We live in a nation that prides itself on rugged individualism.
The "lonesome stranger" who ambles through our Westerns? One of our most iconic figures.
But have we gone overboard?
I'm thinking, for starters, of those post-Sept. 11 speeches by George Bush, who reassured an anxious populace by encouraging it to keep shopping.
If ever there was a recent time when Americans were susceptible to the notion of individual sacrifice for the common good, it would have been Sept. 12, 2001.
America then was a large group of relatives who'd suffered the shock of a sudden death in the family. "If there's anything we can do," we repeated to one another numbly. "Anything! Don't hesitate to ask!"
"Ah, don't bother," replied our President. "Jist g'wan over to the mall or somethin'."
Four years later, we're facing what appears to be Americans' second biggest fear after death: dwindling fuel supplies. But there is so little earnest discussion now about the quaint notion of "conservation" for the sake of the common good.
Isn't that for tree-huggers, for loony people with names like "Rainbow Butterfly" (or "Al Gore") who organize conferences about "green" building practices?
Isn't conservation for crackpots like Ed Begley, Jr., that quirky actor who insists on taking the bus, despite the fact that he lives in Los Angeles, the traffic equivalent of Dante's third or maybe fourth circle of Hell?
Hmm? Isn't that who conservation is for?
It's sure not for mainstream America, that cul-de-sac wonderland where the SUV reigns and hardly anyone thinks it's odd to drive three miles for a gallon of milk to a store located just a half-mile away on foot - except auto-obsessed traffic engineering has made it so we could not possibly walk there from here.
And conservation sure isn't for that America where everyone considers it their birthright to settle in for the night wearing just a thin cotton T-shirt - so what if it's February and the outside temperature is below freezing, just goose the thermostat!
In the current social-political climate, the idea is practically un-American. Why should individual Americans have to sacrifice? The very definition of "American" seems more and more to mean "an individual who is entitled to the very best that she or he can afford, regardless of any wider consequences"?
If you can afford a big honking SUV (and the gas required to drive the thing), well, then why not? Why shouldn't you?
If we're sitting atop untapped reserves, well then, why not drill? There aren't any other solutions, are there? (Well, not any that leave our heavy-consuming fuel desires satisfied, anyway.)
What used to be an admirable sense of individualism is fast collapsing beneath the weight of an ever-growing sense of Me-First entitlement.
We Americans might all be in this together - whatever "this" is - but we're sure not willing to stand together at any silly bus stop.
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