In this final episode of the 1988 series World of Ideas, Bill Moyers looks back on the conversations he’s had with men and women who are thinking, talking and writing about what’s going on in America, in our lives, our hearts and minds. He considers whether our “big story” is being heard. People are hungry to talk about our common destiny, but there’s not much opportunity to connect. Meanwhile, people see the major institutions of government growing larger and larger as the system itself grows more and more remote from their daily lives.
MARY ANN GLENDON, Professor of law: The story as it stands right now is over simplified. It doesn’t do justice to the richness and complexity of American life. It’s basically an impoverished moral discourse.
CHINUA ACHEBE, Author: It is the storytellers, in fact, that makes us what we are, that creates history.
E. L. DOCTOROW, Author: Well, I think the national soul is always the big story; who we are, what we’re trying to be, what our fate is, where we will stand in the moral universe when these things are reckoned. That’s always the big story.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] I’m Bill Moyers. Tonight, in this final broadcast of our series, we’ll hear a summing up of what some thoughtful men and women have said about the big story and our national soul.
For several months, I’ve been a privileged traveler and a fortunate student. From California to New Hampshire, from Alabama to Utah, I’ve been listening to men and women who are thinking, talking and writing about what’s going on in America, in our lives, our hearts and minds. Someone said once that we get information from books, but real learning must come from exposure to those in whom it lives. “A human being,” he said, “is the very embodiment of an idea.” I went looking for such people. I set no agenda, wrote no questionnaires. I wanted to hear what was uppermost on their own minds. Now, many of you who have been watching have written to ask, “All right, what did you learn, Moyers? What is the big story?”
I think it’s this: that our big story isn’t being heard. People are hungry to talk about our common destiny, but there’s not much opportunity to connect the mass medium of television seems especially intolerant of ideas. In fact, it could bring our tribe together around a national campfire. Here’s one thing I learned. People see the major institutions of government growing larger and larger as the system itself grows more and more remote from their daily lives. Small wonder that in the recent elections, just half-half-the eligible voters took pan in choosing a president.
SHELDON WOLIN, Political philosopher: One of the legacies of the Reagan era is a stronger state. A state that doesn’t do as much in terms of the regulation of the economy as the states growing out of the New Deal, Fair Deal kind of tradition, but a state which -in Terms of defense, in terms of the protection of American interest abroad, in areas such as the advancement of technology or the law and order state -all of those involve extensions of national power.
BILL MOYERS: Is this for better or worse?
SHELDON WOLIN: I think it’s for worse. I think it’s for worse because it’s been accompanied, as we know, by an incredible amount of apathy on the part of the American electorate in terms of the simple fact of voting. It is a less alert, a less involved electorate at the national level.
BILL MOYERS: So the national government becomes stronger, but the participation, knowledge and involvement of the people diminishes.
SHELDON WOLIN: Absolutely.
JOHN LUKACS, Historian: I mean, we are more and more destitute of the sense of free will. This is pan of the technological development and the mindset of an age at its very end; and this is not life-giving. This is really a very despairing view of human nature and of its capacities.
BILL MOYERS: You’ve written that at the end of an era, people lose faith in their ability to reform institutions, to change things. Is that happening?
LUKACS: That’s happening, and that’s happening, unfortunately, in this country at many levels because a lot of people have the experience that the bureaucratic organization of everyday life, not only of government but of the private institutions, is such that it takes immense effort, too much trouble, to be able to reform it. Now, this is true of many other countries, but this is something relatively new for the United States. The United States, even when I came to this country, was a simpler country, to some extent a cruder country.
BILL MOYERS: Cruder?
LUKACS: A more direct country. It was easier to do some things, very simple operations. This country was behind Europe, not only because of those freedoms I mentioned earlier, but there was less bureaucracy in this country. There is, now, in this country as much bureaucracy as there is in Europe.
SISSELA BOK, Ethicist: It certainly is true, looking back through history, that a number of societies have collapsed because they didn’t take issues of survival seriously enough. On the other hand, they have never been in this predicament that we are in now. Now we are in it together, and I think that may force us for the first time to take the common interest into consideration. I don’t think we’re going to manage to cope with the social problems we have, and we certainly won’t, in the long run, be able to cope with those of survival — namely the nuclear threat and the environmental threat -if we can’t manage to work together.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Fortunately, some people are not giving up to bureaucracy. All over the country they are writing their own smaller chapters of the big story. It’s a rediscovery of the old notion that what’s nearest touches us most Many Americans are looking for ways to bond with their neighbors, with other kindred souls, to create new communities, both social and political.
