It’s The Culture, Stupid

“[I]f you are dependent on people who do not know you, who control the value of your necessities, you are not free, and you are not safe.” Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community

It’s been almost two years since the financial collapse that precipitated the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and with no recovery in sight, America is faced with what might be the greatest existential dilemma of our time.  Do we have what it takes to stop the corruption, recklessness, and greed that threaten to destroy our country?  Are we willing to make the tough decisions necessary to regain our strength, or will we continue to plow obliviously ahead while our nation descends into economic insolvency and geopolitical vulnerability?

These are questions that all Americans are challenged to consider in a recent documentary entitled “Generation Zero.” Based upon the premise that the indulgent parenting style of the Greatest Generation produced the self-centered risk-takers ultimately responsible for the collapse of 2008, Stephen Bannon and David Bossie’s film “explores the cultural roots of the global financial meltdown – beginning with the narcissism of the 1960’s, spreading like a virus through the self-indulgent 90’s, and exploding across the world in the present economic cataclysm.”  As the documentary suggests, the consequences of our cultural decline are not merely economic.  America’s economic struggles are merely a symptom of a larger problem, a problem that threatens to undermine our national security and extinguish what’s left of the American spirit.

America has, in some respects, become a soulless nation whose obsession with endless growth and unlimited material prosperity has displaced our sense of national identity.  Even the most “patriotic” among us appear to have become addicted to a “quality of life” that is sustainable only by a kind of amoral, globally-scaled capitalism which has become allied with an increasingly pervasive nanny state.  We are victims of what philosopher Richard Weaver dubbed “the spoiled child psychology,” which affirms the notion that the ultimate goal in life is “happiness through comfort.”

Our demand for happiness through comfort has not been lost on our representatives in Washington or on the multinational conglomerates in the business of feeding our insatiable appetite for “The American Dream – Made Somewhere Other Than America.”  The politicians want our votes and the moguls want our money, and by working together this dynamic duo has perfected the art of getting both.  What the American people have failed to realize, however, is that the consequence of our decades-long exercise in materialistic self-gratification is that we now face the very real possibility of losing more than just our sub-prime financed houses, or even our jobs.

In giving up our American identity in favor of that of “entitlement beneficiary and global consumer,” we’ve been complicit in the auctioning of America to foreign interests that have been only too happy to finance our spiral into insolvency.  We have, in effect, been trading away our national sovereignty (and thus compromising our national security) in exchange for short-term material comfort, with little regard for the fate of future generations and total ignorance of the lessons of our forebears.  We all reacted with outrage at the corporate malfeasance of Wall Street in the wake of the collapse, we fume at the corporate negligence of BP in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, and we rail against the politicians who continue to spend our tax dollars; yet as mindless consumers – as spoiled children – we have contributed as much as anyone to the creation of these monsters.

Bannon and Bossie are correct when they say that the only way to stop this runaway train is for the American people to decide that they are ready to make some truly tough decisions – that they are ready to reacquaint themselves with the traditional American values of thrift and responsibility and willing to elect leaders whose first loyalty is to America and who will make the tough decisions necessary to bring us back from the brink of disaster.  We must replace some of our love of self with a love of country, with each doing our part to reclaim the unique character and spirit at the heart of American greatness.

For the longest time, the ultimate American litmus test of success was to know that you’d situated your children to be more “successful” than you, meaning that they would make more money and have more stuff.  Perhaps it’s time to revisit this notion.  Instead of merely leaving our children a legacy of material prosperity, perhaps we should leave them with examples of lives that modeled integrity, hard work, thrift, discipline, and self-denial. That would be a rich cultural inheritance – one that would likely produce prosperity that is sustainable.

Ken Connor


Ken Connor is the Chairman of the Center for a Just Society. An esteemed attorney, Connor is affiliated with the law firm of Marks, Balette, & Giessel, a firm nationally known for its successful representation of victims of nursing home abuse and neglect.

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  • Warren Jewell

    Yes, stupid, it is the culture. The problem in large part is how you number, stupid; and how you seem to prefer ‘ignorance’ even to stupidity.

