Selfishness Is Not an American Virtue

LEO GERARD, President of the United Steelworkers

Last week, in an example of what makes America beautiful, several strangers rushed to the aid of a New York City construction worker trapped in a burning fifth-floor apartment. The rescuers hoisted a ladder up a fire escape and extended it to the smoky windowsill where the victim clung.

One of the rookie rescuers risked his life clambering across the
ladder-bridge four stories high and grabbing the victim as he dropped
from the window.

A group of unrelated men cooperated to save the life of a fellow
human. That is the best of America. That is what Americans aspire to
be – participants in a human community that works together to benefit
all, to advance everyone. But the American ideal of brotherhood from
sea to shining sea is under attack.

A cult of the selfish relentlessly assails the value of American
community. And now, the cult’s cruel campaign of civic meanness is
achieving tragic victories. Just last week, for example, it succeeded
in getting a bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that
would slash funding for food stamps by $40 billion – taking milk from
the mouths of millions of babes in the richest country in the world.
Also, it secured passage of a bill in the House that would de-fund the
Affordable Care Act, thus denying health care – and in some cases life
itself – to millions of uninsured Americans.

Denying food to the hungry, chemo to the cancer-stricken? That is not
American. That is what ruthless dictators do. That is the stuff of Kim
Jong-il. That is not how Americans treat each other.

It is, however, exactly what the cult of the selfish is seeking. It
wants an America without community, where everyone is out for himself.
Alone. Self-seeking. Self-dealing. In that world, the CEO who succeeds
did it all by himself – no credit should be given to dedicated workers
or community tax breaks or federal copyright protections. Similarly,
in that world, the worker who is laid off has no one to blame but
himself, not a crash on Wall Street, not the failure of a CEO to
properly market products, not a technological transformation.

Decades ago, these scam artists tried to persuade Great Depression
victims that their joblessness was their own, individual faults, not a
result of the 1929 Black Friday market catastrophe. They’re resurgent
now, trying to blame the 2008 Wall Street debacle on individual
mortgage holders. They contend those working 40 hours a week for
minimum wage deserve an income too paltry to pay for food and shelter.
They insist that Social Security and Medicare be slashed, and if that
means workers who paid into the programs their entire lives must live
on cat food in retirement, well, that’s their individual fault.

What’s frightening is how close they’re getting to what they want – a
country in which the rich get richer and everyone else blames
themselves for falling behind.

Between 2009 and 2012, income for the top 1 percent rose 31.4 percent,
climbing nearly 20 percent last year alone. Meanwhile, the non-rich
suffered. A census report released last week showed that median
household income declined by more than $5,000 between 1999 and 2012.
Average Americans work as hard and as long as they did a quarter
century ago, but they’re poorer, their net worth about 6 percent

Income inequality has returned to 1928 levels. And it’s worst for the
poor. Officially, 15 percent of Americans- 46.5 million citizens of the
richest country in the world – live in poverty. That’s a 2.5 percentage
point rise in poverty since the recession began.

Americans know it. Fewer now describe themselves as middle class. Last
year, a record high 8.4 percent of Americans called themselves “lower
class” in the General Social Survey, conducted annually over four
decades by the independent research organization NORC at the
University of Chicago.

This is happening even though America is rich. Even though American
workers’ productivity continues to rise steadily. Even though American
corporations are hugely profitable, with nine of the world’s 10 most
valuable companies American. The middle class is getting crushed even
as those at the top are getting richer.

The NORC survey showed a disquieting level of resignation to all of
this – a tragic belief that it won’t change. Fewer than 55 percent of
Americans, the lowest level ever, agreed that “people like me and my
family have a good chance of improving our standard of living.” That
is far too many Americans swallowing the argument of the cult of the

It does not have to be this way. America can afford to feed its
citizens and provide them with health insurance. It can provide decent
public education, good roads, Social Security and Medicare. Americans
can help each other succeed. Americans want to help each other so the
whole country can move forward together. That is the American way.

Americans can?t let the cult of the selfish prevail. As they did in
the 1930s when Americans created Social Security, facilitated
unionization and strictly regulated banks, Americans must demand that
the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share and that social
welfare retain primacy over self-interest.

Americans don’t turn their backs on fire victims. Americans don’t
allow their neighbors’ children to go hungry. They don’t believe a
fellow American should die for lack of health insurance. Americans
believe the guy down the street who works 40 hours a week should be
paid enough to house himself.

Americans believe in the responsibility and benefits of brotherhood.
They must make true the words of their national hymn:

“America! America!

God shed his grace on thee

Till selfish gain no longer stain

The banner of the free!”

Distributed by the news service PORTSIDE


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