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Rebirth of the nation.

What is needed is "an extraordinary resurgence of spirit on the part of the American people - a fierce commitment to the common good, and intention to pull together, and a willingness to sacrifice."

Every informed American understands the gravity of the problem we face today. Yet, such difficulties themselves are not as perplexing as the questions they raise concerning our capacity to gather our forces and act. We can talk endlessly about technical solutions, but nothing will happen without that capacity. No doubt many of the grave issues that beset us have discoverable: though difficult, solutions. However, to mobilize the required resources and bear the necessary sacrifices calls for a high level of motivation.

Suppose that our shared values have disintegrated to the point that we no longer can lend ourselves to any worthy common purpose. Shared values are the bedrock on which leaders build the edifice of group achievement. Suppose they no longer exist. Suppose that our institutions no longer can adapt to a changing world. Suppose that our sense of community is weakened by unresolved internal conflicts. If we face those issues, we may be able to answer whether we have it in us to create a future worthy of our past. Not to face that question with the utmost seriousness would be remarkably foolish.

The nation is in deep trouble on many fronts. We recently have gone through the greatest spending and speculative binge since the 1920s. The Federal deficit is projected at $400,000,000,000, the highest in our history. The national debt of four trillion dollars in effect is a tax on our grandchildren. The corrupting role of money in political campaigns, scandals involving members of Congress, meanness of electoral politics, and substitution of image-making for substantive policy proposals have contributed to the cynicism. Citizens don't feel they can hold their government accountable or that they can make a difference.

The list of devastating problems includes unemployment, poverty, troubled schools, neglected children, racial conflict, environmental degradation, a gravely inadequate health care system, decaying infrastructure, international crises, etc. There was exaggeration in the remark of a television commentator that we are sliding swiftly toward the status of a second-class nation, but everyone knew what he was talking about. Thoughtful people recognize that a turn-around will call for a massive national effort. Many Americans remember how the nation rose to the fierce wartime demands of 1942-45. The present challenge is smaller in scale, but conceivably even more dangerous. Most civilizations are conquered less often by traitors within the gate than by those within the heart - loss of belief, corruption, a dwindling sense of control, and disintegration of shared purposes.

Perhaps the most familiar expression of concern for America's troubles is an anguished cry for leadership, but our topmost leaders alone can not save us. We have learned through hard experience - and the corporate world has led the way in demonstrating this - that, in a society composed of large and intricately organized systems, leaders must be dispersed widely throughout all segments and down through all levels. In every segment and at every level, there must be individuals capable of taking leadership to make their piece of the system work, people prepared to accommodate system-wide policy to ground-level realities, women and men who are not afraid to send word back up the line that new policies need amendment or reversal.

So, a wake-up call to the nation must be a call to several million Americans capable of exercising leader-like influence where they live and work. I have seen and worked with such people in every part of this country - men and women, old and young, at every level of our national life. Some are (or have been) public officials; some have been prominent in business; many play creative roles in the dynamic and influential institutions of the nonprofit world.

Great things happen nationally when topmost leadership is goaded and supported from below. It is impossible to imagine that our present extensive environmental legislation could have been put in place through the initiative of the executive branch and Congress acting alone. Governmental leaders were responding to a dynamic movement outside of government. The same can be said for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s - had there been no civil rights movement, there would have been no legislation.

In the past, public administrators have been somewhat apprehensive, even alarmed, by citizen energies. However, the most forward-looking are beginning to see that there is much to be gained by linking up with that vitality.

In recent years, Americans have become increasingly resentful, disgusted by the fraud and injustice they see around them, and anguished by what has happened to their country, dreams, and image of themselves, feeling betrayed by those who should have taught and led them. All of that is understandable, but not useful. It won't help to scapegoat leaders, though one must admit it is great fun. A lot of the blame is ours. Since the election, there have been scores of articles implying that now it's all up to Clinton. That is wrong! A lot of it is up to us. We have been living beyond our means, consuming more than any other people on Earth, tolerating mediocrity, and dodging the hard decisions. Now, many are dreaming of an easy way out. A great many Americans made it clear, in elections at all levels, that they wanted a change in leadership. The question remains whether they are willing to change themselves. If we remain in the self-indulgent and cynical mood of the Embarrassing Eighties, the best leaders in the world can't save us. There is no easy way out.

Waking up America

How can the American people be awakened to a new sense of group purpose? How can they arrive at a new way of thinking about themselves, a new vision and new resolve?

A movement to wake up America will have to be like the nation itself: pluralistic, not solely dependent on one powerful leader, but upon many leaders dispersed throughout all segments and down through all levels of the society. Enlightened leadership at the top can help immensely, but grassroots action and local responsibility are crucial. All segments of the society must be involved. Everyone must help and, in the same spirit, the benefits must be shared widely.

