The discussion surrounding community, individualism, materialism, and the current economic and political crisis is anything but a discussion of perfect definitions or easy answers, and much of it is lodged only in vague theoretical hypothesis, or couched in moral arguments rather than arguments of cold, hard reason or data. Essentially, where I argue against the emphasis always on the individual, I argue from a moral standpoint. Mark’s response to my piece also argued from a moral standpoint, and in many senses the two opposing pieces agree as much as they disagree on the value of the individual.
One important thing to note about my argument against emphasizing the “rugged individual” over the community in which they exist is that I am arguing against a type of individualism, not against individualism itself. As Wendell Berry notes in his aptly titled essay, Rugged Individualism:
The career of rugged individualism in America has run mostly to absurdity, tragic or comic. But it also has done us a certain amount of good. There was a streak of it in Thoreau, who went alone to jail in protest against the Mexican War. And that streak has continued in his successors who have suffered penalties for civil disobedience because of their perception that the law and the government were not always or necessarily right. This is individualism of a kind rugged enough, and it has been authenticated typically by its identification with a communal good.
The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive “right” of individuals to do as they please, as if there were no God, no legitimate government, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity. This is most frequently understood as the right to do whatever one pleases with one’s property.
Property cuts to the heart of many localist arguments, but I’d like to set it aside for the time being. We’ll pick it back up later, but for now let’s focus on the two individualisms that Berry is speaking about in the passage above. There is the individualism of “communal good” that he attributes to such beacons of enlightenment as Henry David Thoreau, or in Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose praise of the individual forms the pillar of Mark’s piece.
Emerson, writing in 1841, is critiquing the very idea of “growth for the sake of growth” and materialism that E.D. lays at the feet of individualism. In other words, Emerson argued that individualism was the antidote to materialism whereas E.D. and several other commentators whom I respect now claim that individualism is in fact the cause of materialism.
Now, here is where we come to the “tragic” individualism – or, perhaps we should call it “individualism apart.” Thus we have “individualism within” and “individualism apart” and while the twain shall indeed meet, nevertheless the distinction is important. I want to expand upon Berry’s “property” argument and cast this sort of individualism as a brand unique, perhaps, to our day and age. The modern individual is not an individual in the sense that one may have once considered a man or woman to be – they are not unique in thought, nor defined by some exemplary vision or aptitude. Today’s “rugged individual” is defined by entitlement and detachment. They are members, for lack of a better term, of the atomized herd. The irony of the modern individual is that they exist so utterly apart from their community, and yet also in such complete lockstep with the larger national culture. This is an effect of national television, national pop culture, the internet, suburbs, etc. The more we are atomized by our technology, our consumerism, our political policies, and our urban sprawl, the less like a classical individual we become. We are driven into our own tiny pockets of existence, apart from our locality, and even to the detriment of many of the things traditional communities hold dear.
Once upon a time communities were built – by happenstance – around notions of, well, community. You built some shops within walking distance of some houses, and sprinkled in a park here or there so that people could eat their ice cream in the sun before they headed to the market or back home. You built roads and walkways, but nothing stretched too far or got too big. People even lived above the shops. You could walk downstairs and buy an orange. People walked places. It was really, really good for the local economy and for other things, like keeping crime rates low. This inspired communities to exist as communities of individuals rather than atomized herds.
In this conception, individualism is a moral imperative, indeed it is the essence of what it means to be a human. The individual qua individual engages in an ongoing search for moral truth. That which is “new” is not automatically better, but is instead evaluated on its merits. It recognizes that locale, family, and life experiences are what inform an individual’s understanding of the world and what is right for that individual. It approaches all topics by seeking to understand what is best and right to do at that time and in that place.
The problem, however, is that this society does not encourage this concept of the individual. It promotes atomization, not autonomy. It promotes detachment, not togetherness. This is one reason why I think Nathan Origer is right on the money with his two part manifesto on a “new” new urbanism built less upon the ideals of “urban” or “community” planning and more around the precept that people did thing better when they did things naturally, including building their home towns.
