NO VALUES! A response to the horde of used-value salesmen we have heard of late
By: J. Edward Tremlett
Values: a small word with a big meaning, especially within a fractured and tribal nation with airs of pluralism and monophiliac tendencies.
I've been hearing a lot about values lately, we all have. Following the defeat of George Bush (as it certainly wasn't a pure victory for Bill Clinton), our nation has been told that it needs to have a "conversation with itself" over "American values": what they are, when we had them, how we lost them, and how we can regain them. People like William J. Bennett (our former NEH head & drug czar) are getting famous for writing stuff like The Book of Virtues and its unintentional (?) companions The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators and The Devaluing of America. People like Rev. Butts get front page respectability and a back page thumbs up for running over rap CD's with a steamroller. And, between attacks on video games, homosexuals, and youth culture, our rights could be in serious jeopardy, all in the name of "values". Well that is all well and good, but what I really want to know is, "WHO NEEDS THEM?"
That we've been hearing so much about the V-word is no accident. As part of their strategy during the '92 election, the Republican party adopted a mantra of "values"; a moral imperative that they had and the Democrats lacked. "Family values" quickly became the buzzword of the elections, further cemented into place by Pat Buchanan's irresponsible call to "take back our culture" at the convention.
Not to be outdone, the Democrats stumped for "values" at every chance they could. Taking Al Gore aboard, while it may have been a purely amicable arrangement, was also excellent strategy, given Al's staunch conservatism on the issue of popular culture. Bill's publicly attacking Sister Souljah for her statements which he didn't even attempt to understand, apparently--was also a good political move since it placed him in the anti-"negative" rap corner; furthering his support among some feminists, many black leaders (like Jesse Jackson, who is no friend to popular culture), and the part of the population that subconsciously fears rap because of what it stands for: black empowerment by any means necessary.
Even after the elections came and went, we didn't hear the end of the V-word. The "values" issue had permeated Congress (rap hearings, TV violence and video games: what's next... ?), our churches, TV news, and hundreds of political races all over the country. Why? I think that the buzzword became a slogan, much like "just say no", and, like most simple political slogans and no-brainers, to oppose it is to commit political suicide.
We live in the age of the sound-bite: complex issues are digested to their barest essence, and then puked in our face each night on the "news". Instead of getting a full, seven-course socio-political discussion we are forced, due to time constraints, to grab a ten second egg McMuffin of a film clip. Americans don't like to think about issues, they like to be told good from evil so they can vote, or cheer, accordingly, and in a political race this means that the candidate who masters the ultimate de-evolvement of the news-the slogan will win. One must try to emphasize how much they agree with the slogan, or demonstrate how little their opponent follows it, in order to succeed.
And now, with the political marketing of the slogan in full swing, we are seeing the start of the economic marketing. Armchair politicos like Rush Limbaugh caught on early, feeding off of peoples' frustration and anger by giving them soothing slogans and lampoon lullabies; waking them up just enough to put them right back to sleep, humming a different, stronger tune. Bill Bennett, as earlier noted, is becoming the poster child for values, and Dan Quayle's memoirs are due out soon, as are a collection of essays from Mr. Sneering Conservative himself, Cal Thomas. And let's not forget the marketing ploys of Floyd "baby huey" Brown, the man who gave us Willie Horton and now gives us more dirt on Whitewater with the help of his periodical Clintonwatch.
That's not to say that I don't think they should speak their mind: far from it, they should shout their opinions until they're blue in the face, or until someone acts on them, whichever comes first. I enjoy hearing people talk about American values. It's just too bad that there aren't any.
There is no such thing as an American value. All our "values" like many aspects of our government and even most of our culture, was brought over, borrowed, copied, or stolen. We exist as the ultimate parasite of the world, incorporating everything into our own being, good, bad, or ugly. This has made our society a mongrel, rather than a purebred show dog, but from our hybrid nature comes our greatest strength: adaptability.
It is that adaptability, as written into our Constitution and practiced every day in our capitalist society, that allows us to survive crises that would quickly destroy other countries. Sure, it's got its bad points: two or more political camps are almost always at war with each other over political power, splitting us apart as a people. But that is much better than a nation of lemmings who, blindly following one leader with one purpose and one goal, march right over a cliff.
