John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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America’s Existential Crisis

Posted on November 13, 2015
Kierkegaard-Dostoyevsky-Nietzsche-SartreI wasn’t smart enough to major in Philosophy when I was in college.

I was never patient enough to wade through Hegal or willing to take the vow of poverty that seemed to be what waited for me at the end of the long arduous road to a Philosophy doctorate.

Philosophy majors crept into the news thanks to the Republican debate the other night.

Marco Rubio made this crack about the big thinkers: "For the life of me I don't know why we stigmatize vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders than philosophers."

We might need more welders, but we need better philosophers.

(And by the way Rubio is wrong. Philosophers make more money on average than welders, even if they stay in the philosophy business.)

Talking about philosophy, I think it is fair to say that America is going through an existential crisis.

Existentialism was very popular in France before, during and after the war years. France after the Great War was a complete mess. It had lost a generation of young men in the trenches of the Ardonne and Ypres, it was gripped by bitter anti-Semitism, it was on its way to being occupied by the Nazis, and it had lost its status as a great power.

Jean-Paul Sartre, inspired by Soren Kirkegaard and Martin Heidigger, was the greatest explainer of existentialism. It was Sartre who said, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

In America, freedom is seen in a more positive light.

We like to say here, especially on or near Veterans Day, that freedom isn’t free, that we have to fight for it, that we have to defend ourselves against the hordes who threaten to take away our way of life.

And those hordes change. It was once the Huns in the Great War, the Nazis in the Second World War, the Commies in the Cold war and now the Islamists in the war on terror.

It’s always good to have an enemy to galvanize and unite the country.

But uniting against a common enemy is not enough to keep a country spiritually and emotionally strong.

America is going through a spiritual crisis.

I think we are rubbing up against the limits of materialism and individualism. Existentialism inspires individualism but abhors materialism.

In America, individualism has joined forces with materialism to produce conspicuous consumption and a distinctly American approach to life.

For generations, Americans have been told to be individuals and to gain satisfaction in life through material wealth.

We are the nation that made conspicuous consumption cool.

We are also the nation that promotes the gospel of individual fulfillment. Be what you want to be. Live out your dreams. Make a lot of money, live in a big house, wear fancy clothes, drive a big car, and do really cool things all the time.

Our national ethic has been to condemn conformity, eschew modesty, humiliate humility and be proudly obnoxious about wealth and power.

This cultural norm has been promoted in the media, inspired by our sports heroes, popularized by our movie stars, and yes, inspired by many of our politicians.

We see this ethic come to life in the Presidential campaign and the visage of one Donald Trump. But before Trump, there was Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich and bomb-throwers on the left and the right.

Our politics these days seem to be less about creating great movements and more about celebrating celebrities.

Popular television evangelists like Joel Osteen preach that everything you do is okay as long as you give a little to his church. “Do all you can to make your dreams come true,” he intones with great clarity and confidence.

This theology is not much different from Tony Robbins, the self-help guru, who says that, “We can change our lives. We can do, have, and be exactly what we wish.”

For these modern day American philosophers, freedom is not a burden to be carried along like an anvil. Rather, it’s an opportunity to be exploited for material and economic gain.

In many ways, the modern American philosophy is just a continuation of Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic. Weber, according to Wikipedia, “proposed that ascetic Protestantism was one of the major "elective affinities" associated with the rise in the Western world of market-driven capitalism and the rational-legal nation-state.”

Weber counter-balanced Karl Marx, who believed in economic determinism. For Weber, religion and culture played a key role in a society’s development and for the United States, it was white Protestantism, especially Calvinism, which made America especially successful.

For Marx, the economic exploitation by capital of labor was the central conflict of the ages.

In America, Marxism is making a comeback on college campuses, but it is Marxism with a twist. For the new Marxists, it is white male privilege that is keeping people down.

If there is one thing that the new Marxists hate, it is the white male. That probably explains why the former President of the University of Missouri was forced to find a new job.

America, at its best, embraced immigrants and then over a period of time, absorbed them into a stew of humanity, held together by a common desire to achieve material wealth and a measure of freedom to worship anything you want to worship, from Moses to Jesus Christ, from Mohammed to Joseph Smith.

But for most of America’s history, it was Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic that provided the philosophical glue that held the melting pot together.

The religious dimension of that philosophical underpinning is being steadily boiled out of the pot. In most of the great American private universities, especially those that do not have a Catholic background, Christian religion has been removed entirely. In it’s place is some sort of vague secular humanism, a weakened and flabby philosophical construct that simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny or challenge.

It is easy for liberals and Marxists to intimidate those college administrators into submission, because they don’t have a strong point of view based on a muscular and vibrant and rich theological/philosophical tradition.

They now seem to worship at the altar of political correctness. But the PC God is notoriously unsteady, unpredictable, yet unyielding and capricious. What is fashionable today might be blasphemy tomorrow.

And what ferments in the halls of academia spews out into the wider world, infecting a broader, less informed and less capable audience.

America’s existential crisis started in the Ivy League and now infects almost every campus.

And what inspires stupidity among today’s students creates chaos in the rest of the country.

I think that’s why I found Pope Francis to be so inspiring in his address to Congress.

Some might think he is the first politically correct Pope, but I don’t think that is true at all.

Francis can’t be defined by the American political tradition. He is neither conservative nor liberal. He is neither Republican nor Democrat.

Some archconservative Catholics see him as a heretic, but that’s ridiculous.

Francis reminds us of the rich spiritual message of Jesus that so few of us seem to remember. Jesus wasn’t into materialism or individualism. You couldn’t just do what you wanted to do whenever you wanted to do it and be a disciple of Christ. Nor could you care about the labels on the backs of your garments.

The Catholic faith has had several great philosophical giants over its two thousand years. Augustine. Aquinas. Leo. Fulton Sheen.

That tradition is far superior to the hedonistic, narcissistic, self-involved and wasteful society that we have become.

I don’t advocate that America suddenly become Catholic, but as a Catholic, I do think we should all be inspired by the Pope’s message: Welcome immigrants. Help the poor. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Protect the earth. Be good parents and neighbors. Think beyond materialism. Don’t be a narcissist. Don’t judge less you be judged.

Yes, we need a lot of welders in America. But we also need some good philosophers.