Americans believe we know who we are, but perhaps we’ve forgotten. We identify with rugged individualism, Horatio Alger and his bootstraps, and the Marlboro Man.
But while we’ve romanticized the individual, we may have lost sight of the ingenious ways our society elevated individuals by building a strong “we.”
Multiple presenters explored this “we” versus “I” symbiosis recently at the Kansas Health Foundation’s “Reshaping Our Reality” symposium.
Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona weighed in during his plenary when asked what he says to smokers insisting as Americans that they have the freedom to do as they wish. He agreed people had the right to smoke but not the right to ask others to pay their health care bills when they develop emphysema, bronchitis and lung cancer.
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“What are you going to do?” he asked rhetorically. “Put up a bond? Your ‘right’ has become my problem.”
Abandoning people is expensive, whether it’s health care for the indigent or prisons for the hopeless. We need greater civic engagement, Carmona said, not less.
But this could prove difficult in Kansas, where voters seemingly need birth certificates, passports and birth placentas to register.
“Kansas is the national epicenter for voter suppression,” said panelist Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.
Best-selling author Robert Putnam spoke through “scissor graphs” – charts illustrating a widening wealth gap – about austerity’s costs and beneficent programming’s bounty.
In one of many chilling graphs, Putnam charted the poor’s decline in high school sports participation. He said “pay to play” policies have priced out poor families and reduced student job readiness, because sports teaches “soft skills” like grit and teamwork.
We’ve decided, Putnam said, that air bags will deploy for a few while the collective absorbs the full, blunt impact.
Conversely, Putnam said a turn-of-the-century decision in rural America to invent high school unleashed the American industrial juggernaut.
“It was the secret to the American Century,” Putnam said.
Putnam said our country moves through “we” and “I” periods. America fared better in “we” cycles when opportunity reached more people.
Political pollster and analyst John Zogby said his data suggested millennials would buck the current “I” society trend.
Millennials prefer “communitarianism” to libertarianism and have little patience for hierarchy, Zogby said. This generation, he said, received trophies regardless of achievement in youth sports. Though some consider that a vice, it has bloomed into the virtue of believing every person matters.
“They give me hope,” Zogby said.
An African proverb, “Because I am, we are, and because we are, I am,” is instructive here.
As great as Alger and the Marlboro Man were, and as enduring as those mythic bootstraps were, we can never forget that America made them, as much as they made America.
Mark McCormick is executive director of the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita.