S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, April 15, 2007
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/07.0415.culture.htm

What's happening to America?
By Andy Brack, Publisher

APRIL 15, 2007 -- Consider what's been in the news recently and the associated impacts:

  • Cable television continues to feed a celebrity-obsessed America with a steady diet of news surrounding the death of a mediocre model in the Bahamas and the paternity of her new daughter.

  • The country is in the midst of a war that has killed almost 3,300 Americans, yet most Americans don't seem to notice that it is ongoing.

  • A national radio shock jock is fired over racially-charged, insensitive remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team.

  • A flamboyant Charleston economist is jailed after claiming amnesia during an investigation into how he allegedly invested up to $134 million - or more - of people's hard-earned money.

You could probably create a similar list. But the bottom line leads to a simple question: What is happening to the America where people who work hard may realize the American Dream?

It seems our culture, saturated by television, video games, the need for Hummers and disposable living, is even more in the grips of what President Jimmy Carter called a "national malaise" in 1979.

In a speech that July, Carter noted, "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption."

In 2000, Harvard professor Robert Putnam outlined how the once vibrant American spirit of civic engagement was dying due to less community involvement in everything from parent-teacher associations to civic associations, such as Shriners, Masons and Elks. The Odd Fellows organization, once huge across the nation, had dwindled to almost nothing. Participation also was down in bowling leagues, the NAACP and friendly poker games, he discovered.

"In 1992, three-quarters of the U.S. workforce said that 'the breakdown of community' and 'selfishness' were 'serious' or 'extremely' serious problems in America," Putnam wrote in his book, Bowling Alone.

This continuing civic malaise seems to be due to the sense of generalized contentment that most Americans have. Compared to 100 years ago, most Americans have a home (shelter), food (they're not hungry) and clean water. They've got at least one TV and a phone - probably more than one of each. They've got transportation.

In other words, Americans of today are comfortable and prosperous, compared to those of two or three generations back. Perhaps with this contentment comes a focus on the individual, not society. Instead of working to make communities better, today's Americans are more focused on satisfying selfish needs.


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A January 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center appears to confirm this observation. It showed young people (18-25) generally had more casual sex, resorted more often to violence, had more binge drinking, used more drugs and voted less than the same group 20 years earlier. Today's young adults also told researchers that their number one goal was to get rich or famous.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope in this "Generation Next." The same poll showed voter turnout increased between 2000 and 2004. They were less cynical about the role of government than the previous generation. They see the value of using the Internet, but admit it can make people lazier.

Challenges exist on every level of American society. Communities want a better quality of life. States want better education, health care and services that meet people's needs. Nationally, people want a better functioning government, reliable energy and protection from threats like terrorism and global warming.

But maybe America's biggest future challenge is to keep the American Dream alive in the midst of the malaise and contentment that have fogged our society.

The 19th century is known as the European century. The 20th was the American century. The 21st is supposed to be the century of China's rise to power.

If America wants to remain relevant over the long haul, it has to balance its zeal for creature comforts with a reinvigorated spirit of competitiveness and shared sacrifice.

You can reach Andy Brack, publisher of SC Statehouse Report, at brack@statehousereport.com.

Recent commentary

lighter side
Tax time

Another great cartoon by Bill McLemore:

4/4: SC should take head out of sand

To the editor:

I read with interest and amusement your article in this week's Charleston Business Journal about the state needing to boost its competitiveness. I am always surprised when people are surprised that South Carolina ranks so low. I applaud the State's Chamber for continuing to call attention to the problem, but there is one critical component that everyone seems to keep missing.

South Carolina will never be able to attract real businesses (Fortune 500 and other high-wage employers) because the state is seen as socially backwards and unwelcoming to diversity. No matter how great the quality of life is, young talented educated people who can work anywhere they choose will simply never choose to live someplace where everyone looks the same or where entire populations of people seem marginalized.

This may sound alarmist or extreme, but I promise you it is not. Places such as New York, California, Massachusetts all have or have had Republican governors, and yet the jobs are still there. It's not so much a function of who's in power, but rather how the states view social matters of the day. Hate crime laws, domestic partner benefits, nondiscrimination practices, etc., are all intangible things (unlike new roads and better bridges which go without saying) that play a huge role in perception. Perception is reality.

Real employers paying high wages (I'm not talking about Wal Marts here) will only go where they have an abundant talent pool from which to choose. The talent will simply not be here as long as the perceptions of South Carolina do not change. As a cultural and welcoming place, perception-wise, the Spoleto Festival in Charleston can hardly carry the city, much less the entire state.

Until the Chamber and State Legislature even acknowledge this as a problem we cannot begin to dig ourselves out. No amount of unemployment reform or bridge building will fix this one. It's time to take our head out of the sand and quit wondering what's wrong; it's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

-- Daniel Berler, Mount Pleasant, S.C.

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Just a quick note to let you know how you missed out this week. If you were a subscriber to the paid edition of Statehouse Report, you would have received the information below on Friday AND you would have gotten other special features:

  • NUMBER OF THE WEEK: $134 million
  • NEWS: Smooth sailing may be ahead for budget
  • LEGISLATIVE AGENDA: Busy week ahead in both chambers
  • RADAR SCREEN: Father knows best
  • PALMETTO POLITICS: Statehouse version of The Office
  • TALLY SHEET: New bills from the Senate
  • BLOGROLL: Spin around blogs
  • SCORECARD: Ups and downs from the last week
  • MEGAPHONE: Beyond the dream

For more information, contact us today about our affordable paid subscriptions for businesses and organizations that need the inside scoop at the Statehouse.

Smooth sailing for budget?
From the paid-subscriber issue of Statehouse Report

APRIL 13, 2007 -- Can anything disrupt the orderly nature of this year's legislative session?

Gone are the days of the single issue dominating both chambers of the General Assembly, like property tax reform did last year. Gone, too, is the incessant bickering between the Statehouse and Gov. Mark Sanford, as the latter hasn't shown up at the former with anything resembling a pig under his arm. So far.

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