Alexis De Tocqueville
This was meant to be written last week but I got interrupted by stuttering over the wonderful snow. On January 13th David Brooks wrote a column in the NYT entitled, “America is Falling Apart at the Seams.” In it he cataloged numerous statistics we are mostly familiar with in one context or another. In a pile their relationships to one another become apparent. One surprising statistic was that traffic fatalities were up 7% in 2020 and 18.4% above that in 2021. The spike is attributable to reckless driving and driving while under the influence. All the more shocking since miles driven have been down double digits in the pandemic.
Brooks throws up his hands in acknowledgment that he has no idea what is causing all of this (see the article for a list of the symptoms). He is wise enough to assume it is more than one thing, resisting the temptation to hang it all on social media, rotten politics, or the Trump-effect. Whatever it is, it is surely a witches brew of causes. But…
I want to nominate American Individualism as the primary source to which many of the others are but symptoms. The disintegration of authentic community and a culture of compassion is the logical conclusion of rugged individualism which has so long been promoted and enshrined in American mythology. Individualism had its origins before modern capitalism but it has been exploited and engorged by our consumer economy and manipulated by corporate power.
Way back in the 1830’s Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the dangers of individualism in the young American soul. While in many ways an enthusiast for American democracy, he noted some disturbing character flaws that needed to be addressed.
The very penchant for democratic equality spawned by Puritanism also held within it, he said, the dangers of “individualism.” This new word he may have coined, pointed to the belief that each person is fundamentally alone in the world and that so-called society only exists to the extent we are all alone together. One’s strength is self-reliance and one’s weakness is reliance on others. In practice, individualism leans hard toward the private life. (Greathinkers.org consulted for synopsis).
Individualism is at the heart of the doctrine of democratic equality, he understood, but if unchecked it can spell its ruin. Just so, capitalism blossoms when greed and self-interest are the prime-movers and that has hyper-stimulated our culture of individualism. So now, in 2022 when we look around, the chickens have come home to roost. We are withdrawn into silos of self-interest, fractious around the issues of racial, ethnic, and gender identity, and steeped in the dogma of self-reliance. Meanwhile the countervailing traditions, organizations, and institutions that once offered a true sense of community are in serious decline.
Individualism and self-reliance are an utterly foolish self-delusion. No one is self-made and no one and no group can flourish alone. Survive, perhaps, but only for time. God, or the universe if you prefer, created us and all life, to be inter-dependent. Ecosystems thrive when that interdependence is nurtured, and they die when individual components overgrow their niche and become dominant. Don’t take my word for it, ask any environmental biologist.
My response to David Brooks is that America has soul work to do. Deep excavating soul work.