Some blogs back, I had mentioned an idea that had been weighing on my mind for quite a while, not in any sort of pressing or immediate sense, but instead more as an observational, change-of-perspective sort of way. Its a simple, subtle question I think, and yet one that goes to the center of many issues, namely the construction of the American identity and its ramifications on global policy and relations (in our role as waning global hegemon, such ramifications are significant). That question is something along the lines of: In the greater scheme of what it means to be “American”, what is the role that individuality in defining our culture? But before I dive head-first, a little background may be useful.
A Bit of Background:
On a personal level, this query has along history of preoccupying my overly curious and analytical mind. The impetus for my current thinking (and the motivation to write more extensively about it) arose more directly out of the long process of cultural adaptation that I have had to undergo in order to integrate into my community and fulfill my duties as a Peace Corps volunteer. Such a process was expected and extensively outlined by Peace Corps staff during our several months of in-country training, however, experiencing such things first-hand does more to actualize this concept than any number of “Peace Corps Experience” flowcharts and group discussion sessions ever could.
The reality of what ‘compromising aspects one’s self and one’s culture’ actually means cannot be adequately conveyed through nebulous, seemingly useless rhetoric. That is not to say that intense cultural integration is somehow earth-shattering or unfathomably traumatic (for most people at least)--indeed, it is usually nothing quite so apocalyptic. It is instead a very existential and at the same liberating process of self-critique and analysis; it is not self-destructive, but it is self-reconstructive, as you are forced to disassemble, evaluate and then rebuild your ideals and values to fit in a completely foreign context. My favorite term for this process is “mind-fuck”-- Peace Corps and its associated cultural integration (which, in my opinion, is comparable to very few experiences in the world) is a complete mind-fuck, and that’s just the nature (and the beauty) of the beast.
As an American, having been raised my entire life in suburban American society, stepping into a world that occupies the complete opposite end of the cultural and socio-economic spectrum immediately called into stark question several foundational aspects of my own culture (and by extension, my own values). Individualism was on the top of the list. It simultaneously appears as both a luxury of our privileged society and at the same time our greatest failure; the cornerstone of self-proclaimed American freedoms and also the Achilles heal, the hubris that may prove fatal in a rapidly changing world.
Of course, it has always been the self-reliance and gumption that strums the hearts-strings in those classic American rags-to-riches stories, the idea that any individual can accomplish his or her dreams with the right amount of sweat and elbow-grease. Individual enterprise, endeavors, and freedoms--these are some of the absolutely fundamental ideals of our national narrative. The reality (or illusion) of such narratives is best left to a discussion of politics and economics (not the point of this blog entry), but the underlying theme of these stories is what I hope to discuss here: you need not rely on anybody but yourself, the individual (in fact, you better not rely on anyone else, cause you’re after the same piece of pie and there ain’t enough to go around).
So in hopes of understanding on my own part, I will try to approach this issue piece by piece: Is it individualism that defines American culture? Is that individualism truly beneficial in the long run? On what other models or ideals might we hope to construct society? There are, of course, a million other fascinating questions that could be asked, such as the compatibility of individualism and Christian philosophies, or the role of illusion (vis-à-vis the media and consumerism) in shaping a false sense of individuality, or the true nature of individuality in a privatized, neo-liberal market place, but again, these are best left for another blog. I am going to focus on only the above three questions and do so in a very personal way. This should not be viewed as my own definitive declaration on the reality of things, but instead a sort of personal meditation on an idea that perplexes me endlessly and I can no longer passively ignore.
Is it Individualism that defines America?
American society is unique in the world, as much for our heterogeneity as for the characteristics that define whatever it is that might constitute a collective identity. And while we might disagree about what terms such as ‘American culture’ might mean, there are indeed a few things that seem paramount in our conceptualization of American-ism. Most important among them is individualism.
While individualism might be an important aspect of American culture, it is not an entirely American concept. The roots of such ideas can be traced very deep through history. An acceptable starting point would be the industrial revolution, lets say beginning with the invention of mechanized production in the early 1700’s. Note: this staring point is not absolute--philosophers throughout history have contemplated the individual, its definition and role in society and the universe--but instead fairly arbitrary; for our purposes, however, it seems to serve just fine as a good point of reference.
