Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Has Been the Price of Our Individualism?

A friend of mine on Facebook recently shared a link to an article by Mark Lilla entitled "The Tea Party Jacobins." I imagine that any of my right-leaning friends (and to those of you who nonetheless continue to read my writings, I say "thank you") may see this title and dismiss this as the work of a left-leaning pundit.  For all I know, they may be correct, but it seems to me that the heart of what Lilla's talking about has plenty to accuse both the left and the right about.

Lilla starts by referencing a 1998 article he wrote entitled "A Tale of Two Reactions."  I tried to find the actual article myself, but it's not available for free on the New York Review of Books website, and I wasn't able to locate a full-text version through the educational database I have access to via Fuller, so I'll have to settle for the run-down Lilla provides in the more recent article:
A little over a decade ago I published an article... titled “A Tale of Two Reactions” (May 14, 1998). It struck me then that American society was changing in ways conservative and liberal commentators just hadn’t noticed. Conservatives were too busy harping on the cultural revolution of the Sixties, liberals on the Reagan revolution’s “culture of greed,” and all they could agree on was that America was beyond repair.

The American public, meanwhile, was having no trouble accepting both revolutions and reconciling them in everyday life. This made sense, given that they were inspired by the same political principle: radical individualism. During the Clinton years the country edged left on issues of private autonomy (sex, divorce, casual drug use) while continuing to move right on economic autonomy (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation). As I wrote then, Americans saw “no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace…and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties.” Democrats were day-trading, Republicans were divorcing. We were all individualists now.
"The Tea Party Jacobins" seeks to follow that observation up by reflecting on what that sense of "radical individualism" has brought about in the current American landscape, with the current "Tea Party" merely being a presenting example.  Although Lilla's is a thoroughly secular article, it got me thinking about things that I have been hearing in Christian circles for quite a while now, specifically decrying the spread of "radical individualism" (yes, both unrelated groups seem to enjoy the same term, although I won't try to make the case that each uses it in precisely the same way).  I therefore made the effort to read through the whole article, which is quite lengthy.  Indeed, I thought about some folks who have typed "TL;DR" (for the uninitiated, that means "Too long; didn't read") on my own writings, and I can see that this already threatens to be a longer entry.  Trust me, it's brevity itself compared to Lilla's article!

One of the realities Lilla cites has long been a concern that affects me personally:
...for decades we have been withdrawing into “communities of like-mindedness” where the gap between individual and collective closes... People with higher degrees who care about food and wine, support gay rights, and want few children but good Internet connections have been gravitating to urban centers on the two coasts, while churchgoing families that drive everywhere, socialize with relatives, and send their kids to state universities have been heading to the growing exurbs of the southern and mountain states. By voting with their feet, highly mobile Americans are finding representation in local communities where they share their neighbors’ general political outlook and where they can be sure that their voices will be echoed back to them.
No wonder I often feel that I don't "fit in." I'm very much in both of these worlds! I have a "higher degree" and currently live in an "urban center on the coast," but am also a "churchgoer" with significant background in a mountainous region of the South. While clearly not everything in both lists applies to me, significant portions of both lists do.  In any event, Lilla certainly paints a picture that illustrates why Americans seem not only to have become so bitterly divided on so many issues, but to have created such a vast gulf between those divisions, to the point where communication (to say nothing of civil communication) has become nearly impossible.

But, perhaps more importantly (and more perilously), Lilla points out that the overarching response of many Americans seems to be "just leave me alone," as if to suggest that we can handle all of our own problems if only other entities (especially government, but also religion to a large extent) will just "get out of our hair."  This even seems to be true in cases like health care, despite Lilla's assertion that no one can cure one's self.  Indeed, our individualistic tendencies create contradictions in several places:
Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.
And for those of us who are a particular "kind" of Christian, how often have we heard teachings that suggest that the most important thing is our "personal relationship with God," with barely a mention of "other people" at all?  Yet so much of the Bible tells us that if we are following God, we're doing things for and with other people!  This cannot be emphasized enough.  Yet the individualistic culture we live in seems to be no less true of those of us who follow Christ than it is for secular Americans.

I find myself torn on this issue.  Being a product of this culture, myself, I like my individualism.  And, being strongly oriented toward introversion, my natural inclination is to do things on my own, anyway.  Indeed, spending time with groups of people, while enjoyable, tends to require that I get "down time" afterward just to "recharge."  Even if I agree that I should work toward being less individualistic than I am, this will clearly be a difficult goal to achieve.  And even that statement, that I should work on this, is an individualistic one!  But it seems that if we are, as a collective people, to achieve such a goal, then we must, as individuals, make the commitment to do so.  I cannot make the commitment for anyone else but me, nor would it be appropriate to coerce another person toward a mindset that puts the common good before the good of the individual.

And it's not like individualism is entirely bad.  It's just that we seem to have taken it in directions that are unhealthy in a number of areas.  May God provide us (and I do mean that "us" in a collective sense) with a sense of balance.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I'd never realized that both the left and the right have their own strong brands of individualism and community -- they just completely differ in terms of where those principles apply.



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