I believe in practical means to achieve moral goals – in other words, not moralizing to achieve moral goals, but providing the situation in which those moral goals can best be achieved. So, for instance, if I lament the atomization of our society based on the way suburbs and modern urban planning have diced up our communities, the practical solution is to look to older means of building our cities and pushing for ways to get back to those methods. This may mean lifting some zoning restrictions, but also erecting new ones. Libertarians might argue that lifting all zoning restrictions would create the most “natural” and least “planned” urban environment, but where this fails in my book is the fact that efficiency will often trump aesthetic, and at some point on the efficiency/aesthetic scale we tip too far away from a basic human need for beauty. I prefer my cities with no freeways, as opposed to 14 lane freeways. Even traffic gets better when there are fewer massive roadways, as long as cities are built to accommodate walking and biking.
Essentially, though, I think individualism is vital and important to this world, but it will not and cannot thrive in a culture that pushes myths about “rugged individualism” or encourages atomization of the individual into smaller and smaller and more detached (and ironically, in some way, more connected) pods of togetherness. Individuals thrive in good social soil.
This passage from Thomas Merton’s introduction to Thoughts in Solitude is a good one for this occasion, and it’s a bit long, but bear with me:
In an age when totalitarianism has striven, in every way, to devaluate and degrade the human person, we hope it is right to demand a hearing for any and every reaction in the favor of man’s inalienable solitude and his interior freedom. The murderous din of our materialism cannot be allowed to silence the independent voices which will never cease to speak: whether they be voices of Christian Saints, or the voices of Oriental sages like Lao-Tse or the Zen Masters, or the voices of men like Thoreau or Martin Buber, or Max Picard. It is all very well to insist that man is a “social animal” – the fact is obvious enough. But that is no justification for making him a mere cog in a totalitarian machine – or in a religious one either, for that matter.
In actual fact, society depends for its existence on the inviolable personal solitude of its members. Society, to merit its name, must be made up not of numbers, or mechanical units, but of persons. To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sens of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s ability to give himself to society – or to refuse that gift.
When men are merely submerged in a mass of impersonal human beings pushed around by automatic forces, they lose their true humanity, their integrity, their ability to love, their capacity for self-determination. When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.
The irony, then, is that when individualism is touted for the wrong reasons, or when a culture attempts to set the individual up and apart from his community, then individualism itself becomes a thin and shadowy rendition of what it once was. We become, in our individuality, still nothing more than “cogs” in our own beneficent totalitarian machine. This machine is one of materialism and meaninglessness. We believe in ourselves above all other things, in the capacity of our own triumphalism, but we are nothing more than mere cogs in spite of it all, “pushed around by automatic forces” and incapable of self-government.
This is the individualism I meant to critique in my original piece. We have such a consensus on what individuality means as Americans that it becomes hard to distinguish between the two forms – apart and within. It is dangerous to view both as the same, or different aspects of a similar notion, because the one is healthy and vital and the other is empty and quite inhuman in the way it operates within us. Great men do move and shake the Earth, and they do this undoubtedly as individuals. But they do it as individuals within a larger support network, within a community, a cohabited world. This is also the myth of “going Galt” that is so trendy to preach or deride these days. It leads at least in part to the massive state apparatus we see today, and also to the realm of corporations “too big to fail.” It is the selfishness that is at the heart of the theoretical market, but has no place in human interaction.
Mark finishes up his piece with a very true word of warning:
And there is something even worse that occurs when community ceases to value the individual. It fails to recognize that the traditions that it values so deeply came from somewhere; they did not simply emerge fully-formed, but were instead the work of some individual or group of individuals who came up with an idea that would be better than what previously existed. It thus prevents new traditions from forming that may supplement or improve or update the old traditions to make them more relevant to the present day. Instead, the old tradition remains in place, unchanged, whether or not it continues to have value to the people who engage in that tradition; and so, it quickly becomes a dead tradition.
I would only add that the reverse is true as well. When individuals forget to value their community, or forget perhaps what the notion or meaning of a community is to begin with, they also forget that their traditions came from somewhere, that there is a history of flesh and blood that exists beyond them, and yet encompasses them in ways that we as selves, as humans, as individuals will never fully comprehend.