Personal responsibility means not being a jerk

The Right uses the term “personal responsibility” as a weapon. They use it to demonize poor people for being born into a system that keeps them poor. They tell middle-class people that their taxes are going to pay for poor peoples’ programs because poor people don’t take enough “personal responsibility” for their situations. “This is America,” they say. “Anybody can achieve their dreams if they just work hard enough.”

This absurd lie is one of the bedrocks of our national identity and has allowed the ruling class to manipulate the middle class into voting against the interests of the lower classes since our country’s inception. So the next time you hear someone say that crap, show them a picture of me: I’m 5-foot-8, woefully uncoordinated and painfully unathletic. Then ask, “So the only reason this guy isn’t a pro-basketball player is because he doesn’t work hard enough?”

Peoples’ unwillingness to work hard isn’t keeping them poor. A system that gives the wealthy tax cuts, while gutting programs to help the poor rise up, is. All that said, though, personal responsibility is important. We all need to take responsibility for the way our personal actions effect the people around us.

This past weekend was hotter than then devil’s undercarriage, so my girlfriend and I went to Ocean Beach. I posted the obligatory “Hey, look at us half-naked at the beach” photo (because we are really cute, duh) and an interesting thing came out of it. Tanya, a friend on Facebook, brought up how much broken glass she sees at the beach when she’s there with the kids she nannies. Other people chimed in about the things they see at the beach, like nails from pallets burnt at bonfires and hypodermic needles left by drug users.

It got me thinking: How are we not better than this?

I wondered how many people rail against the pollution that giant corporations pump into our ecosystem and then turn around and leave their trash at the beach or at Dolores Park. San Francisco is supposed to be at the cutting edge of all things green and ecofriendly, and our citizenry can still be a bunch of assholes. This is where personal responsibility matters.

When I was in Japan, I was amazed that not only was everything really clean, but also very few metro stations even had trash cans. People there took personal responsibility so seriously that they brought all their trash home with them. Japan is obviously a different beast, though. The country has much more respect for the collective. When you see someone there wearing a facemask, it’s not because they don’t want to get sick, it’s because they are sick and don’t want to get you sick. Can you believe that? It blew my mind.

In the United States, our attitude is, “I’m sick. Deal with it.” Our national ideology that worships the individual instead of taking care of the collective is the fundamental problem with our country. That’s what has led us to the broken place where we are now. That is how, in the richest country in history, the wealthy cut programs to the poor and then blame their poverty on laziness.

It also explains why people leave their trash at the beach. The idea of personal responsibility shouldn’t be used to demonize the poor, but it should be used to shame our neighbors into being a better part of the collective. In fact, it should be used to shame the wealthy into using their resources to uplift the impoverished. Why don’t we talk about that personal responsibility? Why must people in Houston have to wait until there’s a natural disaster to start looking after each other?
If the American Dream means that anyone can become anything they want, why do so many people choose to become greedy and self-centered? They better hope they don’t step on glass at the beach.

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.

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