a post appeared on the patrolmag blog a few days ago commenting on a post that was written for thefederalist blog. the patrolmag post stimulated me to think about the american obsession with individualism, a topic that is called to my attention more and more these days. this type of individualism is an exclusionary individualism that ignores any obligation to society in general, that refuses to respect divergent points-of-view, and insists that one's own beliefs are the only ones that can possibly be true. an emphasis on the individual is not something new in the american psyche, but i fear that our present interpretation of a sort of exclusionary individualism is a dangerous and destructive force in our society and particularly in our political life.
the type of individualism that is presented to us at present is a me-against-them sort of philosophy. it is a negative expression that allows those who adopt it to conveniently exclude the messy business of dealing with reality. if one denies the existence of climate change and the human role in it, one doesn't have to address the problems climate change presents. if one denies the forces of nature as seen in scientific understanding of the origins of the universe and the evolution of life on earth, then one can adopt the solution to the origin of life that "God spoke, and it was.". if one denies that sexual orientation is determined before we are born, it is easy to condemn those who are not heterosexual and simply believe that gay people choose to be gay.
for believers in this type of individualism, the government is a convenient enemy, though collectively we are all the "government," a fact that these individualists deny. once the government is seen as an evil monolithic institution beyond the control of the electorate, then one can cherry-pick which laws should be obeyed and which should be ignored; those laws which conform to what is convenient for each individual then become "just," and those that are inconvenient are "unjust." since the government is inherently evil, the individual is justified in taking up arms and killing those who represent forces the individual sees as the enemy. when such individualists band together and feed off each other's fantasies of evil conspiracies that are embodied in the government, small armies are created to defend "individual liberty" against the tyranny of the rest of society.
these victimized individualists see themselves as part of a persecuted class, refusing to admit that diversity is the lifeblood of democracy. those who are different--minorities, those who hold other political points-of-view, members of other religious groups, secularists and humanists--are seen as a danger that must be opposed at all costs. the children of the rugged individualists must be kept away from the corrupting influence of different people and ideas that they might encounter in public schools; purity of thought can only be maintained through home schooling. the individualist's family must band with other right-thinkers in churches that exclude all those who dare to question their narrow beliefs. the larger society is secular and evil, and this larger society, with its confusing array of philosophies and beliefs, is an enemy that insists that freedom to be diverse is a necessary expression of a democratic society, thus encroaching on the individualist philosophy and thereby persecuting those who subscribe to it.
the thinking of those thus victimized plays into the hands of power brokers like the koch brothers who use this idea that government and society at large is evil to achieve their own ends. the government-is-evil belief means all regulation is wrong, and business entities should be free to do whatever is needed to reap the rewards to which they are entitled. laws that rein in the power of business persecute these enterprises, just as "unjust" government laws persecute the individualist. labor unions are seen as evil because they thwart the ambitions of business leaders and take away the individual's "right to work."
it is in the extension of the individualist philosophy into the sphere of politics and the ability of greedy business leaders, like those who make up the club for growth, to harness the adherents of this way of thinking at the ballot box that is so dangerous for american society. without the alliance between those who espouse the individualist philosophy and the less scrupulous members of the business community, these sort of individualists would be a group that is largely ignored by the rest of society.
may we return to a healthy respect for the individual that recognizes divergent beliefs and points-of-view. may we honor the idea that all of us have an obligation to work together for the common good, realizing that all should have an opportunity to realize their full potential regardless of background, ethnicity, or social status. shalom.