Once upon a time, Americans prided themselves on establishing what sociologist Philip Slater called "a culture of becoming." Our uniqueness, in Slater's words, lay "in our aptitude for change and our willingness to engage in continual self-creation."
Intentions paved the road to hell; deeds were everything.
But four decades of the "me" culture -- the contemporary cult of self-esteem -- have changed all that. We've replaced Slater's idea of becoming with one of merely being. We're all great, just the way we are.
We don't have to win or be the best or do much of anything at all, because those concepts have been erased by the fact that whatever we do, whoever we are right now, is good enough. As Principal Skinner from "The Simpsons" puts it: "All I know is that no one is better than anyone else, and everyone is the best at everything."
It's a noble ideology, sort of. I'm all for imbuing children with the idea that they are loved and appreciated no matter what.
But we sometimes forget that if we are to maintain our democracy, we also need to maintain and encourage high levels of real achievement -- as opposed to mere self-satisfaction -- by as many people as possible. In Thomas Jefferson's words: "Let us in education dream of an aristocracy of achievement arising out of a democracy of opportunity."
Obama first came to prominence by writing an eloquent memoir about finding himself. In her convention speech Wednesday, Palin was proud as punch to be just your average "hockey mom" who apparently didn't do much more than sign up for the PTA in order to magically become a small-town mayor, a governor and vice presidential candidate. At their core, both politicians seek to appeal to us by flaunting their personal "essence" rather than their objective achievements.
Absent in what they are selling us is any sense of deep transformation or personal triumph; there is no man or woman from Hope, Ark., or Dixon, Ill., here. (Even average guy George W. Bush was transformed: An indulgent, lost rich kid redeemed, in part, by religion and sobriety.)
Call it the Popeye-ization of America -- "I am what I am." Rather than emphasizing how far someone has come from where they started, we demand that our heroes personify where they came from. We even fetishize a person's ability to seem like the same old guy we've always known. Jennifer Lopez -- fabulously wealthy now, with the mean streets of the Bronx far behind her -- cultivates an image her fans can relate to: just Jenny from the block.
A different kind of "me" fixation used to prevail: traditional American individualism. It was a positive force in U.S society. It contributed to our cultural dynamism, what Tocqueville called our "restlessness." The inalienable rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are individual rights. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights established a social space free of government interference, which encouraged people to pursue their own paths, live up to their potential, do great things. The freedoms we enshrined were intended to facilitate "becoming." The rest was up to us.
Now, a culture that puts self-worth and self-affirmation above self-determination stifles action.
It says a lot about who we've become that it no longer offends us that someone can be famous just for being famous. It says a lot that we don't think twice when a candidate asks for our vote almost purely based on issues of identity rather than on policy positions or proven results. We've gotten used to the fact that it's no longer about what you've made of yourself, but where you came from and who you "are."