Probably the most important ingredient of Americans' ideology is their belief in the freedom of the individual (called “individualism” for short). The following may serve as a succinct catechism of its principles: What is this country’s highest ideal and greatest blessing? It is freedom. To what purpose should freedom be employed? That is for each individual to decide; everyone should set his own goals for himself. What will determine his success or failure in attaining them? That should depend on his innate qualities, like talent and temperament; external factors, such as the material or social circumstances of birth and upbringing, should not be decisive.
“Insist on yourself;
Those are the basics. To understand the ideal of individualism in its larger and higher dimensions, one may refer to an author who has the best claim to be its philosophical champion, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his own day, his emphatic pronouncements won wide applause, and they have remained popular ever since. This was only natural. Emerson took hold of sentiments that most Americans already felt to a greater or lesser degree, consciously or semiconsciously; he worked them into coherent form, pushed them to their logical conclusions, and above all, gave them memorable expression. Despite a somewhat baroque prose style, his writings such as “Address at Divinity College” (1838) and “Self-Reliance” (1841) still ring out with memorable phrases despite a distance of over a century and a half.
The fundamental essence of each individual has been divinely created and inspired, Emerson declared. “The fountain of all good” is in yourself; “obey thyself;” “judge for yourself, reverence thyself.” The young nation agreed with him—and so did its posterity. In 1986, for example, a sociologist remarked that “the sanctity of the individual” was a “common American, quasi-creedal phrase.”
Emerson was drastic in his conviction that an individual should obey himself and himself alone. “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.... I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.” This very sentiment can be heard from today’s lifestyle individualists, who declare, “Next week I might quit my career in banking, leave my wife and children, and join a Buddhist cult.”
An individual goes wrong when he follows the dictates or even the example of others, Emerson maintained. “Insist on yourself; never imitate.” Each person should act “from himself, tossing the laws, the books, idolatries and customs out of the window.... Let me admonish you...to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men.” This has become a pervasive ideal in American culture, high and low alike. In 2000, one journalist and media critic remarked that a single theme dominated nearly all of the award-winning Hollywood movies—contempt for “external moral authority” and glorification of “personally designed morality.”
Emerson wanted an elite,
but he believed that
everyone was capable
of belonging to it.
Emerson warned the individual, not only against following others, but also against leading others. “Dominion over myself” should be sufficient. Whenever I “undertake the direction of him also [i.e. my fellow man], I overstep the truth, and come into false relations to him.” A man becomes “weaker by every recruit to his banner.” The bold novelty of this stance is remarkable. Innumerable proponents of new doctrines have declared: Do not follow others, follow me. Emerson was declaring: Do not follow anyone, do not lead anyone, take charge of yourself alone—an exhortation which Americans then and now have endorsed with verbal enthusiasm and which is reflected in various popular attitudes, ranging from the perennial mistrust of government officials to the maxim of the 1960s New Left, “Don’t follow leaders.”
Emerson was extremely dubious about people acting in groups. He feared that they beguiled a man into deserting his own individuality and abandoning its superior insight. “They think society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the whole world.” It was the duty of each person to resist collective influences and demands. “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.... The virtue in most request is conformity.... Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.... Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Americans of subsequent times have spoken with similar vehemence at merely the theoretical possibility of a threat to their individual freedom. The following is a synopsis of prevailing opinion, as reported by a sociologist in the 1980s: “Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious.”
There was, Emerson admitted, a vast distance between ideal and reality, between the free and full development of all individuals and the actual behavior of people living in the world. But again and again, he insisted that everyone contained within himself a splendid treasure and that everyone was capable of possessing it. And Emerson did mean everyone. Different people possessed various talents in varying degrees of ability, of course. But when these were all sorted out and measured up together, it would be apparent that every man was “equal to every other man.” Emerson wanted an elite, but he believed that everyone was capable of belonging to it.
“...to ask the
to ask for a
Listen to the buzzing stream of articulate American opinion during most any era, and you will hear expressions of optimistic idealism and professions of radical egalitarianism similar to Emerson’s. In 1990, for example, a usually realistic and perceptive analyst of society declared that she wanted “a world in which even the lowliest among us—the hash-slinger, the sock-finder, the factory hand—will be recognized as the poet she truly is.” In 2001, an educator with many years of practical experience asserted that “genius is as common as air” and that society was utilizing only a “minority of the human talent” available. Back in 1963, when “conformity” was something many people worried about, an article in Time magazine pointed out that after all, few individuals are able to disregard social pressures and act solely on their personal convictions. The very idea that everyone should develop his own independent notions about such things as “politics, ethics, [and] culture” is “to ask the impossible. It is, in fact, to ask for a mass elite.” To which a prominent academic commented with approval, “In all its outrageous innocence, this is what America has asked for from the beginning.”
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So basic and widespread is America’s allegiance to the ideal of individualism that its strength is reflected even in the criticism it has sometimes received. Careful analysis reveals that many of the attacks are aimed, not at individualism in its entirety, but at one of its two currently popular forms, by proponents of the other.
“Economic individualism” is the term I would use to indicate what people on the political right tend to favor. In their view, each person should express his individuality by striving to succeed in his chosen line of work (that is, in frankly mercenary terms, by trying to make more money) and so improve his situation in life. This is America’s traditional form of individualism. Throughout her history, it has attracted immigrants and motivated natives, and it continues to do so.
