The strong American belief in “get-rich-quickism” has been around for centuries. America has long been known as a land of opportunity, in which anything is possible. Overall, we work hard and prosper with a fair government and an incredibly high quality of life. But does this personal-wealth attaining motto have consequences beyond economic?
At the turn of his century, President Thomas Jefferson saw the ideal American as a rugged individual, an image that was established a century earlier as the first settlers crossed the ocean to start a new life, often for economic gain (like planting cash crops/exploiting natural resources). This founded an individualistic spirit that today, combined with the materialistic and money-grabbing tendencies that still reign, have led to a saddening scantiness of community and selflessness, as well as an ironic lack of moral guidance (from a country that prides itself on being a generous and caring example for the rest of the world).
Americans are not devoid of values — indeed, we frequently hear about heroic Americans who sacrifice their lives for others, or dedicate time to community service — but these values are learned from parents and their own family tradition, rather than from America. The spirit of America, although noble in many aspects, has been and is continuing to be dominated by greed rather than compassion.
We work, we eat, we shop, we shop on sale, we buy things we can’t afford and get billed for them later (when we still can’t afford them — think 1929 and 2008), and the result is a consumerism that comes not only
in excess, but also an each-for-him/herself fashion that breeds irresponsibility.
This has been especially true during the past 60 years, as the patriotic thing to do has been to shop (remember President George W. Bush’s instructions to spend more money in order to help the economy. Any accountability that might have been present in America’s values has been smothered. Americans have been let loose on shopping malls across our great land, and the impulsive immaturity that ensues has had no American tradition of rationality or reflection to withstand it, because no such tradition is present.
Compassion and responsibility. As a country we performed only marginally. We have successes like the Marshall Plan and the Constitution, yet also a mass of failures like the Spanish-American War and Bush’s 2004 re-election in which our shortsighted jump to action and overwhelming readiness to accept empty promises led us astray.
On a personal level, however, when it comes to the values America promotes in its citizens, we have done far worse. The spirit of our country is not one of which to be proud; it is rooted in self-serving motivation and thus leaves Americans without a moral compass. We have amazing citizens, but their goodness comes not from the undercurrents of America, but from their own personal lives.
The manifestation of this in our culture is subtle, but reflects the isolated, gluttonous nature of us throughout history. A few examples: health care is not universal; much of what we buy is made in sweatshops overseas; pharmaceutical companies are allowed to inflate the price of essential medicines for profit; and some current governors are not accepting federal funding from the stimulus package for education “on
The willingness of Americans to turn a blind eye to the aforementioned problems suggests a disparity between what America the nation preaches to the world, and what America’s spirit truly is. America the country hastily tries to rid the world of dictators and oppressors because that’s what America stands for, while America as it appears in its people quietly neglects injustices for scores and scores because the direct and personal impact is not there. It doesn’t threaten us and it doesn’t concern us — in the short run.
For too long, there has existed this blatant flaw in the base of our nation. Now more than ever — in my lifetime, certainly — there is a need for thoughtfulness and kindness in the decisions made by Americans every day. It is time for us all to close our wallets and open our hearts.