Balance Sheets
By A.D. Freudenheim

27 April 2003

Sometimes I think it is possible to look at life as a balance sheet with two sections: one totaling up the selfish things we have done, and the other tallying the selfless things, and at the bottom there sits some kind of complicated calculus, where we hope that everything works out to put us on an even keel. Alas, I doubt that most of us wind up so lucky.

This kind of thinking selfish/selfless dialectic seems to be the dominant one in American political life, perhaps as a result of the nation’s heavily Christian heritage.[1] Every American governmental action is given its selfless justification; if it actually appears selfish, then We the People are told why, in fact, it is really just the opposite. For example, the tax cuts proposed by the GOP are inherently selfless – anyone can see that, right? The selfish impact of these tax cuts (e.g., benefits targeted primarily to the already-wealthy; harsh impact on available funding for services for the needy) are passed off as selfless because, in the end, the more money people have to spend, the more money other people make as a result of that spending, which means more jobs and less poverty. (Or something like that. Either way, it seems clear that the Republicans were never very good at math, the President perhaps least of all.)

Likewise the situation with Iraq. While newspapers worldwide fill with articles discussing, reviewing, and debating the possibilities of this new American Imperialism, America itself says only that we are balancing the selfishness of (self-)protection with the selflessness of freedom. To wit: we attacked Iraq not only to protect ourselves (rationale 1; selfish) and the world (rationale 2; both selfish and selfless), but also to give the oppressed Iraqis a much-desired liberation (rationale 3; theoretically selfless ... except that we get more cheap oil, so it may be selfish). The rationales flip-flopped many times in the months leading up to the war, and the Administration’s skills in making all these rationales fit together into one, tidy selfish/selfless equation never quite worked out. After all, the selflessness of rationale 3 can be applied to other nations and oppressed peoples (North Korea, anyone?); yet we have not acted there, and show no signs of doing so, which only draws out exactly how important some of the selfish components were in forcing American action in Iraq specifically.

Then, of course, came the coup de grace, when American forces failed to protect major collections of Iraqi cultural treasures, including the museum and library in Baghdad; the former was looted and the latter turned into ash. The American Secretary of Defense cynically pinned this problem on ... the just-established Iraqi liberty; the looting, he suggested, was (among other things) the result of the new-found freedom of the Iraqi people, releasing their pent up frustrations after so many years of Saddam Hussein. Ah-ha! So, although we could have taken action to protect the museum and other cultural sites (selfless), we opted not to, preferring instead to protect oil assets (selfish), and (selflessly) allowing the liberated Iraqis to (selfishly) pillage their own cultural history unimpeded. It has a certain logic to it, doesn’t it?

Old balance sheets also have a way of resurfacing in personal relationships, too. I was recently sent a copy of a letter from 1974, found in someone’s files, and the subject of the letter is split; part of the letter is about me (I was about 2 ½ at the time), and part of it is about the author herself. The letter can be read any number of different ways, but having gone over it many times now, it seems to me an apologia of sorts: a kind of preemptive strike at history’s balance sheet, looking to offset a clear act of selfishness by acknowledging (aggressively; obsequiously, even) someone else’s selflessness.

In the letter, the object that lay between this act of selfishness, on the one hand, and pure selflessness on the other, was me – and to describe me as an object is not inaccurate, since that is how much of the letter makes me out. I am a “task,” the probable cause of some presumptive “trying moments,” and, at 2 ½, also having “pavlovian” [sic] responses to being potty trained. In the complicated balance sheet of my own life, my grandparents taking care of me for some extended period of time at that young age - while my parents traveled to the Soviet Union - puts a clear set of check marks on both sides of how I might view people as either selfish or selfless.

At the end of the day, the best we can is look at the balance sheet of our lives and try to make sense of it all: of our own actions, and the decisions we make; of the actions by others around us, and how they affect us or how we handle them. The Iraqis must now contend with having their fate placed more squarely in their own hands, since with freedom comes responsibility. The Bush Administration must now face the rest of the world and prove that its selfishness was secondary to its selflessness, or else risk ever-greater levels of anger, resentment, and, probably, violent attack. The American people will soon be faced with another set of decisions to make, in an election only 18 months away - though arguably the question facing most of them is simply whether or not to vote at all. Personally, I am staring at a bigger, much-harder-to-comprehend set of intangibles: trying to understand people making what they thought were the right decisions for the right reasons, and feeling – all these years later – like they were very, very wrong. And all of us must do this knowing that we are, if nothing else, human. And the one thing humans are not is perfect.

[1] Of course, critics of Christianity from Nietzsche
forward have pointed out that the hardcore Christian
tendency toward an ascetic selflessness can actually wind
up being as selfish as those actions that appear more
obviously and purely self-interested.
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