World grows skeptical of our moral might


WASHINGTON - Well, we're just over half way into 2003, and on this Fourth of July weekend, it's time to ask, “What the heck are we thinking?''

When historians (bless them, whoever they are) cast an eye back on this period of time, I think they will be startled by how unconscious we were as the tectonic plates of civilization were shifting.

This may be the year when it will be deemed we began to decline as a nation. Not militarily. Not quite economically. But morally in the sense that the rest of the world has begun to be more skeptical of our moral might. That is, too many millions of people now think we act more out of self-interest than from democratic instincts and a desire to help others.

The Gallup Poll finds that while we are regarded more highly than France and Russia in Great Britain and Canada, our two great allies, seven other countries rank higher - Canada and Great Britain, not surprisingly, Australia, Spain, Italy, Japan, and Germany. This buttresses the now-famous Pew Center findings that we are not as well liked as we think we should be or as we once were.

Four out of 10 Americans believe we are divided into a society of “haves” and “have-nots,'' up from just 26 percent in 1988, again, according to Gallup. Instead of thinking that, in America, anybody can make it, millions of Americans think that they are trapped, sometimes by skin color. A startling 80 percent of blacks and 56 percent of whites say income distribution in America is not fair.

Men and women in America still plan to retire at age 63. But if they are over 50, they don't expect to retire until they are at least 65.5 years old. The reason for the discrepancy is that older Americans do not feel they have enough money to live comfortably if they retire. There is, say many pollsters, a gnawing anxiety about the future that is new to America. The can-do spirit is not gone, but there is a we-might-not-make-it-on-our-earnings nervousness.

We are still a religious society - only one out of 10 Americans says he or she has no religious preference. But we're not as tolerant of others' religions as we think we are, a trend that has been exacerbated since 9/11. Surprisingly, those with a college education are less likely than high school graduates to seek out and learn from those of other faiths, although they are more likely to have a live-and-let-live attitude about other religions.

Despite their busy lives, our teenagers watch more television, not less. Boys watch more than girls do, younger teens watch slightly more than older teens, and teens who say they don't eat healthful foods watch the most.

One out of three teens says alcohol is or has been a problem in their families. Teen girls drink more than teen boys, and more than three out of 10 teens overall report using alcohol. The Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free reports that girls aged 12 to 16 who drink are six times more likely to suffer from depression. Two out of 10 teens say they have smoked marijuana.

Four out of 10 teens say there are guns at home.

Teens today overwhelmingly approve of couples living together before marriage. Even half of those who attend church regularly say they approve.

Statistics like these, culled from a variety of polls, are proof only of a society in flux. What questions are asked is everything. For example, a Stony Brook University poll last month found that 45 percent of Americans favor limits on TV ads for junk food aimed at children while 49 percent oppose them.

Asked if public schools should install soft drink and snack vending machines as a way to raise money, 64 percent said no. But 68 percent said they oppose new government taxes on junk food, and 75 percent said parents should not be able to sue soft drink and snack food companies if their children become obese.

After 9/11, Americans, even in shock and mourning, ironically, felt upbeat, patriotic, and determined to win the war on terrorism. Now, while Americans remain optimistic overall (especially away from the East Coast), there is an increase in the belief that personal security is lacking, that financial security is elusive, that the rest of the world doesn't like us, that the era of peaceful prosperity has slipped away.

We've had this sub-surface anxiety before in America, and we've always come through it. But it is a force to be feared, a force that influences elections, changes policies, and marks a generation.

It is something we should watch with concern.