Has America Lost its Moral Compass?

Published: September 21, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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A Rap star takes the stage from one award winner shouting that another should have won.

A TV pundit calls the President a racist.

During a Presidential address to Congress, a representative shouts, “You lie!”

Lumbering through a moral wilderness of incivility and unreason we are losing the best of ourselves to fear and uncertainty.

With a struggling economy, rising unemployment, and a sensation-obsessed media, trust and confidence are at all time lows while discontent and rage have reached staggering highs.

“Bury Obamacare with Kennedy”; “Impeach the Muslim Marxist”; “I’ve Got Your ‘Trigger’ Right Here…” read the signs at the September 12 “Tea Party” rally held on the National Mall in Washington last week.

“What has happened to the United States of America?” writes Steve Wacker in a letter (Sept. 17) to the New York Times.  “…we waste precious time appeasing a fringe that apparently thinks catcalls, insults and half-truths are the keys to effective governance.”

But we’ve faced this kind of paranoia before.

“You must have faith,” a newly elected president told Americans in a Fireside Chat on March 12, 1933. “You must not be stampeded by rumors.”

Franklin Roosevelt, disabled in body, but resolute in spirit and action led us out of the fear and uncertainty of a great depression.

“Confidence and courage are the essentials in our plan,” Roosevelt told a tired and destitute nation.  “We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. Together we cannot fail.”

Before Roosevelt’s election, journalist Walter Lippmann wrote, “…a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications, would very much like to be President.”  As America recovered, Lippmann revised his opinion: “The nation which had lost confidence in everything and everybody has regained confidence in the government and in itself.”

We saw that fear again in the form of the swaggering, demagogue senator Joseph McCarthy who began a relentless, four-year attack by intimidation and innuendo beginning with this announcement: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 names known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.”

It took calm, but steadfast special counsel Joseph Welch to not only confront the brutal tactics of McCarthy but shake America back to reason and reality:  “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

During those times, fear and unreason were defeated by the larger principles of responsibility, fairness and respect.

And now, once again, we are looking into the abyss.

Once again, we need someone who will stand up and stand forour highest aspirations; someone who will not be bullied by fear or uncertainty.  We need a hero who understands that responsibility is not just a word we teach our kids, but a commitment to a duty beyond ourselves.  We need someone who can see the crisis before us and act in a determined way to bring us back to reason and reality.

President Obama has, as perhaps his greatest challenge, to lead us out of that fear, back from that uncertainty.

But it’s our challenge, too.

Although moral integrity causes us to make decisions that are consistent with our values, responsibility requires that we practice the necessary self-control in exercising rights like free speech. As responsible citizens, we should always seek to improve our knowledge rather than rely on others to do our thinking for us.

Fairness requires that we are open-minded and willing to look at relevant information from differing viewpoints.  Being open-minded asks that we separate fact from speculation, rumor and innuendo.

And respect calls us to act in an atmosphere of civility.

It will take the character and courage of all of us to find our way back from the current moral wilderness we find ourselves in.

The responsibility is ours.

The hero is us.

Together, we must not fail.


  1. Author

    Well stated Jim: “…responsibility requires that we practice the necessary self-control…” Great article, as usual. Thanks for keeping us thinking and on our toes.

  2. Author

    We are living in very challenging times to say the least. This is compounded by the incivility. I go for many days in a row when I don’t watch the news, the talk shows or read the paper. It’s the only way I can deal with the insanity all around us. This morning I was listening to NPR and the discussion was all about the latest ACORN scandal.

  3. Author

    I appreciate your focus on responsibility, the responsibility of citizenship and of decency.

  4. Author

    I would like your assistance, advice, counsel. How I can subtly get your message across to my many friends & relatives, who forward mean-spirited, bias e-mails, which seem to spew rhetoric from the likes Fox News characters. These folks mostly live in mid-American states, where I am beginning to wonder if they receive any other viewpoints.

  5. Author

    Thank you for the wonderful article(s) Jim. My wish for you is that you not only post such assessments and educations on your own blog, where you are engaging those who already know and admire you, but that you try for a wider audience as well. Articles on this have appeared in the New Yorker, LA and NY Times and local papers…I hope you are submitting your writing at least from time to time in order to continue establishing yourself as a point person for issues of ethics, but to build your audience.

  6. Author


    About 50 years ago, Johnson & Johnson had a promotion, Emergencies Don’t Wait Week. I was at the Ruder & Finn PR firm and we handled the account. I went with a very young Jim Burke, a New York sales exec with J&J, to the NYC City Hall where the mayor issued a proclamation about the Week.

  7. Author

    Thank you so much. Already had a thank you because I forwarded this to a good friend of mine.

  8. Author

    Excellent piece Jim – it needs to be screamed from rooftops – something has got to wake us all up. I truly fear for our society.

  9. Author

    A great article. I SO needed to read it. This has been a demoralizing few weeks. Is health care legislation driving all of this venom?

  10. Author

    You hit the nail on the head, yet again.

    It occurred to me the other day that morality, honesty, and tact [are] quickly becoming things of the past for certain generations and well, for people in general.

    You are right about needing a hero to lookup to, someone that could put a stop to this immmoral defecation. The main problems? We are all looking for someone to blame rather than someone to fix it. Not caring who we hurt to make ourselves look good. Having no respect for those around us, etc. Growing up, my parents were strict. We had curfews, manners, respect, and honestly cared if we got into trouble (which was rare) or if we hurt someone’s feelings.

    Self interest is what is important now.

    I can’t tell you how sad it made me the other day that my nine year old daughter kind of snickered when my husband pulled my chair out for me at dinner. I thought about it later that night and told her about the respectful way that things used to be done vs. the way that gallantry is quickly “going out of style.”

    If people don’t smarten up soon and go back to basics, whilst turning their moral compasses to point toward the straight and narrow; what virtues we have left and our sense of what’s right, good, and wholesome will die away.

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