Skip to main content

We Are Not What We Set Out to Be

By John W. Whitehead

As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air—however slight—lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.—William O. Douglas, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

The year was 1961, and I was 14 years old, the only child of blue-collar workers living in Peoria, Illinois. I was young, poor and lacking any great understanding of the winds of change that were blowing through our nation and the world. Even so, I found myself transfixed as I huddled in front of our small black-and-white television to watch John F. Kennedy deliver his inaugural address as the nation’s 35th president. The sound might have crackled and the picture wavered, but Kennedy’s message came through loud and clear. It was a message of hope, challenge and faith in an America that could be a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world.

Kennedy called us the “heirs of that first revolution” and spoke of rights that come not from the state but from God. “Let the word go forth,” he said, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”

Suddenly I realized that he was not talking to my parents or my teachers or the cop on the beat: he was talking to me. Everything in me wanted to be part of an America that was a champion of justice and a model of virtue. I longed to be part of making that dream a reality. It was a pivotal moment in my life, one that eventually led me to seek out a career in constitutional law.

When Kennedy called on Americans to “bear the burden of a long twilight struggle” to defend freedom in its hour of maximum danger, I never would have guessed how long that twilight would last—or that almost half a century later, we, the American people, would come to represent the gravest threat to our freedoms through our apathy, ignorance and indifference.

The world is a very different place from when I was a teenager. We undeniably live in perilous, uncertain times. Our nation is plagued by perpetual war. An erratic economy. Shadowy enemies bent on terrorizing us. Increasingly aggressive government agencies. An appalling literacy rate. A populace with little understanding of history or the United States Constitution. Porous borders with countless illegal immigrants flowing over them. Ravaging natural disasters. A monstrous financial deficit. Armed forces pushed to their limit, spread around the globe.

We are embroiled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq against a rebel enemy that seems to attack from nowhere. Our country is both ideologically and politically fractured. America’s credibility around the world is at an all-time low. And I am not alone in believing that we may be only one terrorist attack away from becoming a military state.

All of this has contributed to a general air of cynicism, pessimism and despair. According to a Time/CNN poll, 59 percent of Americans believe that the end-times prophecies found in the Book of Revelation—all of which end in massive violence and mayhem—are going to come true. This negative view of the future was magnified by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the unthinkable became our worst nightmare and our way of thinking about our freedoms and way of life was forever altered.

Since then, the rights enshrined in the Constitution, particularly those in the Bill of Rights, have come under constant attack. Governmental tentacles now invade virtually every facet of our lives, with agents of the government listening in on our telephone calls and reading our emails. Technology, which has developed at a rapid pace, offers those in power more invasive, awesome tools than ever before. The groundwork has been laid for a new kind of government where it will no longer matter if you’re innocent or guilty, whether you’re a threat to the nation or even if you’re a citizen. What will matter is what the president—or whoever happens to be in power at the time—thinks. And if you’re considered a threat to the nation, you’ll be locked up with no access to the protections our Constitution provides. You will, in effect, disappear. Some already have.

Sadly, few Americans seem worried. More than once I’ve heard it said, “I’m a law-abiding citizen. I have nothing to worry about.” While that statement might have been true at one time, we are now operating under a system of government where everyone is suspect. No longer do Americans have a clear sense of what it means to be a free people. Nor does it seem as if many of us even care.


Bobbleheads in Bubbleland


We have changed.

Consequently, the light of that once bright and shining city on a hill has dimmed. Americans, says journalist and author Nicholas von Hoffman, are living in a glass dome, a kind of terrarium, cut off from both reality and the outside world. In his words, they are “bobbleheads in Bubbleland…. They shop in bubbled malls, they live in gated communities, and they move from place to place breathing their own, private air in the bubble-mobiles known as SUVs.”

We are besieged by technological gadgets, which, while they have succeeded in creating numerous conveniences for our already busy lives, have also managed to fully occupy our attention, distracting us from meaningful discourse about issues of national and international significance.

America currently spends in excess of $40 billion annually on public education. Yet the numbers are undeniable: in comparing the literacy level of adults in 17 industrialized countries, America was number ten on the list. And 16- to 25-year-olds under-perform their foreign counterparts as well. Moreover, they do so to a greater degree than do Americans over 40.

The number of Americans who read books has also steadily declined. As a recent National Endowment for the Arts report titled “Reading at risk” found, many Americans do not ordinarily read voluntarily (not required for work or school), and only 57 percent of American adults read a book in 2002. When they do read, it is often fiction or books that focus on narcissistic themes such as diet and self-help.

