American Values

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Common Dreams

American Values

What is America? What are the values it has most fought for and admired? A few of the first, and most important, come to mind:

Freedom.

Equality.

Democracy.

Champion of the little guy.

Helper of the oppressed.

Defender against tyranny.

Some of the other values are ingrained in our history and our belief in our future:

Capitalism.

Independence.

Strength.

Rightness and righteousness.

Manifest destiny.

God.

Freedom of religion.

Family.

Wealth.

Faith.

Entertainment and happiness.

Even a casual reader of these values can see where conflicts might arise among them. Capitalism and strength have made America great, but they have generated their own set of inequalities. Our wealth is unequaled, but Jesus taught that our faith should make wealth meaningless. Equality is a wonderful ideal, but frankly, not everyone is created equal. Freedom is fine until we see our vast money-obsessed entertainment and happiness apparatus assaulting us with base immorality, cowardly news, and stupidity.

Over the last twenty years or so, the most radical members of the right wing have claimed they've owned the core American values that I've just enumerated; moreover, they've claimed that liberals have tried to defeat them. Therefore, they argue, liberals are trying to ruin the American way of life. They claim that liberals are a threat to our very future. For those who question this assumption, they need only to listen to talk radio, Fox news and the Republican leadership who pass for responsible voices in our democracy.

Their methods are not surprising. Because here is their dirty little secret: The far right must gain its identity from imagined enemies. Because without these imagined enemies, the ultra-right wing is not viable. Without the imagined enemies, you just have - America. It is an America struggling with competing interests among its core values. It should try to help the poor while building wealth for us all; it should try to lead the world without exploiting or dominating it; it should not be ashamed of a faith in God but should never discriminate against those of different beliefs; and it should try to figure out balances between those "right and left" policy disputes, such as protection of the environment versus encouraging development.

This is the true American value: We are a nation of compromises. The Constitution is a document of concessions between competing interests. We weigh the right of the accused against the power of prosecutors; we weigh the power of judges against Congress and the president; we weigh the power of the people against the strength of the government.

Yet this is the problem with the right wing today. When a political faction encourages an atmosphere that makes these competing principles evil and corrupt - even the idea that there should be competition among them - it threatens the very essence of America. It must be said outright: These strange Americans are fighting against the founding values of this nation.

The radical reactionaries (it is absurd to call them conservatives) have convinced about half of Americans that the basic American values - the values of balancing various competing interests - are evil and anti-American. This is where the future of America is threatened, and it must be fought at every turn.

What we have seen is the creation of a culture of hate in America, and that is not too strong of a characterization. The radicals vilify those who disagree with them -they must do this to survive. For without the enemies that they themselves imagine, they are nothing. After the imagined enemies are gone, they have nothing to rant against, except the notion of American values. Therefore, if they lose their enemies, they lose America.

America is a balancing act. Sometimes we slip off the wire. No one said it would be easy. No one said it was simple. It's a work in progress, and it always will be. The danger to America is when we allow those who vilify basic American values to have the loudest voices.

Guy Reel

Guy Reel is an associate professor of mass communication at Winthrop University. He may be reached at reelg@winthrop.edu

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