The right to be selfish

Saturday, August 25, 2007 | 5:14 p.m. CDT; updated 6:53 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

A headline lured my momentary attention to the cover of Parade Magazine (April 1). It read in red type: “I Don’t Have the Right to be Selfish.” Halle Berry (whoever she is) is the one who said it. Statements like that really rile me. So positive, so self-deprecating, so goody-goody, so very wrong. Giving up a basic natural right is bad in itself, and giving up one’s selfishness is absolutely pitiful.

If I have any right, it is to be selfish. And most of us, I think, realize it and use it for almost every occasion. I need. I want. I wish. I have. I bought. I may want to help others, but I want to help myself first. And even helping others makes me feel good, so I am at the center of everything. So are you. It’s a natural right.

One of the things wrong with this country today is a mass retreat from selfishness. Nowadays we talk of community, of others, of the street people and the homeless, the poor illegal immigrants — everything but our own individual needs and desires and the happiness we feel about the progress and bounty of our own country. Selfishness, where are you?

How can we remedy this sad situation? Well, for one thing, we can start appreciating what we have and what we are and stop living for others. I know, I know — what would Mother Teresa say to that? But she was selfish or self-absorbed in her good work in India. She had her own brand of selfishness. And we can stop handing out money to street-beggars. We should keep our money for ourselves and our family. Maybe a nice vacation in Hawaii.

But the idea persists: One doesn’t have the right to be selfish. And one should see to it that everyone else has plenty of material things. Maybe even, as some say, everybody should be equal. Poppycock! I give all of my fortune away and I then will be poor and needy. I think I will try to take care of myself and hope that everyone else will take care of themselves. Then we will have a selfishocracy — or a capitalist society as we have now.

We may talk about not being selfish, but we all are. Look at the cars, the houses, the campsites, the boats, the vacations, the palatial hotels and fancy restaurants that dot the land and you will see selfishness at work. And all of this is our right. At least it is our right if we have the means to secure it. If we do not, then it is not a right; it is only a dream or a desire.

So I would like to tell Halle Berry that she does have a right to be selfish. And I’m glad she is, for it only makes her human. She should be proud of her selfishness and pity the poor unselfish souls, searching frantically for a new others-related cause to latch onto. We must remember that the world helps those who help themselves. We need selfishness to ward off growing paternalism and the expectations of free largess from social coffers. We need selves that we can respect, not semiselves caught in the webs of collective unconsciousness.

Merrill, a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism, has written and taught around the world and here in Columbia for more than 50 years.

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