    First, nice piece – we in the ‘choir’ appreciate it.

    Next, you are essentially ‘preaching to the choir’, and therein ongoing problems of greatest magnitude. You see, we just are not much of a choir, for membership.

    We have two nearly coordinated prongs to our problems. The first has to do with the relative but real absence of solid Catholic catechesis, still too dominant in ‘religious education’ of every age group to this day. One offshoot to this is how alien ‘evangelization’ still feels to most Catholics including me. The other is the lack of general educational principles and criteria, by which we not only have lost teaching American history and civics, even as poorly as it was done forty and more years ago; but have fallen for lo these last twenty-five years into that ‘relative but real absence’ as we have with solid catechesis.

    The majority of Catholics still have dissident parts to their ‘faith’ – and, it is in effect ‘their faith’, not that of Jesus Christ and His Church. They think they have the right to such dissidence. Similarly, can anyone explain how the majority of American voters – with fifty-some percent of Catholics – elected this current national administration that is loopy where it isn’t corrupted, represented by its steadily mendacious ‘campaigning’?

    The more I consider these two terrible misfortunes, and footed and furthered and featured in incredible ignorance and self-seeking ‘entitlement’ among general populations, the less I have any ideas about what to do about them. I need only look around, however, to see we are too many of us still lost and groping in the darkness.

    Oh, wait – I can see how homeschooling, even if but in these two main areas of life, can make up some lost ground out into some light. But, then, don’t Catholics and citizens still need training in how to accomplish that?

  • Joe DeVet

    I can’t but agree with the author’s assessment of some of the ills we face, but I certainly don’t think this is an adequate diagnosis of the problem (if the problem is what he led with, the current economic situation). He blames and “amoral capitalism”, whatever that might mean, perhaps forgetting that the free market was the main engine of our economic well-being and improvements of the 20th Century. And “Wall Street” is to blame in this scenario, forgetting that it was a generous, but misguided, impulse which brought about the mortgage problem, the seeds of the whole disaster. It was government forcing the “greedy” banks to give mortgages that normal rational assessment would not have granted, and the whole process enabled by Fannie and Freddie, that was at the heart of the financial crisis.

    He also sounds like he wants to establish a kind of economic isolationism, a drawing back within our own borders. What we need is quite the opposite. It is international trade, the globalization of economic activity, by which the prosperity that capitalism (aka free markets) has brought us, which is the mechanism for sharing our blessings with others. A Catholic “preferential option for the poor” should make us applaud globalization rather than identify it as a cause of economic woe or a sign of some sort of systemic disease in our economy.

    I’m no fan of overindulgence in one’s material wealth, and I have often said Americans have too much money–meaning they (we) are so surfeited with material goods that we waste money on worthless baubles, and worse, develop a sense of not needing God. But trade brings a silver lining–through it even our cheap overindulgences bring a benefit to some poor person in Africa, India, South America, China, etc.

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  • I would say we’re going to need Christ to bail us out of this one. I really believe that we CAN have it all–we can be morally straight as a nation and have our material comforts too. After all, didn’t Jesus promise His followers “a hundred times more” to any who would give up everything and follow Him? (Matthew 19:29).

    I look at my own life. When I first became a disciple, I knew I had to quit my job, sell most of what I owned, and move to another city. Now, 15 years later, I have a stable life with plenty of creature comforts in a smallish town in Minnesota. Materially, I couldn’t be happier. As far as I’m concerned, Jesus has kept his promise to me. And if he’ll do that for one disciple, won’t he do that for all of us?

    The answer is, as always, personal conversion. Stop looking at what everyone else is doing wrong (though a certain level of involvement in civic affairs remains appropriate) and see to your own discipleship. Repent of your sins, seek virtue, and strive to follow Jesus with your whole heart. Then you will become a beacon for others who will want to do the same. The answer lies in the individual human heart, not in the government’s social policy or anywhere else.

