The Great Disconnect: Will This Be the Death of America?

When I was a kid in suburban Pittsburgh in the 1950’s, we still weren’t that far from the America of the mid-to-late 1700’s when our country was founded. Even as pre-teenagers, we felt a direct emotional connection to the events of the Revolutionary War and the founding of our country. Many students could recite the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.

Just as nearly 200 years earlier, the printed word was still the primary news and information vehicle for most Americans that commonly shaped our opinions and attitudes. Individually, we communicated the same way our ancestors did, with correspondence written in cursive. Penmanship was an important course in early curricula. We could still read our country’s founding documents although there were rough spots where some letters had evolved from the S that looked like an F and a capital A that looked more like an H. The fact that those founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had been signed exclusively by white men was totally understood and acceptable.

We recited the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer at the start of each school day. Most people went to church on Sunday. The image of George Washington praying for guidance while kneeling in the snow beside his horse was both plausible and widely admired.

Almost everyone was related to someone or knew someone who was in or had served in the military. Gold Star families dating back to WWII were common in the community.

We felt a deep connection to the events that occurred nearly two centuries earlier. In many ways we could directly relate to what happened. Those of us who walked to school in the snow could relate to the suffering and sacrifice at Valley Forge and the brilliance of Washington crossing the Delaware at Christmas time to surprise the British. This helped keep the founding of our country relevant and understandable with ordinary citizens.

Today I fear that critical connection is hanging by a thread and will shortly be lost.

For starters, young people today do not read much that is printed and share few if any common news and information channels. Outside of school, my 16-year-old granddaughter’s primary information source appears to be Instagram or possibly Tik Tok. There are literally thousands of electronic communication, entertainment and information sources battling for her attention every day. Everyone has their own chaotic and diverse set of information channels that affect their political direction and daily lives. The value of commonly shared information sources that shape ideas and politics in a cohesive manner is gone. Diversity is the overriding theme of the day.

We live in a world of computerized electric vehicles, joy rides into space for billionaires and celebrities, air travel almost as common as bus rides and kids getting personal cars at age 16. Cell phones and tablets are at the core of modern life and essential to it. None of that was imaginable in 1776 and could only be imagined by a few futurists by 1955.

My granddaughter can read or write some cursive. (She had training in a Montessori school in her initial school years.)  But few if any of her schoolmates can. If she must put word to paper, she prints the letters. I have never tested her, but I suspect she would have extreme difficulty reading any of our country’s original founding documents. When citizens of a country cannot read the founding documents, that ultimately can only further weaken their connection with our political roots.

In conservative Florida where I live, many families go to church. However, no prayers are recited in schools except on a few athletic fields. There is no Pledge of Allegiance although the Star-Spangled Banner is sung at the beginning of major sports events at the high schools.

Great and powerful countries are largely defined by their militaries. My granddaughter has a cousin she rarely sees who serves in the Army. But I don’t think she knows anyone else associated with the military other than her grandfather who is a veteran, a now deceased great-grandfather who survived the battle of Iwo Jima and some other distant members of the family. For her, the notion of the military is quite distant and in no way relevant to her life or lifestyle. She has never seen a military parade and probably would not think of going to one. She does not know what a Gold Star family is.

It is more than disturbing that only one in four Americans are qualified to serve in the military.  The Army is unable to meet its recruitment goals. The reasons for this are too complex and numerous for this article, but they are highly distressing and are yet another disturbing sign of the growing disconnect our society has with the values of its founding.

My granddaughter is not a revolutionary. She openly regards herself as a conservative reflecting the ideals and standards of the family and the general community around her. But in her daily life, the Constitution and the sacrifices of our founders have little if any meaning. The disconnect between her and the founding fathers is profound. It is increasingly difficult if not impossible for her generation to relate to those distant intellectual and visionary giants who wore funny clothes and shoes with buckles.

The fact that these historic documents were signed exclusively by white men now seems to some in our rapidly evolving society to be sadly out of date. Questions are being raised. Can an American Constitution not signed by a black, a female, a gay or, gasp, even a transgender, be legitimate? Are the ideas formalized in those documents therefore out of date?  What about the fact that the signers of the Constitution owned slaves? This is already a talking point for some on the radical left.

“The Constitution is a political blueprint for a time when white people owned black people, the average life span was 35 years old, and news was spread through people yelling on the street . . . . . I can't relate to 1789, a time when our leaders owned human beings and wore powdered wigs and had wooden teeth. Can you? It was a different country back then. It was a lesser country. . . . . .  Things have changed “

Yes, it is about change, which in fact is accelerating and with it the psychological, educational and political distance for ordinary Americans from the events of America’s birth. Illegal immigrants who have no knowledge or interest in what happened in 1776 are flooding the country from third world countries, further diluting our connection with our historic and invaluable past.

Frankly, I hate those cringe-worthy street TV interviews where young people cannot identify what country the Queen of England is from, what state Utah is in or identify the vice president of the United States. But they reflect the deepening alienation of ordinary Americans from the knowledge, issues and values essential to a successful democracy. These are citizens of a country now competing against the relentless surging strength of highly focused China.

Our politicians are pledged to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States, but voters have other more immediate issues in mind such as gas prices, inflation, jobs, crime and abortion. And, after all the rhetoric, one has the feeling many politicians are more concerned with raising enough cash for their next campaign. One feels their pledges are little more than required lip service.

This represents a vast disruption of our emotional and intellectual connections with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that put into play the grandest and most effective political concepts in history.

There is no evidence this can be easily repaired. Without widespread and enthusiastic support for the Constitution, the fundamental factor that defines and unites us as a country, what can we expect from the future?  

Winston Churchill saw it this way: ““A nation that forgets its past has no future.” 

Frank Hawkins is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, Associated Press foreign correspondent, international businessman, senior newspaper company executive, founder and owner of several marketing companies, and published novelist.

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