At this point in history several tides had begun to rise (or had begun to peak) that would eventually function to greatly reshape human society. Principle among these tides (which are all intimately interrelated) were the industrial revolution, the philosophies of the Enlightenment, the colonial era and the shifting of the global political center of gravity away from its traditional location among the great civilizations of the East and Middle East (at least since the fall of the Roman empire and the Dark ages in Europe). This epoch in history is the rise of Western culture and the beginning of its ascendence on the world stage.
The economics of this era broke the mold of old-world agricultural empires and made way for modernized states with societies that quickly fragmented along the fissures of the working-class/proletariat and bourgeoisie. In traditional, agriculturally-based societies, the household represented the fundamental economic unit and societies/cultures was arranged accordingly (although of course, all infinitely differed in this exact arrangement). In a civilization where land-tenure and land-use were directly correlated to economic production, and more fundamentally, to one’s ability to feed their families, the structures of society tended to function much more communally (keep in mind that these are all very broad and generalized strokes that I am only using to illustrate ideas, not exactly codify individual groups).
With the reformation of global economies along the lines of capitalist production, the functional economic unit became the individual. The historical role of the family was forever changed and has been continuously challenged in all modern capitalist societies ever since. In combination with other philosophical and political tides, the concept of individualism was born. Across the world, many modernizing cultures were forced into the long struggle of re-negotiating and re-defining themselves along these new lines.
Some societies had an easier time of this transition, most notably the European societies that nucleated this phase of global metamorphosis, seeing as they were not only its founders but had also already gotten a bit of a head-start. Other societies (many, many other societies) found this transition much more difficult. The ideas of Western civilization were fundamentally opposed to, or stood in such start contrast to the values of many cultures.
The nature of this transition, instead of following the utopian vision of Enlightenment philosophers, was marked by violent opposition, civil unrest and calamity. It is important to keep in mind, I am not trying to invoke anything along the lines of Samual Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”, instead I am merely trying to present the hypothesis (and I think history and sociology would be on my side in positing such) that intense social change is not always a simple or straight path, but is determined by a myriad of factors (global politics, military policy, economics etc.) one of which is certainly variations in underlying cultural values.
The United States of America, though not new geographically but certainly still in the infancy of its cultural evolution, was born and baptized during this meteoric “rise of the West”, just after the French Revolutions and the high mark of the Enlightenment tide. Undoubtedly (and likely to the chagrin of religious constitutionalists and fundamentalist minorities), the United States was founded, first and foremost, on the principles of the Enlightenment, appeals to universal human dignity as understood through the process of reason, and the economics of a new capitalist, industrial era.
No doubt, these ideals were far from pure and intensely mired in the perverted values of the time (I am referring specifically to slavery and women’s rights), but this does not seem to alter too greatly my final conclusion: that America was the offspring of a new era in global politics, economics, and industry that all seemed to revolve around the centrality of the individual. What George Washington dubbed a “great experiment” was, in reality, a cultural and political control test of the newly inducted philosophy of the West. While France and its Enlightenment revolution was re-building their society with the pieces of thousands of years of history, the Americas were more of a blank slate (especially when we consider that all those years of indigenous history were virtually eviscerated through genocide and fraud).
In the end, it seems that by a chance of history and geography, the United States was heir to a very unique and patently-American interpretation of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking. Obviously, as time has progressed, the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment and the economic revolution of capitalism have carved out their own trajectories in many different nations. In combination with many other international and domestic processes, conflicts and intellectual influences many societies have created their own manifestations of this shared philosophical and economic ancestry.
While Europe has seen these ideas evolve mostly into variations on social democracies, the US brand of the same history has found itself the outlier, continually reinforcing (or trying to, at least) its keystones of individual freedoms. This is not to say that any one of these is more right than any other, but simply underscoring the centrality of individualism in our American culture. The reasons for this are no doubt quite complex and controversial, but it seems obvious from listening to modern political rhetoric and from observing our current political debates how quintessential the role of the individual is in framing American politics.
Ours is truly a country born on such ideals (the long-term rightness or wrongness of such will be discussed later) and therefore left to the ultimate fate to which such ideals will lead. The role of the United States as global hegemon has certainly substantiated and buttressed the cracks and imperfections in our cultural and social foundation, but such band-aids cannot last for long. This leads me very nicely into my second question: Is individualism truly beneficial in the long run? But that will be left for my next blog...