“Character is destiny.” Senator John McCain made the quote famous in modern times, but the wisdom of this sentiment goes back over 2,500 years to the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, who also is famously known for another quote: “The only constant in life is change.”
But today, I worry about our nation’s character, and what could arguably be described as a decline in the character of our civil society. Evidence of a malfunctioning moral compass in America is hard to ignore, but much of it seems to stem from what has been called the era of the “Big Me,” where the selfish “me” appears to supersede the interests of community and society at large. But it’s more than just behaviors driven by self-interest.
This past week, the Federal Aviation Administration released a warning for travelers on commercial airlines due to the violent behavior of some passengers. Some? The warning came with a statistic. So far this year there have been 4,000 reported cases of passenger committed violence on civilian airliners.
The murder rates in America are up 13.3 percent, according to Datalytics, and Columbus is on a record-breaking surge to surpass last year’s record of 175 homicides, among the highest in the U.S. Perspective can be useful. If this Columbus homicide rate were extended over the next 20 years (the number of years we’ve been in Afghanistan) we will have lost more lives in Columbus (3,500) than all American soldiers killed in Afghanistan over the 20 years (2,448). Talk about a war zone.
Brawling fans at National Football League games are surging with stadiums threatening to permanently revoke ticket privileges of fan fighters.
Twitter has become the Wild, Wild West of deliberate misinformation, bullying, taunting and deceit, but is not alone in the slippery slope of social media when it comes to malevolent behavior. While digital technology isn’t the single factor in these examples of moral and ethical decline, it seems to me as though it plays a significant role in making the moral compass of America go haywire.
Mass shootings are up. Incidents of racial hate crimes and white nationalism are up. Our politics resemble tribalism with poisonous rhetoric threatening our creed and unity as Americans. Rioters charging the U.S. Capitol carrying American flags has to be an anathema to our cherished heritage as Americans. Now we seem to be a fractured nation with different camps using social media to accelerate the flames of their particular passions.
Two nights ago, I watched a back-to-school ad during prime-time television where two women were confiding in us while extolling the detail that they went braless when they picked up their kids at school and when they shopped. Are there no longer any limits?
Opprobrium aside, why should I worry about such things? Because I have children and grandchildren, and the future of this country and the world is their future. I worry because I’ve always believed in American exceptionalism, that we are inherently different from most other nations.
Facing a future likely to involve other pandemics, global warming, mass migrations of people, challenges from totalitarian nations like China and Russia will require the best of what we are, not the worst.
Character is destiny and character will determine our fate as a people and as a nation. We face enormous challenges but our legacy, our inheritance, our creed is at stake. The question is, will our character as a nation stand up to the fast changes that are taking over our nation and the world. Or, are changing times making American exceptionalism a myth.
Heraclitus was as right 2,500 years ago as he is today, on both accounts. The only constant in life is change, and character, I’m convinced, will be our destiny.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.