Americans both on the left and the right are at best discontented and at worst angry. While the two sides appear to be mired in disagreement, if you look closely at the signs and slogans of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements, they are strikingly similar: Washington is broken; the Middle Class is broke; Corporations are insensitive; Taxes are too high; We the People are not receiving value; We have no voice; Nobody cares.
Then there are, in the middle of these two extremes, many Americans who just sense that something is wrong, and worry that there is no path to fix it. But history suggests otherwise. Like the 1969 song by Simon and Garfunkel suggests, there is a bridge that, since our Founding Fathers laid the foundations for this nation, has served to bring us together, and still can.
I'm on your side; When times get rough; And friends just can't be found; Like a bridge over troubled water; I will lay me down; Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.
This bridge is the values that underlie America and connect us. I would like to suggest that America is discontented because many of our leaders are disconnected from our values, and because our political and economic systems have not delivered results that reflect our values. But America's values themselves, at the grassroots level, are alive and well.
On the anniversary of 9/11 this year, I was at Project Love's annual Searching for Teen Leaders ceremony, presented by Walmart. Project Love is an organization that conquers bullying by transforming school cultures.
During that ceremony, 10 teens were recognized for their leadership skills. These teens raised money for Haitian relief, built self-esteem in disabled children, helped veterans returning from abroad, motivated their peers to promote kindness and developed a suicide-prevention program. In everything they did, the values of equality, faith, freedom, family, giving back, doing the right thing, the good life -- the values that are at the heart of what it is to be American -- were plainly evident. The inventiveness of these teens in reaching their goals and influencing their peers to help them was truly remarkable.
But where is our leadership? How do the results of their efforts reflect our values? Clearly, there is great goodness in America, but lately, it seems to bubble from the ground up rather than to trickle down from the top.
Our country's discontent is also reflected in our schools. Children mirror any societal dysfunction. Bullying and disrespect litter the halls in both their real and their virtual worlds. Yet thousands of teens who have gone through Project Love programs have demonstrated that when they are effectively re-focused on the values that unite us, they go to work to correct what's wrong in their schools and the world.
I'll take your part; When darkness comes; And pain is all around; Like a bridge over troubled water; I will lay me down; Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.
Right now, not just our children, but all of America needs to refocus, reflect and remember who we are. The values that America has traditionally stood for are not religious or ideological. They are not red; they are not blue. They are our shared aspirations, hopes and dreams, grounded in a civil discourse that was started by our forefathers and that has defined our nation for more than 200 years. They have been recognized as unique since Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in 1835.
So what's the disconnect between the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the Tea Party? It's not as drastic as you might think. Both value freedom. Both value fairness. The Tea Party is focused on freedom and getting government out of our lives. Occupy Wall Street wants some government intervention where it can help to bring about fairness. Freedom and fairness are not polar opposites, they simply need to be balanced in a manner that is acceptable to most Americans and delivers the results most Americans want. That balancing act is what America is all about.
As we debate our nation's future, only our shared values can take us where we want to go. They have helped us to thrive as a nation, end slavery, improve civil liberties, cultivate the American Dream and become the envy of the world. They can help us now, particularly if we remember to hold our leaders accountable for living up to and delivering to us systems and results that reflect what is important to all of us, ultimately what America stands for.
Sail on Silver Girl; Sail on by; Your time has come to shine; All your dreams are on their way. Like a bridge over troubled water; I will ease your mind; Like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind.
You can sign a pledge to honor these values at www.purpleamerica.us, and you can see the shared values that almost 1,000 Americans in eight communities told us still matter.
Follow Stuart Muszynski on Twitter at www.twitter.com/purpleamericaus