The conflict of individual against community

Andrew Sullivan, acting a bit more of a spin doctor than usual after reading Mark Lilla’s sobering piece on the modern political context we live in, declared an empathic victory in the name of individual freedom earlier this week, calling modern America a nation of libertarians in an acid-laced bit of wankery the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Windsor decision – or his recent compensatory tirades on manliness, depending on your view of wankery. Money shot (because he’s too much a coward to say it himself):

The core idea of this post-ideological new age was simply expanding the freedom of the individual – and it was embraced economically by the right, socially by the left, and completely by the next generation of pragmatic liberaltarians.

The blather on display here is incredibly detached, and fails to seriously take into consideration that individual freedom has not been triumphant, but in fact contracting more than it has been expanding thanks to government and corporate interests.  But to discuss that at length would be a hindrance, and any response would likely be apathetic.

Instead, let us focus on the core problem Sullivan attempts to address in the post: The matter of foreign policy in response to this development, as well as the loss of hegemony following the quixotic crusades that were Iraq and Afghanistan. In fairness, Brooks’ calls for a return to worshiping the American Dream and the glory that is the nation’s “exceptionalism” (a word which people tend to forget was coined by Stalin as an insult) comes off as dense and paranoiac. It shows him clinging to the old parameters of which the world existed, a time that barely has meaning now. But to call Sullivan’s own response nonsense would be a bit of an understatement:

But there is another, saner response to this, and Lilla points the way. It is to re-exercize the intellectual muscles that created and then defended the idea of democratic capitalism – and to use them, first of all, to address the democratic deficits in our own too-often bought-and-paid-for republic, to build and defend intermediate institutions that check individualism’s acidic power – families, churches, neighborhoods, school-boards, sports leagues, AA meetings. And so we match gay freedom with gay marriage and military service, embracing libertarianism but hitching it to institutions that also connect it to the community as a whole.

To start with, where does Lilla even mention this, other than in a vague hint about the potential of reactionary right with the parable of the golem? Even then, he was more making a point than suggesting a solution. Also, what that has to do with foreign policy is beyond anyone’s imagination.

Sullivan’s extrapolation seems more a desire to display his Thatcherite paternalism than anything functional, for many of his suggestions are institutions designed to strangulate individuality. The military are specialists in this line of business: Nothing strips away individual freedom more than being trained against nature into becoming an efficient killing machine. Yet families, churches, any community-style organization are also capable of undermining the independence of the individual.

But then, that’s the point of a community, and therein lies the modern conflict that Sullivan fails to appreciate.
On one hand, the community, in order to maintain cohesion as a whole, must by its duty minimize individuality. Perhaps the modern context will give a social grouping some leeway, but there is a limit that often ends with the individual either having to bend, break, or leave.  Certain community institutions, such as the various churches, have never been as insular as they are now. On the other, the individual, while free, must still interact with a community in one way or another, and the former’s actions will affect the latter in various ways and forms, many of which can be negative.  Maybe the individual will understand this, but that is not a guarantee, and in certain quarters of American culture, such as tech workers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and the dogmatic politicos of the Beltway, there is almost-instinctual tendency of ignoring the plight of others they harmed in the name of their self-centered worldview.

In other words, the community and the individual are bound against each other: They must interact with each other to survive, but one cannot thrive without the other being harmed. In this age of branding, both sides are more determined than ever to vanquish the other, failing to acknowledge the consequences of doing so.With such a conflict, it’s not surprising that we face a shambolic foreign policy situation.  Sullivan’s suggestion of merely just accepting that certain countries will not bend the right way shows how little he has learned since puffing out his chest in the name of murdering a former ally.  Our problem is that we are still attached to these countries in the first place, in the name of vague “interests” that only harm them in the short term and us in the long term.  Our mere presence is enough to make locals wary.

The key to fixing all this is to re-establish responsibility as a core tenet of both the individual and the community, not chain them further together as Sullivan blithely suggests. The community must acknowledge and take care of all the people it encompasses, including those who act differently from them. The individual must recognize that his or her actions can and will harm others in the right circumstance. Accepting responsibility for one’s actions does far more to restrain the excesses of both the community and the individual than any institution can. However, bringing responsibility back into the fore cannot be done through the conservative ideals of duty and commitment that Sullivan idolizes, for they simply recreate the conditions that caused individualism to take hold and flourish in the first place. Nor can it be done through the libertarian ideals of self-ownership and autonomy, for that simply disregards the community outright.  (Nor should it be done through accommodation, as some on the “social justice” left would claim, since it both degrades the individual and burdens the community needlessly at the same time.)

It must be done through understanding what responsibility means, and what it means to have consequences to one’s actions, either singularly or collectively. That may require a degree of humbling. From this effort to look inward on a sociopolitical level, so too must American policy:  Not an abandonment of the world and its economy, but a step back into a strictly observational, non-interventionist role with a military serving primarily for self-defense. This would be a grand reversal of more than a century’s worth of wandering into so many places and conflicts, and it would certainly weaken us economically and militarily in some respects. But perhaps that is a necessity to restore a modicum of trust from which the world can appreciate us.

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