    If you’re feeling like this is all too much, you can always start by praying. Pray to Our Lady, Patroness of the U.S.A., for a conversion of your own heart and of the nation’s. And may God bless America.

  • lkeebler

    As in the argument that is so many times made, it is not the gun that kills a person… it is the person behind the gun. So it is too an argument that can be made, it is not the material possession that kills the Spirit… but the person behind that material possession. If we can not distinguish (nor be generous) between our material possessions and instead worship them, then we should do as Christ told the rich young man, give it all up and follow Christ. Yes, material possessions can be like a loaded gun, in the wrong hands they can be mistaken for our only protection or worse used for evil, but the argument can also be made that in the right hands they can protect, help and advance good for everyone. I’m not an advocate for the wild west of material possessions, but I am neither for the martial law of communist China. It is our immoral hearts and minds, our turning away from God a blind eye to go after the lusts of materialism, and of the flesh, that have turned God’s blessings (including material blessings) into instruments of evil. Do we need moderation in our appetites for material stuff? Yes we do and that moderation is first and foremost from the heart that is united to Christ. I love it when Christ says, “They strain out a gnat to swallow a camel.”

    Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! 25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

  • elkabrikir

    Thanks for this article. I may have a lousy voice, but I do enjoy being part of the choir……

    Nine months before the economic collapse of Sept 2008, I predicted the depression. My kids will attest to my rants as they’re my audience as we drive from activity to activity. Have I a Harvard MBA? Are some of my kids Wall Street gurus passing me inside information? Am I a psychic?

    The answers are No! No!! and No!!! (Respectively)

    I am simply a Catholic who has studied the OT prophets: both major and minor, to some small degree. The collapse was boringly predictable given the obvious decadence of our culture (reread the article above in case you just scanned it.) I’ve also–sort of– studied America’s foundational documents.

    Isn’t it ironic that July’s daily mass lectionary has given us the prophets, including the words of Hosea as a backdrop for this essay? Or is it, dare I say, prophetic?

    This year, as in years gone by, I’ve celebrated our nation’s birthday with tears in my eyes. Tears of thanksgiving that God allowed me to be born in this country, but also tears of lamentation as I weep over “Jerusalem”.

    The focus of recent “driving seminars”to my children, was on the duty of citizens to their country to live upright and moral lives. I also reminded them of the recent Sunday readings where St Paul’s exhorts the faithful: “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.” Therefore, I appreciate the Wendell Barry quote that begins this essay. I had already explained to my kids that you’re NOT FREE if you rely on somebody else to support you (whether you live on Main St or Wall St)

    The promise of America is the freedom to pursue the true, good, and the beautiful. For that reason our Founding Fathers included freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights First Amendment.

    Most of us posting here know that freedom and conversion must be lived within individual citizens in order for the nation to be healed and restored. Our Founders knew, too, that this country’s framework was designed for a moral people.

    In conclusion, here is a link to George Washington’s farewell address.

    Thanks again for the essay…it’ll be the topic of my next “seminar”.

  • c-kingsley

    “Is your credit card debt out of control?” asks the commercial. Funny — my credit card debt has never bought anything. So far I only get charged when I do something.

  • noelfitz

    It is great to read what Warren Jewell write here. He is very much missed in the forum ‘Faith And Life’

    However I found the article by Ken Connor poor. It is vague and lacks specifics.

  • Mary

    I agree that things look pretty bleak right now, but your article is pretty high on the negative side – and I am curious about something. First you place blame (among other things) on the permissiveness of the 60’s, but toward the end you say we should vote for leaders who will take us back to the conservative values we all hold so dear. Well, hmmm, the 60’s began with Kennedy, then whats’z name, (I’m really getting old), then Nixon, then Ford, then Jimmy & Ronnie, then Big Bush, then Billy C, then Little Bush, and now Obama. Did I leave anyone out?. And now of course, we have the parties of “no” and “give it all away”. So, where do you suggest we go from here? Surely not Sarah Palin! Please don’t say that! aaarrrrrggghhhh! Where are my earplugs? They’ve got to be in here someplace.