President Clinton urges Americans to ask not “What’s in it for me?” but rather “What’s in it for us?” He appealed to his audiences to develop “a new spirit of community, a sense that we’re all in this together.”
The president’s words are compelling, but he is speaking to a nation taught for several generations not to think in terms of “us.” A nation of immigrants has little shared history or culture. Instead, the United States has emphasized the individual, not the group. We take it for granted that public is bad and private is good, that collective is bad and personal good, that cooperation is bad and competition good. Our cherished slogans are “Don’t tread on me” and “Live free or die.” From the cradle onwards we are taught that whenever “we” becomes as important as “me,” whenever the social becomes as important as the individual, we are heading down a slippery slope toward tyranny and misery.
This harsh American emphasis on individualism has always been tempered by the historical presence of extended families, of ethnic neighborhoods, of family farms, of small towns—places where people know when you’re born and care when you die. But in the last generation we have moved more often and increasingly farther from our places of birth. Less rooted, we are less involved in our immediate communities. Neighborhood gathering places—cafes, grocery stores, even libraries and churches—are rapidly disappearing. Over 70 percent of us do not even know the people next door.