. . . I listen for two hours in a graduate seminar to two women therapists explaining to me how we are all entirely responsible for our destinies, and how the Jews must have wanted to be burned by the Germans, and that those who starve in the Sahel must want it to happen, and when I ask them whether there is anything we owe to others, say, to a child starving in the desert, one of them snaps at me angrily: "What can I do if a child is determined to starve?"I re-read much of Marin’s 1975 piece after remembering how much the conservative obsession with personal responsibility mirrors the narcissism of the human potential and New Age movements.
That, precisely, is what I am talking about here: the growing solipsism and desperation of a beleaguered class, the world view emerging among us centered solely on the self and with individual survival as its sole good. It is a world view present not only in everything we say and do, but as an ambience, a feeling in the air, a general cast of perception and attitude: a retreat from the worlds of morality and history, an unembarrassed denial of human reciprocity and community.
“For if we are each totally responsible for our fate,” Marin wrote, “then all the others in the world are responsible for their fate, and, if that is so, why should we worry about them?” Writing about what is generally considered a liberal worldview, Marin observed:
That is what makes our new therapies so distressing. They provide their adherents with a way to avoid the demands of the world, to smother the tug of conscience. They allow them to remain who and what they are, to accept the structured world as it is-but with a new sense of justice and justification, with the assurance that it all accords with cosmic law. We are in our proper place; the others are in theirs; we may indeed bemoan their fate or even, if we are so moved, do something to change it, but in essence it has nothing to do with us.It's the same disdain for the fate of others perceived as not as "responsible" as ourselves that is reflected in much of what I hear from conservative colleagues. It's dog whistle politics, code-speak for saying these Irresponsibles have made choices that place them outside the velvet ropes of middle-class convention, including - and rarely mentioned aloud - poor choice of parents, national origin, religion and skin color.
Bill McKibben’s “The Christian Paradox” in the August 2005 Harpers explored the political right’s amalgam of movement- and Christian-conservatism, noting the same self-referential, “I’m all right, Jack” morality:
. . . the softfocus consumer gospel of the suburban megachurches is a perfect match for emergent conservative economic notions about personal responsibility instead of collective action. Privatize Social Security? Keep health care for people who can afford it? File those under "God helps those who help themselves."Popular megachurches preach a reassuring prosperity gospel which tells well-heeled believers that their good fortunes are a sign of God’s favor. Others’ misfortune is their own fault – the result of bad choices for which they alone must bear the weight of personal responsibility. How else will they ever learn and grow up to live lives of personal responsibility in 7500 well-earned, God-blessed square-feet on the seventh tee? Like moi?
How nice it would be if Jesus had declared that our income was ours to keep, instead of insisting that we had to share. How satisfying it would be if we were supposed to hate our enemies. Religious conservatives will always have a comparatively easy sell.The left/right parallels are striking enough that McKibben accuses neither left nor right, but the culture at large,
[. . .]
Taking seriously the actual message of Jesus . . . should serve at least to moderate the greed and violence that mark this culture. It's hard to imagine a con much more audacious than making Christ the front man for a program of tax cuts for the rich or war in Iraq. If some modest part of the 85 percent of us who are Christians woke up to that fact, then the world might change.
[. . .]
Since the days of Constantine, emperors and rich men have sought to co-opt the teachings of Jesus. As in so many areas of our increasingly market-tested lives, the coopters – the TV men, the politicians, the Christian "interest groups" – have found a way to make each of us complicit in that travesty, too. They have invited us to subvert the church of Jesus even as we celebrate it. With their help we have made golden calves of ourselves – become a nation of terrified, self-obsessed idols. It works, and it may well keep working for a long time to come. When Americans hunger for selfless love and are fed only love of self, they will remain hungry, and too often hungry people just come back for more of the same.
These similarities make it difficult (although not impossible) for the televangelists to posit themselves as embattled figures in a "culture war"- they offer too uncanny a reflection of the dominant culture, a culture of unrelenting self-obsession.And yet, that culture may be beginning to change as American wake up from the shell shock of the last eight years. It is the belated observation of the punditocracy that in this election year voters are hungry for authenticity again, for an America that is once more about something greater than ourselves.
Voters have had their fill of the slash-and-burn, divide-and-conquer, zero-sum politics of the last dozen years. They've seen their home values plummet and their purchasing power shrink along with America's middle class. Weary of being told whom to vote against, they desire something to vote for. Something better than business as usual.