Thursday, January 18, 2007

When selfishness became patriotic

Listening to Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech to the Memphis Sanitation Workers' Union, the day before he was killed, I was struck by his explication of the Good Samaritan story. The Samaritan, King said, teaches us not to ask "what will happen to me if I intervene?," but "what will happen to the sanitation workers if I don't?" Seems simple enough. Contrast this with Ronald Reagan's speech exhorting Americans to demand a tax cut. He said something like, if you want to do something for your country right now, call your representative and say you want lower taxes! I don't have the exact language, but I heard an echo of Kennedy's "ask not" line, updated for a new and greedier decade. As a people we have always let our individualism bleed into selfishness (otherwise King's speech would not have been necessary). But it seems to me that Reagan enshrined selfishness as patriotism. In the wake of Jimmy Carter's presidency, where sacrifice was mentioned too frequently for many tastes, this appears quite deliberate: greed is not only good, not only patriotic, but a form of sacrifice. How can you give? Why, you can demand money.

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