Wednesday, May 14, 2014


America has been a dispirited, angry nation for years now. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently put it this way – “We’re walking small. And that shift in our gait and our gumption has been palpable for many years, during an unusually sustained period of frustration that has the feel of something more than a temporary dive: a turned corner, the downward arc of a diminished enterprise.”

“The downward arc of diminished enterprise.” That’s an interesting way to put it. I think Bruni means we don’t do things very well anymore and I think he may be right. We seem to have an uncanny knack for botching executions, pothole repair, the rollout of the A.C.A website, national healthcare, and, here in Emporia, economic development and governance.

I spent part of this morning reading through a 2014 “Social Progress Index” developed by Michael Porter and Scott Stern. It was an ambitious undertaking. Most country to country comparisons I’ve seen have centered on G.D.P. When measured it that light, we’re doing alright. But Porter and Stern have gone well beyond economics as the sole means of measuring societal well-being. Their index measures “the capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establish the building blocks that allow citizens and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.” When seen in this light, a different picture of America emerges. We rank 16th, just a tick or two above Slovenia and Estonia on the scale.

Now I’d like to think that we Americans would be second to none in our ability to “create the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.” After all, wasn’t our revolution all about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”

It was, of course, but we’ve run into a huge stumbling block. We’re at each other’s throats because almost any time one person’s rights are upheld, someone else feels left out or infringed upon. That, in turn, means that the lawyers get in high gear and the offenses work their way through the court system. The end result is some judicial pronouncement that upholds one point of view or outlaws another. The lawyers get richer. The judges get more powerful. The losers get angrier.

This palpable sort of anger was evident in the Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Susan Galloway et al case that was decided yesterday by the Supreme Court. In a five to four decision, the justices decided that the town fathers hadn’t violated the plaintiffs’ rights by having local ministers pray before their council meetings. One of the plaintiffs, Linda Stevens, an atheist, had argued that the utterance of a sectarian prayer made her feel like she would “stick out.” In other words, a prayer uttered made her feel uneasy. With the support of a skilled lawyer, she developed a case that made its way all the way to the Supreme Court. And, she nearly won.

Greece’s town fathers tried to compromise by inviting a Baha’i believer and a Wiccan priestess to pray before their meetings, but it wasn’t enough. Maybe three or four minutes of unbelieving silence might have satisfied her, but it was too late. As the National Review’s Kevin Williamson put it, “her response to what she perceived as a situation encouraging conformity through social pressure was to seek federal action mandating conformity at gunpoint.”

To me, Ms. Stevens’ remedy looks more like what my favorite poet calls “enforced insanity.”

I’m amazed. I wasn’t aware that I had a constitutional right to force my fellow citizens to cease from making me feel uneasy. If only I’d known.

There are a lot of public things I participate in that make me feel uneasy. I recite the pledge of allegiance, but I don’t like the idea of having to recite a loyalty oath when I feel I’ve done more than enough during my life to prove I’m a worthy citizen. I sing along as some local celebrity’s darling screeches his or her way through our national anthem at our sporting events. I sometimes find myself drifting away at our seasonal celebration when a highly educated minister drones on and on about “the Ground of all Being.” I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but I admit that I feel a bit uneasy when I see the American flag at the altars of our churches. I don’t mind rendering unto Caesar, but I believe that rendering has no place at the altar. I’m not fond of being around pompous politicians and freely admit that I often find myself fighting the gag reflex when I’m near them.

Up until now I’ve gone with society’s flow and it hasn’t done any violence to my belief system. But, I’m considering some next steps. I think I’ll make an appointment with Bob Symmonds, then we’ll let the briefs start flying.

No comments: