ITEM: In 1960 I was a very conservative, naive student at a very liberal, socially-conscious college. That combination didn’t always lend itself to a smooth college experience. When the Progressive Socialist Society announce that it was staging a demonstration at the local Woolworth’s store to support the black men and women who were denied access and service in a Nashville, Tennessee, Woolworth’s, I was enraged. I took the bus to downtown and spent the day watching and listening and talking with my fellow students. By mid-afternoon I was buying them gum and candy, applauding them when they responded intelligently to catcalls and confrontations, and by the time they broke up the demonstration and boarded the college bus to go back to the campus (with me) I was hooked. If there is such a thing, it was the singular moment of the beginning of my liberalization.
ITEM: August 28, 1963. Over a quarter of a million men, women and children, black, brown and white, gathered in Washington, D.C. for a passionate expression of altruism to listen to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. give his famous “I have a dream” speech to rally support for labor reform and justice. It was a turning point in the Civil Rights movement and an historic moment for America.
ITEM: Students, parents and other citizens packed a meeting of a local Rhode Island city’s Board of Education to protest the potential elimination of sports programs from the austerity budget being developed in response to major deficits in city funding which will require cuts in the school budget. The display of narcissism which emerged demonstrated emotional exaggerations of potential crime, tragedy and personal destruction if the sports program was eliminated. (While I concur that the potential of cutting the sports program is probably a bad move, the language of the protests was pure narcissism.)
What an interesting mixture of events…all examples of the American privileges of public assembly and free speech, they nevertheless represent a transition in the American passion which has taken us from altruism to narcissism. The demonstrations of the 1960′s were clear expressions of altruism: the demonstration of concern and support for others. The demonstrations of the late 20th and infant 21st century have been, for the most part, expressions of concern for “me.” That’s a pretty harsh criticism, but I stand by my statement.
- The NIMBY movement (Not in My Backyard) has been characterized by a concern to protect the property values of my home, recognizing the value of water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants, power plants, and fuel storage facilities, as long as they are not located in proximity to my home. Put them in inner city ghettos or deteriorating industrial sites, but don’t put them in my neighborhood.
- Many in the Tea Party Movement (not all) are outspoken about protection of my property, my income, my health insurance, my privileges…even when they are at the expense of others who struggle for survival. Criticism of legislation which extends benefits to those on the economic fringe of society is rampant.
- Citizen groups who are frustrated by the crises of the times call for protective shields around those things which are of value to me, even recognizing the need and desire to simplify the cost of operation of municipalities.
I hope I’m not just exercising nostalgia for “the old days” when I say that the drift from altruism to narcissism is offensive. Every now and then a cause erupts which demonstrates self-less concern for the plight of victims. I think of the attack on the Twin Towers and Hurricane Katrina. But they are short-lived events, fading into history as a new tragedy arises…or as a self-centered passion emerges.
Photo Credit: Nashville Sit-ins