THE BIGGEST moral value of all was on display in a parking lot in Hershey, Pa. Five cars, four of them SUVs, were clustered together. All of them had the yellow ribbon magnet in support of our troops in Iraq. The ribbons glowed against the grayness of a drizzly fall day. Circled by fallen leaves, the hulks were an impenetrable metallic forest resting on asphalt soil.
This forest spoke as powerfully about our moral values as the debate over gay marriage and Iraq. Americans are still voting for denial. The SUV forest thickens. The real forest thins. America voted for the asphalt jungle.
That is the moral value that most threatens America. It is consuming itself with consumption. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue, even though Republican President Bush is a stunningly convenient symbol. This is the president who, when faced with telling Americans what their responsibilities were in the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, went to Chicago's O'Hare Airport and urged Americans to fly to Disney World.
Three thousand Americans were killed by terrorists, we were about to send soldiers off to die, eventually by the hundreds, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all a president could ask of civilians was to have a photo taken with Mickey Mouse. You cannot be more escapist than that. Had Democrat Al Gore been presented with the same Wall Street pressure to get commercial aircraft up in the air, there is a good chance that he would have done something just as Goofy.
The return of Bush to the White House and the failure of challenger John Kerry to offer a bold, clear alternative is the culmination of a half century in which the early 1960s presidential rhetoric of equality at home and ending poverty abroad faded into an escape from those challenges with Richard Nixon's "law and order" campaign in 1968. Pretty much ever since, Americans have sought out leaders who made them feel good about walling themselves off from those left behind or being global gluttons.
The only one who arguably tried, Jimmy Carter during the oil crisis, was drummed out of office. His chagrined successors have charted a steady course away from individual responsibility for consumption, no matter how much they preach it to attack mothers on welfare and black prisoners. America has come to be seen as the nation of me, my SUV and eye-popping portions of greasy French fries.
Since the 1970s, our cars, homes, and stomachs have become the biggest in the world. The mayor of Washington, D.C., wants a publicly funded $530-million baseball stadium a half year after the city slashed 285 teachers. Little about daily life in America has changed after 9/11 except for long lines at airports and allowing fear to become an excuse to cling even more desperately to cash. That must be why Americans cheer for a few hundred dollars out of a trillion-dollar tax cut while public education becomes a fossil.
We went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq saying we're promoting freedom, democracy, and the American way of life. It is a lie to promote the American way of life as it is at this moment. The great Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson, said in his 2002 book "The Future of Life" that if the rest of the world were to actually live like we do, it would take four planet Earths. Our promise is a recipe for mass extinction of animals and plants, massive wars by humans over scarce resources. Do we not invite more terrorism against the United States by entities who will increasingly say we are stealing their energy, food, air, and water?
We all participate in this lie, Republican, Democrat, and independent, rich, middle class, and even a fair number of the poor. Somewhere on the checklist of big car, huge house, thundering television, wasted food, lights left on, packrat possessions, and paper thrown away, we can pencil in our share of the madness.
Forty-three years ago, John F. Kennedy said, "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Today, we returned to office a president who tells us our burden is to go to Disney World.
That is an unsustainable vision for an unsustainable society. The biggest test of America's moral values is whether we and our leaders find the courage to say that liberty for all means liberating ourselves from materialism before it drives us mad and makes us a target for the world's next madman.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.