A few months ago and despite my better judgment, I spent some time watching the NFL playoffs. Seeking relief from rather than in work, I soon was reminded that the tube is a conduit of malaise and of pop cultural propaganda. For every glimpse of the tenacious gifts of Dan Marino, there were hours of dumb talk and worse commercials whose gist was a kind of asinine “we are the world” homogeneity. Czech nuns and Moroccan pimps talked earnestly of software. AT&T told me “to know no boundaries.” One moment I was watching helmeted, 300-pound sociopaths break dancing in the end zone; then in a blare of electronic music they were replaced by a winsomely handsome brown youth leaning lazily against the rail of a coral. Was he dreaming?

Apparently not, though I wish I had been. Intercut quickly with his happy face were noisy, dusty scenes of painted magi gyrating to a digireedoo. Suddenly, a Coke bottle fell out of the sky. They all drank of it. They danced happily together. It was California 2001.

But I didn’t want to buy the world a Coke. I wanted to watch Marino. “That’s what the world wants today,” I muttered scroogily. And then I remembered Milan Kundera’s apposite comments on attempts to legislate a nation of perfect harmony, “where every man is a note in a magnificent fugue and anyone who refuses his note is a mere black dot, useless and meaningless, easily caught and squashed between the fingers like an insect.”

That of course is the standardized pliability to which the diversity-mongers and multinationals alike wish to reduce us: a world of grinning, fizz-guzzling consumers and consumerettes trapped in a never-ending Coke commercial. Real differences, distinct regions, nations, cultures, and values will melt into a global economy. Freedom will devolve into a gospel of “choice”: Coke or Pepsi, Macburgers or Burger Crown, abortion or welfare. And anyone who refuses to sing these notes will become a mere black dot, easily caught and squashed by the unisexual technocrats of the global nanny-state.

Discomfort with such futures helped make the last elections a referendum on American identity. We voted “no” to such symptoms of social decay as Roberta Achtenberg, Hillary Rodham, Oprah, O.J., and Janet Reno, the minister of justice who cared so much for those children at Waco she had to incinerate them. The elections indicated growing awareness that we have gone badly astray. But what is the way back?

In reflecting on our origins and contemporary direction, we would do well to contrast the misplaced smugness of weare-the-world triumphalism with a formative sermon from America’s early years, John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity.” Let us look first at the trend and next at what we might retrieve.

Ever since the Cairo population conference, that fiesta of intrusive and intolerant do-gooders, liberal media in tandem with multinationals touting the “global economy” have floated a noisome rationale for the appeal of American culture. We are the world, they suggest, and the world loves us just as we are. And what are we?

The departure of American troops from Berlin last year, like the crumbling of the Wall, provided powerful images of a renewed world. But the glacier’s retreat reveals some foul detritus. In articles celebrating the apparent triumph of our values, newspapers in New York and Boston quoted a Berlin teenager. “Just about everything we have that’s fun comes from the United States,” he said. “If it weren’t for the Americans we wouldn’t have baseball caps. We wouldn’t have malls or fast food shops or skateboards. Life just wouldn’t be as good.” Perhaps this young fellow is a budding ironist, a master of the deadpan put-on. Perhaps, like so many today, he’s too far gone to know what he’s saying. What is most troubling, however, was the glee with which the Northeast’s newspapers of record highlighted his comments.

Boston is known for priggish arrogance, once blue-nosed, now politically correct. With liberal Democrats in the White House, its major newspaper has taken to cheering on the pop culture which the Clintons incarnate: slob Willy and his Big Macs; tough Hilly fooling with her hair.

Shortly before the elections, Boston’s liberal daily followed the above-quoted nonsense with a front-page perspective on the global appeal of American values. In Egypt, the writer assured us, “the most popular television program is ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ . . . Cairo boutiques name themselves after the soap’s main characters—Brooke, Ridge, Thorn and Storm.” Hold your nose; this is only the beginning of the catalog. “In Amman, the Jordanian capital, upscale teenagers wear American baseball caps turned backwards, listen to rock ‘n’ roll and watch American television shows In the tonier neighborhoods of Tehran, women are barely inside their front doors when their robes are abandoned to reveal miniskirts. Cigarettes are lit and homemade alcohol consumed. The latest Hollywood films are rented by door-to-door salesmen.”

