Modern America asks only, ‘What’s in it for me?’

Published 5:55 pm Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Too much time spent at home rather than in an office working can lead to some bad habits, a big one being too much television.

The inanity of much that passes for entertainment these days is striking. The major networks still offer a few serious dramas, but so-called “reality” shows that rely on a steady flow of sexy young bodies with nothing on their minds but “scoring” seems to be a pretty ridiculous formula for TV. Obviously, though, it works or there wouldn’t be so much of it.

Advertising, of course, drives most media and always has. That’s been the underlying cause of newspaper decline and drives the rise in internet platform profits.

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And it’s in advertising as well as the narcissistic reality shows that you can find a huge amount of social commentary on modern society. Here are a couple of examples of ads that have been oft-repeated recently.

Do you owe taxes and don’t want to pay them? My parents would have said, tough luck. You made the money, be responsible and pay your taxes.

Today, you’re invited to call an 800 number and let the experts cut your tax obligation. Why give all that money to the IRS? Give these negotiators part of it, and you keep part. Let your neighbors be the suckers who pay their taxes.

Then, there’s credit card debt. It’s one of the greatest threats to our modern economy. But another TV ad suggests that if your credit card debt has become too much of a burden, you should give them a call and they’ll help you wiggle out of at least part of it. Sure, you bought the junk. But why feel obligated to pay for it? Let these folks help you negotiate a smaller figure.

Then, there are the predatory lending companies, which Virginia warmly embraces, by the way.

There’s always been a huge element of greed in capitalism. It’s one of the driving forces of a free economy, in fact. You generally have to be attracted to wealth to gain it, unless you married or inherited it. But there’s an ugly side to the business of wealth and it has been an increasingly important part of the equation in recent decades.

“What’s in it for me?” could be considered something of an informal national slogan, and it’s at least part of what has led this country to abrogate its leadership role in the world.

The median age of Americans is 38 years. That means that half the current population was born in 1982 or later. That, in turn, means that well over half of our population knows nothing about the period in American history when Americans accepted the concept that at least some of our energy should be aimed at helping our neighbors — at building a better society.

John F. Kennedy set the stage for social change in America during his inaugural address in 1963. His challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” was a call to look beyond ourselves.

Kennedy didn’t live to see it, but his call to action led his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to embrace that call full tilt and push through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, both in 1965.

They were the three biggest advances in social legislation since Franklin Roosevelt pushed Congress to enact Social Security in 1935. Notably, they were also the last major social legislation the nation would undertake for nearly half a century. The next would be the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

In 1967, country music singer Henson Cargill performed a song that embraced the spirit of Kennedy and Johnson. It was popular for a while back then, but would likely be laughed at today.

Titled “Skip a Rope,” part of the lyrics went:

Cheat on your taxes, don’t be a fool,

Now what was that they said about a Golden Rule?

Never mind the rules, just play to win,

And hate your neighbor for the shade of his skin.

If that was the social trend the songwriter was seeing in 1967, I would hate to hear his analysis of today.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is