I was in 10th grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Five years later, in 1968, I was in college when Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated within two months of each other. I saw firsthand the profound unrest sweeping America as we grappled with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and societal upheaval.
But as a nation we were able to maintain the beliefs and values expressed so eloquently in our Constitution and Pledge of Allegiance. There was a sense that we would, eventually, find a way to accept everyone and to peacefully coexist.
About 30 years ago, that idea of nationally shared values began to shift; we began to rely instead on market forces. “Greed is good,” Michael Douglas memorably declared in the movie “Wall Street,” and it seemed we took that statement to heart. “What’s in it for me?” became far more important than “what’s in it for us?”
This has led to the greatest level of income inequality since the 1920s. Upward mobility has become almost nonexistent; most of the job growth since the last recession has been in lower-paying work. A study funded by United Way in 2015 found that an adult with one preschool-aged child needs to earn at least $18.43 an hour to be able to afford to live in Beaufort County without pubic assistance; unfortunately, most readily available jobs here average about $10 an hour.
Has the onslaught of ‘breaking news’ from social media and the 24-hour news cycle driven us to retreat to our tribal corners?
Many of us were raised to believe that if we worked hard and played fair, we would be able to support our families and have decent lives. We were raised with a strong sense of community, based on faith and family. We understood how to disagree without being disagreeable. We lived by the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — and the Second Commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” We weren’t always perfect, but we tried.
These days, many are questioning if we’re losing our shared value system, our guidepost for determining right from wrong. Has the onslaught of “breaking news” from social media and the 24-hour news cycle driven us to retreat to our tribal corners? Are we so overwhelmed with data that we can’t discern information?
What made this country great was not a devotion to market forces. Rather, it was the understanding that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts — that a balance between individual rights and common good is a dynamic process that requires constant stewardship of social, human, intellectual and political capital.
We are fortunate to live in a community with the talent, resources and better angels to help this country recapture the true American spirit. Every day at work I witness the magic, joy and gratitude that can be created when we set aside our politics and our egos to work toward a common goal. As a diverse community representing a microcosm of many of the issues plaguing our country, we could serve as a learning lab to help find solutions to return us to our core values. We really can be “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
DR. RAYMOND L. COX IS THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEERS IN MEDICINE HILTON HEAD ISLAND.