Recent Asian immigrants seeking citizenship, Hispanics pursuing upward mobility, African-Americans fighting for racial justice, descendants of earlier immigrant groups (including the Mayflower passengers), and Native Americans whose ancestors immigrated before recorded history - all have a stake in the health of this society. If the nation fails, we all fail. Our tradition has been one of continuous renewal by streams of newcomers. The many ways in which the newcomers have contributed is itself a part of the story.

One of the first tasks today is to cope with the prevailing cynicism, and that can not be done unless we learn to hold our top leaders accountable. That means, among other things, that we can no longer tolerate a system of campaign financing that makes our leaders beholden to donors, rather than voters; that makes it possible for money to buy political outcomes and politicians. That is absolutely basic to any turnaround.

The difficulties we encounter in accomplishing group purpose are traceable in part to a disintegration of shared values. Unfortunately for our nation, the soil in which such values are rooted and nurtured - the family and community - is being blown away in the dust storm of contemporary life. I recognize that community is a subject rarely discussed in high policy circles, but that must change.

It is particularly important to restore the face-to-face community in the family and extended family, schools, congregations, workplaces, and neighborhoods. That is where shared values are generated and, if they decay, where they do so. Such communities can provide a sense of belonging, allegiance, identity, and security. They can provide the feeling of a life that extends beyond selfish interests and gives meaning to sacrifices for the common good. In addition, such communities provide a web of interdependency that desperately is needed in the tumult of contemporary life. When individuals are part of an effectively functioning community, they feel empowered, believe that they can have some impact on the course of events, and, for that very reason, feel responsible in a way that powerless people never can. We desperately need that sense of responsibility to get us through the challenging time that lies ahead.

Obviously, we don't want community bought at the price of the individual's mindless submission to the group. Every community must find a productive balance between individuality and group obligation. Among those who seek to restore communities are individuals who are antagonistic to the role of Federal and state governments in people's lives and seek to eliminate that role as far as possible. However, we need healthy communities and vigorous, responsible Federal and state governments.

The idea of wholeness is implicit in the term community. Nevertheless, everything we know about cults and totalitarianism tells us there is such a thing as too much wholeness. To prevent it from smothering diversity, there must be a tradition of pluralism and healthy dissent. To prevent the diversity from destroying the wholeness, there must be accommodation, coalition-building, and well-developed practices of dispute resolution. Surveying the current world scene, one is driven to believe that wholeness incorporating diversity is the transcendent goal of our time, the task for our generation worldwide.

In a vital community, conflict is inevitable and often healthy. The goal is not to eliminate conflict, but to prevent it from escalating in destructive ways and to seek peaceable outcomes. In recent decades, a great deal has been learned about the resolving of disputes, and it should be taught in every educational system in the world. Nationally and internationally, there must be institutionalized arrangements for conflict resolution, the diminishing of polarization, and the building of bridges of understanding. The ethnic warfare burning fiercely in every corner of the world teaches us anew that the destructive possibilities of hatred are limitless. The ancient human impulse to hate and fear the tribe in the next valley, the ethnic group on the next block, or those who are "not like us" is deepseated.

A healthy community should expect participation by every segment of the whole, but that will happen only if each one feels it is respected and will be heard. Just as every group has a right to demand equality of respect and count on its share of group benefits, so each group must give something back. This is not easy for a group that feels it has been victimized by the community at large. Still, at some point in its progress toward full acceptance as a member of the community, it must ask, "What can we do to make it a better community?"

Large numbers of people have torn loose from whatever cultural, religious, or philosophical roots they may have known. Others never have known such roots. Various religions and secular philosophies continue to differ among themselves on questions of value.

Scholars are fascinated with the divergence among value systems, but the men and women who must keep a society functioning always are seeking the common ground that will make concerted action possible. They have no choice.

It is not an unsolvable problem, as the framers of our Constitution demonstrated. They not only laid out a design for governing, but expressed many values whose legitimacy stems from the fact that diverse groups explicitly are committed to them.

Aspiring to values

One can precipitate a lively debate by suggesting the specific values toward which we aspire. I am not so reckless as to attempt a definitive list, but shall suggest the kind of items that must be included. To justice, liberty, equality, and responsibility, I would add the dignity and worth of the individual; the sanctity of private religious beliefs, family, and community; the release of human possibilities; and environmental integrity.

It is necessary to add that the identifying of values is a light, preliminary exercise before the real and heroic task, which is to make the values live - first in our own minds and hearts and behavior; second, in the customs and laws and institutions of our society. It isn't enough to talk about respect for human dignity. What does it imply for employment and housing policy? It isn't enough to express concern for the well-being of our grandchildren. What does it imply for action on the national debt?

