Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Twenty-five years ago, I read “Achieving Our Country,” a delightful book by the late American philosopher, Richard Rorty. It was a paean to American progressivism in the spirit of Walt Whitman and John Dewey. In his book, Rorty made an observation that did nothing less than change my mind. He noted that America’s cultural left with its penchant for political correctness had “reduced sadism” in American life. It seemed true. Though we had far to go, America was really trying hard to put the criminal legacy of racism behind us. It became unacceptable to ridicule fat people; circus freak shows were long a thing of the past. We had turned a corner and Americans were becoming nicer. It was an optimistic thought I allowed myself to indulge.
I believed it then. I don’t believe it now. Racism is alive and well and very raw. I think not only of the spate of African-American men and children killed by white police officers, but of racial epithets uttered with abandon and entitlement. I think of a Congress with its cadre of extremists that will block any initiative of Barack Obama simply because it has originated with him. Though it seems too crude to enter into our political discourse, I can’t help but think that too many Americans, including members of Congress, simply cannot abide and accept the fact that the most powerful man in America, America’s face to the world, is that of a black man.
I think of the anti-immigrant vitriol issuing forth from the land of immigrants. I ponder the moral implications of one percent of the population owning more than 40 percent of its wealth, perhaps feeling entitled to it and a smug sense that their obscene riches are somehow well-deserved. And this while the middle class erodes in quiet desperation and the poor have become totally invisible.
Consider privatization. Privatizing education. Private prisons. The proposal to turn social security and Medicare into vouchers to be used on the private market. Think of gated communities, private country clubs and private luxury boxes at sports stadiums so that the wealthy can have nothing to do with the rest of us, holed up in their own separate worlds.
What all these phenomena, and many more characteristic of modern society, have in common at their base is a philosophy of radical individualism that has become legitimated and reinforced by a fashionable libertarian ideology.
I need to be clear. I am a strong, and when need be, militant, advocate of individualism. The individual is the locus of subjective experience. It is the repository of our freedom and our rights. Individualism is the matrix that spawns a great deal of creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness. Without high regard for the individual, we forfeit any civilization worth having. The individual is the fount of our dignity, and, as Ethical Culture teaches, the source of our uniqueness as human beings.
But the individual is half of our humanity. The other half is our communalism. It is recognition that we are social beings, deeply nested in human community. The larger human context, comprised of other people, is the source of our values and our strength. It is through culture, which we inherit, that we mold our individual selves. We are dependent on others for our language, our intellectual heritage, our folkways … for virtually all that we are. We come from others and we share with others a common destiny. It is as if our individual selves are the tip of the iceberg. Our social selves are what lie beneath, mostly hidden, but far more massive, more substantive.
It is this endowment, this gift in the current age, to which we have grown blind. But receiving a gift also, in my view, implies responsibility, a duty to others, to society, so that we may give back in the order in which we have received.
It is this sense of social connection and the social obligations incumbent on it that have been forgotten, derided and often disdained in our time. Dedication to the common good, an exalted concept, speaks now with a very weak voice, if at all. Unbridled, often haughty individualism holds sway.
The bigot shouting racist epithets does not sense his common bond with those he holds in contempt. The champion of privatization, who heralds the virtues of free market capitalism and its ethos of privatization, does not see or care to see that capitalism kills around the fringes – and those fringes have grown very large indeed. The libertarian ideologue in his righteousness is blinded to feelings of compassion.
We live in a time in which American society, indeed the international community, feels as if it is being torn apart and inching closer to a Hobbesian world of “each against all.” Yeat’s response to such an era at an earlier time was to foresee a religious deus ex machina, a Second Coming. I, the humanist, choose to work for a world in which we sense the human dimension threading through us all, uniting us as sisters and brothers committed to a world which strives for the common good. I will develop these ideas further in my address of April 5th, “Individualism Gone Wild.” I hope you can join me then.