[interviewing] Do you thing we’re paying a price for individualism in America -the old idea that the individual can do what he or she wants but you have to do it on your own, isolated from society, don’t expect help?
MARY ANN GLENDON: There is always the danger that if you speak a language which only recognizes individual rights, that you will become a people that can only think about individuals. Choices last. Choices that we make as individuals make us into the kinds of people we are. Choices that we make collectively as a society make us into the kind of society we are. So, if you pull together a whole lot of legal decisions that give priority to individual rights, that let them tromp everything else, you’re contributing in some unquantifiable but nevertheless real way to shaping the society.
NOAM CHOMSKY, Linguist and philosopher: If a real democracy is going to thrive, if the real values that are deeply embedded in human nature are going to be able to flourish — and I think that’s necessary to save us, if nothing else — it’s an absolute necessity that groups form in which people can join together; can share concerns; can articulate their ideas and gain response; can discover what they think; can discover what they believe, what their values are. This can’t be imposed on you. You have to discover it by experiment, by effort, by trial, by application and so on, and this has to be done with others. Furthermore, surely central to human nature is a need to be engaged with others in cooperative effort of solidarity and concern. That can only happen, almost by definition, through group structures.
TOM WOLFE, Author: My own polities are right here in this block. I happen to be president of my block association. This is not a hotly contested job. Nevertheless, I’m in my second term as president of the block association. And to me, this is real polities. I go down to City Hall and testify and meet with councilmen, I go to community board meetings. And that’s the politics that really engages me. I’m interested, the way everybody is interested, in national politics, but I don’t have any national agenda. I have a terrific agenda about developers coming into the East 60s. If you want to hear about that I can go on about it.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I’m interested to hear you say that because the greatest joy I’ve had in politics, and I’ve been in and around it for 25 years now, was getting involved on my side of Manhattan in a quasi-successful effort to slow down the development of Columbus Circle. And testifying at the Board of Estimate, and organizing people in the blocks, and taking pan in those activities was the real joy of politics to me.
WOLFE: I think that’s where political ideas should begin.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] America is much more than politics, of course, and people are searching beyond politics for ways to make sense of their lives. They talk. about the fulfillment to be found in music, in science, in the study of our past, even in the movies.
[interviewing] You said earlier that music is a way of processing information. What was the information the blues brought to a kid named August Wilson?
AUGUST WILSON, Playwright: One, that there was a nobility to the lives of blacks in America, which I didn’t always see. I was, at that time, living in a rooming house in Pittsburgh. And after I discovered the blues I began to look at the people in the house a little differently than I had before. I began to see a value in their life that I simply hadn’t seen before. I discovered a beauty and a nobility to, in essence, what was their struggle simply to stay alive -their struggle to survive. The mere fact that they were still able to make this music, it was a salute, a testament to the resiliency of their spirit.
BILL MOYERS: As you talk about the relationship between poetry and physics, you make me think that maybe the poets anticipated you physicists. It was Blake, after all, who talked about seeing the universe in a grain of sand.
C. N. YANG, Physicist: Yes. That was a beautiful poem. We do have the feeling, when we are confronted with something which we know is concentrated structure, and when we reflect that this is, sort of, the secret of nature, there is oftentimes a deep feeling of awe. It’s as if we are seeing something that we shouldn’t see.
BILL MOYERS: Shouldn’t see? Forbidden territory?
YANG: Yes. Because it has a certain aura of sacredness. It has a certain aura of power and when you are confronted with that, undoubtedly, you have the feeling dial this shouldn’t have been seen by mortal men. And I oftentimes describe that as what I would call the deepest religious feeling. And it is.
BILL MOYERS: Does it help in confronting a steady procession of images to read history? I mean, one could say the past is past, let the dead bury the dead, history is behind us. Is there a value to reading history?
BARBARA TUCHMAN, Historian: Well, for one thing it’s frightfully interesting, I think. You know, when people say, “What’s the use of reading history?” I say, “Well, what’s the use of a Beethoven sonata?” I mean, you don’t have to have a tangible use. You have to have something that makes life more valuable; and, to me, reading history does. Even though it only shows what is past. Coleridge, I think it was, said this wonderful line, he said, “History is only a lantern on the stern. It tells you where you’ve been.” Well, that’s worth knowing — where you’ve been.
