An American Morality Tale

Robert Reich*


As we delve into our exploration of America's crisis of confidence, we can anticipate the remarks of authors who will refer directly or indirectly to "core" American values. It is worthwhile to examine these attitudes, as political economist Robert Reich does in the selection that follows. Reich's story of "George" constitutes one version of the American myth. As you'll see, commentators will often judge the behavior of present-day Americans against elements of the myth, whether or not they invoke the myth directly. George's story will provide a point of reference, a touchstone, as you read the rest of the chapter.

Reich interprets the story for us by examining the "parables" embedded within it. "These are [parables] of aspiration." says Reich, that "summon us to duty and destiny." As you read, consider the extent to which America does have a destiny. You might also consider the values that Reich will call "core" American values. Are these your values? Those of your neighbors, business leaders, political representatives?

Born in 1946 and reared in Fairfield County. Connecticut, Robert Reich graduated from Dartmouth College in 1968 and attended Oxford University (with Bill Clinton) on a Rhodes scholarship. He went on to attend Yale University law school and served four years directing policy planning at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington. A former professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Reich served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Before this appointment, he contributed regularly to The New Republic as well as to other national magazines and journals. He is the author or co-author of several books; the present selection appears in Reich's Tales of a New America (1987).

2618 words


¶1   You've heard the story a hundred times, with different names, different details. George was a good man, the son of immigrants who had made their way to Marysville. They came with no money, with nothing but grim determination and hard-won freedom. Dad worked all his life in the mill; he was union, hard, and proud. George was quick by nature, dogged by necessity. He studied hard at school, and after school worked long and well at anything that would bring in a few dollars. George was good at sports, but he had little time for games. He had few close friends, and yet he was fair and decent with everyone, and quietly kind to anybody in real trouble. He never picked a fight in his life. But in eighth grade, when the town bully Albert Wade was slapping around the smallest kid in the class, George stepped between them without saying a word. He let Wade throw the first punch, then put him away with one straight left, turned around, and walked away.

¶2 George finished high school in 1943, and joined the army the day he graduated. Four months later he was in Europe. On the sixth day of the Normandy invasion his squad was on patrol, passing through a French orchard when a German machine-gun nest opened up from behind a stone wall, picking off the squad one by one. George broke from cover and, dodging from tree to tree, raced toward the Nazis as bullets chewed the bark and ground around him. He took out the nest with a grenade and his rifle, and he saved his buddies, but he never wore the medals they gave him and he never talked about it much. After the war he came back to Marysville and married Kate, his childhood sweet heart. He raised three kids, and he started a little construction business, which his hard work and integrity gradually made into a big construction business. By and by, George made a lot of money. But his family continued to live modestly, and he gave generously to the local boys' club and an orphanage he founded. He was generous with his time, too, and headed the community chest. Still he kept pretty much to himself until Albert Wade inherited his father's bank, the only bank in town. Wade risked his depositors' money on shaky loans to his cronies, bought and bullied his way into power with Marysville's political leaders. When he was elected mayor the election smelled bad to everyone, but only George openly accused Wade of corruption. For six months Wade's bank refused every mortgage on houses built by George's company, and George risked everything in the showdown. But in that tense town meeting, one of the city councilmen Wade had paid off could no longer hide his shame under George's steady gaze and simple question from the back of the room. He spilled how Wade had rigged the election. Albert Wade went from city hall to county jail, and George went back to his family, his work, and his quiet service to Marysville.

¶3 George's story is an American morality tale. It is a national parable, retold time and again in many different versions, about how we should live our lives in this country. George is the American Everyman. He's Gary Cooper in High Noon. He's Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. He's the American private eye, the frontier hero, the kid who makes good. He's George Washington and Abe Lincoln. He appears in countless political speeches, in newspaper stories, on the evening news, in American ballads, and sermons.

¶4 Everyone has a favorite variation, but the basic theme is the same and speaks to the essence of our national self-image: Ours is a nation of humble, immigrant origins, built out of nothing and into greatness through hard work; generous to those in need, those who cannot make it on their own; a loner among nations, suspicious of foreign entanglements, but willing to stand up against tyranny; and forever vigilant against corruption and special privilege.

¶5 The American morality tale defines our understanding of who we are, and of what we want for ourselves and one another. It is the tacit subtext of our daily conversations about American life. It permeates both American conservatism and American liberalism. And - the essential point - it is a fundamentally noble, essentially life-affirming story. Much is made of the American political distinctiveness of a Constitution inspired by theory rather than by tradition. But there is a subtler yet equally profound cultural distinctiveness as well, a national sense of identity rooted not in history but in self-told mythology. Political scientist Carl Friedrich captured the distinction in 1935: "To be an American is an ideal, while to be a Frenchman is a fact."

