I was a selfish child. Make that a self-centered child marked by a self-possession that I wore as a kind of armor against difficult parents and, later, other difficult authority figures. When I was 13, I had a teacher who told us students that selfishness was the root of all evil, the vice from which all others emanate. (She herself was a horror who should’ve practiced what she preached.)
But there is a fine line, I understood, between selfishness and self-possession in service of self-preservation. Recently, one of the columnists I edit wrote a piece in which he observed that there’s a reason that airlines ask you to put on your own oxygen mask first in case of an emergency: You cannot help others if you yourself are in harm’s way.
Which brings us to the new era – actually the cyclical era – of America First. The United States – born out of a long, bloody conflict with perhaps the preeminent superpower of the 18th century, the British Empire, has always had a self-protective, isolationist, “Don’t Tread on Me” streak. Its atavistic Second Amendment – governing the rights of individuals to bear arms – has its antecedents in British law and dictatorial British practices toward the colonists.
As the nation expanded westward – becoming more interior physically and psychologically – the merits of isolationism persisted in many minds, abetted by our disastrous involvement in foreign wars. Even World War II – the so-called “Good War,” in which the need for American leadership in stopping the Axis Powers was overwhelming – had, prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, its share of isolationists. (These included controversial aviation hero, and Nazi admirer Charles A. Lindbergh, a source of inspiration for President Donald J. Trump’s inaugural address, being called abroad the “America First” speech and, at home, the “American Carnage” speech for its bleak description of the American socioeconomic landscape.)
It was only President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s savvy discretion that enabled him – prior to the Pearl Harbor bombing – to steer the nation painstakingly to the involvement in World War II that he knew was inevitable. (Witness how he characterized the Lend-Lease Act – which supplied Britain and other Allies with materiel such as warships that we would never see again – as similar to lending a neighbor a garden hose that he would subsequently return. Brilliant.)
In the postwar era, America continued to careen between nationalism and internationalism. The United Nations, whose charter was chaired by FDR’s incandescent widow, Eleanor, would be decried some 40 years later by President Ronald Reagan. But even Reagan, a classic America Firster who would’ve loved to have seen the U.N. site back on New York City’s tax rolls, had his foreign involvements (the collapse of communism and Iran-contra, anyone?). Indeed, isolationist America is very much like one of the country’s favorite sons, Michael Corleone in “The Godfather”: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
So we have to ask ourselves: Given our position as the world’s sole superpower, can we get out? Should we want to? Isn’t it in America’s interest and the interest of her prestige, to stay in the international game that men play?
That’s the practical argument. But there’s a moral one as well. Isn’t America obligated to help others?
"Anyone who wants to be first,” Jesus says, “must be the very last, and the servant of all." (Mark 9:35). (It might behoove Trump to remember this as he descends into a spitting contest with a free press over inaugural crowd size and seems mystified over the peaceful, heartening Women’s March. They’re called democracy in action, Mr. President.)
No one is suggesting that we shouldn’t consider ourselves first – shoring up jobs and defenses. Charity, as they say, begins at home. And it is the way of the world, the zeitgeist at the moment as nations circle the wagons after a global recession and in the age of terrorism. The oxygen mask metaphor applies. Sometimes you have to retrench and recharge.
But you turn inward to reach out. The first shall indeed be last, and vice versa. We are, for better or worse, a global society and there is no turning back. Frankly, we have large enough hearts – and wallets – to help everyone.