How long will we pit adoration of self vs. the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”
The classic Yankee incantation, “individualism” is freighted with meanings—whether positive, ugly, and neutral. Economists argue individual self-interest determines buying choices; social scientists contrast the lone self to the collective multitude; artists, innovators, and geniuses testify to genuine breakthroughs from highly individual, visionary minds forging new ideas, paradigms or artifacts.
No doubt everyone pops into life individually (but never without assistance). Whether in pain or insensibility, everyone dies alone. Extending this existential logic, thus does every deluded billionaire justify obscene wealth because of their special creativity, hard work, timing and virtue. Only life-long hermits truly live apart and they all had childhoods.
In cultural terms, individualism is Janus-like—looking to unrepentant libertarian mindsets (aware enough to set themselves apart) or more ominously to the horde of power-mad, malignant narcissists—congenitally blind to wreckage in their wake. And yet, how many immoral egotists gain the needed notoriety without promiscuous 24/7 media owned by others? Trump was merely a noisy, trivial NYC creep before indulgent cable TV time legitimized his lying schtick, and he’s still treating reality as an inconvenient handicap. Ditto, slow-witted Speaker McCarthy, whose transparently cynical (and doomed) debt ceiling soap opera was his to advance and is his to end. Would-be autocrats serve their insular propaganda while dis-serving everyone else—and the debt ceiling folly is the perfect lose-lose, arm-waving circus.
Only the egoists at large fail to see this pandemic of mainly right-wing self-absorption as undermining public order, elections, governance, even the planet. Unless punitive law handcuffs this profligacy of individualism, notable so far by omission, selfishness looks to ravage the community good. Unless peer pressure or election routs disarm delusions of grandeur, engorged egotism persists unchecked. Per our Constitution, laws and traditions, everyone has inalienable rights, but the rights of the many have clear sovereignty over the entitlement of individualism. That’s why slavery, child labor, spouse-beating, sexual harassment and racial discrimination are against the law.
Informed electorate the corrective
For this democratic humanist, the answer to ruinous individualism is an informed mass electorate, armed with sufficient common values and awareness to support healthy majority rule. Such a consensus hardly precludes single, isolated wizards (whether scientist, innovator, artist, or thinker) from advancing human civilization and understanding with new insights. But when political or military individualism goes to extremes, the end is either jungle morality (no laws, no enforcement) or dictatorship (maximum laws, maximum enforcement). The ultimate individualist, valuing his standing above everything and everyone, is the destroyer of other cultures (the invaders) or the destroyer of someone else’s well-being, whether murderer, rapist, or torturer capable of ruining a life.
Thus does excess individualism threaten not just civility but the planet itself, especially when climate change is twisted as a hoax or transient annoyance. Challenge extreme individualism with plausible, climate change reforms—and brace for massive opposition, knavery and rebellion. What other logic applies to a manifestly global dilemma but a coherent, global commitment, especially by the top dozen polluters. If earthlings do not together handcuff the worst poisoners of air, soil and water quality – and damp down our life-style of depletion—the question is how bad, not if calamity strikes.
Big problem: while climate vulnerability inches along, reckless individualism runs amok. Compare how long it would have taken “climate change” to match the Ukrainian damage from Putin’s two years of carpet bombing civilian cities? Ukraine proves that one obsessive, individual Russian dictator, on a quasi-religious imperial mission, as responsible, both the start and finish. How long would any external forces, climactic or military, have taken to match the internal devastation that Trump in half a decade alone—eviscerating trust in elections, the media, institutions, or needless pandemic deaths? What the brutal warlord Assad in Syria engineered in a decade of civil war is incomparable to what climate change, serial earthquakes or horrendous storms could do.
The obstacle to direct climate action is no longer public opinion, here or in Europe (and if we knew more in China, with devastating air pollution). Resource deregulation, mainly by the right wing (but Democrats, too) answers to self-serving leverage that favors private profits above general livability. Climate change is an indictment of bad individual choices internationally, as CEOs refuse to halt their addiction to fossil fuel. What better dilemma rephrases Ben Franklin’s line, “if we don’t all hang together, we’ll certainly hang one by one”? Global solutions will drive capitalists to hysteria about world “socialism,” but the alternative will dwarf COVID’s fatalities, the ultimate choice between life and mass death.
Painfully visible are exemplary bad actors, currying self-aggrandizement over collective, if not human interests: among others, Trump, Putin, DeSantis, Musk, McCarthy, Dems Sinema and Manchin, dimwit senators like Johnson and Paul, rude noisemakers M. T. Greene (and cohorts), George Santos, Hugo Chávez, Kim Jong Un, Jair Bolsonaro, and trollish, ill-educated media televangelists. While one can’t readily separate radical individualism from destructive corruption, abject selfishness or malignant narcissism, the outcomes are knowable: brash egotism, diminished empathy, hypocrisy, and the promotion of chaos. All in all, reckless individualism delivers just as many body blows to collective freedom as fascism, communism or fundamentalism. America, the fabled land of individualism, is still the icon for a mindset now warranting control, regulation or exile. No one is an island, entire unto himself, whatever propaganda is spewed.
Welcome to modernity
“Individualism” is a surprisingly modern word, its first appearance in print around 200 years ago. How telling for such a modern “philosophy,” positing that an individual’s right equals or exceeds those of the “external” whole, whether electoral, political or social. After all, it’s only been 500 years since Renaissance Italy, in paintings and writing, revitalized the human body and the human centeredness of life, lost in different terms since classical times.
Thanks to 19th C thinking (and Napoleonic complexes) plus promotion of “inner truth” (conscious and not), rugged individualism rose to prominence, no longer dismissed as cousin to anarchy. After the Protestant Reformation prompted Christians to alone commune with God, the world shifted from the self-denying, medieval hierarchies—except for infallible popes, kings or conquering heroes.
If bleating demagogues like Trump can instantly discredit an election he conspicuously lost, what limits the damage potential? Despite this worst attempted corruption of an election, nothing yet stops the self-indulgent Trump from doing whatever he damn well pleases. When such egotism goes from “rugged” to “reckless,” and courts are far, far too slow to intervene, rampant individualism, like terrorism, jeopardizes order and civility.
Consider the final irony: only in an open system, celebrating freedom of speech and belief, can bad faith religious fundamentalism or bad faith individualism become national cleavers. And neither the Constitution, nor Congress, not any president, has yet enforced the declaration, “Cease and desist now or else.” Nor do Jesus’ peace-loving values halt this siege of compassion-less individuality. Worse still, right wing Christians make a virtue of muscular, masculine, domineering, individual willfulness. How peculiar (or telling) that we dumped older kings and church potentates only to allow equally or more potent secular egotists to ascend.
Just as we needed institutional and legal checks and balances against monarchs, high time to confront the tyranny of willful individualism run amok. As Russell Kirk summarizes, “Individualism is a denial that life has any meaning except the gratification of the ego; in politics it must end in anarchy. It is not possible for one man to be both Christian and Individualist.” What about being a genuine democrat vs. a radical, anti-democratic individualist? Or a Constitutionalist vs. a rebellious individualist, per Jan. 6 infamy? It’s really become an either/or dilemma and nothing less than everything is at stake.