The Search For E Pluribus Unum
Remarks by Norman Lear
to The National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
December 9, 1993
I am pleased and honored – and amused — to be with you today. Pleased because I have so many friends here and could not be happier to see them – and honored because of the enormous respect I have for the institution of a free press in a free society — and for so many of you as individual journalists.
The amusement is occasioned by the memory of having spoken here before. It was September 21, 1983. I phoned my mother in Bridgeport, Connecticut that day and with great pride told her how I would be addressing the distinguished members of the National Press in Washington, D.C. – and my mother, the ultimate leveler, replied without skipping a beat: “Listen, if that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?”
My grandfather, I told you then, would have adored seeing me here. He came to this country in his early twenties, and was an avid reader of newspapers and periodicals. Everything he knew about America — and he knew a great deal — he learned from reading his daily newspapers. Once or twice a month he used to write the President. The letters all began the same way: “My dearest, darling, Mr. President,” he would write. “Don’t you listen to them when they tell you such and such, and so and so. You are right. They are wrong.” And even when he disagreed with his leader, the letters started the same way: “My dearest, darling, Mr. President, I told you that you should have never done such and such, and so and so … Why don’t you listen to me?”
I went down the four flights of stairs each day for the mail, and every now and then, my ten-year-old heart would flutter wildly because there in that little brass mailbox I’d find the little white envelope that said “White House” on it. The letter wasn’t always signed by the President – but nonetheless, it was my grandfather – 74 York Street, New Haven, Connecticut — receiving a letter marked “The White House.” To the extent that I have a social conscience – and to the extent that I am ever mindful of the blessings of the free press, I am sure I have my grandfather to thank.
Still, harking back to my Mom – what am I doing here? The best explanation I can offer you for the chutzpah in approaching this podium, is the fact that I am also an American citizen with a life-long love of my nation, and its people. I’ve spent much of my career in television, observing our national quirks and quiddities – and then amplifying them to TV shows. Forty some years of engagement in this process have taught me a great deal about our people and institutions, and about the national psyche. My specialty, you have told me, has been looking at and dramatizing American families as they try to cope with their times. And what times these are!
Walter Lippman once spoke of the institutions of the church, the family, education, and civil authority as “that old ancestral order” which was largely responsible for purveying values to the society. As those institutions and their impact on the culture have waned, it is my belief that, inadvertently, American business has come to fill the vacuum. It, business, is now the fountainhead of values in our society.
Joseph Campbell had an arresting metaphor to describe the shift. In medieval times, he said, as one approached a city, the tallest structure on the skyline was the church and its steeple. Subsequently, as the power and influence of the church gave way to kings and rulers, the castle dominated the skyline. Today, as one approaches the city, the most commanding structures are the skyscrapers, the cathedrals of modern business. To Mr. Campbell’s marvelous metaphor, 1 would add the phenomenon of television, itself a great American industry, piping the messages of American business into virtually every American home, by the dozen per half hour, on TV sets that research tells us may be on as much as seven hours per day.
Now, what is notable about this fountainhead of values in American life is not simply the message that, “we are what we consume,” although that is hardly insignificant. It is the overweening commitment of American business, not to qualitative values, but to quantitative values — to numbers. There are no villains here – nobody ordered it, it just happened. Over the course of my career in television, I have seen the rise of this pernicious dictatorship of numbers, this escalating need to feed a bottom line.
In the 1950’s, a network order was for 39 shows, and during the summer there were no repeats — all three networks innovated, tried new forms and put on new personalities in shows that were called summer replacements. In the 1960’s, with the advent of tape came the summer repeats and gone were the experimental shows, the attempted innovation. But the networks, still sufficiently committed to the creative process, continued to order 39 episodes. When they found that they could get by with only 26 new shows and as many repeats, all attempts at new formats and innovative approaches were dropped entirely.
Soon they began to insist that new shows succeed in the ratings after only 13 weeks – a performance deadline later shortened to eight weeks, then to six, and nowadays, to only three or four weeks. Recently a show was canceled 50 minutes into its hour-long broadcast.
In 1971, I was lucky enough to break through with ALL IN THE FAMILY because CBS put the first of thirteen episodes on the air in January. Our ratings didn’t begin to look impressive until the show went into summer reruns. Today, it would never have made it.
When I began to look beyond my own industry, it was clear that this blind, self destructive, short-term thinking was not confined to television. TV was simply a microcosm for business in general – and, indeed, for the larger culture. What was happening to the networks had happened earlier to the three major motor car companies. Failing to heed the warnings, refusing to meet the competition from abroad because of a fixation on that quarter’s bottom line, they had slowly but surely ceded their dominance. Other industries had gone the same route.
