Individualism or Communitarianism?

individualismBy revealing his ego, Donald Trump has exposed American individualism for what it is: a deadly lie.

Hopefully next week the Democrats will contrast that display with a different American tradition: communitarianism friends and neighbors working together to help others with activities like quilting bees, barn raisings, food banks, and responses to natural disasters.

Tensions between the interests of the individual, family, business, community, nation, all humanity, and the environment are difficult to reconcile. Brian Swimme does so by promoting the “Earth Community.” Buddhists affirm “neither selfishness nor self-sacrifice.” Christians preach, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All religious traditions have some form of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Karen Armstrong and other global religious leaders digested that principle into the Charter for Compassion, which calls us to:

work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

In that spirit, communitarianism insists that individuals who are well-integrated into communities are better able to reason and act in responsible ways — if the social pressure to conform does not become excessive and thereby undermine self-determination. Strong individuals grow strong communities, and strong communities grow strong individuals.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed , “No one is free until we are all free.” So long as others are oppressed by injustice, I feel morally obligated to do what I can to help relieve that injustice. I cannot escape my conscience. Faced with injustice, I am not free.

The line between self-care and self-indulgence is ambiguous. No doubt I’ve crossed it many times, which I regret. Going forward, I can only try to be honest, take care of myself, and do what I can to serve others.

On the other hand, individualism, which America has developed more fully than any other country, asserts that the needs of each person are more important than the needs of the whole society. WIIFM –  what’s in it for me? –  is the American mantra.  Trump is the ultimate personification of that individualism.

Based on their testimony, Trump’s main message to his children was “get ahead.” Three values he apparently did not teach them are the Golden Rule, humility, and service to the less fortunate. It seems his parenting primarily consisted of giving his children feedback on their report cards and inviting them to his workplace. His children are “high achievers,” but that does not mean they are “great,” as the network pundits claim. His children are “successful,” competent worker bees in the Trump Cult. But their ambition to “make it” at the expense of others does not impress me.

That individualistic drive to climb the social ladder fuels “the system.” The “American Dream” is deeply embedded and widely embraced. Parents routinely tell their children, “You can be whatever you want.” A good example is Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech that Melania Trump plagiarized. In that speech, Michelle and Melania said, “Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

That belief is clearly an illusion. Limits on our ability to achieve our dreams are inherent in the human condition.

Seeking a solid sense of self through upward mobility is like a dog chasing its tail. When a whole society does it, the result is a downward spiral. That syndrome has hit America with a plague of increasing selfishness as individuals become evermore isolated.

Aggravated by the explosion of electronic devices, Americans are becoming more self-centered. With spoken communication, it’s natural to listen as much as you talk. But with electronic communication, more time is devoted to typing than to reading. That imbalance seems to be replicated face-to-face. Active listening and compassionate inquiry are becoming a lost art.

One result is that more people have fewer close friends with whom they discuss personal issues. So when they get a chance to talk about themselves, they don’t take the time to listen, which leaves the other feeling a greater need to connect with someone who will listen to them talk. Another downward spiral prompted by individualism.

As described in “How American Politics Went Insane,” the increased use of direct democracy, with individuals voting in primaries and on referenda, has weakened both Congress and political parties. Congress is less able to negotiate compromises collectively and parties are less able to collaborate. The result is more gridlock and an outsider taking over the Republican Party.

American individualism produces downward spirals throughout society. The problem is systemic. Absent countervailing, corrective pressures, “the system” contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Hopefully Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party will help us reverse course so we can be “stronger together.” In her 1969 commencement address to her graduating class, she spoke eloquently about the “responsibility we should have both for our lives as individuals and for our lives as members of a collective group.” Later she wrote the book, It Takes a Village. Early in the Clinton Administration, she embraced Rabbi Michael Lerner and his “politics of meaning.” Now in “Hillary Clinton Wants to Talk with You About Love and Kindness,” Buzzfeed reports:

In the early days of her husband’s administration, Hillary Clinton tried to start a national conversation about basic human decency, only to be mocked. In the midst of the most mean-spirited presidential campaign in memory, she talks with BuzzFeed News about the unchanged way she sees herself — and if she’ll ever be able to communicate it.

In that interview, Clinton said:

I want this campaign, and eventually my administration to be more about inspiring young people, and older ones as well, to find that niche where kindness matters, whether it’s to a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, a fellow student—whether it’s in the classroom, or a doctor’s office, or in a business—we need to do more to help each other. That’s what my campaign is about. I want more kindness.

We can only hope America’s downward spiral of evermore selfishness has hit bottom. If we’re lucky, the ugly spectacle of the Republican Convention will wake up the American people and lead us to join the human family. As flawed as they are, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party may help us counter American individualism and strengthen our communitarianism.


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