Joblessness, the sadness of foreclosures, fuel costs, the bleak economic prospects of high school and college graduates, and the diminished respect for America abroad are all taking their toll. These conditions are all immediate and painful.
Immediate pain, however, should never keep us from seeing the whole picture. Whether in the area of our personal health, financial status or the nation’s general welfare, I’m convinced that we often suffer because we failed to see something ominous approaching, or because we did see it but did nothing to prevent it. I’m equally convinced that our national slump exists because we failed to see what was happening to the American character and spirit.
Our character is what we are; our spirit is our attitude toward the struggles we face. For a mere 225 years, our still young nation has possessed an optimistic spirit. Our character has been that of ruggedness, self-determination, and love of freedom, and our spirit, in a word, has been Can-do! Americans have always been builders and fixers. If ancient Greeks were Man Thinking, Americans have always been Man Doing: achieving, improving, and overcoming. Always a friend to other nations in their times of need, we are a good people with a great spirit.
But alas, this spirit has abated. It is not dead, and it’s defeatist to say that America is finished, but America is frustrated. Like an underground river, alive and flowing, but wishing to erupt and spray the thirsty earth, America’s spirit has been stymied. So what happened? What did we not see approaching? The easiest thing to do is point to the government, but that outlook is specious since we are the ones who choose our government leaders and lawmakers. It’s time to point to ourselves for being so busy and so detached from politics that we realize too late how much government inhibits our productivity, freedom, and happiness.
Several years ago, I was discussing with a college sophomore English class an article from a financial magazine which made this claim: “This year’s graduating class may be the beginning of a generation that doesn’t do better than its parents.” The article frightened the class. It troubled me because I considered its presupposition (that we are no longer self-determining), both faulty and discouraging to young people. To assuage the fears of the class, I asked, “But who determines whether or not you do better than your parents? Isn’t it you?” I was trying to get students to see that they alone determined whether or not they would do better than their parents. But I was wrong. Political dynamics were already at work which would substantially alter the American Dream.
When I was a college student, I was able to determine my own economic path. My college years pre-dated LBJ’s largesse, President Clinton’s Community Re-investment Act, President Bush’s Troubled Assets and Relief Program and No Child Left Behind law, the infamous Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and Obamacare, all of which produced smothering requirements that injected the federal government into practically every area of our lives. The article writer was right: because of governmental intrusion, Americans were becoming less and less able to live their lives unhindered by government.
So are we today. We watch as federal legislation changes our national character, dampens our spirit, and replaces Jeffersonian individualism with the vague goal of “fairness.”
To get back on track, Americans must have a renaissance of character and spirit. For what it’s worth, I offer a bit of biography to argue that tough times can be weathered and that a good spirit can be maintained during tough times: I was born to a tenant farming couple who already had fifteen children. A brother younger than I would bring the number of Hines kids to seventeen. For all his intelligence and unassailable work ethic, my father never owned an acre of land. We always lived on another man’s “place” and worked his fields. Food was plentiful, but everything else was always in short supply. In spite of material need, however, we were a genuinely happy family. Why? Because our parents taught us to be happy. They also taught us to care about neighbors, the community, the nation, and to vote. What they taught us was the American spirit. We need it back.
Whatever happens in the November election, many American families will need to be patient and tough as they work their way back to prosperity. It would help, of course, if say, a servant-leader President reclaimed our original character and spirit. Otherwise, America will become just another country, no longer distinctive.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.