Watching events unfold over the past year has brought into focus what seems to me the central tension in American culture.
America’s power and might as a nation has come largely from the freedom given individuals to pursue their dreams. Providing its citizens the opportunities to seek personal happiness and fulfillment. Unleashing the human spirit on a vast, new continent with seemingly boundless resources.
Free enterprise and capitalism, as the engines behind business, industry and technological advancement, have spawned astounding levels of prosperity, progress and wealth. We celebrate the entrepreneur. We idolize the rugged individual, the singular action hero, “the self-made man,” and the many achievers whose rags-to-riches stories animate our national mythology.
We may tell our children there is no “I” in “team,” but our reward system clearly prizes the stars, the winners in our survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog, looking-out-for-No. 1 world. We may joke at the notion that greed is good, but we admire those whose ambition and savvy have taken them to the top of the heap. We envy others for what they have. And our national economy is predicated on the concept that self-interest and riches among the “haves” is actually good for the “have-nots.” The wealth trickles down, lifts all boats.
The creativity, innovation, drives and attributes associated with self-improvement, self-gain and success have made America great.
And yet there is another trait that has made America a richly generous place, an example of human possibility and virtue, a beacon, a light, a city on the hill. And that has to do with our sense of equality, community and the common good. Our social fabric, our cultural safety net comes not from pulling separate threads but from the joining of neighbors and neighborhoods, at barn-raisings and potluck dinners, from people coming together after a hurricane, tornado or flood. Our altruism and civic-minded solidarity. Not “me first,” but “all for one, and one for all.”
This egalitarian ideal has fostered our school systems, our public libraries, our local hospitals. It is manifest in our churches where we learn to love a stranger, extend a hand to the needy and less fortunate, to open ourselves to our shared humanity. It’s been embodied by politicians, once idealized as public servants, who talked of building the Great Society, one nation under God. And it’s been evident when the government stepped in to protect the people’s well-being against those who put profit ahead of human health — because robber barons and greedy captains of industry live in our national consciousness, too, along with the dark secret that triumph was won long ago through the avarice that led to genocide and institutionalized slavery.
This is the tension that is our national dynamic. Getting what I can for myself. Helping others. Taking care of me and mine. Caring for neighbors.
A society is healthiest for all when the two contrary pulls exist in equilibrium. The world needs the benefits of both. A tilt toward “every man for himself” is especially dangerous in this perilous time in human history when our neighbors are all those with whom we share this shrinking, damaged, endangered planet, when selfishness could mean our ultimate self-destruction.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.