Emotional Health

Celebrating Independence Day in a Divided Nation

A few years ago I reread Truman Capote’s true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Published in the early 1960s, it tells about a horrific crime involving a peaceful Nebraska family of four who were slaughtered by two drifters. The perpetrators got away with just a few dollars, and the public was shocked by the random, arbitrary nature of their crime.

Two things struck me about how much the world has changed since then. First, while some types of crime have gone down, random crimes, such as serial killings, have exploded. Criminals are no longer desperados who need money. They  now come in all stripes: besides serial killers, we have terrorists, school shooters, child kidnappers, revenge killers and white collar criminals, too.

Corporations share the blame for the decline in our values. A second telling part of Capote’s story involves the victim, Herb Clutter’s insurance company. The day he died, a Friday, he had met with an agent and taken out a large life insurance policy. Because the check was not deposited over the weekend, the company was not obligated to honor the policy. But they did.

Can you imagine such a thing happening now, when corporations fight tooth and nail for every dollar, every time? Desperately ill people have to battle insurance companies for necessary treatments. Many firms have an explicit strategy that reasons if it is hard enough to get the coverage you have paid for, at least some percentage of customers will be too confused or discouraged to fight for it. And they will profit.

Wall Street itself has “led” the way in some of the general decline in American values. Despite the Goldman Sachs chief’s defense that “corporations are people, too,” they don’t seem to care about people other than themselves. The financial meltdown of 2008, in which millions of people worldwide lost their savings, was triggered by the greed of financial players who crossed the line with dodgy schemes to enrich themselves.

Financial markets roared back to life with taxpayer support, and they are healthier than ever, but no closer to sharing the wealth. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left squabbling about what America stands for in a moral vacuum.

As we think about American values this week, remember that it starts with the individual, with character. People of character seek like-minded others, and invest not just in their families, but their communities and their nation. They care enough about the underlying moral concepts that guide them to action.

Even if that action is as simple as voting, don’t think it doesn’t matter. America is an idea that needs the support of its citizens to survive. Decide what America you want to live in.  Then take action to sustain it.



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