As Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay wrote recently, “Community is in a tight race with selfishness.”
Ours is a unique country in many ways, but none more so than in the way we meld individual achievement with group effort. There is the story about a man in a boat who decides to dig through his cabin floor. Water pours in and his shipmates are alarmed and angry, but he says, “Hey, it’s my cabin, I can do what I want.”
They reply, “Sure, but personal choice has its limits, and we’re all in the same boat here.”
Demanding that we wear masks and social distance in the face of a deadly and highly transmissible disease is to some, government overreach. The notion, “I’ve got mine, get your own” is less accurate than, “I’m taking my chances, and therefore, you are too, whether you like it or not.
Kelly Leventhal, a social media “influencer”—has been skeptical about mask wearing on Instagram, and when several of her nearly one-million followers challenged her, she snapped back: “It’s not a pandemic anymore!! Did you read the CDC numbers!! My platform isn’t to be a sheep, my platform is to be an independent thinker!”
What’s the nice word for “selfish” again? Oh, yeah, “independent.”
The writing is on the wall for all to see: This is the last electoral gasp of male-is-normative, White privilege politics. Fight though they will, demographics are destiny, and the “Me” group sees that clearly, and just wants to be left alone in their self-reliance, while the We’s assert that the nation is stronger together; that the future will be won by those who pool their time, resources, and expertise to create an outcome none of us could produce alone.
There are a couple of theories that try to explain the current success of selfishness in the American body politic. One is racial. Group selfishness that suggests people who don’t look like me are unworthy. That story says “the other” is less-than and shouldn’t be here to begin with. The least we can do is keep anymore from coming in, while we make life as hard as possible for those that are here.
Another is economic. Money trumps health, science, and education. Money, money, money, money, as the song goes. Their avatar is Donald Trump.
A third is the desire to stop the hands of time. For some, usually the empowered and monied, cultural change is always unwelcome. They like things like they used to be, as another song goes.
But perhaps it is bigger still. In some ways, the age-old battles of rural vs. urban, science vs. religion, and intellectualism vs. conspiracy theories, boils down to individualism versus communitarianism.
There’s a current internet meme that says, “It shouldn’t have to happen to you for it to matter to you.” We Versus Me is our longest running dispute.
Simply put, while many people enjoy the nature of community, others prefer to go it alone and to be left alone. Look no further than the World War II era: It took Pearl Harbor to reduce our isolationist tendencies. In the modern era, we’re the only wealthy country that considers healthcare an individual privilege, not a societal—let alone—human right. We rail against “Socialists” like Ike, FDR, JFK, and LBJ, who, the story goes, corrupted our sense of individual entitlement with Medicare, the UN, civil and voting rights legislation, and the social safety net.
A recent Morning Consult poll reveals that half of Americans support incentives to grow renewable sources of energy while only a fifth remain happy with extraction of fossil fuels. As that great font of Western philosophy and knowledge, the movie “Wayne’s World,” reminded us, “We fear change.” Fear turns us inward, and the future is always the enemy to those who fear change.
It starts with “Me,” but it takes “We” to finish. For instance, Albert Einstein cracked the atomic code, but it took theoretical and practical physicists the world over to actually split the atom and build a reactor. Innovators like him, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs all stood alone as inventors, but needed the many to change a world they couldn’t possible change on their own.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg broke many a glass ceiling before securing her perch in the treehouse. It remains to be seen if her replacement, Amy Coney Barrett, continues in that spirit, or if she pulls the ladder up behind her.
To me, this election is about whether I have misread our collective souls and whether I have misplaced my faith in the judgement of the American people.
Are we so desperate to hang onto the past, that we are willing to kill the future?