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The Appeal of Selfishness, the Naiveté of Hubris

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              “Mines”.  One of the first words my children learned to say, and say loudly.  “It’s mines!”  “Mines” is a word that the child in us never forgets.  It’s a word that today cries out from the core of Republican capitalism, i.e. Wall Street and executive boardrooms.  Close your eyes and listen to the whines of the ruling rich—can you not see 6-foot tall 2-year-olds, arms clutching at their chests, trying to suck in and hold captive an entire universe with each pre-scream breath?

                Few of us have the luxury of engaging in this behavior as adults--at least if we hope to avoid the unemployment line or, worse, a stint in the pokey.   But most of us can identify a part of ourselves that does want to carve out and hold on to something (or some things) that belong only to us, that are “mines”.  Material objects, perhaps, such as a car or a house, or even ethereal objects such as our privacy, our time.  Our human nature includes territorial traits—indulging them to a certain extent may have given us a survival advantage.  Become resource gluttons, however, and we imperil others as well as ourselves.

                Our Republican counterparts, who are in most cases anything but conservative, have opted to fashion themselves in the mode of a overindulgent grandparent who gives her babysitting charges permission to each the entire sack of Halloween candy in one sitting.  Human instinct, spiced with human hedonism, ensures every last bit of “mines” chocolate is promptly inhaled.  Then, it’s we, the taxpayers as Mom and Dad, who have to stay up all night nursing a country with a very upset stomach. 

                And, no, the experience isn’t likely to teach children to limit their candy intake the next year.  Tummy aches will be long forgotten, trumped by the barely controllable passion of “mines”.  Unless Mom and Dad grab hold of the candy, and dole it out in judicious quantities day by day, the scenario is likely to be repeated until maturity and self-control kick in.  (Or perhaps I should say “unless”?)

                Fortunately, as adults, most of us, power brokers excluded, do temper our tendency for “mines” with responsibility to ourselves and to our community.  But, that process takes great effort, insight, and wisdom—it is by no means a natural evolution.  Sigmund Freud’s simplified superego is a complex product of social norms, education and training, and culture—but its task remains challenging.  Keeping the lid on the “id” which is clamoring for freedom to “mine”.

                Therein lies the key to right-wing bloviators’ success.  Grandpa Rush gives us permission to yield to our “ids”, to return to the self-focused narcissism of the toddler, without guilt.  I bought it, I inherited it, I earned it, it’s mines.  And no one is going to take it away.  Mines.

                Okay.  We all need to relax and catch our breaths.  There is a compromise solution that acknowledges people’s needs to secure their territory, but asks everyone to think beyond their own needs towards the benefit of the community.  It’s called social democracy.  It provides everyone with enough toys to fill their arms, while making sure that no child is bereft of playthings.

                “Why should I give some of my toys to my neighbor?” you ask.  “Isn’t communism “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” ?  “Why should I, able and responsible,  pay for someone else’s irresponsible choices and consequent misfortune?”  Excellent questions.  Truth is, eventually, we will all pay for our fellow humans’ irresponsible choices, the way we are all now paying to buy trillions in Pepto Bismol for Wall Street.  But, the fear that we will be taken advantage of by the lazy and the cunning is valid and understandable.  Fortunately, as opposed to the extremes of implemented communism, social democracy has safeguards and incentives that aim to keep the playing field level and prevent such dysfunctional outcomes.

                I went to University at age 16, having grown up in a Republican home, enamored of the wit and wisdom of Ayn Rand and Objectivism.  Ms. Rand’s compassion-free writings of man and superman, investments and rewards, resonated with my own experiences as a bright, successful student, young and healthy, who had faced no personal tragedies and perceived an unlimited professional future ahead.  My grandiose dreams, I believed, could become reality simply by virtue of my talents and hard work.  The promise was tempting to my callow self, but haunted by a nagging question that I posed to my Objectivist psychology professor and mentor, “I live across the street from a teenager with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis who uses a wheelchair.  It wasn’t her fault. Shouldn’t we help?”  I still remember the shiver down my spine as his frigid azure eyes bored into mine.  “You,” he responded, his voice cutting, “are not an Objectivist”.

                Darn right.  By 17, I’d turned left and never looked back.   As a medical student and then a doctor, I saw far too many tragedies strike good, talented, healthy, hard-working people—people who did everything “right”.  Despite the delusion that our behavior controls our destiny, many of the ill, injured, and troubled who crossed my threshold were victims of fate and bad luck, underscoring the importance of a helping hand from those of us still fortunately unscathed.  A pediatric orthopedist colleague of mine whose practice reached out to patients with cerebral palsy and spinal cord injuries said it best as he walked with me through the hospital one day.  “We are all,” he admitted, “temporarily able-bodied.”

                Even you, Rush.  And Bill, and Sean, and Glenn, and Ann, and Laura, and Michael, and…  All of us.  None of us knows when the hand of fate might strike us and render us less able or capable to support ourselves, to earn our “mines”.   For that reason, we have to look at our candy and our toys from a mature, adult perspective.  No one is saying we can’t play or savor a chocolate treat.  Maoist uniforms and chain-gang labor are a right-wing fear-mongering exaggeration.  Social democracy means the wise and mature recognition that a.  we are all in this together and b.  chances are, we’re all going to need help someday.  If we help when we can, i.e. share our toys when we have more than we can hold, there will be enough “mines” for everyone.  And there will truly be “no child left behind”.






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Jill Jackson is a practitioner of kindness and common sense. Unlike her cat, she prefers to think out of the box.

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