America is devoted to a belief in Individualism, what was called “Rugged Individualism” when I was young. It is the belief that each of us is a solitary unit, an independent actor who should not rely on government or community for his or her support or success in life. As Richard Nixon put it in his Second Inaugural Address in 1973: “In our own lives, let each of us ask-not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself?” (If this sounds vaguely like an anti-Kennedy construction, you are probably correct.)
I call Individualism a belief because we are social creatures, descended from tribes of social animals, who depend on family and community for our identities, values, and understanding of the world. The notion that we are independent individuals is a fantasy. We are the product of a family, a tribe, a society, a culture. America’s belief in this fantasy causes us considerable pain.
The American Dream myth maintains that each of us has the opportunity through hard work and persistence to achieve wealth, power, and fame. The bootstrap myth holds that anyone of us can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, in other words, to defy gravity to rise in the world of men. The popular Horatio Alger young adult novels of the post-Civil War era depicted the classic American success story of impoverished boys rising from humble backgrounds to become secure middle-class men, i.e., “rags to riches.” (Notice I didn’t include women in this mythology. The Rugged Individualism myth is much more a masculine concept.) Socioeconomic mobility is at the heart of the American story. But American social mobility has stagnated and is now low compared with many European countries. (In Denmark, a poor child has twice as much chance of making it to the top quintile as in America.) The U.S. has relative mobility rates very close to those in Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Individualism is typified by the lie of the self-made man, as if such a thing were possible biologically as well as socially and economically. Every human achievement, despite the illusion of the lone discoverer, inventor or creative genius, is the result of countless incremental contributions going back eons. The notion that a go-getter can achieve great things alone as a super-hero, without the support of the society, is a fairy tale. The idea that our nation rose up through the determination of solitary frontiersman, settlers, and pilgrims, denies the theft of our land from the indigenous people and Mexicans, and ignores the role that slaves played in every one of the original 13 colonies and early states.
In the 21st Century men believe in teamwork in sports and enterprise, but they are heavily invested in hierarchies, in star athletes, star performers in entertainment, and captains of industry and entrepreneurs in business. The overachievers are seen as deserving outrageous rewards and compensation for their uniqueness and genius. The corporation, in a neat reversal of the obvious, eschews the fact that it is a collaboration of many people, and dubs itself an individual.
Michael Moore’s comedy documentary “Where to Invade Next” is a good example of the fundamental difference between the United States of America and many countries that enjoy better aspects of their lifestyles than ours. Moore humorously presents an assortment of novel ideas:
- Generous statutory vacations and paid leave in Italy, compared with no mandatory vacation in the US.
- Schoolchildren feasting on four-course school lunches in France vs. low quality American school lunches
- Free college tuition and non-existent student debt in Slovenia vs. $1.3 trillion of outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. that affects 44 million borrowers
- Prisons that look nicer than many US hotels where prisoners are treated with dignity in Norway, contrasted with America’s overcrowded inhumane prison system
- Workers participating in boardrooms and schoolchildren learning about and inheriting the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany — contrasted with America’s surging inequality and reluctant admission of racism at the heart of our history of slavery and genocide
- Decriminalization of drug use in Portugal in contrast to America’s war on drugs that has resulted in massive prison populations and modern slave labor.
The collectivism and social responsibility of European and other countries results in a way of life that benefits all.
Individualism has its merits, of course. Liberty is a hallmark of American values, and opportunity for advancement still exists, even if it is not what most Americans believe it to be. The drive to improve one’s lot in life remains a major factor in American economic growth and shares the credit for American children being better off than their parents in absolute terms.
Unfortunately Individualism has some serious drawbacks. These include:
- Anti-democratic government – the rise of American plutocracy (a subject for another article sometime)
- Anti-egalitarianism that bakes in social and economic inequality and disregards the sufferings of others
The problem with inequality is that not everyone can achieve wealth, power, and fame. Those who fall short are left with a lack of self-esteem and guilt. In our culture, if you have not risen to the status of billionaire, it’s your own fault. Medical and social scientists now describe numerous social ills linked to inequality. Inadequate opportunities for self-esteem and cultural heroism result in social psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, alcohol, drug and other addictions, rising suicide rates, domestic violence, and increases in bias and other hate crimes.
The advantages of collectivism include a cohesive society, mutual support, and empathy as a way of life, the cornerstone of emotional intelligence and personal achievement.
I am not advocating collectivism over individualism. Obviously there are advantages to both and require a balance in each person’s life, as well as in our society. What I am warning against is the overemphasis on individualism in American life, the winner-take-all mentality that permeates our political, social, and economic systems. There are better ways to live, and we as a nation need to have the courage to discuss them openly without rancor and name calling. Let’s reform America one idea at a time.
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Stephen James is a member of The Writers Collective. He is the award winning author of American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture, is the president of Contemporary Heroism Initiative, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation and the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He is a producer of communications media in the New York area.