My next-door neighbor has an unusual house; around here, it’s known as, “the Castle.” Even though it’s at the end of our quiet side street, people constantly drive down, stop, and gawk at the house and yard. The dwelling looks like a miniature Tudor castle, complete with battlements, a parapet across the top, a round tower, and a half-timbered upper story, so it’s easy to see why it attracts attention. With the plantings put in by a long-ago owner, it’s stunning. Unfortunately, that’s a big disadvantage in the ’hood where we live. Our part of the city has gotten severely rundown, and gentrification is not in the near future. However, on our street, the neighbors look out for one another, a definite rarity. It’s comforting to know that nothing goes down on our short block without someone knowing about it. The gentleman who lives in the Castle has always been kind to all around him. My husband and I have had a very congenial relationship with him, and because both he and we tend to be reclusive, we keep a respectful distance, but know that we’re there for each other. That’s why, one day last week, when our neighbor was at work and a car pulled up in his driveway, I took time to notice. I happened to be on the front porch and saw two men prowling around the house, so I texted our neighbor to see if he was expecting guests. He replied that he wasn’t, so I stepped across to his driveway and politely suggested that the two men might want to get back in their car and vacate the premises, as the house’s owner hadn’t given permission for them to be there. Not abashed in the least, the older of the men proceeded to heap abuse on me and declare that he had every right to be there. He made fun of my threat to call the police, but when I finally held up my phone and took photos of him, his companion, and their car, they left, snarling at me all the way.
Fast-forward to Monday, when I read an appalling article in the New York Times, regarding pandemic safety measures: “Stillwater [Oklahoma] City Manager Norman McNickle said in a statement that soon after the city started requiring patrons to put on masks before entering spaces like restaurants and stores, ‘store employees have been threatened with physical violence and showered with verbal abuse. In addition, there has been one threat of violence using a firearm. This has occurred in three short hours and in the face of clear medical evidence that face coverings helps contain the spread of COVID-19,’ McNickle said.”
Yesterday, I read that a guard in a Dollar Store in Flint, Michigan, was shot and killed when he tried to enforce the store’s new mask policy.
What do the incident at my neighbor’s house and these violent altercations over masks have in common? The concept that each person’s own wishes outweigh all the rules and the safety of others. The 1980s were called the “me” decade for a reason; they saw the acceleration of obsession with ourselves. That decade somehow mutated from the ’60s and ’70s, when it was all about fighting for each other, not with each other. Obviously, those two earlier decades were a time of extreme controversy and upheaval, but the prevailing philosophy was that the world population as a whole was the concern of all; war protests, civil rights marches, sit-ins for the environment — such were the hallmarks of those stormy years, and the world was better for them.
How did we get from a time when people were civil to one another, for the most part, and showed at least minimal deference to those around them, to the period we’re in now, when utter selfishness rules so many interactions? Where’s the justification for, at one end of the spectrum, unapologetically cutting across four lanes of traffic at the last minute to reach an exit ramp, to, at the other end of the spectrum, pulling a gun and killing a store employee for trying to ensure customers’ safety? I believe the culprit is the “me, first” mindset, and it superseded and wiped out the big-picture concerns of the Flower Power decades. Somehow, we lost a basic decency, a deeply ingrained, unspoken contract that said strangers around us should be treated with consideration. Certainly, we still see examples of politeness and altruism around us, but it’s as if the national character overall deteriorated into brutishness. Actions that would have been unanimously deemed unspeakably rude, selfish, and unacceptable in 1970 are unremarkable today. Worse, most people are afraid to call out the person who shows utter disrespect for those around him or her.
There’s a national meme for the “me, first” mentality; it’s called American exceptionalism, part of which is the belief that the United States is superior to other nations. Ronald Reagan is frequently credited with giving shape to the concept, which jives with the onset of the “me” decade. Extrapolated to a logical conclusion, if our collective population is superior to everyone else, we as individuals must also be exceptional; therefore, we have a right to be treated accordingly. Therefore, in the guise of freedom (or, “free-dumb,” as a recent commenter put it), we can do whatever we want, including storming a state capitol with guns, demanding that a governor be locked up for trying to save the lives of her constituents. I truly believe that the bone-deep conviction of exceptionalism has given rise to the dark, ugly attitude that has leached into and pervaded this country for the last several decades. We’re seeing the culmination now, in the form of the current White House resident, his followers, and his enablers. In the name of “making America great again,” mayhem prevails. No crime is too great, no behavior too self-serving. If the facts and the science don’t support one’s own version of the truth, so what? It’s gut instincts that are important, not experts. This country is exceptional in terms of becoming a world pariah. We’ve lost all humility and sense of oneness. The descendants of the “me” generation and the disciples of exceptionalism have brought us to the very edge of the abyss. Will the original believers in the Age of Aquarius, along with their emerging young counterparts, be able to pull us back?