Let’s quit improving ourselves

Essay by Martha Quillen

American Life – April 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

As the 1996 elections commence, there’s one thing everyone seems to agree upon: America is headed in the wrong direction.

Even more surprising, both parties seem to agree about what should be done to right things: Slash the budget. Cut the entitlements. Employ more police officers to war against drugs and crime. Protect our children from portrayals of sex and violence. Stop illegal immigration.

Actually, as the rhetoric mounts, the only real argument in this presidential campaign is over who or what we should blame for this mess.

How did we go wrong? Was it the fault of liberal Democrats or reactionary Republicans? Was it the news media, or television, or Hollywood? Was it working mothers, or welfare mothers, or latch-key kids, or negligent fathers? Was it feminists, or homosexuals, or militant Christians, or survivalists?

Well, I have another contender. I think self improvement has been ruining America. Ever since I was in college in the late sixties, Americans have been improving themselves at an unprecedented rate. They’ve taken up jogging, aerobics, bicycling, Stairmasters, Nordic Tracks, and Nautilus machines. They’ve tried transactional analysis, rolfing, past lives regression, rebirthing, co-counseling, sensitivity training, primal therapy, and drum-banging. Americans have sought self-esteem, self-awareness, self-discovery, and self-empowerment. Some of our improvements have been downright bizarre, but Americans have improved regardless.

In the seventies we lauded rich, smart, perfectly groomed superwomen who could work all day without reapplying their hairspray, and women improved — by dieting, exercising, recognizing their needs, and putting themselves first.

In the eighties, Americans admired the Japanese because they worked so hard. So we improved even more — by focusing on our careers, maximizing our energy, and working extra hours. (If only we’d emulated the French, who get thirty days of paid vacation.)

But altogether, the twin stars of the self-improvement era have been assertiveness and aggression. Thus we read books like, When I say no, I feel guilty, and we even taught our children to, “Just say no.”

Presumably kids were supposed to say no to drugs and strangers. But as it turned out, children were very good at assertiveness, so they learned to say no to everything and everyone.

— As did everyone else.

But why assertiveness training?

Looking around, you’d think that in a country with so many acknowledged victims, someone would have concluded that most of us are natural-born bullies.

You’d think there would have been more people writing books encouraging us to recognize and ameliorate our savage nature.

By now, you’d expect to find dozens of famous psychologists prodding us to forgive, to forget, and to calm down. But then again, at eighty dollars per hour, I suspect therapists have to sell something we want to hear. And yes, I’d rather feed my inner child, too.

So in the end, we became more self-assertive — until today we have freshmen in the U.S. House of Representatives so aggressive they refuse to do anything the way it’s always been done — and they think that’s conservative.

So much for tradition.

Over the years, all of this self-improvement worked. We’re more confident and more competitive. We’re stronger, fiercer, and bolder. We’re more selfish, more self-righteous, and more intolerant. And we’re all more determined to make things go our way.

For three decades we indulged in a glorious milieu of self-assertion. We called our fellow Americans bigoted, oppressive, chauvinist pigs, or immoral, baby-killing sybarites. In the last few years, we’ve had terrorism in the “Heartland,” zealots shooting at abortion centers, fanatics firing on the White House, and angry crusaders joining militia groups.

And now, the militant rhetoric is escalating. We’ve got a war on drugs, a war on crime, a Republican Revolution, and an impassioned call for more guns, more troops, and more action. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that Buchanan led his camp by urging them to, “Mount up, and ride to the sound of the guns.”

In the last two years, young Republican leaders have declared war — and many of them expect us to fight to the death. Last year, new Colorado representatives promoted a degree of violence and vengeance worthy of Hollywood. A few apparently felt the death penalty for murder was not enough. As they saw it, death could also be employed to discourage lesser offenses.

A so-called “Make My Neighbor’s Day” bill would have let citizens fire upon criminals. HB 1286, would have given the death penalty to convicted drug dealers. Freshmen firebrands also led a concerted attempt to ease access to concealed weapons.

