Business as a Fountainhead of Values in American Society (1987)

Norman Lear on Business, Politics and Culture

Speech Excerpts, 1972 – 2011

Business as a Fountainhead of Values in American Society (1987)

Short-term thinking, corrosive individualism, fixating on “economic man” at the expense of the human spirit, has taken an alarming toll.  I focus on the business community not to scapegoat it, but because I believe business has become a fountainhead of values in our society.  If the church was the focal point for personal values and public mores in medieval times, that role has been assumed, unwittingly perhaps, by the modern corporation….

Philosopher Joseph Campbell has said that in medieval times, when one approached a city, one saw the cathedral and the castle.  Now one sees the soaring towers of commerce.  People build their lives around these towers.  Communities take shape.  Work skills are learned.  Social relationships are formed.  Attitudes and aspirations are molded.  A dense matrix of values grow up around the towers of commerce and spread beyond.

Never before has the business of business been such a cultural preoccupation. If media attention is any indication of popular interest – and it is – today there is an unprecedented interest in business affairs.  In recent years, a dozen new business program have burst forth on commercial television, public television and cable.  There are business news updates, talk shows, panel discussions, news magazines and even a business-news quiz show – not to mention a flurry of new regional business magazines.  Americans once found their heroes in Congress, or the entertainment world, or sports; now more and more people find them in business – Lee Iacocca, T. Boone Pickens, H. Ross Perot, Carl Icahn, and until ten minutes ago, Ivan Boesky…..

America has become a game show.  Winning is all that matters.  Cash prizes.  Get-rich-quick.  We are the captives of a culture that celebrates instant gratification and individual success no matter the larger costs.  George Will, in his book Statecraft as Soulcraft, argues that the country’s future is imperiled unless our leaders can cultivate in citizens a deeper commitment to the commonweal.  Yet rather than heed that admonition, we are turning the commonweal into the Commonwheel of Fortune.

From “Cashing in on the Commonweal for the Commonwheel of Fortune,” at the Institute of Politics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 17, 1987.