What Is to Be Done? Part One


Occasionally a reader will ask me what’s to be done about the things that horrify me–gun violence, cultural illiteracy, bad schools, structural racism, lack of sidewalks, vulgar money worship, undifferentiated assholery.

Fair questions. For the most part, I have no practical solutions. I’m all talk. I was born with the pious but unimaginative conviction that people will believe and act on the truth if they just hear a good unmasking of falsehoods. And so I do my best to unmask, but little else. Some of my critics have noticed this lack of oomph in me. I recognized it in myself the first time I read Orwell’s essay “Charles Dickens.”

Dickens, Orwell wrote, tripped over himself pointing out all the world’s sorrows, but he never mounted anything like a political response to them. He held back because he was horrified of revolution, as you can gather from A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens simply thought everyone should spend time dwelling on what was wrong with the world and try harder to be better. Improve human nature, and you improve society, if only by tiny increments.

Raised as I was in country churches, this is more or less the attitude I inherited. It’s up to each individual to avoid coveting their neighbor’s ass and to cultivate the other noble virtues. If you can’t do it on your own, you really shouldn’t expect a government agency or anyone else to step in and do the work for you. If you end up burning in hell for your sins, well, you simply didn’t take advantage of the opportunities you had for moral improvement.

I think this rugged individualist attitude is characteristic of a large swathe of Anglophile Christendom, for whom John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress is a formative myth. Each of us is on a lone, dangerous quest for heavenly virtue that may only be aided by supernatural intervention or internal moral suasion. There is no legitimate role for social benevolence in a truly heroic epic. The hero must go it alone.

But I digress.

In my latest indictment of Trumpism, I said those who were most exploited by America’s corporate masters appeared the most likely to swear loyalty to the vulgar idols Trump promoted–money, celebrity and militarism. I called his politics “malevolent yokelism” and other bad names. Despite my poor manners, I believe I supported my views with facts and reasons. For me, this is sort of where the story would normally end, at the same place where Charles Dickens’s moral imagination leaves off. I did my best to make my point, and anyone who finds sympathy with it can act on it as they see fit.

This will never happen, of course. People never change their minds, still less act, based on arguments in social media.

The question that was posed to me, though, was about changing minds. Specifically: If Trumpism is a mass response to a crisis that preceded his presidency, and if 60-odd percent of the country does not wish to see a repeat of Trump, what actions can we take to address the conditions that produced his election?

I’ll take my best shot.

I will need three parts. Sorry, but philosophers, being longwinded, do chop things up like that.

In this part, I will lay some necessary groundwork. You can’t jump right in to a to-do list without first considering what it’s for, what kind of resources can be drawn on, and so forth.

Today I will do my best to deflate the myth of rugged individualism, which causes us to denigrate the public sphere and devalue social cohesion. Whether we articulate this myth vigorously or not, Americans pretty obviously believe something like Margaret Thatcher’s (in)famous pronouncement in 1987 that “there’s no such thing as society,” just individuals. Unaided and alone, we each pursue our self interest, and together these pursuits makes something we call a market, whose operations are as close to perfect as humans can come.

This idea runs deep in America. We tend to take it for granted that we are all going it marvelously alone, as free and unprotected as Jack London’s protagonist in “To Build a Fire.” Each of us does our level best to reason out strategies for coping with impersonal nature and abstract market forces. Even the well-networked citizen of the 21st century tends to believe success comes down to individual effort and nothing more. Clubs, churches and sports teams are good for teaching, enhancing or showcasing individual success, but they have little intrinsic value.

The rugged individual (Image: lynnhpryor.com)

Government, on the rugged individualist view, is the lowest depth of the necessary evil of collectivism. H.L. Mencken summed up this quintessentially American attitude in a 1926 book review when he said government “still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.”

