Two weeks ago, in writing about a commencement I attended, I expressed the hope that the graduates I observed crossing the stage might find a way to bring us to a better place than the nation of bitterness and division which is our lot today.
A reader suggested I was asking too much of the new generation. He felt it incumbent upon our own generation to begin the process of moving toward better national discourse. With that sentiment, I can’t argue. But since that column published, we have had situations with Roseanne Barr, Samantha Bee and numerous divisive presidential tweets. The coarseness in our dialogue, the hate which fills the air and the fading of the value of truth-telling shows no sign of abating.
Today I again sit in a commencement exercise in another state. And I again must express hope that these graduates, over the next 30 years, may lead us in a direction different than we have experienced in the past 30 years.
In spite of the improved state of affairs in the lives of ordinary people which technology advances have promised, the actual reality has been something different. It seems to me the past 30 years have seen an elevation of the value of greed and acquisition which has created some of the current national pain.
The current practice, as demonstrated by the salaries of CEOs, of athletes, of entertainers and others with leverage, is greed. It's a greed that virtually brought our nation to its knees 10 years ago. The value of winning at all cost, regardless of the pain caused others, has seemingly increased.
During these past thirty years, the ordinary working person has not fared well. He has watched his share of the national pie reduced while those in more favored positions have moved merrily toward ever greater reward. Those in the investor class rejoice. The working class struggles.
Where once the reward of productivity was divided among capital, management and labor, now it goes mostly to capital and management. The burden of health care, also to some degree a product of greed, consumes any improvement in wage earned by many of our people. Many work their entire lives only to reach retirement age with few resources. Over half of our population has no association at all with our financial markets, which many consider the yardstick of economic well-being.
“Me first” seems to be more accepted, and even aggressively sought, by many of us. The competition for wealth and power seems to leave little room for concern for those who are defeated and left behind.
The ability of the collective will, represented by government, to soften the most egregious excess of capitalism has been reduced by the political and economic power of those who would be impacted. Is it so surprising that someone among us who represents that value of unbridled acquisition and self-interest would rise to high office. And particularly when the promise was made to utilize that familiarity with “the game” to rein in those who take advantage.
We are watching an effort to emulate those “me first” values in the formation of national policy. It is really not much of a stretch to convert “me first” or “my hedge company first” or “my drug company first” or “my real estate empire first” to “America First.” All endorse winning at any cost. All disregard the effect upon other companies or other nations. All seek advantage in what they seem to consider a “zero sum” game.
The natural result of this “me first” value is conflict and hate. A competitor becomes an enemy. Winning becomes all-important. Losers are to be mocked. The greater good becomes meaningless. Empathy is for weaklings. And the world becomes engulfed in chaos.
Although the above characteristics of our time sometimes seem overwhelming, perspective must be maintained. Along with the greed of some is the generosity and genuine concern for others exhibited by many. The majority of our people seem to want a more kind and fair and wholesome society.
The values represented by some in the ruling class and some in the business world and even some in the world of religion which run counter to this may be controlling at this time but are certainly not universally endorsed. And elections don’t necessarily represent the true sentiment of the electorate. Politics are too complex and campaigns are too sophisticated and public opinion can be too easily manipulated to make election results always reflective of citizen purpose. The Russian caper in 2016 represents vividly the risk involved in the election process.
As always, the current state of affairs in our country is a mixed bag. Some studies indicate the generation moving into adulthood has a different perspective and is more inclined to seek improvement in the common good. Some believe there is more interest in the helping professions: teaching; nursing; social work; public health; public service.
We ought to wish them well in seeking a world of maximum fairness, of empathy toward our fellow citizens who find themselves at a disadvantage and with a reduction of the selfishness of the “me first” proponents. May they chart a better course.
Jack Wempe grew up in the Hutchinson area and is a former educator, state legislator and member of the Kansas Board of Regents now living in Lyons. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.