Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mind the Gap: Individualism in Modern America

I recently had a strange dream. I was telling a colleague's child that he was very smart, but he had to pick a group to join to really make an impact. His mission in life, in addition to earning money and staying out of non-dischargable debt, was to find his "tribe."  

He asked, "Isn't America about individualism?" 

"Not anymore, unless you have access to millions of dollars." 

If that sounds dystopian, you're right. In the old days, when life was simpler--and more harsh, with limited options--if a group of people had an idea, they could go to the town hall or a local event, discuss it, and implement it. Taxes didn't need to be raised--people contributed their time. More often than not, there was nothing to implement. You had a family--a large one--and your life revolved around taking care of them and avoiding disease. 

Today, as more adults in developed countries have delayed having children because of the high cost of homes in good school districts; greater unpredictability in relationships; and the need to go in debt to gain access to decent-paying careers, societies have struggled to replace the family with some other equally meaningful "work." In fact, many modern communities are tasked with filling in the gap that religion and family used to occupy and are learning Facebook, food trucks, specialty coffee, and Netflix don't provide the same ability to bind people together. 

If we have to go and "find" our families instead of creating them organically, we can see attending the "right" middle school, high school, and college counts. We can also see it's easier to exclude people when we or our parents choose private schools, stay within our "found" social networks, and don't take public transportation

Once we "choose" our new tribes, especially when we start working full time, it's easier to let social media and television influence how we feel. We've all seen videos of government officials in the 1960s destroying Beatles records. You might not know that even England banned Sesame Street, with the BBC's chief of children's programming calling the show "non-democratic and possibly dangerous for young Britons." Television was a game-changer, even when its programming was innocuous because societies understood that for the first time in history, an element other than family and school was vying for influence over their children's lives. The old conservatives weren't wrong to feel threatened. As the 2016 American presidential election showed, television's and media's influence sometimes overwhelm everything else. 

A few decades ago, if we disagreed with someone not in our social group, we might go and talk with him. We couldn't google a person's name and make assumptions. We might have gossiped about someone different, especially in smaller cities, but having different political or other beliefs didn't seem to impede social lives because so many other factors brought the community together and allowed opportunities to see an individual's integrity or work ethic. Without credit card or other consumer debt being widespread and with lawyers and the law serving local interests, the community could also assume a person in a neighborhood was there on his or her own merit. 

Today, many native-born Americans and Europeans might exclude or denigrate others based on political affiliations, whereas in the past, Jacklyn might see Miguel and grow to like him based on his capacity for hard work--political differences be damned. (True story, by the way--that's how Amazon.com was eventually created.)  Although it's easier to date interracially now than in the past, which increases possibilities on paper, we've managed to make relationships harder by excluding persons who don't share our opinions--even if they have a strong work ethic or character. 

Humanity seems to have a special capacity for shooting itself in the foot with every technological advancement, but the "meaningful relationship" gap isn't just about greater possibilities a la Tinder and Happn. With debt everywhere and laws giving certain groups preferential status, determining a person's character at a young age or combining lives becomes much more difficult. There are too many moving parts. Do you work a dead-end job to help your wife go to medical school, only to see her split up after she starts getting paid well? Do you stay at home, lower expenses by cooking at home, and take care of the kids while your husband moves up the corporate ladder, only to see him run off with the secretary? When we are unable to use information to establish character and instead use it to divide ourselves based on superficial differences while powerful groups form political alliances to protect themselves against change and consequences, why should we expect things not to fall apart? 

Humans have never been a very tolerant species, but we were intolerant on our own dime in the past, not OPM and certainly not with money we borrowed from our children's yet unborn next generation. If someone bought a new car, we could look at it and assume s/he sacrificed and saved up to buy it. Sure, the car was shiny and had useful new features, but the real attraction--whether we realized it or not--was that we were lucky to know someone who made an effort to convert his time into something tangible and share its unique experience with us. If the car broke down, the neighborhood felt the owner's anguish, and the car manufacturer or dealer would lose his reputation unless the owner--our owner--was made whole. If a police officer was shot or attacked, we all felt the blow because we saw him walking our streets at nighttime. At the same time, if he committed excessive or unnecessary violence against a member of our community, the mayor and police chief answered to the neighborhood, not the union, not an MOU, and not a lawyer authorized to use every procedural trick in the book. 

I was never very good at algebra, but here's a formula you may want to consider: excessive debt + a lack of tolerance + a dearth of ways to show character and integrity - trust = dystopia. In short, the American president is the least of our problems. 

Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace (1991)

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