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American Values Decline Cover Contents Introduction
  Chapter One Index  Back to Catalog Page 

 

 


Introduction

By Dr. William M. Fox

 


Values -- the ideals, customs, and institutions of a society -- deserve careful study, because they define what is moral: what is right and wrong conduct. They powerfully influence the way we live and how we define ourselves.

According to a March 1998 survey, 90 percent of Americans were concerned with our moral decline: 49 percent labeled it a moral crisis, and 41 percent labeled it a major problem.¹ Subsequent chapters will document the reality of this perception, present the values that have made us great as individuals, and as a nation, and explain how we can nurture them in ourselves and others.

The Power Of Values: First, let's consider the power of values to influence behavior. As a boy of 14, I visited the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. I was startled to see a pack parachute on display that had been patented in 1912, prior to World War I, because I knew that none had been issued to our allied pilots during the war. I was even more surprised when I learned that such chutes had been issued to German pilots in the last half of 1918. Why had allied pilots been denied this important protection?

I found a surprising answer through subsequent interviews and reading. Most of the pilots -- and their superiors -- sincerely believed that parachutes would take the edge off of their fighting resolve and possibly induce them to prematurely abandon a fight or their planes. At the same time, thousands of soldiers on the ground made frontal assaults against withering machine gun fire. Clearly, untold

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numbers risked their lives in the service of their values about honor and patriotism.

In this same vein, consider the unchanging behavior of British soldiers in America for more than 100 years. From their earliest days of fighting here, they invited numerous, unnecessary defeats and suffered thousands of needless casualties, by marching in straight lines in bright, red uniforms. And they persisted in this behavior for years, despite the many defeats they suffered due to the advantages enjoyed by a concealed and dispersed enemy.

The crowning debacle, the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, lasted less than an hour. British soldiers were cut down in droves as they marched in regular columns into murderous fire from concealed and fortified American positions. Result: 192 British killed, 1,265 wounded; 13 Americans killed, 13 wounded.²

Was this refusal to profit from disastrous experience due to simple stupidity? Hardly. Nor does it seem likely that it was the result of fearful obedience to incompetent officers, as the vastness and indifference of the colonial environment made desertion relatively safe and easy. A more likely explanation seems to be that dying by the rules and brave traditions of the professional soldier was more acceptable than surviving by the "cowardly" -- though highly successful -- tactics of "amateur" colonials and savages.

Such "value-power" was dramatized, also, by the behavior of Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II. They voluntarily dived bomb-laden planes into our ships, and to

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certain death, due to strongly held values about their emperor and the defense of their homeland.

And consider our Marine Corps. What has made it one of the most effective and elite fighting forces in the world? Certainly not high pay, perks, bonuses, or assurances of avoiding personal harm! According to Thomas Ricks, recruits are denied the typical basic diversions of American youth, such as cars, candy, video games, alcohol, drugs, and sex -- and they are constantly reminded that self-gratification must give way to self-discipline. After 11 weeks, they become effective team members with other recruits of different races and backgrounds.³

And what about the Mormons? They left fertile, well-developed farms in Illinois and made a long, arduous trek to the barren, undeveloped land of Utah. They took with them only the possessions they could carry and their commitment to certain values -- such as integrity, hard work, and helping each other. And look what they accomplished! They carved a self-sufficient, self-respecting, and law-abiding society out of the wilderness.

Another dramatic illustration of the influence of values upon behavior is provided by the Great Depression of the 1930's. It was a period of real hardship and quiet desperation for many Americans. Twenty-five percent of the labor force was unemployed, and blatant discrimination against women, blacks, Jews, and other minority groups was clearly present. Aside from "mothers' aid" payments to suitable, fatherless homes, there was no unemployment insurance, social security, or food stamps, and private charity was spotty. In fact, by 1932, many states had run out of money for mothers'

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aid, and a third of the country's private charities had closed due to lack of funds!4

Yet, there were relatively few burglaries and assaults, as is shown in the box below. And other crime rates were much lower in 1933 than in 1994, despite the modest amount of government assistance, the absence of sophisticated police methods and networks, and the general reduction in the standard of living -- when the value of all U.S. goods and services produced had slipped from $103 billion in 1929 to $56 billion by 1933!5 Depression-era people behaved as they did, due to their strong commitment to values about obeying the law, respecting the rights and property of others, and being self-sufficient. There were even individuals who starved themselves rather than "stoop to accept charity!"

