The meaning of life turns out to be unfettered commercialism

August 08, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The picture of the United States presented to the world by the Atlanta Olympics was not the one Atlanta wanted to present, nor one that Americans can be happy with.

I don't refer to the organizational lapses in Atlanta, nor to the flagrant chauvinism that all but ignored the presence in Atlanta of 196 other national delegations. That was merely annoying. Most countries are chauvinist; Nicolas Chauvin, immortalized by it, was a Frenchman.

What most shocked the world was the submersion of everything by commercialism, all but obliterating sportsmanship, disinterested competition, the ideals of the Olympic movement, and blocking out any view of the United States as other than totally materialistic in its values.

A terrorist credo

The value message of the commercialization, according to a comment in the politically conservative -- indeed Thatcherite -- London Sunday Telegraph, was ''total war, winning at any price, the end justifying the means,'' a philosophy ''virtually indistinguishable from your average terrorist group's credo.''

Thus were foreign prejudices, and even foreign hatreds, confirmed. One the other hand there was a contradiction. This United States was the same one that presents itself as a nation of values and moral rectitude, with lessons to offer in civic virtue -- with more churchgoers and religious believers than any other industrial society.

The contradiction lies not only in how the country is seen but what it is. In modern American society, religion and a form of paganism are deeply intertwined, the one offering indirect endorsement to the other, the second justifying itself in terms of the first. The sterile quarrel between liberals and conservatives is trivial by comparison.

The dilemma is in American history. The form of Calvinist belief most influential in American reformed Protestantism from the 17th century forward saw God as electing the saved for His own inscrutable reasons, bestowing benefits on the chosen in this world as in the next. Prosperity and success thus were marks of divine favor. Those abandoned by God were beyond human help. These ideas remain deeply embedded in American culture, now largely disconnected from religion.

However, belief systems that have become disconnected from real belief become dysfunctional. In the past, American commercialism was tempered by a religious puritanism with powerful traditions of civic service and public obligation.

The evangelical and fundamentalist churches that subsequently came to dominate American Protestantism were churches of the poor and abused. The Roman Catholicism of the 19th-century immigrations was also a religion of the poor, morally critical of unbridled commerce, big business, the worship of money. It supported trade unions and the corporatist alliance of business, labor and government that Franklin Roosevelt tried to set up with his National Recovery Administration (struck down by the Supreme Court in 1935).

Important things to do

A code of public obligation was taught in American schools and universities, reinforced during the crisis of the 1930s and by the experience most Americans subsequently had of war service and the draft, and by the engagement of American elites in war service and the Cold War. The country had important things to do, and business concerns were subordinate.

Today, commerce and money-making have a stranglehold on American society. Can it be broken, and priority be restored to a concept of public interest and public service? The realistic answer, and probably the one that will prove true, is no: that it can't be done.

But why not? Other modern industrial and commercial nations, with diverse histories, have kept their standards of public obligation and service, their belief in disinterested national interest, to which economic interests are subordinated.

There is a cultural question in this. Much currently is made of saving the cultural identity of recent American immigrants. The real question is how to save the cultural integrity of society itself. Recent immigrants are, like everyone else in the country, cast under the juggernaut wheels of commercial entertainment, which now dominates all that people see and hear in the United States.

What might be done? First, the grip money has on politics and politicians must be broken. How? By restricting campaign expenditure and ending paid political advertising, substituting free and equal broadcasting time and press space for candidates. The Supreme Court ruling that the First Amendment bars any restriction on campaign spending must be reversed, by constitutional amendment if necessary.

A public coalition is needed to fight for a public communications sector freed from commercial pressures, so as to break the present grip of demagogy in politics, news and public-affairs debate.

The supremacy of profit

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