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The New American Ethic

Let's see what we can get away with.

by Barnabas
May 19, 2004

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 This morning I found myself drowning in absurdity as I scanned the headlines and gave cursory attention to national television news.

  • The outrage of the day was the assassination of the head of the Iraqi governing authority. The White House issued its standard declaration that Nothing Will Keep Us from Our Mission. Turning over "power" on June 30 may be a meaningless gesture, but who cares as long as we sound steadfast?
  • Good Morning America gave quite a considerable chunk of its precious air time to the celebration of the first "legal" homosexual marriage in the nation. They briefly recognized the spoilsports out to ruin the happiness of others, but gave no hint of how oxymoronic the concept of "legal homosexual marriage" is - distorting as it does the linguistic tradition of thirty-five hundred years or so.
  • Two-thirds of federal workers received a bonus. The absurdity here is the word "bonus" – not a cost-of-living adjustment, not an across the board salary raise, not even a merit increase or a rare reward – but a capricious bestowal of goodies at the discretion of superiors. While many private companies are in a survival mode, cutting employee benefits wherever they dare, the federal bureaucracy is empowered to do what it wants as though the public purse is inexhaustible. I guess it is, for those believe that money originates simply by printing it.

These are but today’s examples of "Let’s see what we can get away with," (or "what they will put up with") as the new American ethic. It probably is not all that new, but after taking on this column I have become increasingly aware of it.

Looking back - I came of age and was married by the time Eisenhower left office - I see its insidious progress in the last forty-five years. It is not in the least tied to partisan politics, because Republicans - the vaunted party of American values - have won the "bully pulpit" of the White House in eight of the last thirteen presidential elections.

The trumpetry about "American values," is itself an example of the new American ethic, treating values as ideals when they are designed to be motives. Yes, values are sometimes motives. They fill the pages of The Reader’s Digest and Guideposts. But as motives they do not fill the front pages. "American values" rarely drive the events reported there, no matter what their origin. I do not hear from our political, religious, and academic leadership the ethical questions of Is this true, is this right, is this good? What I hear are the unethical questions, Will this get us what we want? Will it work? Can we get away with it? Will the public put up with it? As long as these questions are motives, the new American ethic is actually not an ethic at all.

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John Hardin from Chetek writes:
June 24, 2004
Salman Rushdie said that he had studied history most of his life and he never found it recorded that it was a period of moral incline. All everyone in every era talks about is the period of moral decline. I think it is a normal way to look at things as we age. The world is a dangerous place filled with lots of crazy people. Yet, most people are wonderful, kind, honest and considerate.

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