In God We Trust by Al Sikes

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Mostly I avoid reading columns, which makes me especially appreciative of the feedback I receive from my scribbling. Yet, there was a time when I was an avid reader of political commentary; now, most pundits wear team jerseys and are predictable.

David Brooks is one columnist I continue to read. When he was first with the New York Times he was thought of as their symbolic conservative writer. Yet, several years ago when I would send a link to a Brooks’ column to certain Republican friends they treated me like a heretic. They wanted a cheerleader, not a thoughtful person trying to make some sense of the world.

Continuing with my heresy, I invite you to read a recent Brook’s column which I believe reveals persistent and troubling truths.

I served in both the Reagan and GHW Bush administrations and not infrequently found myself among true believers to whom capitalism, regardless of how practiced, was right and true. Their church was the corporation and hyper-profit seeking was a righteous act if it inured to the monetary benefit of the sole legitimate claimant—the shareholder. Morality, in their view, was either maximizing short-term stock value or best left to the confessional.

While Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), I became a not infrequent target of an entertainment industry that argued that any FCC influence on content was wrong. Attacks reached their loudest when I commented negatively on Fox’s “Married With Children” and took actions against Howard Stern’s morning radio show. If you are unfamiliar with those shows, Google will quickly lead you to critiques.

A hands-off stance was supported by “hard market conservatives” on the right and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on the left. The ACLU took an absolutist view of the protection of “free speech”—speech was their flag regardless of its content.

Program content alone, almost regardless of how degrading, will not alter civilization nor will a hyper-concentration on profit. But, both are telling and damaging symptoms of the collapse of societal norms—norms that said “don’t go there.”

Norms must have reciprocal power; business leaders must honor an invisible line or the outliers will prey on the acceptable and norms will change. I don’t know when the perverse, maximize profit at all cost tipping point was reached, but reached it was. Maximizing profits, regardless of societal costs, in too many industries became the price exacted to be among the most competitive enterprises. Indeed, for most business leaders societal cost calculators were preempted by rate-of-return calculators.

In the past I have written about enduring truths. In my view it is those truths that provide civilization’s ballast. If there are no eternal truths—well, you can finish the sentence.

Eternal truths overcame economic advantage and political inertia to rid America of the heinous practice of enslaving people for economic exploitation. While there were many religious figures that contorted scriptures to apologize for slavery, the Quakers, in particular, were animated by the divine truth; it overwhelmed hypocrisies from the pulpit.

As the civil war was winding down the United States government added to our currency the phrase, “In God We Trust.” Today, as images of opulence flit through the minds of those in charge, too often their deity is the currency.

In a diverse country, religious and scriptural differences are organic. Yet, for over 200 years in America we have woven a beautiful fabric from common threads—threads informed by sacred texts and estimable philosophers.

When everybody’s sense of truth becomes truth, nothing will endure. An absence of truth is fertile soil for the predator and autocrat and they don’t care about truth.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Thank you, and please continue to speak out on behalf of a productive and effective two-party system

  2. Marcia D’Angeli says

    Perfect. I have always enjoyed reading your opinions. This article causes one to sit down and think. Thank you for posting. God bless you.

  3. Bob Parker says

    To the Editor, I too am a regular reader of David Brooks’ columns in the NY Times, and like Mr. Sikes I find his columns to be generally insightful and always thoughtful. Unwritten norms are what allow our social and governmental institutions to work in times of change. Today, the current occupant of the White House’s ignorance of these norms and of their importance to governing is a primary cause of the inability of our government to govern. I have been a life long Republican, and being fiscally conservative and socially liberal, I identified as a “moderate”; since moving to Maryland I am officially identified as “unaffiliated”. Mr. Brooks’ reasoned commentaries have much to say to anyone who is interested in having a government that actually works to the benefit of our entire society and not just a segment. As the recent column by Mr. Sikes in The Spy indicates, so too do his.

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