Don’t know whether to laugh or cry? Well, consider that such attitudes are not only a left-wing phenomenon. Idolaters of the market carry these insidious notions across the thin membrane between liberals and money-Republicans. The compromised immunity that results when wealth displaces moral values was reflected in an influential “conservative” biweekly, which offered some pop-cultural cheerleading by an American ephebe in Prague. “Glitzy stores and state-of-the-art showrooms open every month,” enthused the young capitalist (an editor for the Czech edition, I kid you not, of Elle magazine). “Until recently,” he continued, “it was rare to see a Mercedes or BMW; now they’re common. Last spring several Japanese restaurants opened.” Are these the signs of America’s triumph? The passage reads like a Soviet-style caricature of the West. I thought we cherished Prague for Hradcany Castle and Old Town Square; for civilized habits; for Havel, Kundera, and Kafka.

Apparently not. The young entrepreneur equated “the American influence on culture” with “Danielle Steel and Stephen King.” Shall we be of good cheer now that “Czechs shop at K-Mart, eat at Little Caesar’s, watch Baywatch and Beverly Hills 90210“? Many present such filth as a triumph of America’s “openness, sense of freedom, possibility and vitality.” Perhaps this is to be expected from an elite which routinely celebrates lesbian sperm shoppers. But true conservatives are less than amused by sleazy characterizations of openness and freedom.

In the age of Clinton there are two antithetical visions of American identity. One view confounds freedom with material entitlements and tolerance with license. The other defines freedom as a rising opposition to government’s arrogant intrusions and unnatural ideologies. It sets individualism against the enervating noise and exhausted frenzy of Hollywood’s primping starlets and pampered athletes. Some of us understand that America’s vitality stems from a moral sense, a willingness to accept responsibility and to defend the attendant rights. Opposed to this are drugs, soaps, victimology, narcissistic lifestyles, and contempt for tradition. Emanating from Washington, Manhattan, Hollywood, and wherever the cultural elite gathers, this filth reflects our slide into infantile consumerism.

“Mickey Mouse will see you dead,” insists a bitter CIA operative in Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise. His remark, tossed off to a hall full of shocked Hondurans, hints at the mindless indulgences that drag us down. Our beacon to the nations has become a neon glare mesmerizing what is weakest in people abroad with what is cheapest in us. Are soap operas, drugs, teen suicide, quotas, and single-parent “families” the future that we want? Are we content to surrender our vigor to the paralyzing ministrations of the nanny-state?

“There really are no foreign names in America anymore,” gloats a liberal columnist, adding, “90 percent of the American dream is simply showing up.” (And they wonder why Proposition 187 passed.) We no longer are, it is claimed, nor should we be an essentially European culture. No, that’s “racist.” Instead we will be a chaos of global orality, an anticulture of slogans and consumerist poses.

Multiculturalism is the latest pose. It collects people like shades of lipstick, one from each quota box. There is a different color for each day, for every mood. As long as the shades aren’t white, the liberals love them. Just show up. As the man said, “Mickey Mouse will see you dead.”

What were our beginnings that our end should be so tawdry? That Establishment pundits should confuse our culture’s decay with victory? Three hundred and sixty-five years ago, on a small ship in the middle of the gray North Atlantic, John Winthrop sat writing a lay sermon. When he walked out of his cabin to read it, he looked not only to the stormy west but toward the obscure future. Would his flock kindle a clear light there, or only a deceiving gleam? “We are entered into a covenant with God for this work,” Winthrop wrote. “He hath given us leave to draw our own articles. But if we neglect them . . . seeking great things for ourselves, the Lord shall surely break out against us.” Think of Brooke and Thorn and Storm.

“The only way to avoid this shipwreck,” Winthrop went on, “and to provide for our posterity, is to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of superfluities . . . always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.”

The keynote of Winthrop’s remarks is dignity (where is that virtue stressed today?) and responsibility for oneself and for one’s community. Only such a moral commitment, those pioneers believed, would protect us as a nation and secure us as individuals. If we so act, Winthrop continued, then “ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand, and we shall be as a city upon a hill.”

Somehow, from these beginnings we have changed from a lamp to a mirror of dazzling and trashy brilliance. In it we see the world, and the world sees us, as a self-gratifying toy. And in working this bad magic, the bacchantes of spurious diversity and bizarre lifestyles have joined idolaters of the free market. Both tell us “we are the world” but at the same time divide us into categories by gender and color, favoring some, vilifying others for being too Western, too rooted in the culture Winthrop helped forge. Some are given rights without responsibilities, others are told to shell out and keep quiet.

We would do well to scrutinize how our national spokespeople package and define us. Seeing ourselves reflected so badly abroad, it may be time to shut the gates and reset our understanding both of America and of individualism.