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1994 Versus 1933

   
 
1994
1933
1994
1933
1994
1933
Average
City Size

719,200

641,543

147,139

140,433

34,525

35,290
'# of Cities
N=65
N=35
N=137
N=52
N=623
N=141
 

Crime Rates Per 100,000

 
Murder
22.5
8.8
13.6
7.1
4.7
5.0

Robbery

731.7

155.5

370.6

70.8

154.0

55.7


Aggravated
Assault



841.7


52.9


615.7


62.2


370.8


41.6


Burglary:
(Breaking in or entering)

1546.2
428.1
1552.0
449.8
1001.0
318.6


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Larceny Theft





4169.2




796.4




4356.0




899.1




3434.9




730.1

Auto Theft

1413.6

423.7

917.0

363.7

475.0

201.3
.................... .................. .................. .................. .................. .................. ..................

Source: Data from United States Department of Justice: J. Edgar Hoover, Uniform Crime Reports, Volume 4, No.4, January 1934, page 4; Crime in the United States, 1994 Uniform Crime Reports, November 19, 1995, pages 196-197.
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Another illustration of behavior during the Depression Era is provided by the customer-payment procedure that was used in a fast-food Toddle House in New Orleans, where customers paid by an "honor system." A counterperson punched the amount owed on a ticket. Then, upon leaving, the customer was expected to drop this amount, along with the ticket, in a bus-like, money chute by the door. There was no way that the counterperson could tell how much was paid, and when business was particularly brisk, that there was no way that he or she could check on whether or not a given individual paid at all. Yet, the business prospered. It was protected by strongly held customer values about honesty.

Contrast this period with the one represented by New York City in the 1980’s, when well-fed and adequately clothed looters gleefully smashed their way into furniture and appliance stores during a power blackout. Upon being questioned about their behavior by an on-camera reporter, one well-laden looter said: "Hey, man, we got this coming to us." Upon hearing of a criminologist's claim that such riotous looting is a "cry for help," columnist George Will characterized it more as "a cry for a free color TV set.”6

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Examples like this raise an interesting question. Does poverty cause most crime, as many people seem to believe, or is it just the other way around? Do characteristics such as poor education, need for immediate gratification, and antisocial attitudes tend to cause poverty and crime? Certainly, the lower crime rates for the Depression years -- when unemployment stood at 25 percent of the labor force and there was minimum government assistance -- support the view that poverty is not the major cause. William Buckley, Jr. attributes the following to David Rubinstein of the University of Illinois: "How can one use 'the-poverty-causes-crime' argument to account for a black teenager conviction rate that is three times the rate of blacks aged 25 and 30, when the latter are typically more dependent upon work and money?”7

In addition, we find that, as early as the 1980's, our crime rates were significantly higher than those of Europe and many other countries -- such as Egypt, the Philippines, and Thailand -- despite the fact that we had fewer people in extremely depressed conditions of poverty and provided greater opportunity for upward mobility.8 The table below shows the same thing when we compare our homicide rates with those of other developed countries that were not as well off materially.

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1988 Homcide Rates In Eleven Developed Countries
(per 100,000 people)

 

Men

Women
United States
13.9
 
4.1
 
Czechoslovakia
3.4
 
1.3
 
Hungary
3.1
 
1.9
 
Canada
2.7
 
1.4
 
Australia
2.4
 
1.5
 
Italy
2.4
 
0.6
 
Spain
2.0
 
0.4
 
France
1.5
 
0.9
 
West Germany
1.1
 
1.1
 
Japan
0.9
 
0.6
 
United Kingdom
0.8
 
0.6
 
         
Source: World Health Organization Statistics, The New York Times, June 27, 1990

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Father William J. Byron, president of the Catholic University of America, cautions us: "Do not believe that to have is to be, that to have more is to be more fully human, and, worst lie of all, that to live easily is to live happily."9 Presumably, he means that the pursuit of material well-being is less important to happiness than is emphasis upon meaningful work, personal growth, and behavior that enhances the lives of others. The high preference given to "true love" by our wealthiest Americans (in the box below) seems to support Father Byron's observation.

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The Average Bid From 500 Of The Top-One-Percent-In-Income People In The U.S. For Each Of The Following:

The Average Bid From 500 Of The Top-One-Percent-In-Income
People In The U.S. For Each Of The Following:
     
  A Place In Heaven
$640,000
......
  True Love
487,000
 
  Great Intellect
407,000
 
  Talent
285,000
 
  Eternal Youth
407,000
 
 

To Be Reunited With
...A Lost Love

206,000
 
  Great Beauty
83,000
 
 

To Be President of
...The U.S.


