How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Let Them Drink Tea and Koch - The Mythology of Individualism

“A human being is a part of the world called by us ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to force ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
- Albert Einstein

What do we know about human nature? We know that the species Homo sapiens has always lived communally and that in hunter gatherer societies, exile almost always equates to certain death. In the modern world, we have examples of individuals going off into the wilderness for various reasons. Eric Robert Rudolph disappeared into the woods of Southern Appalachia shortly after he bombed the Atlanta Olympic games, a gay night club and an abortion clinic in 1998. He was captured in Murphy, North Carolina (my neighbors) almost 5 years later in 2003, eating out of a dumpster behind a Save-a-Lot grocery store. He was clean-shaven and had on a pair of new tennis shoes, but he had lost considerable weight. According to his own admission, Rudolph had survived those five years by stealing from vegetable gardens, eating out of dumpsters and catching salamanders. He may also have had help from a sympathetic community that shared his extremist views against blacks, Jews, homosexuals and abortion (1). After Rudolph’s capture, local businesses sported signs that suggested people “Pray for Eric Rudolph.”

While many skilled survivalists can and do survive in the wilderness for extended periods of time, they are anomaly. The case of Eric Rudolph illustrates that living entirely off one’s own resources goes against human nature. We need each other for both social and physical support. Even as one of the FBI’s ten most wanted, Rudolph set up camp on the outskirts of town, unwilling or unable to completely separate himself from society.

In spite of what we know about the natural history of humans, we live in a culture that exalts the supremacy of the individual over the collective whole. In psychiatry, the ultimate goal of mental health is “individuation.” In economics, it’s “every man for himself.” Profitability trumps “externalities” (or costs to others). From the time we can walk, we are told, “stand on your own two feet.” We are encouraged to “develop personal goals” and to become “self-aware.” The ultimate icon of achievement is the “self-made man.” Consequently, the western man and woman walk around looking out at a world they see as separate from themselves. This separateness is a delusion.

Today I woke up, put on my bathrobe (made in China), made a cup of tea grown somewhere in India, added some milk from a dairy in another state, turned up the heat, fueled by the Tennessee Valley Authority, made a fire (from a tree that fell down last winter on our property and was subsequently cut and split by my husband with help from our tireless helper Javier) and fed the dogs their daily dose of Canidae kibble and green beans. The cats got their low fat concoction (an exercise in seeming futility). Before I had been awake more than a few minutes, I had already relied on resources produced by others and harvested from the natural world just to begin my day.

As the day progresses, the reliance on others only increases. I can’t even begin to fathom the places and hands the various components of my computer have passed through prior opening up before my fingertips. My iPod belts out an eclectic mix of George Winston, Jason Mraz, Norah Jones, Green Day, REM, Melissa Etheridge and myriad other artists from assorted musical genres. Some would say this is the condition of the modern, globalized world. I should stop complaining and be happy I have a heated home and an assortment of musical genres to entertain my days. I am grateful because I am not deluded into thinking all I have is a product of my own creation. Everything I enjoy every day arises from my own effort but also from the efforts and productivity of thousands of other people and organisms.

The problem with the cultural programming of individualism is that it forces perception inward towards self interest. Inside a corporation, the toxic smoke spewing from the coal stack blows away on the wind to “somewhere else.” Inside a nuclear family, those down the road are “others.” Inside a house, the outside is a commodity. Inside a mind, the outside is separate.

Who is the individual we all seek to satisfy? We are told our ultimate purpose is to foster the image in the mirror, the job title, an expensive car, a big house and the balance on a bank ledger. The image changes. Work comes and goes. Status symbols of glass and steel shatter and rust. Paper and numbers are just paper and numbers. None of these things actually defines who we are. Even the flesh, blood and bones are made of elements borrowed from the earth cycling in and out of the physical form and the natural world as regularly as a shifting tide. We reside in and have dominion over our bodies but they too will pass away in time onto other forms and lives. We spend our days fostering an individual that is an illusion, superficial and manufactured, in Jung’s terms, the ego.