Millions of adults are lacking the most rudimentary knowledge about history and world geography, such as the identity of America’s enemy in World War II. In fact, “one reads that 11 percent of young adults can’t find the United States on a world map, and that only 13 percent of them can locate Iraq. It turns out that only 12 percent of Americans own a passport, more than 50 percent were (prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall) unaware that Germany had been split into eastern and western sectors in the aftermath of World War II and 45 percent believe that space aliens have visited the earth. As in the Middle Ages, when most individuals got their understanding of the world from a mass source—i.e., the Church—most Americans get their ‘understanding’ from another mass source: television.”

Television, however, has been a poor teacher. Television news has become a function of entertainment to such an extent that political and historical analysis typically amounts to two- to three-minute sound bites. With such shallow content, it is easy to see why, on the eve of the 2004 presidential election and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, 42 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks and 32 percent believed he had personally planned them. No wonder the average American’s understanding of politics is generally reduced to a few slogans picked up the day before from broadcast news or late-night comedy shows.

There is truth in the adage that civilizations do not die from being attacked or invaded. They do themselves in. Americans today have come to embody what the renowned eighteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche termed “stupidity.” Nietzsche was not referring to an intelligent quotient or ignorance, per se; rather, he meant stupidity as in mentally clogged, anesthetized numb. As author and professor Thomas de Zengotita recognizes: “He thought people at the end of the nineteenth century were suffocating in a vast goo of meaningless stimulation.”

The same could be said of Americans at the dawn of the twenty-first century. We, too, are mentally clogged, anesthetized, numb. Connected to our cell phones, computers and television sets, we are increasingly disconnected from each other. Even when physically crowded together at concerts and sports spectacles, we fail to truly communicate with one another. According to author Alex Marshall, Americans live “in one of the loneliest societies on the earth.”


The Loss of Community


To a large degree, we have lost our sense of community.

This precipitous decline in community, as documented in Harvard University professor Robert Putnam’s appropriately titled book Bowling Alone, began in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As community groups started to disappear, Americans became drastically disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and social structures. “Church groups, union membership, dinners at home with friends, bridge clubs—all have been decimated. By 1993, the number of Americans who attended one public meeting on town or school affairs during the previous year was down 40 percent from what it had been twenty years before that time.” And in the mid-seventies, Americans entertained friends at home an average of fourteen to fifteen times per year. By the late nineties, that figure had dropped 45 percent.

This loss of community has given rise to a “bystander effect” that allows us to view the world around us from a distance, no longer compelled to get involved in matters that do not directly impact us, even when someone is in peril. An incident that occurred in July 2007 illustrates the gravity of the problem. According to police, as a stabbing victim lay dying on the floor of a Kansas convenience store, five shoppers, including one who stopped to take a picture of the victim with a cell phone, stepped over the woman. “It was tragic to watch,” said a police spokesman. “The fact that people were more interested in taking a picture with a cell phone and shopping for snacks rather than helping this innocent young woman is, frankly, revolting.” The victim, only 27 years old, later died at the hospital from her injuries. “The lack of concern for humanity over this young woman’s life is deeply troubling,” a policeman noted.

Moreover, the rise of corporatism has negatively impacted community life. Corner groceries and drug stores, owned by people who actually worked and lived in the community, have all but disappeared. In their place, huge commercial chain stores and multinational outlets have not only eradicated mom-and-pop businesses, they have created a cultural landscape of blandness where, no matter in what city or state you happen to find yourself, everything is the same. Shopping malls are now America’s most distinctive public space. But mall culture is not community.

Rejecting community in favor of self-gratification and isolation, we have in essence become an atomistic society, a characteristic of emerging totalitarian societies. Atomistic societies form pseudo-communities in times of perceived crisis, which we briefly saw in the wake of 9/11. But as Michigan State University professor Darren W. Davis recognizes, that did not last long: “People stopped giving to charities and volunteering. American flags displayed in front of homes and patriotic bumper stickers disappeared. Church attendance returned to pre-September 11 numbers, and old animosities resurfaced.”

The illusion of community faded. What did not fade, however, was our tendency to be easily led by our fears, especially in times of real or perceived crisis.


Accomplices in Terror


Just before his historic broadcast on McCarthyism, which ravaged 1950s’ American culture, the renowned television journalist Edward R. Murrow remarked to his staff, “No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices.”

