09/21/2010 01:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Time to Grow Up

We can call it libertarianism, patriotism, conservatism, or anything we want, but the truth is this: an ideology of selfishness has gripped the nation.

People who have spent their lives supporting politicians hell-bent on destroying the government now complain that "government doesn't work." Of course it doesn't work. You wanted it that way, so you could keep your little handful of tax dollars from being spent on undesirables. This selfishness has gotten so far out of control that people are even willing to destroy themselves, rather than make any contribution to the greater good. They attack medical and social spending intended to keep them out of poverty and illness in their old age.

This me-me-me trait is dressed up as pragmatism by politicians, libertarianism by pundits, and self-reliance by citizens. Our corporate masters would call it capitalism and leave it at that. But we are in serious trouble as a nation unless we remember, and fast, how to start making concerted sacrifices for the common good.

We can say, "well, these people have been brainwashed," and that is true. But they have been so eager to embrace the destruction of the social contract, so willing to fill their heads with the most patent right-wing nonsense, it can't all be chalked up to the lies of a handful of media personalities and politicians. Even corporate propaganda is no excuse. These are people with an inherent selfishness so pervasive it has drowned out the voice of human decency from their souls.

A child of two years is perfectly selfish. It's a phase. The child does not yet understand that the world is a big place, and that there is much going on beyond that child's experience. The child is working with a small accumulation of information, shot through with tales of magic and nonsense dished up as fact by indulgent grown-ups; the child believes itself to be fully informed, and resents to the point of hysteria being told what to do, or not getting what it wants. It is through the efforts of adults that small children leave this phase behind and begin the journey to adulthood themselves, based on an understanding of compromise, sacrifice, and the importance of respecting other people.

What we are dealing with is a large mass of adults, many in their sixties, who have never gotten past this mindset -- or have slipped back into it, because they are unsatisfied by how their lives had turned out. The powers that be -- commercial media, big corporations, and the most cynical politicians -- are only too pleased to egg these people on. There is no better cover while looting a nation's riches than the ravings of a bunch of sincere but deluded common folk determined to see it done.

It comes down to this. These selfish Americans are not getting everything they think they deserve. So they're regressing into an infantile state, blaming strangers for their troubles, demanding their way, making threats. They have become tantrum-throwing children again, certain they are at the center of the universe, beholden to nobody except perhaps Santa Claus. They want good and evil, right and wrong, a sort of moral puppet show bounded on all sides by absolutes. They want their rights, a term these people understand to mean absolute lack of responsibility to make the slightest involuntary sacrifice, regardless of the consequences.

Even war doesn't equate with sacrifice any more; certainly not for corporations grown fat at the bloody trough, and not for most of the so-called patriots blustering and blowing about spreading freedom at the point of a bayonet. A few have served in the military; if they still think it was worth the fight, they're entitled to do so. But our haimish breed of armchair soldiers hasn't been confronted with the draft, rationing, or the bill for our foreign adventures; these homespun hawks haven't had to cut back on resources, food, or any comfort, however slight, as part of the war effort. This is selfishness elevated to obscenity.

Millions of Americans are tumbling into poverty because there are not enough jobs. And yet, the selfish Americans, egged on by the corporations busily stripping them of their value, cry out: "the government is picking my pocket!" and "Who do you trust to spend your money: Uncle Sam, or yourself?" They reject unemployment benefits for those left unemployed because there are not enough jobs. Let the lazy out-of-workers starve. Those people are unworthy, or they would be busy; idleness is punishable by death. If it's people of color or some non-Christian faith, worse yet. They shouldn't have been encouraged to breed in the first place, the thinking goes.

How do we break this cycle of selfishness? There are two traditional routes to overcoming this pernicious problem. The first is some great national effort that unites Americans behind its promise, as did the 1930s WPA, the 1940s war effort, the interstate freeway project of the 1950s, or the space program of the 1960s.

That kind of big vision doesn't seem to be within our president's grasp; even if he wanted to undertake such projects, his own party lacks the political will, and the opposition is ferociously opposed to doing anything about anything. This leaves the alternative route to making national-scale sacrifices: a disaster that leaves nobody unscathed. The Depression was one such event. The Civil War was another. Unless we can find the will to act as a nation to promote the general welfare, not an ever-more vicious competition for self-enrichment amidst dwindling resources, we will meet our devils that way.

One way or another, the selfish American is going to have to grow up.