With the proliferation of computers and the convergence of so many digital technologies, it is no exaggeration to say that today we live in a world dominated by numbers. We define ourselves, our values, and our aspirations by SAT scores, Nielsen ratings, box office grosses, cost benefit analysis, quarterly profits, bottom lines, and polls, polls, polls — all of which exert an iron grip on our sense of the possible, and on our very identities. We have become a numbers-oriented culture that places its faith on what we can graph, chart or count, and is suspicious of the unquantifiable, the intuitive, the mysterious.
A culture that becomes a stranger to its own inner human needs – which are, for better or worse, unquantifiable, intuitive and mysterious – is a culture that has lost touch with the best of its humanity. I’m talking about the invisible inner life of the human species in the late 20th Century – the fertile but neglected realm that is the wellspring for human creativity and morality; that portion of ourselves that impels us to create art and literature, and study ethics, philosophy and history; the part of our being that gives rise to our sense of awe and wonder; and our longing for a higher order of meaning. For want of a better term, one can call it the spirit-led, or spiritual, life of our species. Whatever we call it, we have long recognized its presence and accepted that it sets us apart.
And yet, as a student of the American psyche, at no time in my life can I remember our culture being so estranged from this essential part of itself. One can see it in the loss of faith in leaders and institutions – the cynicism, selfishness, and erosion of civility – and the hunger for connectedness that stalks our nation today. In our culture generally, there is an incredible reticence – and in journalism, even a hostility — to explore what may be the most distinctive trait of this remarkable creature, homo sapiens.
Most Americans seem to be aware that we are a nation not enjoying its material success. To scan the cultural landscape today is to see a burgeoning underclass, a growing army of homeless people now stretching into the suburbs, and an increasingly alienated, economically hard-pressed middle-class. Drugs, crime, violence. Racism, hate crimes, mindless massacres, children killing children. Deteriorating cities, and a crumbling infrastructure. What does it say about a culture when nearly one-third of all babies are born to single, unwed mothers? Among black women the figure is 62%, and in some urban areas, 80%. Then there is the mess that is health care – not to mention the environment, that slow motion apocalypse of acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer, and global warming.
The inferences that we draw from this litany of ills may vary. But lift the veil of our partisan postures, and I suspect that most of us will admit that our problems lie beyond the reach of politics alone.
As a writer, I always ask myself, how those people euphemistically called the “little guys” experience all of this. Well… let’s try to imagine what’s going on in the heart and mind of an average American worker — I call him Bill.
(PUT ON BASEBALL CAP) Hi, I’m Bill. How do I experience everything Mr. Lear laid out there? Not the way he does, for damn sure! Let’s see him live on two incomes that don’t even total $49,000 a year – and I’m at the top of the bottom 3/5ths – get that, will ya! – with three kids, one in college hoping like hell she can afford to stay there, and another one gettin’ out of high school in June. This one says he don’t want college, but I wonder if he ain’t sayin’ that cause he knows we’re having trouble figuring out how to send him. Such a great kid.
I carpool 40 minutes to work every day, and maybe an hour and ten minutes coming home. Work used to be only ten minutes away, until they shut down the plant. My father and his father and all his brothers worked at the plant, generation after generation, except for some of us kids who escaped to become druggists, or dentists, or accountants, which our parents, of course, was always pushing us to do. But no matter what – there was always the plant to fall back on – like a floor under our lives. Who knew that floor had a trap door?
Funny… you turn on TV, and all over the dial you got a country full of them stand-up comics with a ton of people laughing at ’em. Where do they find them, anyway? No one I know is laughing!
Something’s wrong, fellas. We’re all drinkin’ the right beer when we ain’t sippin’ the right soft drink; we’re using the right deodorant and rinsing with the right conditioner” but none of us is running along the beach laughin’ with a gorgeous gal — or dancing in the moonlight in a $500 tuxedo — or even sitting in bars with a bunch of the boys, whooping and hollering and hoisting our beers, as if we don’t have a care in the world — like the people you see in them TV ads.
Inside sometimes… I feel like an empty room. You know what I find myself thinking about lately? Church. We used to go to church when our kids were little. Later, when so much else was going on in their lives, and what was going on in church just didn’t grab them, we didn’t press. To tell the truth, we stopped going, too. I can’t say we miss it, ’cause we weren’t getting that much out of it either, but the wife and me talk about it all the time. We’re missing something.
