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Benefits + Costs of Rugged Individualism

You know, I have been thinking, and this is often dangerous! But I have been contemplating what causes people who are clearly in need to vote for a person or a party that clearly does not support the idea of giving all citizens the opportunity to have some basic rights, including health care, a place to live, and education. Would that not benefit us all?

So, I wonder why there are those who would deny other citizens those benefits. I have a theory that is not new news. I warn you that my belief is influenced by my social work, social justice Jesuit education. Historically, long before Herbert Hoover named it, Americans have subscribed to the idea of rugged individualism, the belief that all individuals can succeed on their own and that government help for people should be minimal.

Though Individualism is prized in America, many southeast Asian countries lean more closely to collectivistic ideals meaning they put group harmony, social agreement, and cooperation above the expression of individual opinions. The complexity of why such a country as China places great value in collectivism, is often whittled down to the idea that collectivism is a necessary survival tool in such a massive population with an obvious lack of space in urban areas. Americans however hold the belief that it is our individualism that makes us innovative, free thinkers. We sometimes view collectivist societies as common folks in lockstep with the collective.

I am a big nerd and fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation – and Patrick Stewart. There was a series of episodes in which Jean Luke Piccard battles the Borg and was eventually himself taken and assimilated into the Borg collective! Yikes! The Borg were a collectivist civilization based on a hive or group mind known as the Collective. Each Borg drone is linked to the collective. Individual Borg rarely speak, though they do send a collective audio message to their targets, stating that "resistance is futile,” generally followed by a declaration that the target in question will be assimilated into the collective. This is meant to be terrifying, and in many ways, it is. Nevertheless, as with all things, somewhere in the middle range of the continuum between rugged individualism and collectivism is likely most beneficial.

What seems to work best in collectivistic cultures is their social agreement about duties and responsibilities to others. For example, according to the research of social psychologist, Thomas Telhelm, people in collectivistic cultures are more likely to agree that “We should keep our aging parents with us at home,” and many other collectivistic cultural norms. And although people living in collectivistic cultures report less intimacy with their friends, they are also more likely to think that they should stick together through tough times.

It is my theory that the current divided condition of our country is tied to the erosion of our universal values of peace, freedom, social progress, equal rights, and human dignity, all of which are enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our country has become a nation of selfish, self-interested, self-serving individuals. We have lost our way, even those who stand firm in their religious beliefs.

The contradiction is that many people who benefit from government assistance are also those who would deny it for others. We operate from a place of lack, the belief that there is not enough for all, so we elbow our way to the top of the pack to get our share (and more if we can), while we look down at those at the bottom of the heap calling them “lazy people who grift the system,” believing that somehow these folks are receiving more from the government than they deserve and more than what we receive from the government in the form of aid. Paradoxically, we are jealous of that assistance but are too proud to accept it ourselves. This reminds me of the news reports around Christmas of the brawls that break out at Walmart over the five TVs on sale for $75 – the crowd nearly killing someone who got two TVs but who were not themselves interested in the TVs but were in the store to get gift wrap!

But, I digress. Why do we want to withhold health care, education, and a safety net for our citizens in need? If I were born into poverty and discriminated against for of my race, religion, sex, gender orientation, age, cognitive challenges, etc., and this discrimination kept me from obtaining the job of my choosing, or live where I wanted, or afford health care, I would appreciate some form of support. But for the grace of God, go I.

I was fortunate to be born into a white, middle class family. I had parents who were able to obtain work, housing, and health care. I was encouraged to get an education. I remember my mother saying to me in the 1960s that if I wanted to be an astronaut (because I did), that I should work toward that. In some ways, she was rather progressive. My parents had enough money to send me and my siblings to private schools. Although I put myself through college and graduate school with loans, tuition was still less of a crushing burden than it is for students today. My family believed that we each had opportunity to live our dreams.

After centuries of inequality, blacks and people of color had their dreams for equal housing, education, and jobs thwarted by white America. It is easy to lose hope, to be required to constantly fight to exist with some basic rights. We, white Americans, are threatened by the recalibration of power, the attempt at creating balance. We built the foundation of our American Dreams on rich soil while throwing dirt into the pit where all those discriminated against are trying to dig themselves out and blame them for being dirty, without shovels and ladders that we manufacture and over-price. But, we do it because we can. American individualism, capitalism, and all! “I can do what I want. It is your problem if you cannot obtain it.”

We have lost the sense of care for our fellow human beings. We have lost sight of our shared humanity and the dignity of all life. My thesis is that some balance of collectivism and individualism is something for us to endeavor to attain. The gap between the values we live and the values preserved in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is far wider than democracy can support. This is not new news, but my belief is that only when we regain our compassion for all sentient beings can we expand and fully embrace the American ideal of “liberty and justice for all.”

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