Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Death of America

So a couple of days ago I was watching the ludicrous orgy of douchebaggery known as Vh1's Tool Academy. For those who don't know, the premise of the show is this: nine women, fed up with their douchebag boyfriends, decided, instead of ditching them, to go on a reality show and teach them to change. In the process, they attend couples' counseling (conducted by a therapist whose degree probably has two "N"s in "University", because she has no freaking clue what she's doing) and compete to win dates in challenges.

In five weeks, Jenna and her tool Matsuflex (aka Ryan, but he insists on being called Matsuflex and refers to himself as "the Matsu") have won three challenges. Second-place finisher Aida this week told Jenna, "I was just hoping Shawn and I could win so we could give the date to somebody who hasn't won yet. I'm not saying you should do that, that's just what I wanted to do."

And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with this country. Though it's its own problem, leave aside the passive-aggressive BS in that statement ("I don't want to tell you that's what you should do, but I thought it would be a nice thing to do if I won"). Why should Jenna feel bad about winning? (She should feel bad for being in a long-term relationship with a guy named Matsuflex, but that's a different story.) We've been conditioned in our culture to see it as a bad thing when we acheive more than others. Why should the people who have failed to win a single competition be given the rewards? If you want to reap the benefits of winning, then bust your rear and win. And if someone's more skillful and wins more, why should they feel guilty? Why should they feel that they have to give their rewards away? Thankfully, Jenna resisted the pressure and enjoyed the rewards of her own work.

Does this seem frivolous? It's not. While reality TV tends to have little resemblance to actual reality, in this case it's a microcosm of our entire culture. Selfishness is an obscenity, and achievement is shameful. If you succeed, you have to "give your fair share" to make sure that people who haven't worked as hard or acheived as much can still have access to the rewards of your labor.

Selfishness is not inherently bad. Narcissism is, but there's a difference. One of my biggest philosophical influences, Ayn Rand, contended that selfishness--which she defined as "the rational pursuit of one's self-interest"--was not only not a bad thing, but everyone's highest moral obligation. By rational pursuit of one's self-interest, she explained, she meant not self-indulgence but the pursuit of true fulfillment. Using other people up or destroying yourself with drugs and alcohol may provide a temporary rush, but that lifestyle is not rational or in your self-interest. While I may not go so far as to say that this is humanity's highest moral obligation, it is certainly not a bad thing either. If you want something, and work towards it, not for the betterment of everyone else but for your personal fulfillment, you should not be made to feel guilty about it. It doesn't make you an awful person to acheive for yourself. If you gain something, through your work, and decide to share it, that's your personal choice. If you gain something, through your work, and decide to keep it, that's your personal choice too--and not a bad one. You've recognized that your life is not a tool for others to use to gain things they otherwise couldn't--good for you.

Success is nothing to be embarassed about. Neither is wanting to keep the fruits of your success. There was a time when our country recognized that. And until we remember it again, this culture is going to get worse and worse.

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