Unfortunately, the American people have, for all intents and purposes, become accomplices in constructing their own prison. We have become a culture of fear—a nation divided. Heavily armed and barricaded in our homes, we fear our surroundings, our neighbors and the encroaching world of terrorism. This is somewhat understandable because the government’s system of alarms and alerts keeps the population in tension. All it takes is a color-coded alarm from the government to start the masses clamoring for greater security measures, even if it means relinquishing more of our freedoms.

Murrow’s reminder to his viewers at the end of that unforgettable March 9, 1954, broadcast is appropriate for our fearful populace today:

“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular. This is no time for men…to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.”

Despite this timeless warning, we have largely abdicated our responsibilities and allowed ourselves to be ruled by our fears, helped along in no small measure by the events of 9/11.

After the 9/11 attacks, government leaders and politicians naturally focused their efforts on shoring up the nation’s security. A mere month and a half after 9/11, the structure for a new governmental scheme was in place. The initial phase included the passage of the massive 342-page USA Patriot Act, which most constitutional scholars consider one of the greatest assaults ever on civil liberties. Ramrodded through Congress by the Bush Administration, the bill was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives a day after being introduced (with remarkably little debate and discussion) and in the U.S. Senate. Incredibly, few of the representatives had even read the legislation they were passing. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) cast the lone dissenting vote on October 25, 2001. President Bush then signed the bill into law on October 26.

New security proposals embodied by legislation such as the Patriot Act quickly transformed American society. Americans were warned that they would have to adjust to a new way of life—a new normal—and adjust they did. But the “new normal” came with a price. The adjustments initially took the form of excruciatingly long waits, pat-downs and heightened security at airports, sporting events and concerts. These necessary precautions, however, soon gave way to greater encroachments on our rights, some of which went unnoticed by the public-at-large. As professor Davis writes, “American citizens would have to adjust to greater limitations on their civil liberties and freedoms through greater surveillance and monitoring of communications, racial and ethnic profiling, stricter immigration rules, and greater scrutiny of reading habits and financial records.” Moreover, “[t]he public would have to stomach violations of international laws protecting prisoners from abuse and torture.”

A number of Americans did stomach such violations, and some even justified the military actions that resulted in the horrific photographs which surfaced in April 2004 at Abu Ghraib prison. In one picture, a hooded man is standing on a box with electrical wires attached to various parts of his body (“the Statue of Liberty,” as the Iraqis sardonically called it), which seemed to indicate that American troops had actually participated in the torture of Iraqi prisoners. As we later learned, the man, Satar Jabar, was nothing more than an accused car thief.

Despite no further attacks on American soil, the nation remained in a heightened state of alert. And soon the new normal—with its loss of freedom, heightened surveillance and increased sense of vulnerability—began to feel more and more like life as usual, but with a new paradigm in place. As journalist Lisa Anderson observed: “Of all the changes in all the 9/11-related statistics amassing day by day, one of the greatest, and perhaps most lasting, is the abrupt introduction of Americans to feelings of insecurity, fear, and vulnerability to terrorism on their soil. In a space of hours, Americans learned for themselves what people in so many countries have known for years: No one truly is safe from terrorism.”


Danger Signs


Many Americans have come to blindly believe that the government will ensure our safety (or at least provide the illusion of safety). But such gullibility comes at a steep price—the devaluation of our freedoms.

What we are presently grappling with is nothing new. The history of governments is that they inevitably overreach. And, if not deterred, they will impinge or eradicate freedom. That is not to say that those who run the government are necessarily evil. Their actions to the contrary, government officials are not malevolent people. They often operate from a misguided sense that whatever they do is for the greater good. Whether the motives were initially benevolent or otherwise, however, the point is that in the process of seeking perhaps even worthy goals, the foundational principles of freedom are being undermined in America.

None of this is a secret. The danger signs are all around us. Although some may heed the warnings, many more choose to look the other way. Indeed, how many of us take our freedoms for granted? How many in moments of perceived peril or stress would allow their rights to be taken away? How many have already decided that a temporary security is more important than freedom? How many dare speak up for those brave enough to voice their opposition to government policies? How many, when the basic principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights are criticized as being too cumbersome or outdated, fail to speak up in their defense? How many Americans have even read the Constitution?

Americans have become much too complacent. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that although 65 percent of Americans are satisfied with their private lives, they are overwhelmingly pessimistic about their public institutions—only 25 percent indicated satisfaction with the state of the nation. Two-thirds believe the country is on the wrong track, and 60 percent think the next generation will be worse off than the current one. Yet not much is being done to remedy the problems. As the Pew study indicates, Americans feel helpless to do anything about it. Worse, “[t]hey don’t want a change that will upset the lives they have built for themselves.” They prefer to preserve their personal peace and affluence—two preeminent American values.

