Many in the United States seem to have forgotten that with freedom comes responsibility

The Declaration of Independence asserts that all people have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  We often distill this powerful phrase and the holiday of July 4th into one word: freedom.  For example, I just inputted “July 4th + freedom” into Google and found more than 12.5 million responses.  Inputting “Declaration of Independence + freedom” into Google yields more than 9 million hits (and the word does not appear in the document).

But often people bandy about freedom as a cover for selfishness: freedom from taxation, freedom from regulation, freedom to pollute; even freedom for people with a history of mental illness to carry guns (a truly scary National Rifle Association sponsored movement analyzed in a fine article in this past Sunday’s New York Times.)

In their pursuit of their own selfish ends, many people nowadays forget that with freedom comes responsibility—responsibility to fellow human beings, the community and the Earth.  For the past 30 some odd years, we have lived in a great age of selfishness, as exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s favorite joke about two people who see a bear in the woods.  The first says, “I hope we can we outrun the bear,” to which the second says, “I just have to outrun you.”

I’ve been visiting Toronto this past week, relying on the wonderful mass transit system.  In taking an escalator from the subway platform to street level at rush hour, I had an experience that really symbolized to me how selfish we have become in the United States.  It may seem like a small thing to some readers, but maybe not.

Let me preface my story with the fact that I am a dedicated walker.  When I get on an escalator or a people mover, I want to keep walking. 

In the United States, virtually every time I take an escalator or people mover during rush times there are people standing across the width of the conveyor, and often when I say, politely, “Excuse me,” so I can keep moving, they frown at me or look at me as if I were crazy.  Once in the Washington, D.C. subway, a man got very hostile, as if I was the offending party.  A few minutes later, a woman who looked to be his significant other came over to me on the platform to apologize, saying that he didn’t know one was supposed to stand right to let other people move by on the left. The excuse didn’t hold water, since their clothes and shopping bags from upscale stores suggested that they probably ride a people mover at an airport from time to time and so have heard that ubiquitous recorded chant of “stand right so people can walk left.” 

Now to Canada:  The escalator had people standing on it packed tight on every step from bottom to top, and every one of them was standing right and squeezing to the wall a little, so that people could move by them!!!  By the way, there was no sign telling them to stand right. 

In other words, people were thinking of others and their needs.

A little thing, you might say, but let’s remember that Canadians contribute more to the common good through paying higher taxes, which fund Toronto’s extensive mass transit system, lower costs for higher education, and a state-run healthcare system, which although much maligned in the United States, produces better results in terms of infant mortality and life expectancy than our system currently does (at a much lower cost). 

I’m not saying things are perfect in Canada.  What I am saying is that the escalator experience showed me once again that people in the United States have grown selfish and that it’s killing our society.  We see our roads deteriorating and our public schools choked to death by a lack of funding, and yet we won’t raise taxes.  Large corporations and industry associations that know about the threat of global warming still insist on gutting or stopping environmental regulations.  Physicians refuse to treat Medicare/Medicaid patients.  To sell a few more guns, the industry-fed NRA fights for the right of mentally ill people like the Virginia Tech mass murderer to own and carry firearms.  In Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, where I currently live, very few politicians dare to support reassessment of property taxes, even though that under the current system people in poorer neighborhoods and municipalities pay more than they should in property taxes and people in wealthy areas pay less than they should.

Now some may say that standing right so others can move ahead of you is simply a matter of politeness, but isn’t politeness an aspect of showing concern for others?  Whether it’s not extending unemployment benefits or cutting Social Security benefits so that we don’t have to (god forbid!) raise taxes, what we see is a lack of concern for others.  On an escalator, it’s merely irritating.  In the halls of Congress and our state legislatures, this lack of concern threatens to plunge us into another deep depression and make the Earth unlivable for human beings and other creatures.