The idea that humans left alone can achieve their full measure of dignity is a bracing one. It is also entirely false. Mencken’s “industrious man” depends for his success on a body of regulations capable of restricting everyone’s freedom (so that others cannot simply copy his inventions, steal his farm or factory, sell inferior knock-offs of his products, hack his bank accounts, etc.). As for being decent, one cannot even contemplate this happy state unless s/he feels secure in her life and property. Decent behavior is not an individual virtue; it requires other people, interested in our lives, some entrusted with the force of law and organized to carry it out. It is impossible to be well-disposed without the prior existence of lawmakers, cops, courts and lots of other people acting with the collective purpose of institutions.

I know President Obama got a bad press when he scolded business owners in 2012, “You did’t build that,” but his essential meaning rings true: There is a whole matrix of social constructs on which your individual achievements depend and from which your choices take shape. What you perceive to be an austere, abstract starting line in life is actually a rich interplay of institutions built up by millions of your forebears and expanded and borne along by millions more of your contemporaries. This rich institutional life is what de Tocqueville so admired about America. We are joiners, or at least we once were.

We depend crucially on others for what appear to be individual choices, achievements, experiences, and, I believe, even personal characteristics. I actually believe something fairly radical in this vein. I believe we are other people.

The germ of this idea is trivially true. Biologically, we are an admixture of our parents’ genes. Psychologically, we are imprinted with their behaviors (or those of other caregivers). Culturally, we receive humanity’s whole endowment of knowledge from our teachers–a miracle I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Our brain is the seat of our soul. I don’t know about yours, but mine is populated with other people–images of my family, things they have said to me throughout my life, lessons I learned from my teachers, and so forth. Remove the neural signatures of these other people from my brain, and I am not me anymore.

The philosopher W.G.F. Hegel, although he lacked the knowledge of brain science we have today, recognized the deepest implications of the critical importance of other people for individual identity. The human person, Hegel argued, can only become self-conscious if its consciousness is mirrored in the regard of others. In other words, other people’s recognition of me is part of what makes me myself. The writer Wittold Gombrowicz expressed this idea beautifully in his novel Ferdydurke: “Man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man’s soul.”

The idea I am leading up to (in my next post) is that, if there is no such thing as the rugged individual, it follows that the public is of primary importance to society. And so it is the public sphere that politics must primarily attend to. When government thinks its only job is to create markets and stay out of the way of “rugged individuals” contending for wealth, it is bound to go seriously wrong.

Our moral and political landscape today is as blasted one, bereft of any sense of collective purpose. As the historian Tony Judt put it in his last book , in 2010, “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest.” The result has been a dramatic–I would say pathological–steepening of income inequality. In 2005 the Walton family (founders of Walmart) held $90 billion of wealth, as much as the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population.

This dramatic inequality has had horrific consequences: poverty, ill-health, deaths of despair, skyrocketing incarceration, and the extinction of the American dream–the idea that each new generation starts with more advantages than its predecessor did. Why do we go on like this? Because we have learned to valuate our lives in terms of material possessions. This seems insane, but it has become possible because we buy into its underlying myth of rugged individualism: each of us must simply do our best to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

But if this myth is true, it is a truth that has made us a nation of losers. When the bottom ninety percent of our society holds as much wealth as the top one percent, deprivation has become the statistical norm. It cannot be regarded as an anomaly. It is a condition that our society is designed to produce. No one tells you when you start life that taking your best shot at wealth and security is much more likely to end in failure than success. What they tell you instead is that you are a hero of your own epic, possibly the next Sam Walton, which is a very attractive thing to believe, or at least it’s supposed to be.

So even if you don’t go as far as I do in my goofy, mystic belief that we are other people, it would be worth your while to consider that we nonetheless have vital, inextricable ties to one another. The idea that we are rugged individuals and we should measure our worth in material wealth is the propaganda of the rich. It is an immoral way to think of ourselves, and it has failed us. It is time to recast ourselves as an interdependent public, none of whose members need to starve because they are losers.



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