The past months have been
traumatic by any standard. First the shock of the
September 11 attacks, followed by intense levels of
grief, anger, and bewilderment. Our leaders turned to the
vast weaponry for which we have poured out our national
treasure. And now as the United States strikes back, we
experience new uncertainties and fears.
But beneath the screaming headlines of a superpower
roused to war, there are smaller stories showing a deeper
shift in our culture. Have you seen them?
Signs of a Shift
“Fresh Air” host Terry Gross asked John
Powell, editor of L.A. Weekly, what kinds of
movies people want to see now. People are looking for
what it means to be human. For how to live decently in a
world that isn’t decent, he replied. The New
York Times reports that even the most vitriolic of
talk show hosts were showing some restraint.
According to Michael Harrison, publisher of
Talkers, a trade magazine for talk radio,
there’s less of the frivolous, less playing to
hate. I really think this is the end of an era and the
beginning of a new one in our popular culture.
The polling firm Yankelovich reports an acceleration in
the long-term trend among many Americans to shift their
priorities away from getting more money and things and
toward being with family, building community, giving
rather than getting, and finding balance and authenticity
in their lives. Even among some financial firms there is
a new message.
Marjorie Kelly in Business Ethics reports Walden
Asset Management wrote to clients suggesting that we as a
nation curb our extreme sense of entitlement in our
standard of living and redirect our wealth from private
interest to the care of others.
We could dismiss these signs as temporary responses to a
shocking event. Perhaps, against the drumbeat of war,
these notes will be drowned out. But there is evidence
that they’re part of a longer-term cultural shift
that simply showed up more clearly at this time of
New Trends, New Possibilities
Let me share with you what I see as four trends that even
in these dark times hold out the promise for a brighter
First, is a surging sense of community. In my community
and I imagine in yours after the September 11 attacks and
throughout the ensuing events, people sought out one
another for comfort, sharing, and ultimately for hope. In
the process, they strengthened the bonds of community.
Yankelovich’s polls show a widespread yearning for
and commitment to stronger communities. In the months and
years ahead, that surging sense of community can help us
all reorient our economies away from the giant and
impersonal, treat the most vulnerable with dignity, and
create sustainable, gregarious, and joyous patterns of
Second, is the expanded capacity for compassion. Our
compassion for the victims of the September 11 attack was
instantaneous, and our responses filled the blood banks
and relief agency coffers. Soon that compassion widened.
As we witnessed heinous acts of scapegoating against
Arab-Americans and others who look different, many
reached out. In my area the Middle-Eastern restaurants
were packed as people made gestures of support to those
of Islamic faith and Arabic background. Interfaith
services were held across the nation, rock concerts
brought in voices of all colors and faiths, and hate-free
zones were declared in numerous cities. The growing
understanding of the desperate condition of the Afghani
people resulted in calls for aid to those much-embattled
people and beyond.
Third, is a greater openness to understanding and wisdom.
In living rooms, neighborhoods, churches, through
e-mails, in magazines, on talk radio, occasionally even
on television, I’ve been witnessing some of the
most thoughtful, deeply inquiring discussions I’ve
heard in years. I’m sure you have too. As we ask,
“Why?” and “How can we be safe?”
and “Where do our own responses lead?”
we’re looking afresh at what has been happening in
the Middle East and Central Asia. We’re learning
about Islam; we’re asking new questions about what
it is that breeds terrorism. In the process we’re
growing in our understanding of the interconnectedness of
the human family and in our potential for wisdom.
The fourth trend is the increasing impetus to service.
More than ever, people are looking for ways they can make
a difference. The crisis has revealed the triviality of
our endless pursuit of material possessions and focused
us on the centrality of serving the common good in an
interconnected world. The impetus to service provides a
magnificent wellspring of energy for meeting the immense
Something has shifted. A door to new possibilities has
opened at a time of our greatest need. But much danger
lies ahead. These shifts are real but fragile, especially
in the context of a nation at war. They need the
nourishment that you are offering in the many ways you
are reaching out.
FRAN KORTEN is the executive director of
Positive Futures Network, which publishes YES! A
Journal of Positive Futures (www.yesmagazine.org).
For 20 years, before joining Yes!, she served as a
program officer at the Ford Foundation’s offices in
Manila, Jakarta, and New York. She has edited several
books including Transforming a Bureaucracy, and
has authored numerous articles on people’s
participation, community management of water and forests,
organizational change, and the problems with
international loans as a form of aid. She taught at
Harvard University and the National University of
Ethiopia. She holds a doctorate in social psychology from
April 2002 News for a Change