With the shootings and the times we live in today, I am reminded of a column written by Sidney J. Harris for America’s 1976 bicentennial titled, “Our Real Failure.”
Harris, an American journalist and syndicated columnist, wrote, “In all the scathing criticisms that the Communists make against capitalist society they never put their finger on the one just accusation that can be leveled against us. The big failure of capitalist society is social, cultural and educational.
“We have failed to raise the quality of life nearly as much as we have increased the mere quantity of goods and opportunities.
“The general quality of life in our society is low and brutish. The violence we are so lately concerned about is merely an extension of our incivility, our bad manners, our coarseness of values and crudeness of sensibility.
“The original idea of the American Revolution was to raise the level of all citizens, to educate them, civilize them, make them responisve to the grand ideas expressed by Jefferson and his colleagues. Americans were to become a different breed of people. But something went wrong!
“In the process of exercising our economic and political freedom we somehow forgot that these are means not ends. The ends must include a citizenry ruled by reason and compassion. In that we have failed dreadfully.
“Just walk along a crowded downtown street in any American city, and you will see what I mean. Or visit a beach on a hot day. Or drive along an expressway at rush hour. The spirit is sour and cheap, the very quality of life is argumentative, uncivil, mean and petty. Our massive educational system has not educated. Our imposing religious establishment has Christianized the tribalism of our people. And our affluence has merely convinced us that possession rather than decency or merit should be our prime and ultimate goal.
“We do not understand the meaning of law, the workings of democracy, the relevance of religion as the roots of civilization. We do not even comprehend the limitations of capitalism in a way that will permit us to benefit from the virtues while escaping the dangerous consequences of the limitations.
“Most Marxist criticism is a mad mixture of malice and ignorance, half-truths and utter distortions. But, if our enemies are too dumb to disclose our true defects, we need to be smart enough to rectify them. For if the quality of American life keeps degenerating we will disintegrate from within, for we are our own worst enemies.”
So Harris wrote of America, in 1976. But I wonder this—Did Harris expect to much of us? Our culture is collapsing as forecast 43 years ago.
Tom Lexow has lived in The Dalles for many years. He is a member of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, where he has taught Bible studies and served as the song leader. Lexow has four years of clergy training and was an emergency chaplain at Mid-Columbia Medical Center.