DAVID PUTTNAM, Filmmaker: Somehow, what’s happened is the aberrant elements in all of us, that live in all of us, have taken control. And somehow cinema, particularly, has failed to appeal to that deep, decent core in people. I remember seeing A Man for All Seasons many, many times, not because of the filmmaking qualities, which were definite, but for what it did for me and to me. The fact that it allowed me this enormous conceit of walking out of the cinema thinking, “Yeah, I think I’m going to have my head cut off for the sake of principle.” Well, I know absolutely I wouldn’t, and I probably never met anyone that would. But the cinema allowed me that conceit, and the cinema allowed me for one moment to feel that everything decent in me had come together. And cinema can do that.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] I was also struck by how openly we talk about finding spiritual meaning in more traditional ways; in worship, liturgy and service. I heard often about the demands and joys of the moral life, about the importance of religious faith.
[interviewing] What do you think gives meaning to life?
ROBERT BELLAH, Sociologist: I think the things that really give meaning to life are the things that are good in themselves — not the means to something else, but the things that are intrinsically good.
BILL MOYERS: Example?
BELLAH: Those can be very simple things, like a common meal. We just enjoy being together, we enjoy the food, we enjoy the fellowship. I think the deepest level of the things that are good in themselves inevitably move in the direction of religion, and they are the shared fellowship of worship. As you know, I’m a sociologist of religion, and I’m also a religious person. I think that’s where we find the deepest meaning of our life. But I’m not saying that’s the only place. I think wherever we find activities that are really deeply, intrinsically valuable -not as a means, not to prove something, not to show that we’re better than someone else, but just good in themselves -we’re close to that heart of what the meaning of life is all about.
BILL MOYERS: But you do say, in the last paragraph, in fact, that one thing you came away with was the new recognition of the spiritual dimension in our human experience.
ELAINE PAGELS, Historian of Religion: Yes. That is what I couldn’t stay away from. I mean, that’s what fascinates me, is looking at how people deal with a spiritual dimension in their life -how they image it, how they argue about it — you see what I mean? That they engage it, that I engage it, is the most interesting thing to me about this work. It’s not only for people who are explicitly religious, but for people who are not, it’s an exploration of how human beings think, how cultures develop, how societies articulate their values. For both people who are religious and people who are not, I find the study of religion enormously exciting.
BILL MOYERS: You said something that’s not going to endear you to your scientific friends, you said it to a friend of mine when you said, “We have to turn less to science for the answers, and should still worrying about leading a moral life.” What’s your definition of a moral life?
LEON KASS, Scientist and philosopher: Well, good I know I deserved that one. I spend a lot of lime waving the flag. One should be held to account. I suspect — I’ve been thinking, trying to think on the spot, as you ask -I think it’s some notion of human excellence, or human fulfillment, that ties these things together. Too many people, I think, would be content to define the moral life in terms of the, sort of, basic rules that are constitutive for any decent society mean, taboos about incest, and cannibalism, thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal. And I find with my students, in fact. when you get into a conversation about ethics, they want to run immediately to those things, and if someone is not a thief or a murderer, what else is there to say? Where it seems to me the moral life more broadly understood has to do with the question of ordering one’s aspirations and trying to reach, both in one’s individual life, in one’s family and communal life, for things that stir the heart and win the admiration of ourselves as human beings.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] There’s a ferment going on about things that matter to us as individuals. The challenge is to find a way to connect our individual pursuits to a sense of who we are as a people. Public rhetoric can make the difference. The ancient Greets, who practically invented the conversation of democracy, believed that polities could nurture the good life.
[interviewing] You have written that these ancient Greeks were preoccupied with the notion of a livable life. Now, what do you take that phrase to mean; a livable life?
MARTHA NUSSBAUM, Classicist and philosopher: I think it means, first of all, that they are preoccupied with the idea of a life that has many different parts. That is, a life that is rich and full, that involves many different activities. Now, it also turns out that these activities are not entirely under people’s control at all limes. That a lot of them, like the ability to love and care for a family, the ability to get an education, the ability to think well, even the ability to be a moral person and to choose we’ll; all of these require support from the surrounding society. And so, they have the image often of the person as like a plant; something that is fairly sturdy, that has a definite structure, but that is always in need of support from the surrounding society. And the political leader in that image is like the gardener, who has to tend the plants. Now, I think, if you see human life that way, and you think of the role of polities as providing conditions of support for all the richly diverse elements in a full human life, that does have very definite consequences for the way you’re going to think.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] We don’t have to go all the way back to the Greeks, either. Our founding fathers saw the republic as part of a moral universe. “We the people” was to be a political contract; “All men are created equal” a moral bond both of America’s great founding documents were covenants with the children and grandchildren of the revolutionaries, with us. We are their posterity.