Even given their dissatisfaction with Congress and the president, many Americans continue to place their hopes in politics. There are those who naively believe that somehow the next president is going to alter the course of events. But seldom has that happened.

As government invariably oversteps its authority, Americans are faced with the pressing need to maintain the Constitution’s checks against governmental power and abuse. After all, it was not idle rhetoric that prompted the framers of the Constitution to begin with the words “We the people.”

We must remember that our freedoms were created with extraordinary care and foresight, but they were not meant simply for the moment. Our precious liberties were to be passed on to our descendants indefinitely. As the Preamble to the Constitution declares, the Constitution was drafted to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Formally adopted on September 17, 1787, it has long served as the bulwark of American freedom. And we the citizens are entrusted as guardians of those freedoms. When we shirk that duty, we leave ourselves wide open for an authoritarian regime to rise to power, place restrictions on our freedoms and usurp our right to govern ourselves.


Lest We Forget Ourselves


William Harlem Hale was a journalist, broadcaster for Voice of America and a trusted advisor to President Harry Truman. Writing in 1947, when America first emerged as the most powerful nation in the world, Hale saw the looming forces of “greed, bigotry, and inertia.” He saw a country that could annihilate large portions of the world with a single bomb. He saw a world “accused of being overbearing and imperialistic” and a country where communities were feeling the divisiveness of modernity. But Hale had a vision of the role that America should play in the world. This was a vision born out of his experiences in World War II.

Hale tells of entering the German concentration camp at Dachau in 1945, on the heels of a battalion of American liberators. He describes emaciated prisoners scouring the campgrounds for rags and bits of colored cloth to make crude national flags, even before they searched for food. Standing in the drizzling rain, these prisoners in the thousands listened to speeches from various national leaders in a ceremony of liberation. And then came the Americans:

An alley was made for the American commanding officer—a tall, gray-haired colonel who now climbed the platform, helmet in hand, and spoke a few words of greeting and fraternity. When he had finished, the great iron gate which the Nazis had built was swung open and three American soldiers marched in—a guard bearing the United States colors. They advanced toward the platform, and I thought they would climb up and mount our colors on it, impressively high. But at the last moment, upon the colonel’s signal, they wheeled toward the assembled thousands, carried our flag into their midst, and placed it there with the banners borne by men in convict stripes from a dozen victim peoples. And at this there arose a shout—a general shout of brotherhood and joy that echoed around the sodden walls.

That moment, for Hale, captured the soul of America:

“I thought as I came away: This is what we mean, this is what we are. Should we seem to be less than this—should we stand apart from the lowly, from the people oppressed for faith, from those who will not be bound—then, in spite of all our riches and our power, we are not what we set out to be. We were these people, we have led, and we can again lead, their common aspirations. If we forget this, we forget ourselves.”

At one time I felt a deep sadness at the ravages time and circumstances have wrought upon my beloved country. Though I and a few others remained determined to fight the growing authoritarianism, most Americans seemed to have forgotten what it once meant to be American. And few seemed to give a damn about our freedoms. My hope that we could turn things around had been all but extinguished.

But change is in the air. Over time, I have begun to catch fleeting glimpses of America’s once intrepid spirit among ragtag groups of dissenters scattered across the country, and I have found myself strangely buoyed. More and more Americans seem to be waking from a self-imposed sleep. If they do, and if they can be convinced to hope and care once again, then maybe—just maybe—we can remember what it is to be an American. And in remembering, perhaps we can preserve our own freedoms while once again being an example of freedom to the world.

It feels good to be hopeful again. However, hope is not enough. We must face up to the grim realities of the day, realizing that reclaiming our liberties will entail sacrifice and hard work. There is no easy fix or magic formula. We can make significant progress in protecting our freedoms, only if we are realistic. There can be no room for false optimism. Hoping that things will get better will only add fuel to the already raging fire. Doing something about it is our only recourse. We must get organized. And we must use the valuable operatives given to us by the architects of the American republic: the Constitution.

There is work to be done. Let us begin.

Copyright 2021 © The Rutherford Institute • Post Office Box 7482 • Charlottesville, VA 22906-7482 (434) 978-3888
The Rutherford Institute is a registered 501(c)(3) organization. All donations are fully deductible as a charitable contribution.