In 1959, at the height of American self-confidence after the decline of status of Old World countries, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. described what he saw as “Our Ten Contributions to Civilization.” Using Schlesinger’s list to begin with, what can be observed about the health of American civilization in 2020?
1. THE RIGHT OF REVOLUTION
Schlesinger listed the success of the American Revolution as the final proof of the principle that people can free themselves from regimes with which they wholeheartedly disagree. Such regimes are NOT established by God, but by people. The American Revolution was the first of the great colonial insurrections. The right to revolt was one of America's contributions to modern civilization.
It must be admitted that Southern States attempted to exercise this right in 1860 and were successfully opposed. Apparently the right is not inherent, but must be asserted through power.
2. THE PRINCIPLE OF FEDERALISM
The principle, Schlesinger explains, is that of a partnership of self-governing commonwealths with an overall government capable of protecting and promoting their joint concerns. Prior to that, states were independent, without a workable network, much less a functioning partnership. Mother countries also protected her chicks without paying much attention to their concerns, and certainly not in a partnership. America agreed to a better way and showed it could work. This encouraged a whole new way of making countries and alliances.
America has long since traded federalism for nationalism, and subjected the 50 “commonwealths” to such reduced authorities that states cannot even set up their own banks (the Bank of North Dakota may be the only exception) or control their borders -- even when those borders are with other “self-governing commonwealths”.
3. THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED
The USA rejected monarchy, nobility, and a hereditary legislative chamber in favor of government of, by, and for the people, from top to bottom. Schlesinger observed, “The underlying philosophy was not that the common man was all-wise but only that he can govern himself better than anyone else can do it for him.” [In 1959 inclusive language was not yet a major issue.]
Surely we can agree that this concept has morphed into something the founders never expected and even Schlesinger seemed not to have anticipated. There is no agreement about what has happened to government, but it is not what Schlesinger described (1) if the people are not as important as are sponsors, contributors and lobbyists, (2) if politicians can gain invulnerability to majority will, and (3) if policies cannot be presented from the grassroots with any hope for consideration. If democracy no longer exists in America this great contribution to civilization is lost to us.
4. THE STATUS OF WOMEN
Schlesinger looks back into history and reports that one of the things that impressed visitors and immigrants was how women were safe, compared to other places in the world. In the very beginning women were to be “protected, respected, supported, and petted.” He argues that due to being better off to begin with women in America began earlier than elsewhere to strive for equality. That had not come by 1959, but the organized feminist movement was one of the contributions to civilization worth noting. Schlesinger was proud of the way America has been in the lead.
It is our tardiness that is unforgiveable. There is much to do. In fact, the USA no longer has an irrefutable lead in the area of women’s status, nor in efforts to improve the situation. By this measure of civilization there is no room for pride.
5. THE MELTING POT
It is the scale, the thoroughness, and the rapidity with which new populations are absorbed into America that sets us apart, Schlesinger gloats, “and the fact it was done by peaceful absorption.” No civilization before has done this as well as have we. He then goes to considerable lengths to account for one of the glaring exceptions.
“Our most tragic failure has involved our Negro citizens,” he wrote in 1959 as the US Civil Rights Movement was just beginning to make progress. After admitting, “…this ill-used race has been a standing reproach to our professions of democracy,” Schlesinger asserts, “Nevertheless, even these injured people have not been unwilling Americans … they have only been unwilling to be halfway Americans or second-class citizens.”
For a while, in the intervening years since Schlesinger wrote, he might also have observed that “civil rights and human rights” have also been one of America’s contributions to civilization, if not in principle, then at least in scale and breadth. Many groups joined the march toward better treatment, equal rights, and fair justice. They included Native Americans, migrant workers (especially Mexicans), and now in the forefront are LGBTIQA+ groups.
The question before us is, “Are we still contributing to civilization in this regard?” What is the USA’s voting record in world forums on human rights? How do we treat people coming to escape inhumane conditions where they were born? Are we moving backward from our previous advocacy of greater human rights? What have our recent elections told the world about us in this regard?
6. FREEDOM OF WORSHIP
“Religion by choice was the natural counterpoint of government by consent, and, contrary to Old World belief, the separation of church and state did not in fact weaken either but strengthened both.” So, separation of church and state was one of the US’s contributions to civilization.
