Unconventional Wisdom | Kiss me, I'm a contagious American

Andrew Speaker , who has TB, with his wife, Sarah, wearing a mask in a TV appearance.

A man from Atlanta who is infected with a rare and often fatal form of tuberculosis was told by U.S. health officials not to travel.

Instead, earlier this month, Andrew Speaker, a personal injury lawyer old enough at 31 to know better, spent almost 14 days rambling through Europe, Canada and America.

And he brought his potentially deadly weapon, XDR-TB, with him.

On the eve of his return, the feds contacted him in Europe and told him not to come home on a commercial flight.

Speaker ignored that admonishment as well, once more risking the health of those with whom he came into contact. He finally had to be quarantined.

The Centers for Disease Control says Speaker broke "the covenant of trust," the idea that an infected patient will not do anything to expose others to his disease, like an HIV-positive person who alerts potential sex partners of his status.

I say Speaker acted like a typical American: self-centered, uncaring about anything beyond his own world, as removed and uninvolved as possible.

Myopic in our outlook, we believe the rules apply to others, not to ourselves. A nation of cowboys, we stress an individual's rights or conveniences over social obligation.

What is drunken driving, for example, other than a vote for the individual over others?

Like TB Man, the over-served person who eschews a cab ride home from the bar in favor of an impaired and dangerous drive in his own car is looking out for Number One only. And putting the rest of us in peril.

This attitude persists in other aspects of life.

We buy Hummers and other behemoths, despite global warming and high gas prices.

People have to be threatened with fines to recycle, or to pick up after their dogs.

How many times have you seen motorists use the breakdown lane on the highway when traffic is at a standstill?

We are so right-now-centered, so me-oriented, it's like nobody's ever come before us, and no one will be here after we go.

That's emblematic of a culture with no sense of history. Americans don't think about being descended from generation after generation, and give little thought to what the Iroquois called the seventh generation yet unborn.

I think we got this way, in part, because of economics. Some societies are family-based. Ours is dollar-based.

Who could argue that this isn't a culture of competition?

The goal is to get ahead by making as much money as possible, and beating the other guy to the pot of gold.

A healthy, functioning American is a hard driver who powers over others.

Such people are single-minded and autonomous. Which means empathy would only slow them down. Connection to community, then, is irrelevant. In the end, it's all about me.

That's quite a country we've made here.

Now, I'm not saying every one of us would travel with TB. Or that we don't have our charitable moments, as when hurricanes roar through Louisiana.

It's just that TB Man reminds us that we are primarily a nation of narcissists. And our aim is to get our needs met - at all costs.

Contact columnist Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.