American values

Posted: December 8, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explores topics beyond the world of careers and jobs.]

A Story of Hope

I recently saw my favorite movie of the year, Nebraska.  This film by director Alexander Payne has it all:  a great story, compelling characters, and unforgettable scenery.  In some ways it’s a very simple story: An old man named Woody Grant thinks he has won a million dollars through a magazine promotion.  He and his son David travel to Nebraska to claim the winnings.  David understands that his father has not won the money, but he wants him to have the dignity that comes with belief and freedom.

Nebraska is a very funny movie with serious implications.  No character in this movie leads a happy life.  Woody’s sons have dead end jobs in Billings, Montana.  Their cousins have no opportunity in rural Nebraska.  The older characters repeatedly ponder lost opportunities and lost loves.  Woody, a man of few words, embodies all of these character in his dreams of winning a million dollars.  Beyond a few minor purchases, he doesn’t have any real use for the money.  He wants it because there is nothing else in his life.

On the emotional level, Payne contrasts love of people and love of money.  Where Woody and his family care for each other and view their history in Nebraska as one of human connections, many of the people in the small town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, only see Woody as a potential ATM machine.  His former business partner (brilliantly played by Stacy Keach) demands $10,000 as a repayment for loans made decades before.  Other relatives ask for their share, only to be driven off by Woody’s wife who reminds them that her husband did far more for them than they did for him. His bumbling nephews steal his prize notification certificate, only to learn that their uncle’s dream is a joke.

Once Woody’s fantasy is revealed for what it is, the people who wanted his money begin to mock him.  They have nothing in their lives, which makes their venom even more poisonous.  In some way, this aspect of the film reflects a country that has given up on work and saving to put all of its hope into fantasies of risk and luck.  Woody briefly became their hope, a winning lottery ticket.  When that dream died, they attack with scorn built through years of hopelessness.  Payne reflects this mood in scenes of a landscape that is both empty and hauntingly beautiful.  He portrays the town of Hawthorne as if it were frozen in the 1970s.

Despite these dark moments and motifs, Nebraska is also a great reflection on love and hope.  David is rock steady in supporting his father.  He takes him on the journey to Nebraska despite the protests of his mother and older brother, two characters who are first portrayed as sour know-it-alls who want to put Woody in a home.  However, as they encounter the people of Hawthorne, mother and son come to support Woody, which gives the film a richer emotional depth.  I won’t describe the ending, but it fits in being both touching and plausible.  While many critics have singled out Bruce Dern’s performance as Woody, which is fantastic, all of the actors capture their characters in a way that grips the audience, letting us share their dreams and nightmares.  Nebraska takes us on a journey.  At the end, we feel rewarded – as if we’d won the prize.

Posted: May 27, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

On Memorial Day, Americans remember and honor our war dead, those who gave their lives to persevere our country’s values.  What has happened to those values?  Think Progress reports that average CEO salaries in 2012 were $9.7 million, a new record.  The people on top are getting these raises at a time when most working people face high unemployment, stagnant wages, and reduced benefits.

Some might argue that our soldiers and sailors died for “freedom,” and CEO salary increase are a sign of that freedom.  I would disagree for these reasons:

  1. American freedom has always been a matter of opportunity and mobility.  What we see along with wage inequality is growing social immobility.
  2. American freedom has always respected the value of labor.  Contemporary business practices put profit above all else.  They project an individual liberty (i.e., Libertarianism) that ignores a very simple fact:  We have to live together as a society.  Absolute individual freedom is a myth.
  3. American freedom has always looked to the future, to giving better lives to future generations.  Our current short term thinking focuses on the fiscal year and quarter rather than looking out to future generations.
  4. American freedom has always been about shared sacrifice.  It doesn't seem like those who have the most are doing too much sacrificing.

My father fought in WWII.  Two brothers fought in Vietnam.  I respect all the men and women who have served this country.  When we remember them, we also need to think about their sacrifices and how we honor those sacrifices.  The news about record CEO pay is one more sign that we have lost our way as a culture.


Posted: May 13, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explores life beyond the workplace.]