¶6 This basic mythology, however integral to the American identity, is so vague as to admit of many interpretations, to present itself in multiple manifestations over time. At different times in our history, different aspects of the parable have come to the fore while others receded. Some variants of the myth are more faithful to its essence than others; some variants are more supple accommodations to current American reality than others. Our history is punctuated with wrenching national contests between competing versions of the ideal; both world wars, for example, forced us to decide whether we must love peace more or justice more. Indeed, these episodes of editing our common mythology, as painful as they may be, are themselves affirmations of the American distinctiveness.

¶7 George's story embodies four basic American morality tales, our core cultural parables. They are rooted in the central experiences of American history: the flight from older cultures, the rejection of central authority and aristocratic privilege, the lure of the unspoiled frontier, the struggle for harmony and justice.

¶8 1. THE MOB AT THE GATES. The first mythic story is about tyranny and barbarism that lurk "out there." It depicts America as a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness, a small island of freedom and democracy in a perilous sea. We are uniquely blessed, the proper model for other peoples' aspirations, the hope of the world's poor and oppressed. The parable gives voice to a corresponding fear: we must beware, lest the forces of darkness overwhelm us. Our liberties are fragile; our openness renders us vulnerable to exploitation or infection from beyond.

¶9 Hence our endless efforts to isolate ourselves from the rest of the globe, to contain evil forces beyond our borders, and to convey our lessons with missionary zeal to benighted outsiders. George fought the "good war" against the Nazis; Daniel Boone, a somewhat less savory campaign against Indians; Davy Crockett, Mexicans. The American amalgam of fear and aggressiveness toward "them out there" appears in countless fantasies of space explorers who triumph over alien creatures from beyond. It is found in Whig histories of the United States, and in the anti-immigration harangues of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We heeded George Washington's warning to maintain our independence from the monarchical powers of Europe, and then proceeded for more than a century to conquer, purchase, or otherwise control vast territories to our west and south.

¶10 In this century Woodrow Wilson grimly rallied Americans to "de feat once and for all ... the sinister forces" that rendered peace impossible; Franklin Roosevelt warned of "rotten apple" nations that spread their rot to others; Dean Acheson adopted the same metaphor to describe the Communist threat to Greece and Turkey immediately after Hitler's war; to Eisenhower, South Vietnam was the first in a series of dominoes that might fall to communism; to John F. Kennedy it was "the finger in the dike," holding back the Soviet surge. The underlying lesson: We must maintain vigilance, lest dark forces overrun us.

¶11 2. THE TRIUMPHANT INDIVIDUAL. This is the story of the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually earns wealth, fame, and honor. It's the parable of the self-made man (or, more recently, woman) who bucks the odds, spurns the naysayers, and shows what can be done with enough drive and guts. He's a loner and a maverick, true to himself, plain speaking, self-reliant, uncompromising in his ideals. He gets the job done.

¶12 Determination and integrity earned George his triumph Benjamin Franklin employed a carefully conceived system of self-control (Franklin's Autobiography is but the first of a long line of American manuals on how to become rich through self-denial and diligence). The theme recurs in the tale of Abe Lincoln, log splitter from Illinois who goes to the White House; in the hundred or so novellas of Horatio Alger, whose heroes all rise promptly and predictably from rags to riches (not only through pluck; luck plays a part too); and in the manifold stories of American detectives and cowboys -mavericks all - who reluctantly get involved in a dangerous quest and end up with the girl, the money, and the glory. It appears in the American morality tales of the underdog who eventually makes it, showing up the bosses and bullies who tried to put him down; think of Rocky or lacocca. Regardless of the precise form, the moral is the same: With enough guts and gumption, anyone can make it on their own in America.

¶13 3. THE BENEVOLENT COMMUNITY. The third parable is about the American community. It is the story of neighbors and friends rolling up their sleeves and pitching in to help one another, of self-sacrifice, community pride, and patriotism. It is about Americans' essential generosity and compassion toward those in need.

¶14 The story is rooted in America's religious traditions, and its earliest formulations are found in sermons like John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," delivered on board ship in Salem Harbor just before the Puritans landed in 1630. He described the enterprise on which they were embarking in the terms of Matthew's version of the Sermon on the Mount: The new settlers would be "as a City on a Hill" whose members would "delight in each other" and be "of the same body." America began as a nation of religious communities, centered in the church and pledged to piety and charity - Shakers, Amish, Mennonite, New En gland Congregationalist. Biblical language and symbols continued to propel American social movements committed to enlarging membership in the benevolent community-the drive for emancipation of the slaves, women's suffrage, civil rights. "I have a dream that every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low," said Martin Luther King.