How are we doing here in 2020? Is there a strong consensus that religion by choice is everybody’s right in America? So far, that is the principle we talk about. But when we are talking about other things we tend to be forgetful. Anti-Semitism has not been snuffed out, but is on the rise again as part of the rise in American Supremacism. Since 9/11, 2001, anti-Islamism has taken top spot in what Americans are against in terms of religion in America. Christian leaders have been included in White House inner circles if they are advocates for “Christian America.” We are moving away from separation of church and state.
7. THE PUBLIC SCHOOL
Schlesinger proudly insists, “Probably America has conferred no greater boon on mankind [than government supported public education], for popular education is the seedbed of virtually all other human aspirations.” In the Old World education was held to be a privately financed undertaking for the upper classes, the rank and file supposedly having little need for any….” The implication is that “the rank and file” is to be kept from aspiring to be otherwise. To keep the rank and file in place, simply limit what they get from being educated.
These days two movements are in effect: one is to reintroduce the principle of private education, and the second is to assure that it costs so much that the rank and file are prevented from getting it or are saddled with such debt if they do that they must take rank and file work to pay off the debt. Meanwhile, the goals of education have been modified downward as well, away from developing people with vision to producing workers. America’s educational standing in the world has dropped dramatically.
8. VOLUNTARY GIVING
In 1959 Schlesinger could still laud American philanthropy after a century as the world leader in voluntary giving to schools, churches, foreign missions, colleges, hospitals, charities and other projects for human betterment. He credits this spirit as the motive behind such gigantic programs as the Red Cross, CARE, and the Marshal Plan, which provided funds from the government coffers. This has “no parallel in history,” Schlesinger raves.
These, however, are the very things that have become targets. Any mention of foreign aid which transformed European nations from adversaries to partners after World War II is met with outrage that American tax dollars are being spent on others rather than people at home. Whole political campaigns are waged against philanthropy abroad. At the same time churches, colleges and hospitals have become self-supporting or have closed.
By technology, Schlesinger means the development of industries. American inventions transformed life for Americans as well as for people everywhere.
I think he would be appalled at what has happened to technology. On the one hand, it has continued to make marvelous advances, none more dramatic than in the field of communication technology. But, as with medical technology, the trend has been away from spreading the benefits to the ends of the world to making as much profit as possible before something better is invented or the patent expires. On the other hand, the centers of technology have migrated away from the USA. It is no secret that even in areas of aerospace and computers new cutting edges are being developed, especially in Asia. Most astounding of all, is how the sciences that lie behind all these technological developments have been devalued, disempowered, and denounced in the USA.
And that brings us to capitalism.
10. EVOLUTIONARY PROGRESS
“One of our proudest achievements has been the creation of a system of controlled capitalism that yields the highest living standards on earth and has made possible a society as nearly classless as man has ever known,” Schlesinger exclaimed. This happened by trial and error, an “evolutionary” process. There was a time, Schlesinger admits, that “unprincipled businessmen had first to be brought to heel by government restraints and the growing power of organized labor before they came to learn that they must serve the general good in pursuing their selfish interests.” He goes on to say that the US has taken on the characteristics of a welfare state, but it is “the legitimate object of government to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot do so well, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.” Schlesinger contrasts this trial and effort struggle for balance in economy to the dogmatic plans of the USSR and China, as well as to the free hand given to banks and magnates in other industrialized nations. This “controlled capitalism” we have developed is “one of our proudest achievements.”
So, how are we doing with our system of controlled capitalism? Arguably, this is our most troubled area. There is no scale by which the USA now ranks as having the highest living standard. This year, 2020, the USA ranked 15th in quality of living by US News and World Report. All our systems are plummeting. Furthermore, if evolutionary progress is still imaginable, we are in a downward dip in terms of being nearly classless and in bringing unprincipled business to heel by government restraints. We have a rapidly growing group of homeless people, and the US now ranks 2nd in the industrialized world behind France with 177 homeless per 100,000 population. Those who have jobs are finding many things worse than their parents, including income versus cost of living, ability to afford or access health care, loss of retirement security, and reduction of leisure time and funds. Indeed, it is attacks on the “welfare state” that are leading the erosion and destruction of support networks and humanitarian aid systems.
Either “evolutionary progress” is in a disastrous downturn, or this is another contribution to world civilization that America has abandoned.
[Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s article “Our Ten Contributions to Civilization” appeared in the March 1959 issue of The Atlantic]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.