Sunday, August 24, 2008

The messy mixture of service, sacrifice and self-interest

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 8/23/08

Sen. McCain told Pastor Warren that he wanted to be president to “… inspire a generation of Americans to serve a cause greater than their self-interest.” This was a theme of Sen. McCain’s hour-long conversation with Pastor Warren. Sen. Obama, too, sounded a similar theme, although not as clearly stated. Responding to a question from Pastor Warren about the greatest moral failing of the U.S., Sen. Obama said it was the U.S. treatment of the lesser among us, presumably both here and abroad. Sen. McCain said that sometimes we, the U.S., forget that we are part of something larger, that we have focused too much on self-interest.

It was 47 years ago when President Kennedy uttered those immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Only 15 years after the end of World War II and selfishness was a presidential issue.

Fact: All of us are part of something larger than ourselves. We may not recognize it. We may refuse to admit or even to see it. Nevertheless, we are social animals, we exist as members of many groups and the groups are larger than we are individually.

A cottage industry exists to point out the loss of community in the United States, from academics like Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,” to the most recent offering, Dick Meyer’s “Why We Hate Us.” The observations are the same: Americans feel something is missing, that things are off track, that things are just not right. These authors essentially point to the same thing: too much “me” and not enough “us.” The most visible sign of the lack of community is the lack of civility in every nook and cranny of our society.

That lack of “respect” for others we find in our seemingly increasing “un”civil society, however, is the leveling of individuals in our increasing democratic culture. We forget how uncivil some groups were to other groups in the not-so-distant past. The open racism toward many groups; the patronizing and virtually invisible public status accorded to women; the shame bestowed upon the poor. Despite a culture of individualism, we still respond to people based on the groups with which we identify them.

There is tension between the individual and the larger group. Our culture tilts heavily toward the individual. As we exalt the individual over the group, we shouldn’t be surprised that so many decide that common norms are a bother and flaunt them. We see it everywhere, from text messaging friends during family dinners/celebrations to treating teachers rudely to candidates for public office maliciously spinning and lying about the character of other public servants only to turn around and hope to inspire people to public service because it makes one part of something larger than them selves. I probably should also point out that we expect cynicism today.

Community service is noble, but it is also a punishment for law-breaking. It is not that people don’t participate in things larger than themselves but that too many people do it for selfish reasons. Every college student states they wish to volunteer to help the community (“because it will look good on my resume and get me a better job”).

An important factor in the erosion of a “civil” civil society is that too many use the group for their self-interest: religious leaders who use their position to pursue their sexual preferences; politicians who feather their own nests while selling their influence to the highest bidder; school administrators who show overt favoritism to their friends and family members are just a few easy examples. Such events undermine our confidence in the groups these people are part of.

What we need are individuals who are (grudgingly) willing to sacrifice self-interest for the greater good. But when we all willingly demand tax cuts amidst a war; when we demand convenience at any cost; when we bristle at any suggestion that we bear any responsibility for the problems we face, and our leaders go along with us, then why are we grousing as we reap a bumper crop of that which we have been sowing? Because we all want the benefits of others’ sacrifices.

Cynical seems to be the norm today. Cynics lampoon the idealists. The idealists are out of touch. Where are the realists? According to an article I just read, in small group situations, if given a choice, the cynics and idealists would vote the realists off the island.

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