Meanwhile we neglect that which is real. All we have is the wisdom we accumulate and the relationships we share. Knowledge, companionship, truth and love. These things are eternal and cannot be cultivated by an agenda of the singular pursuit of self interest.

What is wrong with embracing the fantasy that every man for himself is the optimum way to live? A woman marries her high school sweetheart, has three children, then her husband abandons the family. The single mother works two jobs at minimum wage, but because of the costs of childcare, healthcare, etc., she still cannot make ends meet. The new Tea Party Congress would have us believe this woman, who has followed all of society’s rules, is a pariah. They would deny her children nutritious food from food stamps, winter heat from government subsidies, a good education in schools in which teachers are appropriately compensated for the invaluable work they do (teachers are just getting paid too much and they want pensions too?), medical care (Medicaid) or any other kind of social support.

Even though our single mother (like many single mothers) works two jobs, Tea Partiers would have you believe she is a burden to society. She is not. McDonalds and Walmart enjoy high profits because they can hire people like her for less than they are worth. When our single mother goes to government to help her meet her and her family’s basic needs - because her employers, who exploit her labor do not – taxpayers are really subsidizing the profit margins of billion dollar corporations. In 2010, GE, the largest corporation on earth, paid no taxes (2). Koch Industries, the purveyors of the Tea Party, enjoy lucrative government contracts, courtesy of their friend W. They sell fuel to the national reserve at prices that exceed the going market rate, thus lining their privileged pockets with millions of tax payer dollars (3). Now who or what is really the burden to society?

The Koch-sponsored Tea Party tells us that paying taxes, regulations, labor unions, and everything else that has been established by our democracy to protect the rights of citizens and to cover the costs of the collective welfare are an infringement on individual liberty. They want a world in which the individual moves around unencumbered by any restrictions. However, in the world of their dreams, there is nothing to prevent the powerful from exploiting the weak, the environment, the political process and the entire economy to their own individual self-aggrandizement.

Many might think that this describes the world we already have. True, but it can get a lot worse. The rhetoric sounds good. Freedom, liberty, who wouldn’t want them? But when individualism is prized over the collective whole, those individuals with power will undoubtedly exploit the rest. How stupid to think that such an ideal will somehow, against all the laws of nature and the universe, benefit us all.

Ultimately, even the self-made man is not an island unto himself. One can almost guarantee that behind that “self-made” man is a team of support staff and a wife, mother, maid or other nurturing female character who goes quietly unnoticed as she sprays and washes the tread marks from his underwear.


  1. I'm sorry I said "gentle". I only meant it in a good way.

    I just meant you wield a sharp, two-edged sword---pure and glorious. Like a surgeon.

    (Dear God where did you learn to write?)

  2. Hello,

    If you haven't, you should check out Ken Wilber. I think he'd be right up your alley. In "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality," and in a distilled version of that tome called "A Brief History of Everything," he talks about the concept of holons, which states that everything is both a whole and a part. E.g., a molecule is a whole entity, but also part of something else, as is a a musical note, a tree, a human being, a planet, and a Universe. Holons possess both the desire to be whole (or Whole, if you prefer), and the desire to be part of a greater Whole. This is greatly simplified, but the idea I'm trying to get across is that the human holon has both the desire to be an individual AND the desire to be part of a greater whole. To acknowledge one impulse and deny the other is to acknowledge only half of your makeup--and this is true regardless which half you acknowledge and which you deny. Thus, while I agree that no man is an island, it is just as true that no man is completely defined by his community; rather, we are all a complicated mix of both, with healthy, normal impulses toward both. It is wonderful, healthy, and humbling to acknowledge our mutual interdependence, but we must also honor our own, internal callings.

    I think politics is a stellar example of an unbalanced, incomplete, one-sided view of human nature. One side would have us believe hyperindividualism is the only solution, while the other side would have us believe that sharing the wealth is the only way to make the world a better place. This is an oversimplification, but the point, I hope, is clear: that both sides have become so polarized and out of balance that neither can really be considered a serious solution.

    I know this is sort of a side issue to your post, but I hope it is one you will consider. I love your writing, and am looking forward to reading more of it.