We have friends who get a lot out of church, and we envy them. But then there’s all that other stuff going on out there that sounds like church talk or God talk — weird stuff. Like my wife’s best friend, Lil. She’s reading something called The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying! Tibetan!, for Crissake! The guy next door is reading something called Care of the Soul. and his wife’s got a bunch of these “Healing from Within” tapes she meditates with. Sounds nuts to me – sittin’ around on the floor with her legs under her, listening to some voice that puts her in the mood so she can just – well, sit – emptying her mind is what she tells us. I couldn’t empty my mind with a putty knife!
Then we got some friends who couldn’t wait for the next paperback from Jackie Collins or Judith Krantz – and now they’re reading stuff like A Course in Miracles and The Road Less Travelled. I got a buddy, Vince Kuznick, never got past the sport pages, but now he’s into something called Zen. Welcome to the “Twilight Zone”. Then there’s one of my own sons. Says he’s getting a lot out of a little book called the Tao. but it’s spelled with a “t,” which I don’t know why, but it gripes the hell outta me!
Then there’s a whole lot of people we know — and more we read about – who are into one of them twelve-step, self-help programs, ’cause they’re overweight or they want to stop drinking, or they’re wanting sex all the time! Some problem! Beats the hell out of me, but there’s a whole lot of them twelve-steppers – all out to help each other, talking about “letting go” and “giving themselves to a Higher Power” – making the kind of stained glass talk that sounds like it oughta be coming out of churches.
Tell you the truth, my wife and I have been dipping into some of that stuff. We got the Joseph Campbell tapes and the John Bradshaw tapes… and we got something out of them. We tell ourselves all the time we’re gonna play ’em again. And then – okay, this is confession time – a couple of months ago my wife decided to get into Mary Kay cosmetics – you know, selling lipstick and eyeliner to her friends and neighbors? Not just to make a little extra money, but because other women were telling her that the company was also bringing meaning to their lives. So now she’s talkin’ this, “God is my co-pilot” type stuff, like she and God are in business together and she owns 51% of the stock! I know it ain’t gonna last long, because last year we tried to sell Amway products together, ’cause we heard it was like joining a congregation — and makin’ a buck at the same time! It didn’t work for us.
It isn’t like I wanna put all this stuff down, ’cause it works okay for some people… they do a lot of good for each other in them groups. Even where I work they got these guys comin’ in talking about “circles of compassion” and “community” and all like that. At the supermarket, I see this throwaway newspaper full of stories about crystal worshippers, and primal screamers, and dream therapy groupies, and environmentalist tree worshippers who see God in the ecology. And the women’s magazines with those pictures of models walkin’ down the runways in monks’ robes wearin’ crucifixes! It must add up to something. But what? I keep asking that question they made the movie about: “What’s it all about, Alfie?” You want to give me and my family something for Christmas? Help me with that question.
(REMOVES BASEBALL CAP) I don’t know if this’ll help, Bill, but you’re not seeing anything different from the rest of us. In a dangerous, volatile world, governed by numbers that seek to rationalize every corner of human existence; in which it seems more difficult than ever to experience a sense of community; in a technological, scientific world in which the presence of God seems highly problematic, it should not be surprising that people like you seek desperately for spiritual connection — and the big question is – how many people does Bill represent? In the answer to that lies, I believe, one of the great, burgeoning, largely uncovered stories of our time. Because Bill is everywhere.
Yet curiously, either through indifference or cynicism, or because this is a story about the invisible inner life, most of the news media has ignored what could be the seminal story of our time. That may explain why so many journalists misunderstood or slammed the First Lady, when she dared to touch on the subject in Austin, referring to America’s “sleeping sickness of the soul.”
Last summer, unhappy to see them pillory Hillary – I just had to say that — I suggested in an op ed article that the spiritual life of the human species occupies a much larger, more heterogeneous realm than any one organized religion can lay claim to. A noted conservative columnist concluded a week later that my spirituality was pathetically deficient. Don’t you know, he essentially said, nobody needs anything more than the Ten Commandments and the Bible. “Spare us the group hug rediscovery of the inner-self cum- true meaning of life,” he snorted, before giving a brisk, patriotic salute to that Old Time Religion. You’ll excuse me for believing that religious experience ought to bear a closer resemblance to Love Thy Neighbor – to the essence of the Sermon on the Mount – to a group hug, if you will — than to pietistic pistol-whipping.
