“I Got Mine”

Twice I’ve read this phrase just today [as I was writing: 22 June 2017]. I’ve got mine. It’s in reference to the Senate health care plan, the one Republican senators mean to pass to replace the Affordable Care Act.

What interests me about this phrase—I’ve got mine—is it’s something I used to say about some of the people I once worked with, back in the days when I worked in a corporate environment. In a Christian corporate environment, I should say. I was one of very few Democrats who worked at this company, and I came in for a lot of good-natured teasing.

(How did they know? You might well ask. I didn’t actually discuss my politics in the workplace. But people tend to make assumptions, and at this place, the assumption being made by most of these folks was that everyone working there thought like they did. Many Christians are conservative; I worked at a Christian company; ergo, I must be a conservative. But they knew I wasn’t because when someone made an assumption about me, I’d correct him: “Actually, not everyone thinks … [insert conservative belief here].” Something along those lines.)

As I say, though, those were different times than these, and I came in for a lot of good-natured teasing. (Although this was also the place a person younger than I shook a finger at me and said I couldn’t possibly be a Democrat and a Christian. It shocked me then and it shocks me now.) So I call it good-natured, I guess, because they did actually voice their opinions in my presence, and laughed (perhaps arrogantly) at mine.

But they felt very comfortable saying things about the poor and the disenfranchised—the less fortunate—that privately I found dismaying. I would listen to some of the things that came out of their mouths and just shake my head. I said nothing, of course. But to my friends I expressed shock, and for years I described it as the “I-got-mine attitude.”

I don’t like that attitude. It’s selfish, and it seems like it’s a tenet of the conservative world view. Author John Scalzi expresses it like this:

The motto of the United States is not, in fact, “[Screw] you, I got mine.” It was, and should have remained, “E Pluribus Unum”—out of many, one. We’re all Americans. We all deserve the blessings this country can provide. This one is willing to pay his taxes for the benefit of the many.

Scalzi expresses another idea that I have remarked upon for 40+ years, ever since the time Bill Brock was running for reelection to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee. His opponent was Jim Sasser, and about that campaign Wikipedia says:

Sasser[’s] … most effective campaign strategy was to emphasize how the affluent Brock, through skillful use of the tax code by his accountants, had been able to pay less than $2,000 in income taxes the previous year; an amount considerably less than that paid by many Tennesseans of far more modest means.

My then-husband and I were among that group of less-affluent Tennesseans; we had also paid about $2K in taxes that previous year. That campaign opened my eyes. It changed me (which brings me back to Scalzi’s comment). To wit: I don’t mind paying my fair share. Honestly, I don’t mind it at all. I don’t even think about it. I have a skillful accountant, too, but she’s a straight-arrow type, and neither of us is interested in gaming the tax code.

This attitude does not come from my beliefs as a Democrat; it comes from my beliefs as a human being. My taxes pay for infrastructure and schools and teachers, first-responders and the military, the clean air I breath (and on and on). I see these as good things, don’t you? And yet my evangelical Christian boss at this company used to give me such a hard time about this very thing. “You want to pay more taxes?” he’d say, in a dramatic tone of voice.

It’s a fundamental selfishness that I just don’t get:

Why can’t everybody be like me? I worked hard. I got mine; now you go get yours.

I just don’t know how to explain to another human being why he should care about other people. For Christians, in particular, it’s biblical; we are instructed to care for the poor, the widows and orphans. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” Paul says in his letter to the Philippians (2:4 ESV). Jesus tells his followers that there will come a time when God rejects those who did not look to the interests of the less fortunate, saying,

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. … Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. (Matthew 25:42–43, 45 NIV, emphasis mine.)

So I remain puzzled. It seems there’s a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, in a community. My Irish husband tells me he has never once heard anyone in Ireland complain about that portion of their taxes which goes to pay for the basic health care for their fellow citizens. They don’t tuck their good fortune under their arms, while looking over their shoulders saying “I got mine, you get away from me.” That some folks would deny the social safety net for so many people … it demonstrates such a lack of empathy that it feels un-Christian and un-American to me. But what do I know?