Participating in the American Cult of the Individual

I’ve found that mentally dissecting (or comparing point-by-point) a contrary argument is a useful tactic in strengthening your own.  At the very least, it’s a mental exercise that helps one separate emotional, moral, and logical factions of his own opinion.

In that spirit, I offer a passage from Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk that knocked the air from my chest:

(The setting: The protagonist [nicknamed Pygmy] is a teen-aged exchange student to the US from an unnamed communist country who also happens to be a terrorist on a government-sponsored mission to create havoc in the US. The following is part of a report to his superiors.)

For official record, no yet legal adopted so become full member host family Cedar.  Making all effort resist absorption into American cult of the individual, traditional method entrenched oligarchy so maintain own power: Fracture citizen isolated into different religion, different race, different family. Label as rich culture diversity.  Cleave as unique until each citizen stand alone.  Until each vote invested no value.  Single citizen celebrated as special — in actual, remaining no power.

Only when wedded to state purpose grants the citizen actual power.  State mission and plan creates helpless individual as noble identity with grand reason for exist.

Because the protagonist is an extremely intelligent person who learned English from a book and is displaying what I’ve seen in the past as the Asian ESL speaker’s inability to properly treat word variations, the above passage might be difficult for a native American English speaker to understand. This “translation” might help (no disrespect to Palahniuk intended!):

For the official record, my legal adoption by my host family has not been completed.  I am therefore not yet a full legal member of the Cedar family. I am making every possible effort to resist absorption into the American cult of the individual.  The entrenched oligarchy’s traditional method to maintain power: Fracture the citizenry so that all individual identities are isolated into different religions, different races, different families. The oligarchy then labels and celebrates the result as “rich culture diversity.” In this way, each person is cleaved from the whole as unique until each citizen stands alone, until each vote is divested of any value.  In this culture, every single citizen is celebrated as special — but in actuality, this specialness contains no power.

Only when wedded to State purpose does the citizen have actual power.  The mission and plan of the State transforms the helpless individual into one with a noble identity and a grand reason for existence.

What strikes me most about Pygmy’s scathing  indictment of American culture is its accuracy.  While Pygmy and I heartily disagree about the intentionality of the situation and also about the solution of subsuming oneself to the glory of the State, I cannot deny the veracity of his observation regarding the practical results of our Cult of the Individual and its effects on the daily lives of all American Janes and Joes.

I’m sure that the fact that we also somehow celebrate the Cult’s other negatives — our sense of crippling social isolation (reinterpreted as “independence”) while trying to “win” at all costs (i.e. Enron, WorldComm, Tycho, et al), our subliminal drive towards similarity (i.e. “keeping up with the Jones’), and our awe-inspiring self-absorption and entitlement in daily life, etc. — serves to deepen the cultural sinkhole that separating us from one another creates.

I believe that the American Cult of the Individual is the logical marriage and issue of the concepts of American Exceptionalism and liberty, and as such, has been a prime building block of our culture since before our culture was distinctly our own.  We have been members of the Cult always, and the repercussions are not new.

Theodore Dreiser

Consider these 1932 observations on individualism from Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), in The Progressive:

That leaves the American citizen […] with his faith in individualism and what it will do for him –mainly without his rent, his job, a decent suit of clothes, a pair of shoes, or food. His faith in this free-for-all individualism has now led him to the place where his fellow individualists of greater strength, cunning, and greed are in a position to say for how much, or rather, for how little, he shall work, for how long, and whether, he shall be allowed to make any complaint or even seek redress in case he is unhappy or dissatisfied, ill-treated, deprived, or even actually starved. In fact, his faith in this individualism as a solvent for all of his ills has caused him to slumber while his fellow individualists of greater greed and cunning have been seizing his wealth, his church, his press, his courts, his judges, his legislators, his police, and quite all of his originally agreed upon constitutional privileges so that, today, he walks practically in fear of his own shadow.
Also, consider this 1933 analysis of the balance between liberty and cultural health by Bertrand Russell (excepted from Godwin’s Law based upon date of writing):

No one has ever succeeded in stating what are the proper limits of individual freedom.  We are all agreed that people must not be free to murder each other, and those who are not destitute have always thought stealing a mistake.  But beyond this point, everything is in doubt. Have we the right to advocate the assassination of Hitler? Most people would say no.  Have we right to speak so ill of Hitler that that an unbalanced person may be led to assassinate him? Hitler would say no, but many people would say yes. Those who say no will find themselves committed to the view that all opposition to government is wicked. Those who say yes will find that in difficult times their principle endangers all government. This raises a problem to which no definite, clear-cut solution is possible.

One of the troubles about the principle of liberty is that its advocates are generally inspired by a revolt against authority.  The authority which has caused their rebellion may have been thoroughly bad, but having once begun to assert themselves, they are likely to go on doing so in many directions in which self-assertion is foolish. […] Rebellion against authority was necessary while authority was bad and is still necessary in many ways. But one cannot secure wisdom by merely rebelling. […] Rebellion, therefore, is not likely to be of benefit to mankind when it springs merely from a rebellious mood but only when it is a protest against some definite remediable evil.  Whatever may have been said about the rights of the individual, they are limited always by the welfare of the community.

Almost one hundred years later, the observations of these contemporary thinkers holds true.  These passages could have been written this year.

Don’t misinterpret – Pygmy is as much an indictment of Communism as of American culture, and my opinions do not mean that I think we should turn Communist.

What I’m trying to say is that even though there’s quite a bit of our culture and our collective self of which we should be proud, there’s a darker portion that we should re-examine.  Why we do what we do, why we think what we think, what motivates and demotivates us, analysing the repercussions of all three and considering possible alternatives — this is what I’m getting at, and what I wonder about.

~Riot.Jane

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Middle-aged, life-long Texan with a substantial chip on her shoulder.

Posted in culture, education, law

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