You can't always get what you want
Somewhere between chopping garlic cloves and sautéing greens for dinner the other night, my wife and I were singing along to a comforting notion advanced a half-century ago by the eminent philosopher Sir Michael Philip Jagger. “You can’t always get what you want,” Mick sang, “but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”
On so many levels these days, American society isn’t delivering what we want. But, then, maybe Mick Jagger is right – that we actually get what we need. Maybe it’s all in the trying.
Take gun violence, for instance. What we want is pretty clear, if by “we” you mean the 84 percent of American voters who support background checks for all gun purchases, or if “we” is the 70 percent who want to ban assault weapons, the killers’ choice in nine of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
We’d like to make it safer to live in America, but we can’t get what we want because some frustratingly anti-democratic values have come to dominate American society over the decades since the Rolling Stones recorded that anthem.
We’ve embraced the notion that individual rights are more important than community care. The inaction after 20 children were slaughtered at Sandy Hook clarified Americans’ fixation on personal freedom. The lack of meaningful gun control in America is a triumph of selfishness over mutuality.
That, of course, wasn’t the idea at the nation’s founding. The rights guaranteed by our Constitution have always been a check against the power of the state, but the reason we set up governments at all is because humans have always known that we can better protect ourselves collectively than individually.
Even if your political philosophy runs toward libertarianism, you might be persuaded by the teachings of the world’s great religions. Community is a core value of both Judaism and Islam; as for Christianity, consider what Paul the Apostle wrote from prison to the congregation he had established in Philippi: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit… rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (That’s in the Epistle to the Philippians.)
In egocentric America, though, many would say that valuing others over ourselves seems vaguely socialistic. Our political system instead rewards the advocacy of ungenerous extremes.
Extremists backed by the Tea Party movement gained a toehold in the Republican party 14 years ago and the hard right gang took full control during the Trump presidency. They’re sustained by loose campaign finance laws that give extra power to big money interests.
But the more fundamental issue is the pervasive sense among a lot of us that individual rights are the most important attribute of Americanism. It's tragic, really: We fetishize freedom in America, when we ought to cherish caring.
Gun laws aren’t the only place where that leaves us unable to get what we want. Sensible steps to confront the climate change emergency are held hostage; tax law changes to reduce economic inequality can’t get through; the federal government can’t hold off state laws aimed at reducing citizens’ access to voting. We can’t stop states from deciding what a woman can do with her body, or from blocking the teaching of true history in school classrooms, and the reality of how millions of Americans lead their lives, because it might make some kids feel bad.
“But if you try sometimes,” Sir Mick wrote, “you might find you get what you need.”
The good news is that if you look at the actual record of the last two years in Washington, you might be surprised that we are chipping away at one issue after another: Steps to slow climate change… to create good jobs here in America… to rebuild our decaying infrastructure… to reduce healthcare costs. Even a modest measure to control gun violence, the first action on that issue in more than a decade.
It's a workmanlike approach that leads the audience of the right-wing talk channel, Fox News, to belittle Joe Biden. For sure, Biden’s not an exciting guy, and his incremental approach makes him politically vulnerable. But, as he said a while back, “Successful politics is the art of the possible.”
That approach, of course, won’t get us all that we want. But the suggestion from Mick Jagger – a onetime student of the London School of Economics, by the way – is that it might be all right, for now, to settle for what we can get. You know, we might get some satisfaction from that idea.
Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack.
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