55,000
 
  Fame
15,000
 
 

Relationship With Movie
...Star/Celebrity


4,000
 
Source: Survey by Roper Starch Worldwide for Worth, September, 1997, page 78.


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More support for Father Byron's position is provided by public-opinion surveys conducted during the 1974-1983 period. They show that the people in Northern Ireland had the same level of contentment as those in the Netherlands, despite the fact that the per capita income of the Irish was only half as high; that the French were much less content than the Irish, despite the fact that they were twice as rich; and that even Americans scored below the Irish, despite having the highest per capita income of all!¹°

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In addition, we find support in research findings about the impact of inherited wealth. On the basis of his interviews with wealthy parents, their children, and the psychotherapists of wealthy patients, John Levy concludes that parental money should help to ease the way, but it should not be used to eliminate the need for their children to earn a living. And his conclusion is supported by interview data collected by the Inheritance Project in Blacksburg, Virginia. The following theme is clearly implied: "Abundant wealth has a way of separating heirs from the grist of life.”¹¹

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Who Is Happiest?

"My impression is that those living in the materially developed countries, for all their industry, are in some ways less satisfied, are less happy, and to some extent suffer more than those living in the least developed countries."

Source: The Dalai Lama, Ethics For The New Millennium. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999, page 5.

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We should consider, too, the power of values in the Nazi death camps. Did most of the captives -- subjected to one of the most threatening environments ever created -- abandon all ideas of decency and integrity and automatically regress to animal-like attempts to survive at any cost? According to authoritative reports from the survivors, the answer is "no.”¹²

Of course, in addition to the positive power of values, there is strong negative power. Consider the absence of

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upward mobility for immigrants from Mexico and Central America, in contrast to the impressive achievements of those from China, Japan, and Korea. The latter cultures, along with many others, attach high value to education, work, achievement, and saving. While those cultures that are resistant to material progress tend toward passivity and fatalism, and are less committed to entrepreneurship and education.¹³

In his book, Does Africa Need A Cultural Adjustment Program?, Daniel Manguelle, a Cameronian, asserts that Africa's poverty, authoritarianism, and social injustices are due largely to such values as fatalism, a belief in sorcery, a distaste for work, and indifference to education, initiative, achievement, and saving. For example, Brian O'Reilly points out that most of the AIDS cases in Botswana are treated by traditional healers who provide prayers and incense or the suggestion that the victim have sex with a virgin.¹4 And to welcome boy and girl preteens into adulthood, a ritual of the Dinka Sudanese tribe requires the knocking out of six, front, bottom teeth without the benefit of anesthesia.¹5

LaShawn Jefferson reports that members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Saudi Arabia may have caused the unnecessary death of over a dozen school girls, by interfering with their flight from a school fire, because they were not wearing obligatory public attire (long black coats and head coverings); that a woman's testimony in a court there is equal only to half that of a man. In addition, he points out that under Morocco's "personal status code" women are denied legal autonomy to

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conclude their own marriage contracts, because they are treated as legal minors.¹6

David Fisher traces the roots of Appalachian poverty to a heritage from a poverty-ridden, Scottish-Irish-English region characterized by distaste for work and disdain of education.¹7 And consider the number of innocent people who turn themselves in each year to get the punishment they feel they deserve -- and will be even more miserable without. They have been programmed with such all-pervasive feelings of unworthiness and guilt that they have no idea of why they feel as they do, and must manufacture fictitious crimes to maintain any semblance of self-acceptance.

Recall how pioneer Americans removed peaceful Indians from their land as Christian soldiers slaughtered their defenseless women and children, due to the belief that they were dealing with unworthy savages. Recall how the Nazis murdered millions of Jews, how the Communist Party deliberately starved millions of Russian kulaks, and how Mao promoted a famine that killed millions in China. Many of these perpetrators "did their duty" with the belief that they were creating new, superior societies.

Today, due to strongly held convictions, we have the continuing, brutal slaughter of innocent "outsiders" in Africa, Bosnia, and elsewhere, under the banner of "ethnic cleansing." As one example, Pierre Rigoulot estimates that the North Korean Communists have eliminated some 3 million people over the last 50 years.¹8 And, due to dysfunctional values, little girls are being sexually mutilated in some 25 African and Middle Eastern countries. In some places, only a piece of the clitoris is cut off; in others, the

