The American Character

Peggy Noonan contrasts two U. S. Presidents in this recent Wall Street Journal piece. I’m less interested in the political angle than in a side comment she throws in near the end. After ticking off a list of horrible incidents that have made the news this summer, she observes, 

We’re shocked. But we’re not shocked. And that itself is disturbing. We’re used to all this, now, this crassness and lowness of public behavior. The cumulative effect of these stories, I suspect, is that we’re starting to fear: Maybe that’s us. Maybe that’s who we are now. As if these aren’t separate and discrete crimes and scandals but a daily bubbling up of the national character.

A nation’s character is no different than that of an individual. Occasional mistakes can be written off as aberrations, if the general thrust of one’s life trends toward the good. But if the “mistakes” become more common and the “good” becomes less so, a noble character slowly degenerates into a shady character. And shady nations, like shady individuals, don’t last long. 

America’s character problem is an amalgamation of the character of millions of individuals. Replacing politicians at the top every few years isn’t going to solve the problem. Character has to be built one person at a time. 

I used to hear people say, especially with regard to politicians, that “character doesn’t matter.” As the evidence continues to mount which contradicts that flippant stance, I don’t hear it so much anymore. At some point, the facts become too obvious—and painful—to ignore. Character matters, starting with our own. 

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