“Do we need to be
told yet again
“Lifestyle individualism” is what people on the political left favor. They believe that each person should express his individuality by developing or changing any part of his life that he wishes. This is much broader in scope than economic individualism, is a more recent development, and includes an acceptance of the unconventional—everything from selecting an unusual occupation to altering one’s sexual preference.
The advocates and practitioners of one form of individualism regard those of the other with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Economic individualists think lifestyle individualists are frivolous and irresponsible, even degenerate, and blame them for high rates of divorce, crime, drug use, juvenile delinquency, and other social ills. Lifestyle individualists regard economic individualists as squares, prudes, and authoritarians and blame them for social inequality, economic exploitation, and national philistinism.
The significant fact—easily overlooked amid the noise of controversy—is that both sides are supporting a form of individualism. The hard-bitten old businessman who growls, “I did it my way,” and the dewy-eyed hippie kid who says, “Do your own thing,” are both proclaiming the ideal of individual freedom. They are both Emerson’s progeny, which can be found everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. On hearing the assertion that the United States should “insure to every child [the] opportunity to develop its natural abilities to their utmost,” one might assume this to be a statement from someone on the liberal left. Actually the speaker was the Imperial Wizard and Emperor of the Ku Klux Klan in 1926.
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Aside from the squabbling of these two factions (economic versus lifestyle), there is another much more fundamental objection to individualism as a national ideal and practice. Tocqueville first mentioned it when he observed that the American always thinks of himself as “standing alone,” which tends to separate him from others and threatens “to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” Following Tocqueville, various social commentators have declared from time to time, in tones of urgency or regret, that their countrymen were excessively devoted to the principle of individualism, that they took too little account of social needs and realities, and that a new balance ought to be struck between the individualistic and the collective.
“let you do what
By the Era of Progressivism in the late Nineteenth Century, a number of social critics were expressing dissatisfaction with individualism as a national ideal. Its connection since the 1880s with unrestrained capitalism had brought it into disrepute in intellectual circles. There was much talk about reforming it or finding a balance between it and socialism. “Association” was proclaimed as an alternative to individualism, and it had become a buzzword by the 1890s.
But association proved to be a tenuous and temporary concept that failed to provoke much of a response from the man on the street or the worker in the factory. By the 1920s, the popularity of association had come to an end, and individualism began to be openly and widely approved by journalists and various other retailers of public opinion.
The prominent engineer and administrator Herbert Hoover reflected the transition. In 1917, he had been speaking of the evils that had resulted from “a hundred years of unbridled private initiative,” specifically a “lack of responsibility in the American individual to the people as a whole....” In 1922, with a book entitled American Individualism, he became a prominent spokesman and advocate of the notion of a renewed and reformed individualism, thereby advancing his public career in a direction that led to his being elected president by the end of the decade.
A similar trajectory of events occurred in the late Twentieth Century. By the 1990s, complaint against individualism had become a platitude among the intellectual classes, with an abundance of books and articles applauding the virtues of community and deploring the damage caused by disaffiliated persons. One critic, surveying the literature, exclaimed in exasperation, “Do we need to be told yet again that American individualism is antisocial?” The entire tendency assumed the name “communitarianism.” But eventually it suffered the same fate as association. It went out of fashion, leaving individualism still popular among the general public.
“What scares you
There has always been, and there continues to be, much frustration among the earnest advocates of more community and less individualism. Despite all their efforts, individualism persists in enjoying greater currency and appeal by far. That is only natural, for individualism makes a direct, visceral appeal to human self-interest and self-esteem. Every person on earth has an ego, which is normally animated with the desire to think well of and to advance himself. This is a basic instinct, and it is aroused by any evocation of individual freedom, from the most elevated to the most elementary. When Emerson hymns the marvelous potential of all mankind, the reader instantly applies those generalized sentiments to his own specific case and exclaims to himself: Yes! That is me! When an ordinary person declares that America should “let you do what you please,” he is expressing an egoistical notion that is shared by most of his fellow citizens, from a war veteran struggling to express what he thinks the flag symbolizes, to something called the Chicago Surreal Group expounding its artistic and anarchistic purposes in the publication Race Traitor.
The idea of community inspires no such instinctive sympathy and automatic assent. This can be seen in the contrast between the words “compete” and “cooperate” as rallying calls to economic action. The former elicits a stronger and more positive response than the latter because it touches a person's ego in a direct and immediate way.
While individualism promises unalloyed freedom, community offers benefits but also, by its very nature, imposes restrictions. This dual aspect provokes an ambivalent response. A person wants to know what the specific features of a community are, so that he can weigh the restrictions against the benefits before deciding whether to accept or reject the ensemble.
In an argument with individualism, community is consequently at a significant and usually decisive disadvantage. The promises and appeals of communitarians tend to arouse skepticism rather than enthusiasm. Their proposals for a better society sound vague and unpersuasive. When they speak about the warmth and care of neighbors, there may be something of a positive response at first, but suspicions quickly arise as to neighborly surveillance and control. The idea of informal collective policing repels Americans, who call it “creepy.” “What scares you about community?” an interviewer asked the art critic of the Nation, a leftist publication that usually condemns individualism, especially in its economic form. “Other people,” was his frank reply. “I’d just as soon not be told what I have to do.”