NPR logo Sept. 11 And The Non-Crisis Of Values

Sept. 11 And The Non-Crisis Of Values


A chart examines human values in various countries. Ronald Inglehart and Wayne Baker, "Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values," 'American Sociological Review' (2000). Wayne Baker, 'America's Crisis of Values' (Princeton University Press 2005). hide caption

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Ronald Inglehart and Wayne Baker, "Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values," 'American Sociological Review' (2000). Wayne Baker, 'America's Crisis of Values' (Princeton University Press 2005).

A chart examines human values in various countries.

Ronald Inglehart and Wayne Baker, "Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values," 'American Sociological Review' (2000). Wayne Baker, 'America's Crisis of Values' (Princeton University Press 2005).

In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans deeply felt a sense of common ground and purpose, of shared values and national kinship. With clarity long missing from civic life, we saw what bound us together more than what separated us, what was important and what was petty.

That clarity, as epiphanies do, eventually vanished.

The thunder and lightning that the choice of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee has brought to the closing weeks of this long and stressful campaign threaten to take post-Sept. 11 pettiness and pettifoggery to new lows.

The nation seems again at risk of believing it is fighting a civic war — a culture war — with red conservatives, absolutists and traditionalists battling blue liberals, relativists and free-thinking secular-humanists. We think our disagreements about basic values are extreme.

Each side, if the thunder and lightning we hear are real or representative, feels that its way of life is endangered from within — a thought that seemed absurd in the time soon after Sept. 11.

And it is absurd now.

Politically, America around the time of this new millennium seems hellbent on exaggerating differences, demonizing the opposition and generally giving in to civic panic attacks.

That is all good reason to pay attention to Wayne Baker.

Baker is a sociologist at the University of Michigan and the author of America's Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception (2005). I won't bury the lead for you: The answer is perception, not crisis. It's a useful big-picture view of American values at a time when it's easy to be lost in the worm's-eye view.

Baker is a wise social thinker who studies our values from the perspective of public opinion research, specifically data garnered from large polls conducted regularly all over the world called the World Values Surveys. He rightly notes that the idea that America faces a crisis of values, or "moral values," is pervasive and is essentially assumed to be true.

But what exactly would a "crisis" of values entail? Would it be that Americans lost their traditional values? Or American values eroding in comparison with other countries? Are Americans deeply divided on fundamental beliefs? He answers no to each question; he found no crisis in America.

From a broad, global perspective, Baker examines human values on two planes. The first is a range of values from traditional to secular-rationalist. Societies with traditional values emphasize the importance of God and religion; of family and parenting; of national identity and pride; of absolute standards of morality, not relative ones. Secular-rationalist values are pretty much the opposite: nonreligious; open to abortion and euthanasia; skeptical of national pride or patriotism; tilted toward individualism over family, duty and authority.

The second axis of value runs from survival values to self-expression ones. In less developed and stable societies, survival values reign: Physical security and meeting basic material needs are paramount; cultural change, foreigners and ethnic diversity are seen as threatening; intolerance is exaggerated and authoritarian regimes tend to flourish. When material needs are well met, self-expression, self-realization, environmentalism, gender equality and creativity become more important.

All societies are a mix.

In comparison with other countries, America emphasizes both traditional values and self-expression values. If you plotted it on a graph, the traditional/self-expression countries near America are Britain, Canada, Ireland and Australia. Material well-being allows self-expression to be deeply valued, yet family, religion and national identity are still stressed.

Developed nations that are both secular-rationalist and self-expression include Germany, Switzerland, Holland and the Scandinavian countries. Similar to the U.S. on the self-expression axis, these societies are far less religious, less centered on family and more leery of national pride and identity; they are simply more rationalist.

Societies that reflect very secular-rationalist values but also intense survival values are clumped in Eastern Europe and more developed Asia: Estonia, Bulgaria, Russia, South Korea and Taiwan. And countries that are traditional and oriented to survival values are less developed, such as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Ghana, South Africa, Peru and Brazil.

So while we Americans think our divisions over "moral values" or "traditional values" are great, they aren't in comparison. For example, the rejection of traditional values in Sweden and Norway pales in comparison with the U.S. If American liberals were more Swedish, well, maybe then there would be a culture war here at home.

But there is a grand anomaly, according to Baker, when it comes to what traditional American values really are: "Unlike birthright nations, where collective identity is based on common ancestry, history, language, customs, religion, and so on, the basis of America's imagined community is a shared set of ideas." Those are essentially the ideas of the Constitution. "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on creed," G.K. Chesterton once wrote.

Crucially, America was invented, not inherited. Our traditional values don't come from the fatherland, the volk or an ancient regime. They were ideals and ideas intentionally forged, not customs or tribes Americans were born into. The ideas are alive, and our civic life is about actively defining and preserving them, which is usually messy and loud.

In contrast to these traditional values of liberal democracy, it is easy to understand why modern Germans would reject their traditional values, their nationalism, for example, and with it their inherited religion.

Modern Americans still deeply respect our invented ideas of freedom, equality and the rule of law. These are our traditional values. They are widely shared in comparison with the traditional values of other developed nations. And while they are often in conflict with our values of self-expression, individualism, consumerism and, frankly, narcissism — for conservatives and liberals alike — bedrock values are not under siege.

So it is a grave mistake to put too much stock in some recent political locutions and buy into the idea that traditional values or moral values entail being anti-abortion rights or in favor of prayer in school. Those are some values held dear by some Americans. They are not our common traditional American values.

This is important: Arguing ferociously about such things is one vital way our society protects and respects our uniquely American traditional values, the ideas of America that are our national history and ancestry. The nation withstands big arguments easily, and today's arguments are not big by historical measure (think Civil War, Prohibition, Kent State). It is wrong to think Barack Obama or Sarah Palin are "scary," as we are so quick to say now.

In an open society, vigilance comes in the form of debate, hypersensitivity and constant argument. We are right to be worried about the obnoxiousness of our recent disputes, the way media distort them and the sense many Americans have that they lack community, neighborliness and belonging. In fact, we share all that. There may be a crisis of community, manners and culture, but not of values. We are wrong to worry too much about being a nation divided or a nation where individuals and families have no shared fundamental beliefs.

The volume and vitriol of our arguments can obscure the big picture, the common ground, the clarity we glimpsed after Sept. 11. Beware of that.