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labia minora are removed; and elsewhere, all outer genitalia are removed and the two sides of the vulva are stitched together, leaving only a slight opening, until marriage.¹9 Even girls in the United States face the possibility of such mutilation, if they happen to be daughters of immigrants from those areas.²° And it is estimated that some 70 percent of Egyptian women have undergone some form of it. Yet, amazingly, an Egyptian court overturned a government ban on such mutilation as recently as 1997!²¹ And Salman Rushdie tells us about the increasing practice in India of setting brides on fire, due to outrage over inadequate dowries, and adds that ritual child sacrifice is still being performed by some followers of the goddess Kali.²²

Lisa Beyer reports that male family members in Jordan and other parts of the Arab world may be permitted to murder female members who have threatened the "family's honor"; for example, for marrying or divorcing against the family's wishes, and even for having been raped against their will.²³ And a 1989 National Research Council report claims that boys aged 7-10 in the Sambia society of Papua, New Guinea, are routinely introduced to homosexual practices.²4

Yet, 73 percent of the college seniors polled by Zogby International reported that their professors were teaching that uniform standards of right and wrong do not exist ? that what is acceptable depends upon individual values and cultural diversity!²5 Could they be aware of Amnesty International's 1975 Survey on Torture which identified more than 60 countries ? both democracies and police states ? that have systematically used torture, believing that the ends justify such inhumane practices?²6

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A spokesman for the Australian Anti-Slavery Society, Paul Bravender-Coyle, reports that some 104-146 million children in Pakistan, India, and Nepal -- but mostly India -- are making consumer goods for export as forced-laborers, due to the cruelty and insensitivity of their masters. Their living conditions are deplorable and "The punishments meted out to these children . . . defy description. They have been burned, branded with red-hot irons, starved, whipped, chained up, raped and kept locked in cupboards for days on end.”²7

When we look at the theological aspects of various religions -- such as the identity of the one true god, the existence of heaven or hell or the devil, the reality of miracles or reincarnation, the specific requirements for baptism or for being "saved" -- we find many conflicting beliefs. And far too often throughout history, fanaticism about the differences has created awesome, negative-value power. It has caused total disregard for the unifying core values of these same religions (discussed in Chapter 2) about how we should live together in harmony.

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The Common Denominator of All Religions?

"The important point to keep in mind is that ultimately the whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, forgiveness, and so on."

Source: The Dalai Lama, Ethics For The New Millennium. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999, page 230.

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When denominationalism is taken too seriously, it becomes a form of tribalism that has divisive effects upon those who profess a commitment to the brotherhood of man. For example:

Consider the tortures and executions of the Spanish Inquisition, the excesses of the Salem witch hunters, the bombings and murders in Ireland, the massacres in India, and the butchering of Arab women and children during the Crusades by Christian knights.

Lisa Beyer reports that, in Jerusalem, in 1998, ultra-Orthodox Jews pelted men and women with excrement for praying together at the Western Wall, and that 47 percent of the Israelis at that time believed that a religious civil war was likely!²8

In certain places, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has effectively criminalized the practice of Christianity. Michael Horowitz reports that one evening in 1994, most of the members of the largest evangelical Christian church in the Muslim-controlled Oromo region of southern Ethiopia were arrested. They died in jail and were denied proper burial. Their minister was permitted to live, but only after being tortured and having his eyes plucked out.

In addition, he indicates that the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria recently called for the "annihilation and physical liquidation of Christian crusaders," that Christian converts in Egypt have been imprisoned and tortured, and that Christian students have been periodically beaten for being "devils."

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He tells us that Christians in Pakistan are permitted to vote, but only for token representatives to the National Assembly. He reports that, under apostasy doctrines in Iran, converts to Christianity are effectively barred from attending religious services, and that many have been arrested and tortured in attempts to make them renounce their faith, while others have lost their jobs, homes, or businesses.

He adds that conversion to Christianity in Sudan is considered a criminal act punishable by flogging; that the Sudanese government denies food to famine-area Christians; and that it permitted thousands of Christian children to be taken from their families and sold as slaves there, as well as in Libya and other Islamic countries? Nina Shea indicates that such persecution has caused more than 1.5 million deaths, as well as the relocation of whole villages to concentration camps where food is given only to those who convert to Islam.³°

Macram Gassis, the Catholic bishop of Southern Sudan, testified at an anti-slavery conference at Columbia University in May, 1995, that Southern Sudanese are bought and sold for as little as $15; that Ushari Ahmad Mahmoud, author of a book on human rights violations, has described how Arab militias raid Sudanese villages, kill the men, then round-up their women and children and brand their ears to discourage escape.³¹

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Divisive effects are also created by overly zealous Christian fundamentalists. They need to heed cautions given by such authorities as Origen, the great 3rd century church father; St. Thomas Aquinas; St. Augustine of Hippo; and Raymond Brown, a leading Catholic scriptural scholar in the U.S., about overly literal interpretations of the Bible that can push one into the arena of dogmatic intolerance.