Some may feel that, in a time of agonizing immediate problems, all this talk of values is somewhat ethereal. If the base of shared values disintegrates, however, forget effective leadership, national problem-solving, and the accomplishment of group purpose, and bring down the curtain!

One of the values most deeply embedded in our tradition is the release of human talent and energy. There is nothing more essential to the dynamism of a social system than the effectiveness and capacity, the quality and vitality of the human beings in the system. Yet, no society ever has recognized or honored those assets fully.

There are great untapped reservoirs of human energy and capacity awaiting leaders who can tap them and societies that deserve them. Now is a time when we must call on those hidden reserves.

That leads to the subject of motivation. A society's successes are fueled by the enthusiastic willingness of men and women to put their energies at the disposal of common purposes. People not only must be stirred to enthusiasm for shared goals, but prepared for the frustrations of getting there. Finally, we must understand that the "goal" isn't a true endpoint where we can climb into a hammock and relax, but a starting point for the next stage in a journey of endless renewal. Don't pray for the day when we finally solve our problems. Pray for freedom to continue working on the problems the future never will cease to throw at us.

The capacity of the American people for motivated action is not to be doubted, but there are understandable reasons why it has not been in evidence lately. One is the continuing dissolution of the bonds between the individual and society. Another factor undermining motivation is the sense of impotence that grows like a great, life-endangering tumor in a mass society. Still another is the appalling recurrence of fraud and corruption at the highest levels in Washington and on Wall Street.

Finally among the factors that diminish the individual's motivation and sense of responsibility to society are two raging and pestilential modem disorders - self-pity and self-exoneration. In the nightmare complexity of contemporary fife, there hardly is any group that does not feel sorry for itself. Talk to the police, teachers, doctors, social workers, bankers, organized labor, or farmers. Each of these groups - and many, many others - feel they are suffering special hardships and unjustified treatment at the hands of the society at large.

At the same time, we've brought self-exoneration he level of an art form. We've become a nation of blamers. What's tearing the country down is that other group, those other people.

Psychologists have ways of measuring the extent to which people believe they control (or influence) the circumstances of their lives and the world around them. Some feel utterly powerless. Others believe they do have some capacity to control their own lives and influence the world around them, and this confidence greatly increases the likelihood of sustained, highly motivated effort. The outlook for the accomplishment of group purpose is extremely dim at the fatalistic end of the scale.

Of course, one not only must help people take a positive view of the future, but seek to correct the objective circumstances that are producing negative attitudes. In dealing with children in poverty, society not only must help them to believe in themselves, but must break the web of circumstances - poverty, racism, etc. - that engender defeatism.

It is hard to have a sense of responsibility if one feels wholly powerless and unconnected to events. That is why many corporations today are striving to give workers down the line a feeling of involvement in decisions - "a sense of ownership." That also is why many of us who worry about the continued vitality of our political system seek to increase citizen involvement in public life.

Critics scold Americans for seeking immediate satisfaction and point out that the achievement of long-term goals requires a willingness to defer gratification. However, what if our people can envisage no long-term goals for which the deferral of gratification would be worthwhile? A political candidate asked me recently what was the most important thing a leader could do for the American people at this moment in history? I said, "Give them back their future."

People speak of the need for a new vision, but it is not a matter of fabricating one out of whole cloth. A vision relevant for us today will build on values deeply embedded in human history and our own tradition. It is not as though we come to the task unready. Men and women from the beginning of time have groped and struggled for various pieces of the answer. The materials from which we build the vision will be the moral strivings of the species, today and in the distant past.

Most of the ingredients of a vision for this country have been with us for a long time. That we have failed and fumbled in some of our attempts to achieve our ideals is obvious. However, the great ideas still beckon - freedom, equality, justice, and the release of human possibilities. The vision is to live up to the best in our past and to reach the goals we have yet to achieve - with respect to our domestic problems and responsibilities worldwide.

We have dug ourselves into a deep pit. It's going to take all that we have of spirit and dedication, of self-discipline and duty to fight our way out. We must prepare ourselves for sacrifice and hardship. We must make responsibility our watchword. Like an athlete returning from a lazy summer, we must get long-unused muscles back into shape. We must celebrate our obligation to one another and the society that guards our freedom. We must redefine patriots as men and women who tackle the problems and renew the values of their communities. What is needed is an extraordinary resurgence to the common good, an intention to pull together, and a willingness to sacrifice.
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Title Annotation:need for rebirth of the American spirit
Author:Gardner, John W.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:3083
Previous Article:Cost of really living it up.
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