“Opportunity is built explicitly into the American social contract,” writes J.D. Vance, author of the best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy,” in his introduction to the Heritage Foundation’s upcoming Index on Culture and Opportunity. He highlights the nonpartisan nature of opportunity.
“We declared independence by noting a God-given right to pursue happiness,” he writes, “and one of the few philosophical issues that unite both sides of our political spectrum is the idea that we should have some measure of ‘equality of opportunity’ in our society.”
It’s “one of the few contemporary pieces of evidence of our shared national identity,” he says.
You don’t even have to look at a newspaper or turn on the TV to know that the day-in, day-out slog of politics involves a near-total squandering of opportunity. But on the campus of Villanova University this past week, I saw something else budding.
About 70 conservative college newspaper editors were at a boot camp organized by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). One student told me how listening to an archbishop from Iraq last summer, at World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, had rerouted his priorities and aspirations. He realized the impact the media can have by what an editor, for example, chooses to cover and highlight.
Another asked me how to avoid falling into the traps of “fake news.” The answer lies in telling the truth, of course, and in refocusing our lens on good stewardship, human dignity and the opposite of today’s constant avalanche of bad news. This is what so many of these students want to be about, if their questions and conversations were any indication: clarity in the midst of confusion.Rising above the noise and lifting people up.
Some cultural indicators show signs of improvement; others, not so much. As Dr. Aaron Kheriaty notes in an August “First Things” article: “Depression is now the most common serious medical or mental health disorder in the United States.” Also: “Suicide is now the leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults, and the 10th leading cause of death overall in the United States.”
The American Dream is in crisis on both spiritual and cultural levels, as Vance commented. “Culture,” he writes, “must serve as the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one, and proper conversation about culture will never be used as a weapon against those whom Christ described as ‘the least of these.’ It will be a needed antidote to a simplistic political discourse that speaks often about the vulnerable even as it regularly fails to help them.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in a recent TED Talk on facing the future together without fear, pointed out that “when you tell a story and your identity is strong, you can welcome the stranger, but when you stop telling the story, your identity gets weak and you feel threatened by the stranger.”
Sacks advises that the road to rediscovery of identity starts in overhauling today’s radical individualism - perhaps best symbolized by the selfie. Next time you’re tempted to turn the phone around, turn the eyes of your heart toward some other person who might otherwise be overlooked or forgotten.
In 1988, at ISI’s 35th anniversary dinner, William F. Buckley Jr. said, “We are basket cases of ingratitude, so many of us. … To live without any sense of obligation to those who made possible lives as tolerable as ours, within the frame of the human predicament God imposed on us - without any sense of gratitude to our parents, who suffered to raise us; to our teachers, who labored to teach us; to the scientists, who prolonged the lives of our children when disease struck them down - is spiritually atrophying.”
Being grateful for any and all opportunities may be the place to start, along with helping others see those same opportunities and soar in the possibilities. It will require fewer selfies, though, for sure.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. Contact her at klopez@national review.com.