Raymond Brown illustrates this pitfall by referring to the raising of Lazarus in the Book of John. The event is given as a prime reason for the arrest and execution of Jesus; yet, none of the other three Gospels even mentions the incident, though all are presumed to have been written before John wrote his.³²

Lastly, Toler reports a powerful association between addictive behavior and value orientation. He found that alcoholics and heroin addicts -- in comparison with those who are non-addicted -- tend to rank personal values as being significantly more important, and social values as being significantly less important.³³ And Rokeach has shown that the rankings of only two values, freedom and equality, effectively distinguish fascist, capitalist, socialist, and communist ideologies from each other.³4

Ethical Reality Can Be Complex: There is debate today over whether or not rules and goals of desirable conduct can be agreed upon, let alone, prescribed for all. Some argue that there are no legitimate behavioral absolutes. "Realistically," they say, "moral judgments cannot ignore an individual's background relative to the situation at hand; therefore, to understand these factors is to forgive, and it would be unfair to hold the individual accountable for what happened." This

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is underscored by a 1997 survey conducted by the Lutheran Brotherhood, an insurance company, which found that 79 percent of Americans in the 18-34 age group believe that there are no absolute ethical standards.³5 On the other hand, some argue that the Bible or the Koran -- or some other sacred source -- provides absolute guidelines for everyone, everywhere, and under all circumstances.

Actually, both approaches contain grains of truth. However, they represent simplistic attempts to deal with complex reality. Though we are attracted by the certainty and straight-forwardness they seem to provide, history and simple observation demonstrate their inadequacies. Life is full of challenging ethical dilemmas. For example, we had good reason to believe that we could save millions of lives, and shorten the war with Japan, by dropping the atomic bomb, but some physicists argued that we shouldn't, due to the possibility of launching a new age of incredible horror. Who was right?

Is it reasonable to abort a fetus before it becomes a viable human being when the expectant mother has neither the capacity nor wherewithal to support an unwanted child? And when, realistically, does a fetus become a viable human being?* Though there are seemingly insoluble moral dilemmas, it is impressive that an overwhelming majority of the religions of the world, long ago, arrived at quite compatible rules for everyday living, as will be illustrated in Chapter 2.

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*Cornell researcher Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan observe that:

"Every human sperm and egg is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, alive. They are not human beings, of course. However, it could be argued that neither is a fertilized egg. . .

"The Jewish Talmud teaches that the fetus is not a person and has no rights. The Old and New Testaments -- rich in detailed prohibitions on dress, diet and permissible words -- contain not a word specifically prohibiting abortion . . .

"When do distinct and characteristic human qualities emerge? . . . By the sixth week, the embryo is 13 millimeters (about 1/2 inch) long. The eyes are still on the side of the head, as in most animals, and the reptilian face has connected slits where the mouth and nose eventually will be . . . Recognizably human brain activity begins intermittently around the middle of the seventh month.”³6

Biologist F .M. Sturtevant reports that a panel of the National Institute of Health on Research On Human Conception asserts that studies should be conducted on concepti less than 14 days old; that before day 14, the embryoblast can develop into an embryo proper, a tumor, a hydatidiform mole, a choriocarcinoma (cancer), twins or triplets, or (in at least two-thirds of the cases) nothing at all (due to genetic defects).³7

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Gynecologist William Harrison observes that "The real issue in the abortion debate today is not when life begins, but is it morally meaningful life? I don't know.”³8

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In subsequent chapters we will consider other special ethical problems, such as those associated with business, political leadership, welfare programs, the criminal-justice system, and cross-cultural relations.

A Preview: A basic theme of this book is: The key to resolving the “dilemma of the extremes" (absolutism vs. excessive permissiveness) lies in clearly distinguishing and nurturing basic core values -- those which have proven their usefulness and general acceptance -- from less-essential ones. We will identify these core values, document why there is increased need today to nurture them, and discuss how this can be done.

In addition, we will examine such matters as:

Our often-overlooked, rich inheritance of core values from the founding fathers.

How a conscience develops, or fails to develop.

Why some people are predisposed at birth toward inappropriate behavior.

The role that values play in determining behavior.

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The compatibility of core values from various religions and other cross-cultural sources.

What we can do to enhance ethical behavior in business, in politics, in the welfare system, in the criminal-justice system, in our schools, and in our everyday lives.

 



American Values Decline Cover Contents Introduction
  Chapter One Index  Back to Catalog Page