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Kyle Eller: Whatever became of accountability?

When I was 18, a freshly minted grownup, I decided to set my own school hours. I was not reckless about it -- I took a single day off from high school and my best friend and I drove to Duluth to pick out tuxes for prom. As a legal adult, I reason...

When I was 18, a freshly minted grownup, I decided to set my own school hours. I was not reckless about it -- I took a single day off from high school and my best friend and I drove to Duluth to pick out tuxes for prom. As a legal adult, I reasoned this was my right, especially as I was prepared to accept any academic consequences of missing material in class.

I signed my own note for the principal. "Please excuse Kyle ...."

In college, despite being pretty much a prude by today's standards, I resented rules telling me that I could not drink alcohol in my room even at age 21 and that I couldn't have a girl in my room after 2 a.m. I reasoned that an adult shelling out more than ten grand per annum for classes, books, room and board has a right to make such decisions for himself.

The fallout was mixed, but that's OK. I know the score: The classical enemy of the free spirit is the (growing) throng that feels it knows our business better than we do. The battle lines over freedom are intimately familiar here in America.

But what gets less press is the responsibility side, endorsed in its positive aspects by, for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance." Its negative side shows in the free spirit's newest enemy: Those who utterly refuse to take responsibility for themselves.

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Consider two of my less brilliant decisions: 1) Starting smoking midway through college. 2) Eating far too much fast food and junk food and exercising far too little for at least a decade, starting in late high school.

I'm still paying for those choices, still battling excess weight, still (five or six years down the road) sometimes craving cigarettes. I even have high blood pressure.

Genetics undoubtedly enter in somewhere, but the basic facts are simple. I chose to smoke, knowing from the start it was almost surely harmful. I chose to neglect exercise and eat poorly, routinely satisfying the human culinary fixation on fat, sugar and salt at the expense of my appearance, energy level and health.

If I didn't think about it every time I opened my mouth, who's to blame? Me. If I didn't research the facts beyond what I wanted to hear, who's to blame? Me again.

I screwed up. Our mistakes are the price we pay for the right to make better choices.

But now it seems we can have our burgers and eat them too, with the wonders of the court system. The new motto: "Everyone's to blame but me."

Aren't lawsuits like those against fast food companies and tobacco companies an admission of utter incompetence? The dangers of these two classes of products have been so well-publicized over several decades that they form a cliched joke after annual check-ups everywhere.

I called my cigarettes "cancer sticks," and around one office I worked in, doughnuts were known as "fat pills." What scares me is that people who can't figure it out or don't see any need to try -- you know, the ones suing others for their own mistakes -- still drive, work near heavy machinery and bear children.

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Maybe I'm an anachronism. My response to my own bad judgement, along with a little self-pity, has been to try to do better. Like millions of Americans, I quit smoking. I eat better and try to exercise more. I'm a strict vegetarian. I still make bad choices sometimes, and I have a long climb, but at least I have no illusions about who dug the hole or who will get me out of it.

I'm responsible. Sadly, a whole class of Americans seem allergic to those words.

None of this, by the way, comes out of affection for McDonald's or R.J. Reynolds. If tomorrow the demand changes so radically that every street corner boasts a veggie burger joint and granola bars take up the store space formerly occupied by Camels, no one will be happier than me, except maybe billions of cows, chickens and pigs. Also, I am not defending instances of genuine fraud.

However -- and call me hard-hearted if you like -- I have no sympathy for people who abdicate responsibility for their lives. Life is uncertain, risky and confusing, but we alone are best equipped to decide what to do with our portion of it and are primarily responsible for the outcomes. And in the immortal words of the band Rush, "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

Like the songwriter, I will choose free will.

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