As recent columns attest, I’ve been struggling with the balance between individual freedom and the need for a healthy community that limits freedom while creating conditions needed to have freedom. It’s a complicated balance that turns on questions of which rights, which freedoms, for whom, under what conditions? Community exists in many ways, and my immediate concern is about communities organized as governments: national, state and local. How the community is organized and what rules it sets are made collectively in our tradition, but activist individuals are potent forces influencing them. That’s as it should be.
American individualism, with its emphasis on self reliance, is a part of how the balance gets worked out in our communities, but it has a tendency to treat government as a barely tolerable evil always threatening to take away individual rights and freedom. In its extreme forms it shows contempt for the role of community, yet relies on community for its ability to exist. The most strident defenders of individual freedoms assert the right to define their freedoms for themselves, and are quick to use every power of government to protect them by limiting the rights and freedoms of others. In a curiously disturbing way, they can happily march toward authoritarianism in the name of liberty.
On the other hand, liberals, tagged as left wing Socialists who are said to be intent on government control of the means of production, have been the most outspoken defenders of democracy and civil and human rights, demanding that government adopt policies and provide resources needed to expand and maintain them for future generations.
The particular topic for today’s column continues a theme from a few days ago: some tagged as liberal want the community to surrender to their demands that their unique world view and personal identity be acknowledged and respected as valid as the price for their agreement to participate in community. While they may be revealing genuine issues requiring community response, it’s often expressed in ways nearly identical to those of open carry tea partiers and right wing white libertarians. Their demands for community recognition of unique rights and freedoms heads toward the same authoritarian path.
What I mean is that it seems popular to assert that one’s unique self defined reality be honored by society because it’s the right of each person to proclaim for themselves who they are within the reality they define. They have a right to not be forced by the community into some other identity or reality. So far so good, but they go on to claim the community is obligated to give their unique reality the same credibility as any other. It’s not the same thing as authenticity, genuineness, or Jungian individuation which generally mean a healthy personal wholeness able to live in a workable relationship with others in community, even when acting as an agent of dramatic change on behalf of others. What makes it different is the claim of uniqueness, the proclamation of a community of one to which all others must do obeisance. They assert for themselves the right to be judge and jury of those who violate the rules they set for others to follow.
Conservatives often associate this sort of self centered hyper individualism with the young whom they assume to be left wing liberals. It’s a label stuck especially on college students said to be selfish, lazy, and entitled brats who are being indoctrinated by socialist faculty. Scorned by conservatives as they may be, I think the relative few like that aren’t liberal, but tea partiers in the making. It’s a version of the old saying that today’s radicals are tomorrow’s stuffed shirts. After all, where did all the aging tea partiers at Trump rallies come from? Weren’t they of the selfish, lazy, entitled ‘me’ generation from not too many decades ago?
In fact, Trump may be the most public example of the demand that the community, the nation in this case, conform to his unique reality, his community of one. He’s not a right wing ideologue; he just uses them as convenient tools. He doesn’t appear to have any deeply held political ideology. He only has a narcissistic disposition toward autocracy, and is willing to court whomever is most likely to loyally honor his unique claim to reality. In business they were toadies and greedy speculators eager to use him as much as he used them. He was the Bobby Riggs of real estate: a lucky amateur, second rate pro, and full time hustler. That was then. It’s a more dangerous game today.
When governments become servants of hyper individualism, the fabric of community is shredded, and autocratic rule is the likely outcome. When governments smother self reliance and individual freedom to engage in entrepreneurial initiative, community becomes a prison from which there is no escape. Western representative democracy seeks to find a reasonable balance between the two. For America, Trump is a clear and present danger to that balance. College students are not. They’re just intellectually immature.