Confession time: I routinely make the mistake of reading people’s comments on news stories online.
I know, I know. That’s my first problem.
A friend suggested that I’d be less pessimistic about the state of our country if I just think about the self-appointed subject matter experts who post these comments as old-school message boards trolls, champing at the bit to pounce, ready to incite the next flame war. Hello again, alt.tv.x-files!
But I can’t help it. I have to raise my hand and say something, because certain members of Congress are once again asking who the real Americans are, raising the ugly specter of McCarthyism. And other pockets of punditry, particularly on the conservative side, are bemoaning the fundamental value of government, as if to forget that like corporations, government is people, too. And then there’s this guy.
From an anthropological and sociological perspective, this fascinates and frustrates me about America. It pains me that some people think that “rugged individualism” and “it takes a village” are either-or propositions, like they’re somehow mutually exclusive. For a purported melting pot composed of what I’d argue is the textbook definition of diversity, some members of our family seem hell bent on arguing one extreme perspective.
(And freedom of speech notwithstanding, it’s unclear to me what their intended outcome is. Convince the other side that they’re right? Again, exactly how many times have people abandoned their values and beliefs because someone said they were wrong? I’m reminded of the poorly-conceived evangelism technique—sadly used by me when I was a young missionary roaming the streets—that gets people to become Christians by telling them they’re going to hell for all eternity. Yeah, because that works.)
Having grown up in a culture where community trumps individuality, I experienced my earliest conflicts with this incongruence when I enrolled in the physical therapy program at BU at the slightly-more-than-encouraging of my parents. The thing is, I didn’t really want to be a physical therapist. But I got trained to be one anyway because of an innate sense of duty. Family honor is big, and bringing disappointment to your family is considered a fate many times worse than death. My eyes were opened when my freshman year roommate, a burly football player from South Boston, told me I could be whatever I wanted to be.
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
Telling my parents I didn’t want to be a physical therapist was the second hardest thing I’ve had to tell them (guess what ranks first).
I can appreciate where both sides are coming from. There’s something to be said about the American value of “rugged individualism”—that spry, can-do spirit that proved the British wrong, that brought about shock and awe-inspiring revolutions, and that propelled us to top of the global food chain. Here, the American dream is still available to anyone willing to work for it. Many people have come (and still do) to this country just for the opportunity to make that dream come true.
You want to open a restaurant that sells tacos wrapped *inside* a burrito? Have at it!
You want to attend this Lutheran church instead of the Methodist one around the corner? Amen!
You want to establish a non-profit that helps drunk people improve their karaoke song selection? You go!
You want to marry someone of the same gender? Well, hold on there a sec, buddy…
And although I don’t ascribe American exceptionalism to divine anointing, I do believe that we are fundamentally an awesome people, capable of more innovation, creativity, and productivity than we even realize. We’re #1 (actually we’re not, but stay with me) because we’re made up of individuals who are crazy talented, crazy motivated, and yes, just plain crazy.
But there is also something to be said about our capacity as citizens, not bound by anything else but by our love for this country, to come together and support each other. The reason our crazy talents have flourished is because we’ve made it possible for each other to have that opportunity. We’ve come together—yes, through government, that one sacred institution that we all built together and that we have in common—to ensure that everyone has the freedom to pursue their own brand of crazy and make this country and this world a better place. We the people, as one, have created institutions and infrastructures so that anyone can have a chance at life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Because let’s face it, no matter how John Wayne we think we are, no one goes it alone. If we think we’ve accomplished it all on our own, then we’re deluding ourselves and overestimating our own capabilities. And if we rely solely on our institutions to lift us, eschewing all sort of personal responsibility for our personal outcomes, then we’re no better than the leeches that feasted on those boys in Stand By Me.
But we can’t move forward as a nation if we think in absolutes. I know we do it because it’s easier to consider everything black and white, and we don’t want to expend the mental and emotional energy involved in seeing that every person is of equal value and has a unique, fascinating, and personal story.
But e pluribus unum. Our rugged individualism can exist within a village. In fact, it will take a village of rugged individuals to get this country back on top.
What makes America great is that we’re the Justice League*. Yes, we’re all pretty powerful individually. But together, we’re pretty damn unstoppable.
So maybe it’s time for us to stop thinking of this election as a zero sum game, because while we all have something to lose, really, we all have everything to gain.
*Voltron would have worked here, too.