For nearly a generation, American society has been in the thrall of self. The subjective self has been the single most important ontological reality in the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans. We have even characterized two entire generations - boomers and generation X - in terms of self-obsession. Social policy, educational policy, law, and popular culture have been reshaped in obedience to the perspectives and needs of each self-centered person. The U.S. Census asks persons to identify themselves in terms of their self-identified ethnic or racial identity. Educational doctrine is reshaped to build self-esteem in pupils as a distinct objective, separate and prior to academic learning. Sexual harassment policy roots grievances in a person's subjective perception of discomfort and hostility, without the need for injury or objective standards. We don't need to say anything about popular culture. Popular culture indulges and promotes a narcissism that sucks the life out of any universal social values.
How did America arrive at such a state? One explanation might focus on boomers and generation X living in a time of relative international stability and peace. No one has asked these generations for self-sacrifice or contribution to any cause greater than their self-indulging satisfaction. Ending the universal male military draft symbolizes the license of release from civil responsibility. While this hypothesis might explain the personal pursuit of self by these generations, it does not explain the profound reorientation of social policy, education, and law.
Another explanation looks to the second-wave feminism, the entry of married women into the wage labor force, and the decline of mothers who stay at home, raise children, and keep house. The phenomenon of married women in the labor force explains a great deal about recent American social life, for instance, the decline of community voluntarism; but it is difficult to see how it should necessarily lead to self-obsession. Why shouldn't it have led to self-sacrifice? In fact, it could be said it has contributed to service for others, as many married women in the labor force are now caring for their parents in their own home or their parents' home, expending their hard-earned money and time for this noble purpose.
Other social commentators have pointed to the extraordinary wealth and consumerism of America since the 1950s. Consumption has become personalized. Buyers consult only their own tastes and needs when deciding to buy clothes, automobiles, personal computers, homes, vacations, and the myriad of other goods and services we demand. Manufacturers produce for the personal self. Retailers create markets that glorify consumption and instant gratification. The constant flow of radio, television, movies, public conversation, and advertising, that fills our minds, speaks to consumption and serving self, not serving others. Consumption is an important economic and social force, but, nonetheless, I am not convinced of its profundity. People modify their consumption easily, by marrying, for instance, in ways that require them to modify their self-satisfaction to take into consideration the wants of others.
What about the secularization of American society? Do not the opposition to the display of religion in public affairs, the decline of the historic mainline American Protestant churches, and the eradication of religious reference in public education speak to the loosening of absolute standards? We can easily dismiss this explanation; for the United States has been in the midst of a multi-generational religious revival. Compared to the 1920s, which were a benchmark in the decline of American churches, America is today a religious society. Christianity is an extraordinarily powerful and growing social force, spreading its messages of personal humility, religious redemption, and spiritual confidence to a larger American public every day.
Much public discussion has been made in conservative circles of the existential and post-modern philosophers whose philosophical ideas have focused on the denial of universality in human nature, cultural relativity, and the construction of personhood and gender. They have argued that the socially constructed-self is the primary reality of each person's life. Many of their ideas have been adopted by radical feminists, influencing feminist social and education ideologies. Still, not denying the influence of post-modern philosophy in academic circles, it difficult to see how these ideas directly changed the world view of ordinary Americans. Most Americans don't discuss Sartre, or Foucault, or Derrida at breakfast and implement their programs after lunch.
I will argue there was a much more important basis for this shift in American social character - more profound and more influential, because it is the law. This basis is the Supreme Court's landmark decision declaring separate-but-equal social policy as unconstitutional: Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 1954. In the next several articles, I shall examine the Brown v Board of Education decision and the reasoning behind it.