A guest column from John Agresto:
“The Entitlement Mentality” by John Agresto
America is a scandal to the world. We are the world’s largest “consumer” society, selfishly using more than our fair share of the earth’s resources. We are self-indulgent, mean-spirited, and intolerant. Other nations are so much “fairer” – health care, food, housing, education, vacations…all given on the basis not of what a person has “earned” as much as what our common humanity demands we share equally and all around.
That, at least, is the mantra of the rest of the world: America the home of rugged individualism and nasty small-mindedness.
Yet the evidence to the contrary is all around us. This morning I read the posting of one of my Iraqi students here on a student exchange program: “The words, ‘Americans are cold and unfriendly,’ and ‘America is a dangerous society,’ were the words that always completed the answers to my questions.” Yet, after spending a few months here, he and his friends “were convinced that almost all the rumors about American society and its people were wrong.” America, as it turned out, had “the friendliest people I have ever seen,” and, he added, every other student here with him agreed.
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But this should hardly surprise us. When I first went to Baghdad in 2003, there was any number of suicide attacks. Whenever a bomb went off, the Iraqis would run for their lives. That’s only natural. But Americans were different: Whenever a bomb went off, our soldiers would run TOWARDS the bomb, not away. Why? Obviously, not to save themselves but, oblivious to their own safety, to see if they might help save their friends.
Or consider that day ten years ago when the planes flew into the Twin Towers. Beyond the picture of the falling buildings, perhaps the image most seared into our American memories is of policemen and firemen running UP the stairs of the towers while everyone else was running down. They ran up, and they died. Why did they run into those burning and crashing buildings? To save their neighbors, neighbors they didn’t know; neighbors so many of them would never meet.
There are more recent stories. I was in Missouri soon after the tornadoes that destroyed the city of Joplin. Yet, beyond the destruction, what was most evident was the repeated story of strangers sheltering strangers. And hospital workers with no hospital left to go to handing out sandwiches they made. And people no one knew keeping safe children they didn’t know. And the sign scrawled on one collapsed building, “We’re all OK in here,” with the unspoken words: don’t worry about us, help those who are worse off.
How can this be? Where did this concern for our neighbors – and even, in the case of my Iraqi student, for strangers – come from? Let me suggest that we are a charitable and neighborly people for the very reason that we tend to be a fiercely independent people. Look around at most Americans you know — free men and women who do not wait with their hand out but who stand on their own two feet and give the world their best shot.
In so many places citizens are hardly citizens but subjects — wards of the government, dependent on the state for their housing, their health care, their monthly salaries, their education, even their weekly food baskets. When troubles come, their first thought is not “How can I help myself and my community” but “Hurry up, government, and help me.” In this regard the contrast, say, between the decidedly independent citizens of the American Heartland on one hand and supinely dependent New Orleans could not be greater.
This entitlement mentality, this view that others owe us because we deserve it and demand it — rather than we lift ourselves up through our own grit and hard work — leads not only to people with slavish souls, not only to people incapable of coming to the aid of their neighbors, but also people who can only view their neighbors as means towards their own ends. If you truly want to encourage greed, selfishness, and contempt for others, teach people to think that the goods of the world are theirs by entitlement, and that the reason for their failures in life are all the fault of others. It’s free people who look out for fellow citizens; it’s dependent people, or people who think they are owed, who help no one, not even themselves.
Let me hazard a guess based on experience – that the fairest nation on earth will be the one that prattles least about “social justice”; that the most neighborly will be the one that least tries to enforce artificial community; and the most compassionate will be the one that most cultivates the qualities of freedom in the souls of its citizens.
Perhaps we are not a scandal to the rest of the world as much as we are a lesson and a reproach.
Agresto is a former professor and university president, and the author of Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions (Encounter.)