¶15 The story extends beyond religion to embrace social solidarity and civic virtue. It summons images of New England villagers who meet to debate their future; of frontier settlers who help build one another's barns and gather for quilting bees; of neighbors who volunteer as fire fighters and librarians, whose generosity erects the local hospital and propels high school achievers to college; of small towns that send their boys off to fight wars for the good of all. The story celebrates America's tradition of civic improvement, philanthropy, and local boosterism.

¶16 It also tells of national effort on behalf of those in need. The theme permeated Roosevelt's New Deal, Truman's Fair Deal, Johnson's Great Society: America is a single, national community, bound by a common ideal of equal opportunity, and generosity toward the less fortunate. E Pluribus Unum.

¶17 Our popular culture has echoed these sentiments. Three hundred years after John Winthrop's sermon they could be found in Robert Sherwood's plays, the novels of John Steinbeck and William Saroyan, Aaron Copland's music and Frank Capra's films. The last scene in It's a Wonderful Life conveys the lesson: Jimmy Stewart learns that he can count on his neighbors' generosity and goodness, just as they had always counted on him. They are bound together in common cause. The principle: We must nurture and preserve genuine community.

¶18 4. THE ROT AT THE TOP. The fourth parable is about the malevolence If powerful elites, be they wealthy aristocrats, rapacious business leaders, or imperious government officials. The American parable differs subtly but profoundly from a superficially similar European mythology.

¶19 The struggle is only occasionally and incidentally a matter of money or class. There are no workers pitted against capitalists at the heart of this American story. It is, rather, a tale of corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility among the powerful, of conspiracy against the broader public.

¶20 This morality tale has repeatedly provoked innovation and reform. Experience with the arbitrary authority of the English Crown produced in the Founding Fathers an acute sensitivity to the possibilities of abuse of power. The result was a government premised on the Enlightenment idea that power must be constrained and limited through checks and balances, and be kept firmly tied to the consent of the governed. A century later America responded to mounting concentrations of private economic power through antitrust laws, designed to diffuse such power, and later by government support for other groups - labor unions, farmers, and retailers - capable of exercising countervailing power. The nation dealt with concentrations of governmental power through civil service rules that limited favoritism, and through electoral reforms and limitations on campaign contributions, to render politicians more accountable to the public. Government power also was held in check by periodic efforts to extend power to the states and cities, to open government decision making to greater public observation and scrutiny, to reduce the power of senior legislators, and to limit the ability of the president to take action without congressional approval. Since the be ginning, in sum, Americans have been suspicious of elites and anxious to circumscribe their power.

¶21 At their worst, suspicions about the Rot at the Top have expressed themselves in conspiracy theories. America has harbored a long and infamous line of rabble-rousers, from the pre-Civil War Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic movements, through the populist agitators of the late nineteenth century, the Ku Klux Klan, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Lyndon LaRouche. They have fomented against bankers, Catholics, big corporations, blacks, Jews, foreigners, either or both major political parties, and other unnamed "interests." In this version of the story, the Rot at the Top is in a great conspiracy with the Mob at the Gates to keep down the common man and allow evil forces to overrun us.

¶22 Our popular culture revels in tales of corruption in high places. At the turn of the century, muckrakers like Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell uncovered sordid tales of corporate malfeasance; their modern heirs (revealing CIA depredations, White House scandals, and corporate transgressions) are called investigative reporters. The theme recurs in real or invented stories of honest undercover agents - Sam Spade, Serpico, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown - who trace the rot back to the most powerful members of the community. It's embodied by the great bullies of American fiction: Judge Thatcher of Huckleberry Finn, Broderick Crawford as the Huey Long-like character in All the King's Men, Lionel Barrymore's demonic Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. And in the tales of humble folk, like the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath, who struggle valiantly against avaricious bankers and landowners. The moral is clear: Power corrupts, privilege perverts.

¶23 These are stories of aspiration. They summon us to duty and destiny. Importantly, the American ideal can never really be fulfilled. The goals it mandates are at once too vast and too vague for objective achievement. To pursue them is its own accomplishment. The striving gives meaning to our collective life; the aspiration bestows on us a national identity. In this respect, America may be unique; probably no other culture so clearly defines itself by its morality tales. As a nation of immigrants without a deep common history, we are bound together by a common hope.

Excerpt from "An American Morality Tale" from Tales of a New America by Robert B. Reich. copyright 1987 by Robert B. Reich. [back]