Exceptionable Men & Women

On Sunday, April 22, I had the pleasure and honor of attending the Nikkei WWII Veterans Tribute, which honored Japanese American war veterans from the Midwest who could not attend a similar ceremony in Washington D.C.  We’ve come to think of men and women from this period as the “Greatest Generation.”  They survived the Depression, fought the war, and built middle class America during the 1950s.  For Japanese Americans, the story has an extra element:  internment.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forced Japanese American citizens living on the West coast to live in prison camps.  The popular fear of the time, similar to what we saw directed at Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, was that these American citizens would give aid and comfort to the enemy.  Families and individuals were forced to leave their homes and property behind.

In 1943, the U.S. Army began recruiting Japanese American males for combat service in Europe.  The 442 Regimental Command Team, a segregated group of Japanese American soldiers, fought some of the war’s bloodiest battles.  It suffered a 300% casualty rate, and it earned 21 Medals of Honor.  In the Pacific theater, Japanese American men and women served in the Military Intelligence Service, working as translators and often seeing action in front line combat.  They also played an important role in the post-war reconstruction of Japanese society.

43 veterans attended the ceremony and received gifts in honor of their service.  More importantly, their story was told again, which reminds us that American history is complex and not always a simple story of men raising flags.  President Truman captured the heroism of the 442 and all the Japanese American veterans when he said:  “You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home and you won.”  In his proclamation, honoring Japanese American veterans, President Obama wrote:  “They bore the extraordinary burden of defending our way of life abroad while many of their families were interned back home.  Despite the sting of discrimination, their dedication to their country stayed true, and we are forever indebted to these veterans and their loved ones.”

Too often, our country’s history is simplified, given a plastic surgery that covers over any kind of wrong.  Some even praise this version of history as American Exceptionalism.  There is nothing exceptional about the wrongs done to Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asian American, women, or gays/lesbians.  There is nothing exceptional about the war on workers and unions that started in the late 19th century and is alive and well today.  What is exceptional is that Americans from all backgrounds have fought and died abroad and at home to protect the country’s best values: inclusion, opportunity, and fairness.  The story of the Nikkei Veterans is an important chapter in that story.  They helped make America a great nation.

Posted: November 20, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explores intersections of work and life in “Sabbath.”]

College Sports and American Values

I normally agree with Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander.  Often Telander will cast things in a light that makes readers challenge their beliefs.  In his column in today's paper, however, he takes on an easy target, Joe Paterno, and the worship given to top college coaches.  When it comes to the crimes committed against children, I agree with Telander 100%.  I also agree that coaches are treated with more respect than professors and teachers.  However, we need to keep a balance between what disgusts us today and what we should remember about how we treated sports in the past and what has changed over the past few decades. 

I’ve frequently written about the great basketball coach John Wooden.  Coach Wooden built one of the greatest dynasties of all time while following a strict code of values.  In his nineties, Wooden wrote several books that outline his beliefs.  Other coaches taught their players similar lessons and helped them finish their educations.  By all accounts, Joe Paterno ran a clean football program and graduated his players.  His failure was to report a crime, an act that has cost him his reputation and could cost him even more in the future.

What has changed in college sports since the times of John Wooden and Ray Meyer of DePaul?  Money.  College football and basketball generate millions of dollars for universities.  They also help schools build a “brand” that helps increase admissions and contributions from alumni.  TV contributes to the problem.  We’ve gone from a game or two being televised each week to having entire networks developed to college sports, college conferences, and even individual schools.  Schools (not players) even draw income from video games that are based on college sports.  All of these factors help create a culture where sports overwhelms all other activities on campus. 

Telander notes that no school builds statues to English, history, or math professors.  That point is true.  But is that problem driven by universities and coaches, or by a culture that worships sports and disdains learning and study?  America focuses more and more on entertainment and fun, often sitting in front of a screen of whirling images.  We’ve lost the ability to think critically that comes with reading and the discipline needed to learn subjects like math and scinece.  Telander’s criticism is accurate on the surface, but we need to look deeper to see the real problem.  We need to look in the mirror and accept our responsibility.  Do our values fit our words?  Clearly, college sports is just one symptom of a culture that has lost its way.  We all need to change.