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Posts Tagged ‘individualism’

Blame Who or What

The sense of empowerment that is part of American individualism benefits Americans. People who feel empowered, able to shape the world, and responsible for themselves tend, social psychological research shows, to act more forcefully and succeed more often than people who feel themselves to be at the mercy of others or of larger forces. Confidence is often a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. But there is another side to such an empowered world view: self-blame.

To be sure, a healthy level of egoism – also part of the individualistic world-view – protects Americans from blaming themselves too much. Americans tend to take credit for their successes while sidestepping fault when things go wrong more often than other peoples do; Americans tend to be especially “self-enhancing” (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Nonetheless, the sense of personal responsibility can lead many Americans who face repeated difficulties to beat up on themselves.

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About six months ago, I had a column in the Boston Review by the title above. Many heated comments ensued, especially once a couple of libertarian blogs pointed their readers to the essay. I respond here briefly to two connected lines of critique that I think are substantial and important. (I set aside the comments that I am an idiot or that I shouldn’t address the topic until I had read the full libertarian canon.)

I had argued that libertarianism made historically and anthropologically unrealistic assumptions by placing the separate self at the center of its world view. One valid critique is that I was thereby rejecting the historic advances of individual liberty, waxing nostalgic for coercive communities. The other critique is that, by looking only backward to the way societies have existed, I had blindly foreclosed new possibilities. I reply below.

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Last Sunday’s essay in the New York Times Magazine by Benjamin Anastas bordered on the sacrilegious. Anastas disparaged a sacred text of American individualism, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance,” calling it “high-flown pap” and “the most pernicious piece of literature in the American canon.” Anastas criticized it on many grounds,  including its author’s arrogance, but most critically for endorsing, perpetuating, and perhaps being responsible for American self-absorption. He could have gone farther.

It is striking that this essay has been for so long a feature of American high school and college reading lists, since it forcefully, if biliously, presents a harshly individualistic version of American culture.

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(A revision of this post appeared in the Boston Globe “Ideas” section, June 6, 2010.)

In a March, 2010, essay, National Review writers Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru asked: “What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve?” They continued, “The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.” The problem with President Obama, they wrote, is that he is trying to undermine that American exceptionalism.

There is much right and much wrong in this important essay. Here, I focus on the crucial element, the claim which they take as pretty self-evident that America is “more individualistic . . . than any other nation on earth,” that our exceptionalism is centered in our commitment to liberty.

There is considerable evidence that Americans are not more individualistic – in fact, are less individualistic – than other peoples. I mean “individualism” in the sense that Lowry and Ponnuru seem to mean it, that Americans give priority to personal liberty.
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