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Charlie Leonard: Inalienable Rights

Charlie Leonard
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

For more than 200 years, the United States has embraced a set of beliefs that set us apart from the rest of the world. We almost universally put faith, family and community at the center of our lives. And we believed that if we lived by the twin values of hard work and determination, anything was possible.

Our American virtues became a defining characteristic of our culture and permeated all facets of our lives, beyond just family and work, and included scholarship, the arts, athletics and more.

On the smallest scale, we saw these virtues propel immigrant farmers and shopkeepers into the ranks of the American middle class within a single generation. On a larger scale, virtually all of our heroes and icons were people who persevered against tremendous odds to triumph over adversity, obstacles and competition. Horatio Alger’s stories of “rags to riches” not only symbolized the American experience – it often factually portrayed it, as well.

What is really important to remember is that none of this happened by accident. Our founding fathers brought with them from Europe a core set of values that were originally instilled in them by their Calvinist and Lutheran theologies.

In the early 1900s, German sociologist Max Weber coined the term “Protestant ethic” in describing the “spirit of capitalism” in America. Later, others referred to these core beliefs as part of our Judeo-Christian values.

What Weber and others witnessed was an entire society in the embrace of some very basic values, with hard work and industriousness at the core. These common ideals produced an unprecedented amount of personal improvement and class mobility. And, with the exception of African-Americans (a subject for another day), the United States prospered, and Americans of every origin participated on a scale that had never occurred before.

The American experience had truly become an exceptional one. But are we still that country?

In a controversial new study of American society by libertarian scholar Charles Murray, the author claims that part of the glue that held us together is no longer present in the lives of a large number of people. The title of the book is “Coming Apart.”

Murray’s thesis is that American society is largely becoming untethered from its virtuous moorings, and the phenomenon is most definitely not explained by prejudicial stereotypes. In fact, Murray says it is as much a white experience as it is a minority or lower economic class experience.

Murray cites considerable statistics that indicate that a pernicious divide is growing in America that is based more on cultural disadvantages than economic ones. He sees a minority that values marriage, education, work, faith and community and a growing majority that does not – and believes the disparity has serious consequences for our nation’s future.

The current economic downturn notwithstanding, Murray also finds that “the proportion of men of prime working age with only a high school education who say they are ‘out of the labor force’ has quadrupled since 1968, to 12 percent.” He also says there has been a significant increase in the number of working-age men who work less than a conventional work week and substantially less than most men did just one or two generations ago. In addition, he finds a dramatic increase in the number of men who claim life-long disability despite the fact that many could otherwise remain productive.

Again, while some of this can be explained by the loss of manufacturing and other low-skilled jobs in the country over the last several decades, Murray believes there is a profound social change occurring in the United States. He also points out that this is not a right-versus-left argument and that the elite “virtuous minority” is actually more liberal than conservative.

The other startling conclusion that Murray draws is that this minority has figuratively started to wall itself off from the rest of society, marrying within its cultural ranks, living in the same communities and detached from much of the pop culture of the day. Not to be confused with actual gated communities that are based almost exclusively on wealth, Murray’s view is that the values and virtues that once formed the fabric of our culture are no longer present in many American lives.

At a time when our economy is in such bad shape and our politics are so divisive, this can’t be good news. In every prior national crisis, we remained confident in the future because we knew we could tap into our uniquely American can-do spirit. But what happens if “can do,” becomes “don’t want to”?


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