Wed, May

The Death of Excellence


VIEW FROM HERE - The youngsters among us probably do not remember the time when excellence was essential to the fabric of American Life. 

By youngsters I mean anyone younger than 61.  While a passion for excellence always had its competitors among American values, after the Great Depression and World War II, a huge segment of the population felt very confident that hard work would be justly rewarded. The harder a person tried, the more his excellence would be rewarded with the higher quality of life. 

The Great Depression was a perilous time which people today can no longer feel.  FDR’s first inaugural speech on March 4, 1933 speech that “we have nothing to fear except fear itself” was premised on Americans having the ability to succeed. FDR continued, “In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”  Speaking in the depth of the Great Depression at a time when no one know how far the nation would sink or whether the nation itself would survive, the public was in a very bad psychological state.  FDR noted that the nation was falling into a “ nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”   

Starting on March 12, 1933, eight days after he assumed office , FDR followed up this message with his evening fireside chats that by working together, we would overcome adversity.  He delivered 30 chats with the last one on June 12, 1944.  During the War, Superman appeared with the tag line Truth, Justice and the American Way, which also was based on the concept of excellence.  While FDR focused on the American people’s excellence, Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster packaged excellence in a superhero. 

With the Depression and the War behind us and with the prosperity of the G.I. Bill, Americans were filled with confidence.  We had come through the worst of times.  In the 1950's, we were full of steam ahead spirit.  The endless series of Westerns streaming of the Hollywood recapitulated the notion of Manifest Destiny as did the Eisenhower’s support for the Interstate Highway System (“ . . . one nation indivisible . . .”).  The highway system had been initially conceived in 1939, but President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.  He saw the civilian need for a excellent road system. As the economy prospered, Americans could afford single family homes with yards. The underlying psychology was that by hard work one’s excellence could create a good life. 

The Civil Rights Movement was likewise premised on the notion of excellence, i.e. that each individual was entitled to the merit from his own efforts. The denial of truth, justice and the American way for Blacks was seen as a denial of the concept that excellence should result in rewards.  What young people often fail to realize is that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and early 1960's was based on the deprivation of freedom and  not on equality.  Even racists were hard put to deny that a Black man was not entitled to benefit from his hard work.  Racists, however, adopted the notion that Blacks (the polite word for whom was Negroes) were inherently inferior and hence could not be excellent.  Nonetheless, as late as Martin Luther’s King’s I Have a Dream Speech on August 28, 1963, freedom was the value underlying the entire Civil Rights Movement.  Freedom means that a Black person can succeed on the basis of his own merit. Freedom is an individual inalienable right and when Freedom is added to Life, one can Pursue (and obtain) Happiness.  

Today very few recall the last paragraph of MLK’s I Have A Dream Speech: 

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”   

Sputnik Gave Excellence A Huge Boost 

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet launched Sputnik which Americans perceived as an existential threat to our existence.  The only remedy was excellence. Just as the Manhattan Project had developed the atomic nomb, excellence in math and science was our only acceptable response.   Within a year, we created  National Aeronautics and Space Agency, (NASA) and the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) committed billions of dollars into the US education system. ($1 B in 1958 is $9.4 B in 2021)  The gut wenching fear was that we had lost our excellence. 

On July 20, 1969, with the Moon Landing our fear subsided. The Soviets never landed on the moon and as far we knew at the time, they were not trying.   With our scientific and mathematical excellence overcoming our fear of being second best, individual excellence faded as the War in Vietnam became our all consuming obsession. 

It is hard to maintain a passion for excellence or have faith in institutions’ doing the right thing (Truth, Justice and the America way), when one is protesting a hideous foreign war.  The war hit the universities particularly hard since many Baby Boomers were in ROTC programs to help pay for college. Rather than moving on to good paying jobs and nice homes in the suburbs, they were being shipped of to be killed in a horrid jungle for no ostensible purpose.  Let’s be clear, the anti-war movement had no concern for the Vietnamese or for the American minorities who were disproportionately drafted, but was a result of the ire of college students who felt personally betrayed.  It was a group thing.  After a while, the minorities realized that they were carrying the brunt of the war’s burden.  (My draft board intentionally draft Blacks from the inner city while showing deference to white college kids.)  A lot of college students went on to grad school solely to avoid the war; other developed mysterious bone spurs. 

Vietnam and Group Rights Killed Excellence 

After Vietnam, the GOP started its own group rights approach with the moral majority, leaning heavily on the Christian Evangelicals. The logic of the Dems’ support for minority quotas required the GOP to be anti-minority.  Both parties found that division makes money and they pursue this destructive game plan to this day.  Neither has a use for the value of excellence.  

February 22, 2021, CityWatch, How the Right and Left Gin Up Divisive Racism for Fun and Profit, by Richard Lee Abrams 


(Richard Lee Abrams is a Los Angeles attorney and a CityWatch contributor. He can be reached at: [email protected]. )


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