studying and learning and ducking classes and killing time and flirting and falling in and out of love — as they have always done. It is in hundreds of small colleges and many universities, where the great mass of students are still concerned with learning, excelling, finding a good job, and “getting ahead in the world.”

While all the noisy turmoil of marches, “protests,” demonstrations, and riots occupies stage center, the people of the country carry on — working, earning, spending, saving, investing, taking chances, losing, winning, loving, marrying, having kids, getting on each other’s nerves, quarreling, making up, planning, hoping, having disappointments, enjoying achievements, sharing sorrows, and making homes where warmth and faith and love abide.

While a handful of “activists” are disrupting traffic, upsetting cars, smashing windows, and thereby gaining a few headlines or a coveted spot on television, in hundreds of towns and cities all over the country men and women are giving their time to work on projects to benefit their communities. Businessmen are serving on committees; housewives are managing day care centers; working mothers are helping to build a home and a future for their families. Carpenters are aiding the Red Cross; bricklayers are active in the Community Chest; others give up their evenings to help operate clubs for boys and girls. On thousands of farms teenagers are being taught the essentials of husbandry and are competing for prizes contributed by people who are not required to do so, but who want to share their substance and point young people to a better future.

Serious Work for Progress

All very prosaic and materialistic? Of course. But so, despite its high moments, is life itself. Before we can paint or carve or write books or compose music or operate farms or organize business enterprises, we must eat, wear clothes, and be sheltered. Such, indeed, is the price of existence.

The great majority of people understand this and govern their lives accordingly. At the very time when campus riots were getting the headlines, the rioters were but a handful of students, often led by outside agitators. The overwhelming majority of students wanted to get on with the business of acquiring an education, the better to cope with the problems of their later years. And it was so with every other incendiary and revolutionary movement. Small coteries of irresponsible adventurers made noise and committed depredations. The serious work for progress in social betterment and human understanding was done by persistent pluggers who were unwilling to burn down the barn to eliminate the rats.

It is not the purpose of these paragraphs to decry propaganda, organization, meetings, agitation, or any other lawful means of focusing attention on needed reforms. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech… or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” And aside from that Constitutional provision, change is the order of life; and today it is needed in many areas if mankind is to attain full freedom and realize its highest potential.

But it is a tragic mistake, cumulatively suicidal, to convert every demand for change into a crusade against the American society. With all its failures and shortcomings, that society is one of the best, perhaps on all counts it is the very best, that has yet been devised by groping man for his own governance. The evils that exist here are not peculiar to America, but are the common and tragic portion of all mankind. Sum them all up; take the total of everything that is complained of; and then place in the opposing balance the multiform advantages we Americans enjoy in terms of affluence, comfort, and freedom —do this, and the scales will tip resoundingly for the good, as against the bad, in our country. Or again, weigh in those same scales of comparison the advantages of life in the United States as against life in any other country on earth, and once more the balance will come down handsomely for the American performance.

Striving Toward Perfection

The perfect society, the country without fault or reproach, has yet to be devised. Man is a developing creature, still close to the cave and the jungle in many of his reflexes. He errs and sins grievously against his fellows, and against himself. Just now especially he is caught up in great tides of change, and is the victim as well as the beneficiary of vast scientific discoveries and technological advances. He stands today tiptoe, as it were, on the edge of a new immensity — his eyes on the planets and stars, his feet dragging in the mire of an all-too-earthy existence.

His glory is that he does consciously and persistently strive toward perfection. He does want to do and be better. Groping and stumbling, hindered by selfishness and prejudice, he does nevertheless catch visions of the better life and is at moments exalted. His tragedy is that he is still not as big as his visions, smaller in mind and comprehension than his science — a moral and ethical juvenile, overshadowed by the soaring splendor of his technology. But he strives, he reaches, he aspires —and therein resides his nobility. Therein also is found the hope of mankind for ultimate perfection. Meanwhile, men are not perfect, neither we Americans nor anyone else. Our life is flawed by the failures, malice, ignorance, selfishness and general perversity of human nature.

Our society has been and is marred by poverty — but far less so than the societies of most other countries. It has been scarred by crime, like other societies that boast of their high ethical standards. Capitalism in America has produced its quota of rapacious crooks and so has socialism in England and Sweden and communism in Russia and China. A minority content of depravity, cupidity, and ruthlessness inheres in the human condition. The American society, like others, has failed in a subtle way to achieve the highest plane of freedom, possibly because it has made freedom into a kind of political shibboleth of something expressed in terms of physical advantage, rather than as an essential thing of the human spirit.

But it is a great society, easily the best and finest yet practiced among men. And it should not, for the sake of all mankind, be pulled apart, either by enemies who want to destroy it, or by friends who, with tragic good intent, are quite apt to dismember it in the process of trying to make it better.

The Americans love their country — but they constantly revile it. They are proud of its achievements — but they dwell on its blunders. They know about its remarkable successes — but they’d rather talk about its failures. They speak eloquently of its great future, all the while they are busily pulling it to pieces.

That is the enigma.  

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.