The mantra of the United States has always been “The land of individualism and opportunity; opportunities abound if you are willing to work hard, and you have the individual freedom to follow your dreams without restriction”. A nation of immigrants, the U.S. evolved based on that mantra, and it is a shining example of what can be achieved in a relatively short time using that formula.
The U.S. has become the most powerful nation on earth, and an economic powerhouse, in a short 250 years. Even more impressive, most of that impressive growth happened in the last eighty years, following World War II.
It is very possible, in fact probable, that the basis of America’s growth from non-existence to dominating world power in 250 years was due to its foundational pillars of individualism and opportunity. However, times change, and what was once a fundamental pillar, individualism, has become a liability.
Contrary to many people’s opinion, the two pillars of the country’s foundation, individualism and opportunity, are not inexorably linked. In fact, they have the potential to be in conflict with each other. The current divisions in the country may well be an inevitable manifestation of this conflict.
The U.S. is still the land of opportunity, which is witnessed by the growing issue of immigration across its southern borders, as well as continued immigration from Europe and growing immigration from Asia and Africa. America still has plenty of room – its population density is far lower than most developed countries with the exceptions of Canada and Australia.
Unfortunately, urban concentrations somewhat offset this concept of “plenty of space”. Still, it remains the country many people in the world covet as a new home, despite the growing internal issues that are causing more and more division.
Opportunity is still very positive but the other foundational pillar, individualism, is in trouble. Individualism sounds wonderful when you look at it from the point of view of an immigrant escaping from persecution, poverty and oppression. It doesn’t look so wonderful when faced with the need for community responsibility in a U.S. urban environment, which is where the majority of the population now live. Individualism, from that perspective, begins to look like anarchy.
“I can do what I like, and to hell with everyone else” may worked well when your nearest neighbor was 20 miles away across the prairie. It doesn’t work when your nearest neighbor is 8 feet above you in an apartment block. Those changes in demographics drastically alter the dynamic of what is a successful trait in the U.S., and what isn’t.
I would suggest that in the current U.S. population, individualism and community responsibility are becoming incompatible. Neither are necessarily incompatible with opportunity in general, but they are certainly incompatible with the relatively new concept of equal opportunity. In my mind, equal opportunity and community responsibility go hand-in-hand, and “To hell with everyone else” individualism has little place in that union. I might suggest that this is the basis of the current political and cultural conflict in the country – the far right on one side and the far left on the other. The fact that these two extremes seem to be the current political power-houses of the country could well lead to civil war if common sense, and the rise of the center right and the center left don’t banish these fanatics to the fringes of political power.
It is extremely difficult to change, or even want to change, concepts that are the fundamental pillars of your country. However, survival demands that changes are the only logical way forward. I said, in a recent blog, that the U.S. is a victim of its own creation, and that applies directly to this issue. The country was founded on individualism and opportunity, and one of these pillars has become a liability.
If I may pontificate a little, we have to mentally separate the two concepts of individualism and opportunity: encourage the second and restrict the first in favor of community responsibility. Not easy, I’m sure, but facing this reality, and beginning to discuss possible solutions, may be essential for the positive future, and even survival, of the country.
At the risk of repeating myself yet again, gun control is the perfect example of this conflict. Individualism says we have the right to own 42% of the world’s privately-owned weapons when we are only 4% of the world’s population. Community responsibility says that is madness, societal suicide and uncivilized in a country that thinks it is the pinnacle of human development. Nothing better defines the current divisions in the U.S. than this example, although there are many others.
What will it take to start a calm and sensible conversation about this conflict? I wish I knew.