Interview with David Myers

Local author says we are turning around morally
By Jay Bennett

In the end, Dan Quayle might wind up as nothing more than a historical footnote. What most of us will remember him for is his condemnation of a TV show whose pop cultural significance has already faded from memory.

But when Quayle took single TV mom Murphy Brown to task for her out-of-wedlock childbirth, the word “values” became an instant political and cultural buzzword.

Nearly 10 years later, we are examining—more than ever—the values and morals (or lack thereof) in society.

Dr. David Myers, a Hope College professor, is an expert on the subject. The award-winning researcher and educator has challenged America’s individualism and materialism for much of his 32 years at Hope. He has affirmed the significance of positive traits, committed relationships and religious faith.

Myers has written a dozen books and his most recent, The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (Yale University Press, 2000) is about to be released. He will present a lecture on “The American Paradox” at 11 a.m. Jan. 29 at Hope’s annual Winter Happening. Call (616) 395-7860 for location.

You say our culture is sinking morally. Is there a point of no return? Can we turn it around?
“Actually, the post-1960 social recession, as I call it, seems to have bottomed in the early 1990s, so I think the turnaround is already under way. And that’s not to say that trends were all bad from 1960 to the early 1990s. Most of us would regard the increased affluence, technology, human rights, etc. as blessings. Hence “the American paradox”—an ironic mix of northward and southward trends.

Who is most to blame for a moral collapse?
“Who’s not to blame are the individuals and families who are its victims. I lay primary responsibility with the surrounding social ecology, which is a composite of values (materialism and radical individualism) and toxic influence on youth culture, such as from the mass media.

How much of our moral climate depends on who’s leading the country? Some might contend that with a man like Clinton in the White House, it’s no wonder we’re falling down, but it appears we declined during the reigns of more “upstanding” presidents, too.
“These trends crossed the Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan presidencies…so clearly Bill Clinton is not to blame. Indeed, the recent favorable changes (declining violence and teen pregnancy rates, for example) have occurred during the Clinton presidency. We’re dealing with cultural phenomena here that are bigger than politics. Yet they’re trends that a credible presidential voice could certainly speak to. In announcing his candidacy, Al Gore spoke of “spiritual hunger” in the land, and so—in different words—have Republican candidates.

I’m assuming we can’t reverse the trend until we teach children right or wrong. In your opinion, what’s the best way to do it?
“The knee-jerk response is to point the finger at parents, and to blame them and their troubled kids. But why are kids and families more often troubled today than a half-century ago? To answer that question we’ve got to look at the wider cultural forces that well-meaning parents struggle against today. The recent renewal of character education in public and charter schools is one effort to reverse the trend, as are new efforts at media reform. The laudable aim, methinks, is not more censorship but more citizenship—the sort of citizenship that makes gratuitous violence and impulsive sexuality gauche, just as bigotry has become gauche.

What cultures are doing a good job of averting the kind of moral collapse you describe? In other words, who should we look to for help?
“There’s no place I’d rather live than in America. But having lived for a year in a town in Scotland, I know there are places in the world where communal ‘we’ thinking still makes for strong families and healthy communities.

Are we waiting for another Martin Luther King Jr. to show us the light? Do we need that kind of person in front of us before we can change?
“How did the earlier civil rights, environmental, and feminist movements generate? They had leadership, to be sure, but they also were grassroots movements generated by their times. In The American Paradox, I’m trying to do my wee part to contribute to a new, centrist environmental movement—a grassroots social ecology movement that responds to the social recession of the last 40 years in ways that also value freedom and equality. As retired Notre Dame president Father Hesburgh said in reflecting on this book, “A new millennium calls for a new vision of America.”

How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future?
“I’m much more optimistic today than I was in the early 1990s when I started working on this project. Social consciousness is awakening. Concern for children is growing. People are questioning what unbridled materialism and individualism have meant for our personal happiness and social health. We are coming to revalue close, committed relationships and faith-rooted meaning and compassion.”

Reprinted with permission of The Paper, January 2000.