[interviewing] That was such a peculiar and particular period in the history of the world, the period of our founding as a nation. Do you think, realistically, we have anything to learn from that era?
HENRY STEELE COMMAGER, Historian: I think we have almost everything to learn from that. We have, for example, a very elementary thing to learn — this is going to sound almost sentimental — to learn what it was like when a generation’s leaders believed, above all things, in honor, believed in the future generations, believed in posterity. “With land enough for our descendants,” said Jefferson in his first inaugural, “to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” What more is necessary to assure us of the happiness and the virtue and so forth, which is so essential to the well-being of the nation?
BILL MOYERS: That was Jefferson. There was a speech by George Washington in which he used the word “posterity” nine times.
COMMAGER: Yes, they all did. They couldn’t give a speech or write a letter without talking about posterity. Here’s poor old John Adams, the day he signed the Declaration of Independence, writing his wife, Abigail. He said, “I do not know,” he said, “what will be the outcome of this. We may pay a very high price, but it is certain that posterity will profit from our sacrifice.”
T. BERRY BRAZELTON, Pediatrician: The family is where we’ve got to turn to totally to balance this out, to try to give kids a different future than the one we’ve provided in the past generation.
BILL MOYERS: What happens to a society that doesn’t put children in the honored place, that doesn’t care?
BRAZELTON: Well, I think you’re seeing a society like that right now. I don’t think we value children. And we certainly don’t value their parents in our society. So, I think we’re paying a big price right now.
BILL MOYERS: But you describe these pregnant women coming up to you. You describe these eager and grieving fathers who want to know how to nurture. I mean, there’s something there within us that wants the child. But in society at large, there’s such a gap.
BRAZELTON: And I think that gap is really frightening to young people who do care. You know, they say, “Gosh, I don’t know what I’m raising these kids for. Here I spend all of my time trying to nurture this kid, and then I shove him out into a society that doesn’t value him.”
BILL MOYERS: You said once to someone that you think everyone who’s concerned about the future, all of us who think about the future, ought to have contact with a real flesh-and-blood child. Why?
MARY CATHERINE BATESON, Anthropologist: Well, because children are the carriers of the future. And the most, to me, the most important thing in raising a child is not to try and put the stamp of the past on that child, but to give that child freedom to grow and explore. Now, that’s what the future is like.
BILL MOYERS: But doesn’t it seem to you that we are living at the expense of our children today?
BATESON: Indeed we are. And, you know this is an extraordinary turnabout in the American tradition. We used to be able to compare the American idea of family with the idea that exists in many traditional peasant societies where people give birth to a lot of children and say that they’re doing that to be cared for by those children. We have believed that we pay back the debt that we owe our parents not to our parents, but to our children. We inherit so much from the past, and the responsible next step is to insure a good future. This is really the first time that this is being reversed, and that we are feeding on the future instead of being fed by the past and then, in our turn, feeding the future and contributing to it.
WILLARD GAYLIN, Bioethicist: My grandchild, or children, thought of this first at the birth of my first grandchild, is my immortality. That’s my future. That’s not just my biology. It’s that future, too, but one of the things that astounds me is I find my grandson behaving like my father, whom he never met. Now that’s a kind of miracle. That means that something went from that father to his son to my daughter to that grandchild, and that’s my immortality, that’s my reputation. To destroy that would be to destroy me.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] It’s not hard to figure out what we have to do if we are committed to saving our children’s future — to our own posterity. We’d have to treat the environment with reverence, reverse the arms race, reduce inequality, overhaul our schools, and recover a sense of private and public morality. Figuring out the agenda is one thing, however; tackling it is another. That’s why this journey of the past several months has been so refreshing to me. I’ve realized again that language is all you and I have to describe reality. It’s the medium in which citizens like you and me discuss commonplace problems and decide together what to do about them. When words become inaccurate and deceptive, they poison our comprehension. We distort the truth until we’re no longer in touch with reality. That way, it seems, lies ruin. The late James Baldwin wrote that nothing can be solved that can’t be faced. First, of course, it must be named, with honest words, honestly spoken. That’s what these men and women have tried to do here, night after night. I’m grateful to them for their time and ideas, and to you for listening. I’m Bill Moyers. Thank you and good night.
This transcript was entered on April 6, 2015.