  3. Kitty, Thank you so much for your addition. I do agree that balance is what is seriously needed. On the other hand, I think we need to be careful as to what we are choosing to balance. The modern idea of the individual is defined by superficial manifestations of the ego. Rather than pursuing true self-knowledge, we are told the accumulation of material goods and personal assets are the ultimate goal of individuation. The result has been a morally-bankrupt and spiritually-empty culture that can't understand why it is so unhappy. Imagine if we balanced real personal development with a culture that cared for all it's members. What a world that would be. I will add your recommendations to my books to read. Thanks again for adding to the conversation.

  4. Tsisageya, what does your username mean? To answer your question, I was very lucky in a public high school in Miami where the dynamic and wonderful Mrs. Napoli taught me the basics of writing in AP English. I later dabbled in a few writing elective courses in college, but it was primarily Mrs. Napoli who gave me a foundation that has served me very well in life. I worry that kids today are not getting that basic, but very necessary foundation in literary critical assessment. People don't have the skills to see where logical fallacies are being employed for propaganda, etc. and consequently our discourse has deteriorated considerably. Thank you for your robust support of my work. I appreciate it.

  5. The pursuit of individuation (a Jungian term) is in no way similar to individualism-- especially the selfish Randian variety.

  6. John, you are correct, and I am not trying to say they are they same. My point, although probably not clear, is that Rand's individualism has become society's individuation. There are some very interesting alternative ideas on the Jungian ideal. I suggest "Women's Growth in Connection" by the Stone Center if you are interested. Thank you for the clarification.

  7. killing Mother, I'm sorry if I seem like a crazy stalker in my robust support of your work. It's just so wonderful to find someone who can articulate what I'm feeling without using curse words and getting angry. The sharp, two-edged sword that you wield is beautiful to me. I want to be able to express myself as you express yourself.

    I want to be able to share books with my grand daughter. I want to be able to teach her what I know and for her to teach me what she knows. I want peaceful time in order to do that.

    But I agonize over the fact that time seems to be in very short supply these days. How can I teach her about trees when trees are dying all around us? How can I teach her about wildlife when it's gone? How can I teach her about the things I want to teach her when she adores shopping and commercials on television?

    I guess I latch onto hope wherever I can find it. I can't seem to give up.

    tsisageya is only a name that I made up from the Cherokee language. It means jesuswoman. No big deal. I've had it for many years.

  8. tsisageya, I don't think you are a crazy stalker, and I appreciate your support. It sounds like you are a wonderful grandmother and that your grandaughter is very lucky to grow up in an environment where she can cherish her womanhood and the world around her. I like the name. I live in a community with many Cherokee people, and I thought the name had a Native American sound to it.

  9. Family does not equate to state as is implied by the article. Once the decision and resource weilding power is centralized to a certain threshold the basis for the individual argument fails.

    It is correct in that no man is an island but it is also against human nature and free will to sway towards the compartmentalized state serving drone.

    Try getting 10 people to agree on pizza toppings and my point will become crystal clear that collectivism, consensus, equality and majority are crippling the expression of human individuality.

    People naturally align themselves with groups that have mutually beneficial goals. Forced compliance with the hive tries to manage and direct that and at a certain point, pending culture, there is a breaking point to where personal, community or the minority free will needs to express itself.

    The arguments presented shift scale in pertinence to shape the pre-ordained conclusion.

    I'll meet you halfway. See you on the path.

  10. Tadpole, Half way is great! I don't see where I equate family to state as you suggest, but I recognize your argument about "forced compliance." I think this is the major flaw in thinking from the proponents of free markets and the Tea Party mantra that equates regulation and social welfare with dictatorship. The two concepts of communalism and freedom are NOT mutually-exclusive. Some of the most politically-free societies on earth, Denmark for example, are also some of the most socialist. Societies can ensure that all their members are adequately provided for, that powerful individual interests are prevented from inflicting harm upon the greater whole and that individual liberties are preserved. There is plenty of precedent to support my claim. Thank you for commenting and I will look forward to an ongoing discussion. We need more conversations like this one.

  11. Excuse me, but this response is a great example of why I think you are so awesome, killing Mother.