Sunday, June 14, 2015

The One-Sidedness of American Individualism

From the very beginning, the celebration of the individual has been at our core.  The Declaration of Independence declares that each of us is equal to the other and each has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The Bill of Rights ensures against unwarranted government action against the interests of the individual.

Our growth as a frontier country depended heavily on the fortitude of individuals.  These were the heroes of America’s expansion to all corners of the country.

In today’s age, we see the sanctity of individualism in fights about property rights, about whether the government can tell property owners what they can or can’t do with their property.  We see it in the statements of gun rights advocates.  We see it in the emergence of the ego-centric “Me” generation during the Reagan years that has cared little for what happens to its fellow Americans, let alone its fellow man.

But this is just an expression of one aspect of individualism … that the protection of individual rights ensures the freedom and independence of us all.  (As an aside, that those rights are not absolute is discussed in a previous post, “The Common Good Always Trumps Individual Rights,” that dealt with the problem of what to do when one person’s individual rights threaten those of another or the common good.)  The other equally important aspect of individualism is that individual thought is vital to the health and vitality of our democracy and our society.

Whatever may have been the case at our country’s founding and during its first century, our modern culture has developed in a way which finds individual thought antagonistic, not vital, to our future.  The disapproving phrase, “boat-rocker,” comes to mind.  Our capitalist system has fostered and depends on a culture of conformity.  What little individual action or thinking that exists concerning the problems of our culture, and some is excellent, has been a voice in the wilderness, drowned out by the mass media and the power of the corporate interests that control our society.

Some may argue that our political system is an example of individual thought.  I would argue that although we certainly have disagreement within the system, and certainly the Republican and Democratic parties’ current perspective on what’s in the best interest of the country differs wildly, we still have precious little individual thought.  What we see instead is conformity to two opposing perspectives, with little individual thought about either or a third way.  The online petitions from Credo and change.org and other organizations, while helpful, are like mosquitoes to the prevailing system;  they do not attempt to address the underlying societal problem or suggest a different political structure.

Others may argue that in industry, at least the dot.com world, individual thought is highly prized.  But this is individual thought in the search for material fortune and individual thought in the furtherance of our dependance and conformity to modern technology.  There has been little, although certainly some very good, individual thought about where all this technology is leading us.  Almost no thought exists on how to stop this degeneration of human life and interaction.

Thomas Jefferson famously stated that there needs to be a revolution periodically to maintain the health of a democracy.  Given the control of our culture and society by a relatively small number of people and corporations and the subservience of virtually all Americans to that culture’s way of life, where will a nonviolent revolution of ideas have a chance to take root and grow?