The People For The American Way still find themselves attacked as spiritually deficient by politically motivated pistol whippers — and this despite the fact that People For issued its own “Declaration of Conscience” several years ago to reaffirm that this rich inner territory is as meaningful and vital to its three hundred thousand members, and belongs to all of us.
Let me come clean. Not that you’re not way ahead of me, and understand that there’s a lot of Bill in me, too. But, in the words of a Washington figure who understood very well when piety was appropriate, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I consider myself deeply religious. And I love it. I am a Jew and I love my people and their culture. I could not be prouder of what, in our long history, we have brought to the world. But that is not what makes me religious. What makes me religious is the way I experience Creation, the way I experience life and the way I try to live it. There was a book written about Edith Bunker called “Edith the Good.” The author’s thesis was that, although she never spoke of it per se, Edith’s reflexive reaction to every situation was what the writer thought Jesus’ reaction might be.
I’m not in that league by any means — my wife, two daughters and a number of friends in this room today will certify that! — but everything in me tells me that the world would be an exquisite place to live in, were everyone able to respond to life as Jesus might. That’s mama-loshen. That is a Yiddish word meaning straight talk mixed with common sense. Actually, it goes deeper than that. Mama-loshen is the understanding that comes when one’s common sense derives as much from the soul as the mind. If something doesn’t square with my religious sensibilities, it ain’t mama-loshen.
Now, I know that none of what I said about myself can possibly qualify me as a religious person with many who hear me now, because I have not expressed myself in a manner they could accept. My words lack scripture, theology, ecclesiastical authority. Still, ever since my early twenties when I smoked my first good cigar, I have felt and said that if there was no other reason to believe in God, it would have to be Havana leaf. I’ve also said that biting into a ripe peach, a just-ready piece of Crenshaw melon or a great ear of corn. I’ve sensed God’s presence sitting in the back of a dark theater when a comedy was playing, watching an audience of 600 strangers coming forward, rising in their seats and then falling back, as people do when they are laughing from the belly. And I’ve had an epiphany. I’ve fallen in love with a total stranger several aisles and many rows away at the sound of his or her distinct laugh. And I’ve experienced God’s presence… Him, Her, It — nobody’s been there and come back to describe God to me – but I’ve experienced that presence in the faces of my wife, my children, my grandson – and every time throughout my working life when I’ve gone to bed with a second act problem and awakened in the morning with the solution.
Now there was a time when I wouldn’t have dared to say all this – not anywhere, let alone in front of this crowd and a national C-Span audience. I couldn’t say it because I didn’t feel qualified in this arena. Religion in our popular culture has a language – and I didn’t have it. I simply didn’t make the sounds that are made in churches or synagogues or on television when these matters are discussed. Then a good friend, a noted theologian, suggested I read William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience – a seminal work, written early in this century – and there I was – between the lines, between the experiences. So, now, I ask myself: Why can’t I share my sense of all this without being made to feel like a second-class groper after meaning in life?
That’s another thing. I am a groper, searching every step of the way for a better understanding. And that’s where I think so many of us are – perhaps the majority of us. And we must not allow this territory to be preempted by “experts” who claim that their distinctive theology, tradition, or sizable membership gives them a special stamp of superiority, a greater right to be heard. It is precisely this spiritual arrogance and intolerance — particularly toward us, the unaffiliated “gropers” – that has stifled a frank, 360 degree discussion of what it means to have a living faith in this troubled time. The sectarian rivalry and bickering about moral superiority and spiritual infallibility has already assumed a greater importance than the religious experience itself.
I have another reason for not wishing to apologize for being an unaffiliated groper. Time, as we think of it, is a man-made concept. One hundred years is a long time to us mortals. In a universe sense, in God’s time line, it is only a blip. So in those terms, at just 71, I’m an infant! That’s mama-loshen! My search is in the teething stage — so forgive me if I don’t sound like anyone else as I search for the answers. Matter of fact, in a day or two when I look back at this talk and realize how much better I might have said much of this, I hope I can forgive myself — after all, I didn’t start writing till I was 24, so I only had 47 years to prepare for this speech. Gimme a break, Norman!
