The problem of individualism in American culture

Americans turned to individualism as people spread out into a new country that seemed wide open with many opportunities. Many had to make individual decisions to come to America in the first place. Of course, this does not apply to slaves brought here by force, but in general the settlers saw many opportunities for individual enrichment.

Arriving farmers looked at land ready for cultivation. Native hunters already here saw the land differently as full of animals waiting to be hunted. The arriving farmers soon outnumbered the hunters. Successive generations before and after the Industrial Revolution rewarded individuals who showed initiative. These circumstances have led American culture to elevate the value of individualism. American parents always encourage their children with words like “you can be whatever you want to be, even president of the United States”.

However, the problem with individualism in American culture is that it blinds people to circumstantial influences, especially when they have experienced circumstances that are more favorable than others. In general, conservatives tend to favor individualism and progressives tend to see other broader circumstantial influences. The result is two subcultures leaning in different directions. Historically, President Roosevelt in the 1930s challenged the individualistic forces of capitalism that led to great wealth disparities and the Great Depression. His opponents called him and his party “socialists”, viewing America as becoming like European countries. The Democrats saw in it an America maturing beyond its extreme individualism. The democratic policies of Social Security and later Medicare and Medicare became very useful and taken for granted. The post-war policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations favoring relief for the poor and less privileged also gained wide acceptance.

We now face a new era of conflicting cultures with similarities to the competing viewpoints of the past. The individualism of American culture reasserted itself in gun culture. Examples of American individualism are the sayings: “It takes a good man with a gun to stop a bad man with a gun” or “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” “. Thinking only in terms of individuals leads to half-truths that can be dangerous when they prevent people from making laws that protect them.

One of the results of the ideology of individualism is to blame those who are going through a difficult period in their lives. Individualists say things like, “If they tried or worked harder, they wouldn’t have so many problems.” Again, this ignores other important factors beyond our control. Individualism can also lead those who are comfortable in life to think that they were able to achieve their comfort in life on their own, which is rarely true.

It would be a great help to the nation if people understood both the power and the blindness of individualism in American culture. We should seek to understand the influence on us of our physical and social circumstances. A combination of events and circumstances has brought Americans close to realizing many of the realities of American life. Some derisively call this realization “Woke,” but coming to new understandings is not to be derided. It is a significant growth in both knowledge and wisdom. It’s also part of being a good American citizen. Of course, we will always be a society where people have different and competing opinions. Being a democracy means that we are willing to debate our views and participate in voting for the people and policies we support. We have two competing parties leaning in different directions. One is centered on individualism, which obviously has the value of encouraging individual initiative and innovation. The other takes into account the broader influences in society that can benefit or harm people. The right to own firearms highlights the danger of seeing only individuals instead of the circumstances of others in life.

I love the individual freedom to make decisions that I have had and I wouldn’t want to give up that freedom. However, I must admit that I inherited advantages that others did not have. Many people seem oblivious to the advantages they have received in life over others.

Our democracy is at stake because our nation finds itself in a world where autocrats have emerged in a number of nations, including America. Many people are attracted to these people as role models of the strong individual they would like to be and who will improve their circumstances. Instead, autocrats primarily seek to increase their own power.

Reverend Robert L. Montgomery, Ph.D. in the scientific social studies of religion, lives in Black Mountain.


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