Democracy, Capitalism, and Oriental Rugs:
What Holds Them Together?

By | October 26, 2017 | 0 Comments

Did you ever examine an Oriental rug or tapestry? The rich, multicolored yarns make beautiful patterns. But if you turn the rug over, you find that the whole thing is held together by plain, tough fibers.

No matter how exquisite and costly the rug may be, it still depends on the unseen fibers for its very existence. Without them, the rug would lose its strength. Under the slightest stress, it would disintegrate into a worthless mess of tangled yarn. The beautiful patterns would vanish, leaving nothing but multicolored trash.

Did you ever stop to consider that much of our civilization is like that? We see the complex patterns. But unless we look closely, we don’t see the tough fibers that hold the thing together.

Specifically, did you ever think that democracy and capitalism are like that? What democracy is to politics, capitalism is to economics. Both democracy and capitalism are forms of self-government, in which people decide for themselves what is best, and then strive to achieve it.

But as Michael Novak points out in “On Two Wings,” the term “self-government” has two related meanings. One is obvious ‒ we elect our leaders, who represent us. The other meaning is less obvious but even more important.

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.
‒ John Adams, 1798

Self-government requires self-control. In order for people to govern themselves, they have to govern themselves. They have to control themselves, or the government will have to control them.

How do people do that? What are the fibers that hold the beautiful tapestry of democracy together?

Millions of people cannot live together in harmony if they all go their own ways, heedless of their fellow citizens. This is chaos, not democracy. One might as well remove all traffic signals and stop signs ‒ and then expect rush-hour traffic to flow smoothly. Only a fool would be surprised by the awful mess that would result.

So why are we surprised when we raise a generation of rootless narcissists and let them “find their own path” ‒ and then a “Taliban” John Walker Lindh results? His father was a lapsed Catholic. His mother dabbled in Buddhism. When he was in high school, his father ran off with a gay boyfriend. Imagine the teasing John endured. He joined the Taliban, who (surprise!) put gays to death. He was responsible for the death of an American, was captured, and ended up serving 20 years in prison. Sometimes “their own path” leads over a cliff.

Why are we dismayed that cheating is “normal” in schools and colleges? Why are we disappointed when fewer citizens vote? Why are we disturbed when many people think of themselves as members of various special-interest groups rather than Americans? What did we expect?

We raised a generation of young people to believe that American values are no better ‒ and probably worse ‒ than those of other nations, including those that oppress ethnic and religious minorities, treat women like property, or even practice slavery. Our kids were taught, above all, not to be “judgmental.” What did we expect?

We removed all mention of religion from our history classes. Why did the Pilgrims come to America? Who knows ‒ perhaps to make more money? Who gives us our rights? The government, of course. Who else could give us rights? Who indeed.

If kids aren’t taught that all human beings are unique individuals, deserving of respect because they are created in God’s image, why wouldn’t they grow up to be narcissists? We never told them that anything was superior to their own needs or wants.

And if men can get all the sex they want, why should they marry and devote themselves to one woman? We taught them “sex education” in a health context, entirely devoid of moral implications. We discussed marriage only as one of many equally valid lifestyles. We removed all religious and social pressure to marry, then profess amazement that fewer men marry. What did we expect?

Indeed, why grow up at all? Why not remain overgrown boys? The malls are filled with 40-year-old “boys” wearing shorts and ball caps, buying expensive electronic equipment for themselves, then driving home in their BMWs to watch the game with other “boys.” They inseminate women, but does that make them fathers?

Are those the ones who will bond to one woman and support a family? Are those the ones who will rush to sign up for the armed services after a terrorist attack? Be serious!

What is your favorite freedom?

● Is it freedom of speech? This requires people who do not need censorship, because they refrain from publishing child pornography or instructions on making bombs.

● Is it freedom of religion? This requires people who refrain from abusing their parishioners, especially young ones.

● Is it freedom to bear arms? This requires people who use guns responsibly for sport or self-defense, and not for drive-by shootings or resolution of business disputes.

● Is it freedom from unreasonable search? This requires people who do not use explosive chemicals to make drugs in crowded apartment houses.

Are you getting some idea of what those plain, tough fibers were ‒ the ones that used to hold things together?

Ever since the first cave man traded a piece of mammoth meat for a pretty stone, commerce has depended on trust. Older Americans recall a time when people did business for years on a handshake, and lawyers and contracts were rarities.

Of course there were cheats. But they soon were found out, and nobody would do business with them. And there were racketeers, but most people stayed away from them.

Bankers and corporate executives were dull people in dull suits ‒ they were caricatured in cartoons and movies. Accountants were equally boring. In those days, creative people went into art, music, or writing.

Now many creative people go into investment banking and accounting. Perhaps that is why we have a shortage of great painting, great music, and great novels, but a surplus of “cooked” books and failing corporations. Will we reach the point that the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is awarded to the author of a financial report?

Accounting firms get income from keeping corporate books, but the real money comes from arranging acquisitions and mergers ‒ regardless of whether the mergers are advantageous for the actual business. The real money comes from floating stock issues ‒ regardless of whether the stock represents actual value.

Corporate executives get income from doing business, but the real money comes from pushing overvalued stock on unwitting buyers ‒ then selling before the bottom drops out. The real money comes from taking huge “golden parachutes” ‒ while laid-off employees stand in unemployment lines and retirees lose their pensions.

What did we expect?

We used to have a system that rewarded those who worked hard and produced a product or service that people wanted. Now the greatest rewards often go to those who are merely upscale versions of con artists, flimflam men, and thieves who steal Social Security checks from mailboxes.

All the litigation generated by over one million American lawyers doesn’t suffice to restrain people from these dishonest activities. But what can keep our financial system from collapsing in a discredited heap? What can restore the trust on which the whole structure depends?

Could it be those same plain, tough fibers?

Our form of government, and our free-enterprise system, serve as models for much of the world. Now many nations may hesitate to follow our bad example. (How do you say Enron in Spanish, Lincoln Savings and Loan in Swahili, Madoff in Chinese, or Wells Fargo fake accounts in Arabic?) In that case, we will be partly responsible when millions of people remain in poverty and oppression.

We are trying to maintain our republic without being the moral and religious people that Adams knew were required. We are trying to govern ourselves without controlling ourselves. We are trying the impossible.

Turn over the beautiful rug. Look at the plain, tough fibers that hold it together. If you don’t want to strengthen them, at least stop cutting them one by one until the whole thing falls apart.

Contact: You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website. A prior version of this article appeared in New Oxford Review.

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