Also, when I speak of unaffiliated gropers, I hope you won’t think me arrogant if in my mind I include many of you in this room. I know the tendency among conservative think tanks to label most journalists as liberals, and I see liberals being bashed everywhere for “turning their backs on religion.” I am also aware that every other year or so there is another piece of research that purports to “prove” that you are – by some large percentage – non-believers, because you do not go to church regularly. I believed that myself for some time. I believed it, and thought that you were all too cynical whenever this soft and squishy subject arose. And that, I thought, is why this great story of a people thirsting for spiritual unity without uniformity, was going uncovered. But I think differently now. I know too many of you print and TV and other media type journalists. I’ve talked to you all my working life. I’ve lunched with you and supped with you. I am of you. And wherever you people are along your path, whatever your variety of religious experience – I didn’t say religion, I said religious experience – I know there are as many gropers here as there are in any other segment of our society. You have your cynics, too, and this may never reach them – but you gropers are qualified to report on this movement, this tidal wave of feeling in the culture that Bill was sensing and I have been describing.
Jeff Greenfield once said that if journalists had been aware of what was going on in the basements of black churches in the 1950’s, they would have known that a significant social and political force was about to explode. They would have been better prepared for the emergence of people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fanny Lou Hamer and other civil rights activists.
A story of equal significance is building now. It is a buzzing, disconnected, eruption of spiritual reaction to our times, operating without the sanction of the popular culture or organized religion — and it is available to any groper. But you mustn’t be psyched out by the “experts.” Not by the Pat Robertsons or the Pat Buchanans. Not by the National Council of Churches or the Catholic Church or the Rabbinical Council of America. Or even by the well-meaning Stephen Carter, who, while bashing liberals for allegedly turning their backs on religion, unfortunately steps on a lot of gropers along the way. It’s time we begin breaking down the walls erected by both secularists and religionists, that prevent us from talking about this. It’s too big a story. The cynics among you won’t touch it, I know. But you gropers – I’d like to propose that you set up your own William James School of Investigative Journalism. This will not be easy, I realize. In a news universe that prizes conflict, controversy, celebrities and hype, stories are lost that do not have a hard edge – stories that lack a visceral news hook. They have no standing.
Several weeks ago some 250 major figures in business gathered for breakfast in the Rainbow Room in New York City at 7:30 in the morning — a group including James T. Burke, Katharine Graham, Larry Tisch, Sol Linowitz, Barry Diller, Henry Schacht and Warren Buffett — to honor five extraordinary acts of courage, integrity and social vision in business, that are 180 degrees removed from the anti-heroes of business such as the American people had been reading about ad nauseam for the past many years. This was 100% a secular event, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that morning, looking at five short documentaries that brought a tear to every eye, that the individuals being honored had been motivated by a deep and profound sense of what it means to be human, what it means to live for something more than oneself. Whether the honorees were regular churchgoers or churchgoing gropers, or simply gropers, it was clear to everyone – the crusty business types, Diane Sawyer who hosted the event, Dan Rather who also participated and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton who closed the breakfast with a most inspiring address — that these honorees were people whose actions in business had been fired in their souls.
Now, had one major newspaper agreed to cover, really cover that story — none did — the reporter would have had to get underneath the palpable but squishy “feeling” in the room and be comfortable exploring the “great deep” of human life, the inner abyss that St. Augustine called the grand profundus. Such may be a novel assignment, but I believe most of you are capable of handling it.
Let’s not let religious categories get in the way, however. If one were to look at a very long river, one might see flora and fauna, trees and shrubs of varying nature along the many miles of its banks. If we think of our many and varied religions as uniquely different trees along a thousand mile river – and appreciate that they are all nurtured by the same waters – any member of the press, whatever his or her variety of religious experience, should be able to report on the river, the common nurturer of all our spiritual traditions and common values.
The challenge of our time is to live up to one of our nation’s founding credos, the Latin phrase, E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. That feeling of unity without uniformity most certainly will not emerge from politics or economics as we know them today. It can only emerge from honoring that capacity that is unique to our species — the capacity for awe, wonder, mystery, art, music, love, compassion, the search, indeed the need for higher meaning. It is up to a free press: free to ignore the varieties of religious experience exploding everywhere, or free to report on it without fear or embarrassment.
If not you, who? It’s like the father who knocks on his son’s door to shout, “Jamie, get up!” The kid answers, “I don’t wanna get up. I don’t wanna go to school.” And I’ve got three reasons ” “First, ’cause it’s so hard; second, the kids all tease me; and third, I’m scared.” To which the father shouts -“I’m gonna give you three reasons why you must go to school. First, because it’s your duty; second because you are 45 years old, and third because you’re the headmaster!”
You are the headmaster here. I’m hoping you’ll help to shine a light on the mounting religious fervor of our times; to help us understand not just the creeds and faith rivalries that divide us, but that rich capacity for religious experience that unites us; to nurture the desire we all possess for some invisible means of support – and to deliver to one another the way the universe delivers to us. Thank you.