Our country is big, noisy, energetic and full of ambition. So when I say we’d be better off if we took a moment to pause and deeply reflect on where we are and how we conduct ourselves, I know it would the best thing we could do and I know it simply won’t happen.
We’re not built that way. It is much of what makes us a vibrant society.
And when would this happen? Today, it’s the holidays that are upon us, so we must shop, spend and consume. Politics is ever upon us, so we must grumble, gripe and find outrage. Each season brings its own fleeting but demanding distractions, and it never lets up.
And yet I cannot shake the words of William Cohen, a U.S. senator and later secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, that rang out two weekends ago during a Truman forum in Kansas City.
“We have failed to discipline our appetites,” he said.
That carried a double meaning. He specifically mentioned the nation’s epidemic of obesity as an example of our lack of discipline. (For the record, Cohen looked pretty fit for a man of 73.) But he was also talking about appetites in the broader sense, in our preference for living beyond our means and our consistent habit of making easy, expedient choices instead of hard choices that serve us better over the long term.
He spoke of freedom and privilege coming with obligations, and he’s right. It seems to me that with our resolutely ahistorical mindset these days, we forget that the nation’s founders were seeking to build a country in which one could live according to the dictates of one’s conscience. And that very idea carries with it the obligation of active citizenship, of affirmatively doing things for community and country. Freedom is so much more than the shallow notion, often heard, of being able do as one pleases without cost or consequence.
“It seems to me if we’re going to survive, we have to get back to some stern values,” Cohen said. The world is looking at us, he said, with increasing concern about our crisis-to-crisis political system, wondering whether we’re really the best bet for the long haul.
This should come as a shock to us, but Cohen actually got applause for this line: “People (around the world) are making different judgments now because we’re unable to discipline ourselves.”
Cohen likes to quote the journalist Walter Lippmann, who 70 years ago said the things we take for granted we must earn again. For every right that you cherish, he said, you have a duty you must perform, and for every hope that you have, you must sacrifice your comfort and your ease. Those are words worth weighing.
It is simplistic to say we have gone soft, but a little reflection and renewal wouldn’t hurt. The politics we complain so much about comes with a lot of language centered on “me” instead of “we” and our common destiny. That would be good place to start thinking about reform.
Follow Jeff Fox on Twitter @Jeff_Fox.