written by H. Michael Hartoonian
Today’s global conflicts are fundamentally struggles over ideas. The ideas are religious, philosophical, and political, and they form the belief systems of a people. When ideas clash, the advantage goes to that people or that nation that has crafted the most irresistible narrative of identity and purpose. Some people are persuaded by violence. Some are moved by greed and perceptions of scarcity. Others are moved by charity. And still others are swayed by progress toward a better life for the next generation. Shared perceptions, stories, and ideas shape behavior and define a people.
The grand narrative of this country is the most irresistible story ever designed. Created through the ideas presented in the founding documents of the United States, this country continues to live out those ideas in an almost 250-year history of both human tragedy and human achievement. The idea of America provides a transcendent story of cultural tension and civic compromise that characterizes our identity. Because of this evolving approach to democracy and nationhood, we may not, at any one time, have a complete understanding of our purpose and nature, but as citizens, we need to keep asking questions of truth, reality, God, justice and even happiness, and keep searching for answers. We do not teach these things to one another in our schools and universities, on our streets, in our media, or in our behavior. Indeed, we have turned our culture into a market where prices are more important than values. Our schools and streets have morphed into vocational schools and environments where citizens have little chance to learn the civic arts.
In the United States, we should learn how to read closely and carefully, think critically and constructively, and find the flaws in our arguments and the arguments of others. The present presidential debates are non-examples of this kind of intellectual and ethical behavior. As active and involved citizens and residents, our responsibility is to know that our common (nation’s) story can successfully challenge any narrative on earth. Again, the “war” with terrorists is a war between value systems. Our biggest issues are not the economy, military involvement, taxes, or even immigrants. The real struggle is over who has the most irresistible narrative to tell the world. People are moved to die for what they value most, and if we don’t know or can’t tell others, as well as ourselves, what we stand for, people (even many young Americans) will decide to fight for ISIS. Most of these young men who elect to turn on their country are from middle class families who don’t understand America’s deeper values. This isn’t about getting stuff, it’s about believing in something. Put another way, “Do you have anything that you’re willing to die for (or to live for)?” Necessarily, we need to practice the intellectual and ethical behaviors required to debate our democratic value tensions and keep a lasting commitment to develop a more perfect union, establish justice, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty through education and an ethical infrastructure or common wealth that fosters equality of opportunity.
This is our civic creed and our identity. Stronger than tanks and bombs, this idea of America can defeat any less elegant idea. To do so, however, we need to embrace and have open, ongoing, and courageous conversations about the conflicting democratic values of freedom and equality, diversity and unity, common wealth and private wealth, and law and ethics. In this discourse rests our children’s future and the future of America.
H. Michael Hartoonian
Michael Hartoonian is Scholar in Residence at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN and former Professor and Senior Fellow and Director of the Institute for Democratic Capitalism, in the Department of Educational Policy and Administration, College of Education and Human Development University of Minnesota. His research interests are in ethics, education and economics, and their integration in a democratic republic, as well as identifying democratic value tensions in American history and contemporary life.