The promotion of violence and vengeance may not be right for film makers, but it doesn’t seem to worry our representatives. In a campaign speech, Lamar Alexander told of an illegal immigrant who was valedictorian at a Los Angeles high school. Then, Alexander proposed we put troops at the border, presumably to shoot at such nefarious felons.

Killing is the conservative stand in the upcoming elections. Our more moderate president proposes liberalizing wire-taps and searches while increasing censorship, police protection and investigative powers.

Although both parties claim they want to reduce big government, many Americans believe that our government has not just a right, but an obligation, to make Americans adopt better morals.

At this point, Americans could probably use a lot of good, old-fashioned sermons on manners and mores, but our government seems a curious source of such instruction. What with Watergate, Iranagate, Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers, Anita Hill, Paula, Hillary, GoPac, Packwood, et al, it seems improbable that there are many Americans who view our government officials as more moral than themselves. Yet, in spite of their dubious record, when our politicians aren’t urging death, they’re preaching morals.

Considering the trouble American students are having with math and reading, our children will undoubtedly do better if the government just forgets about sex education, drug education, and prayer. But during this election you’ll get to decide whether you want condoms or prayers in your schools, while the candidates argue about whether sex education should champion birth control or celibacy.

If you think family values should be left up to families — forget it. At the rate we’re going, we’ll soon have prayer in the schools, and to make things fair we’ll have a Christian prayer, an Islamic prayer, a Jewish prayer, a Hindu prayer, a Buddhist prayer, a pagan prayer, and numerous tribal prayers, and they’ll be followed by a sexual conduct class, a straight-thinking class, a conflict resolution class, and an environmental awareness class. There won’t be much time left over for reading or math, but that won’t matter — since there hasn’t been much time left for them in years.

— Nor does it matter that in polls, the voters aren’t particularly enthusiastic about any of our current representatives or candidates. In spite of the polls, our politicians do not lack self-esteem.

So next time everybody’s arguing about whether television, the media, the movies, the Republicans, or the Democrats shaped this America we dislike so much, I think we should remember to give the self-improvement gurus their due.

Right now, as we embark upon this election year, polarizing anger seems to be our most intransigent problem. Sure, America’s in debt, but it isn’t as if anyone is going to foreclose — and the deficit has been reduced in the last four years. Thus, it only stands to reason, that if we make slow but diligent cuts, we needn’t sacrifice the health, education, and welfare of today’s generations in order to save tomorrow’s. And yes, our young people are a worry, but slashing their educational loans and opportunities isn’t a solution.

In recent years, our federal government has been beleaguered by animosity, deadlock, in-fighting, and an inability to compromise. Granted, the Republicans mastered the sort of accusative, bombastic antagonism that clouds the subject and becomes the issue, but no one’s been exempt. Such tactics have impaired environmental progress from the beginning.

Yet this month, I went to a Democratic dinner where five Senatorial hopefuls spoke. Generally, I find such dinners depressing, no matter which party is hosting them, but this year no one railed about crime, gangs, violence, sex, drugs, the media, or the immorality of other Americans.

Instead, they talked about ways to save social security and expand health care services. They talked about ways to improve television programming, and fund critical programs. They talked about budget cuts that wouldn’t hurt the elderly or the poor, and about ideals, fairness, civil liberties, justice, and improving the financial situation of the American worker.

For the first time in my memory, the candidates spent more time talking about improvements, than about what went wrong. And they talked more about fixing problems than about fixing Americans. Surprisingly enough in this blustery year, there was almost no mention of the other party’s candidates, or what was wrong with any other candidates.

In Colorado, however, there has been a growing and genuine attempt on every side to settle disputes and tackle problems.

Thank goodness. For a little while there, I was expecting a bill to allow representatives to arm themselves against their political opponents.

–Martha Quillen