I keep seeing an ad by the car-company GMC. The ad asks “How do you want to live? As a decent person? Not a bad guy? A good friend? Is that it — good? Of course not. King of the hill? Better. Top of your game? Win. All-powerful, like a boss, like a standard bearer, like a pro. We couldn’t agree more. We are Professional Grade. GMC.” (see the ad here)
While this is just a car ad, it’s emblematic of a major and unfortunate change going on in America. America was built on several cultural ideas. We understood that a successful life was built on belief in God, being a faithful and loving husband or wife, hard work, following the rules, and caring about your neighbor. Unlike the European Old World, where class and breeding defined what success could mean, in America the farmer, mill worker, shopkeeper or teacher could live a life that all would pronounce as meaningful and honorable.
The GMC ad mocks these virtues, and this life. Decency and goodness are things to be chuckled at, not aimed for. Instead of a life of quiet virtue and service, GMC tells us to “win.” But wait, that’s not good enough. Instead, you need to become the boss, the King, even all-powerful. Only then will you be satisfied.
Leaving aside the ridiculous notion that a car could help you achieve any of that, let’s explore what the ad is really promoting. GMC’s ideal is individual domination. You can
be King of the hill, you can win, you can be the boss. Unlike the chump who is “decent” and a “good friend,” the GMC man, having vanquished all, stands alone. You’ve got no time or interest in family, friends, the less fortunate, or the community – you’re too busy getting the most power, the biggest pile of cash, and most exciting experiences for you.
Regrettably, GMC is tapping into something – America is shifting in their direction. Whether it’s idolizing the Housewives of Wherever, the Kardashians, or the American Idol, we’re in the midst of deciding that life is really about acquiring wealth, status, and experiences. Social media, with its emphasis on clicks, followers, and likes is driving those trends.
We’re seeing the consequences of this profoundly wrong direction. Despite the supposed connectedness brought by social media, loneliness has doubled since the 1980s (to 40 percent). Depression rates have increased ten times since 1960, and suicide rates are at a 30-year high. At work, there has been a 30-year decline in perceived quality of
relationships. And, there is a significant and growing body of research linking heavy social media use with depression and anxiety (see here and here). I’m not saying that all social media is bad (I’ll be using it to post this!), but if it becomes dominant in your life, you’ll be missing out.
We’re seeing the effects in politics as well. I view the election of Donald Trump as a populist reaction of the American middle and lower class against the coastal elites’ decision that the traditional American life is no longer worth living or defending. I seriously doubt that President Trump has the solutions to those problems, but his election may have been worth it if we’re seeing the beginning of a reaction against the forces that are tearing America away from its foundations. If so, I hope that we can guide it in a positive direction – one that emphasizes the greatness of America and its lasting strengths – things like individual liberty (and community engagement), religious faith (and tolerance), political freedom (and civic virtue), and free market dynamism (with support and help for those displaced by its effects).
We’ll have to see about that. In the meantime, our responsibility and opportunity is to live an honorable and meaningful life in the place where we are. We need to live out our faith (if we have one), be a good and true husband or wife, do our best to be an involved parent, follow the rules, and find a way to help the community. Critically, we should resist the urge to hide behind screens and entertain ourselves into loneliness; instead, we should unlock the richness of a life lived with and for others. Be an engaged “servant” instead of trying to be a solo “boss,” and you’ll have a more fulfilling life.