And that is what most of the people who cry for a return to "values" really want: an American with one mind, one religion, and one opinion, so long as it's theirs. At the start of Bennett's tenure as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, there was a flack over the film "From the ashes..., Nicaragua", which portrayed a Nicaragua that--surprise, surprise--was very different from the "official", anti-communist vision of the Reagan administration. In the start of The Devaluing of America, he comments:
What I was trying to do in the case of "From the ashes...,Nicaragua", was to put a halt to the taxpayers' subsidizing of left-wing, anti-American propaganda, and to send a signal that it wouldn't happen again." (pg 19).
In other words, so long as he was the head of the NEH, no one would dare to question the "truth" of Reagan's anti-communist doctrine using its' resources. A similar line of thought was expressed in Pete Du Pont's Conservative Manifesto, printed in the March 21st issue of the National Review. Du Pont, as some may remember, was the former governor of Delaware who, while announcing his candidacy for the GOP Primary in '88, called for the mandatory drug-testing of America's teenagers, saying that he would withhold Federal aid from school districts who refused to go along. What follows is a portion of "Confirming America's Culture" (emphasis has been added):
"Our common language is the most obvious element of America's culture. More profound are our religious heritage, the subservience of the state to individual, the two parent family as the foundation of society, and the concept of merit."
"That is not to say there are not Americans who, for example, believe in no God at all, speak languages other than English, or choose not to have families. But to be a part of America's culture one accepts that the state will not be neutral regarding every set of ideas, from incest to abortion. Our culture's values, customs and beliefs must be reinforced by the institutions of our society."
"Thus, disparaging the role of religion in our lives or undermining the authority of parents have no place in public policy. What does have a place is requiring that public schools teach in English, allowing an invocation before graduation, and encouraging grades on merits. Marriage is reserved for heterosexual couples, and affirmative action used in its original--that everyone is invited to participate in our society. Freedom of expression is guaranteed for the anti-religious or pornographic artist, but government funding is not."
In other words, sure we'll let you into the old boy's club if you're not a Straight Conservative Christian, but don't expect anyone to get you a drink. According to the DuPonts and Bennetts, America was set up by the SCCs for SCCs, and everyone else, while they're free to vote for the SCC of their choice, can't have, and don't deserve, any power of their own until they too become SCCs.
Were it not for the canonizing of the "values" slogan, such pretenses towards conservative "morality" would be easy to dispel. Besides the obvious hypocrisy of such endeavors (a call for "integrity" from a Former member of the Reagan administration? Puh-lease!), a level of hypocrisy coats almost everything the conservative movement does. Doesn't it seem odd that the "pro-life" party is always just itching to go to war whenever some third world dictator thumbs his nose at us? How about the death penalty? And how can they get the government off your back if Big Brother's still in your bedroom?
Further: it would seem, given the failure of trickle down economics, and the problems we've had over the last twelve years, and the problems that we're still having today, that our economic outlook is just slightly worse than our internal structure. Bill Bennett thinks that a lack of "values" is to blame for the increase of divorce and birth out of wedlock, but isn't it more likely that poor economic conditions are tearing our families apart? Look what they've done to the inner cities, where ultra-"moral" people like Rev. Calvin Butts, have been preaching those same "values" from every street-corner to no avail. It's no secret that people listen to their elders when times are good, and disparage them when the going gets rough and stays rough using their--you guessed it--adaptability to look for a new way of surviving.
In other words, we aren't entirely to blame for the sad state of our nations "values". People like Bennett, who had the power to fix things and apparently fucked them up, are. But they're not going to admit that, now are they?
Still, despite our knee-jerk rush to condemn such works as The De-Valuing of America we must remember that even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. Bennett makes some good and salient points, particularly about the failure of public schools and the need for self-reliance. But he makes the mistake of using the problem, and their solution, as a means to an end--getting the "liberals" out of office, or so it seems--rather than the end itself.
So to hell with "values". Every country has its own definition, of what they are, but only America--in theory at least--gives its citizens the freedom to find their own. The bipartisan moaning over "American values" is just an attempt to attack the more libertine aspects of multiculturalism while avoiding responsibility for the economic miasma of the last twelve years; a debacle that, despite what the media may have told you, has not been significantly affected by Clinton's policies, and is not almost over. To survive we must adapt, and grow, leaving people like William J. Bennett and his like-thinkers behind in their pit of denial and hypocrisy while we seize the power from their dying fingers. And we must seize it soon,...lest we be caught in their death-throes and strangled.