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The Challenge of Affluence: A Root of Our Moral Crisis?

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Why Now?

The rise of the dark and dangerous forces now ruling America cannot be understood in isolation. This Bushite regime should be seen, rather, as a symptom of a more general moral crisis in American society, of an erosion of the moral structures that historically have held American society together.

So I have been arguing for more than a year.

But the question arises: why now? Why should American society be faced with such a moral crisis at this time?

The conservatives point to the Sixties as the culprit. As one who was a participant some 30-40 years ago in that social movement called the counterculture, I agree that the "Sixties" did indeed play a role.

But even if one accepted that "explanation," the question would still have to be asked: why at this point in our national history? For like the Bushite regime, the Sixties too did not just happen to happen. That social upheaval, too, was the product of the larger set of social/cultural/economic/political forces swirling around in this society, and indeed in the larger world.

So, what has been distinctive about our times that would account for a general undermining of the integrity of the moral structures that --historically and traditionally (at least to a greater degree than in recent times)-- have buttressed the order of American society?

I would propose that a major root of the breakdown can indeed be identified. There has emerged in our society a phenomenon that, being historically unprecedented, can therefore be adduced to explain this similarly historically unprecedented cultural development.

What is new and unprecedented is how affluent in recent generations we Americans, as a people overall, have become.

But, onemight wonder, this achievement of such affluence has arguably been for generations the central goal of American society. How can something Americans have wanted so much be the root of our present crisis?

It's not that there is something intrinsically terrible or regrettable about affluence itself. The problem, rather, as I will argue here, is that our historically rapid rise to great affluence --to a level for the great mass of people never before seen in human history-- poses a new, and as yet unmet, moral challenge to our culture.

Here, in brief, is the nature of the new challenge.

The Moral Psychology of Scarcity and Abundance

It is an old idea-- that luxury somehow weakens a people, makes them "soft."

The ancient Arab historian Ibn Kaldhun, for example, developed a theory to explain how successive waves of nomads would emerge out of the wilderness to conquer the more civilized cities of Arabia. The nomads were tough and hungry, he said, while the rulers of the cities, sated with luxury, were soft, lacking the toughness and discipline needed to defend themselves.

But once the newly-conquering nomads were ensconced in the privileged position of the conquerors, they too would be surrounded by luxury. Their children, growing up in luxury, would become softer, less disciplined, than their fighting forebears. And by the time the grandchildren inherited the kingdom, they were too weak to maintain their position; they became ripe for conquest by the next wave of marauders. And so, Kaldhun said, the cycle would go.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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