Divided We Fail: How Individualism is Holding the U.S. Back
The bootstrap mentality is about as American as apple pie. But it’s destroying our already frayed social net and education system. Can we resist our individualistic roots to mobilize and enact progressive policies?
To understand the swampy depths of American individualism is also to acknowledge that we have a serious inability to comprehend looming disaster. In fact, we’re uniquely terrible at it.
Loosely defined, American individualism is the idea that prosperity and growth is overwhelmingly the result of an individual’s hard work, cleverness, grit, and all that. (It’s both hilarious and fitting that one of our most reviled and economically disastrous presidents, Herbert Hoover, was the main architect behind the notion of American individualism.)
On one hand, this belief in individualism seems empowering. It tells us we are the captains of our own ships. It tells us we don’t have to be defined by our childhood traumas or underfunded school systems. It tells us that through scrappiness and ingenuity and discipline, we can rise above our circumstances and succeed, no matter what.
The inverse, of course, is that our failures are also ours alone to bear—with little regard for the systems and circumstances that cause some people to spend lifetimes catching up to where others were simply born.
American individualism explains so much of what we get wrong as a country, even in 2019. We downplay the systemic racism and violence of our police force through tunnel vision that tells us there are only a “few bad apples” rather than a flawed, oppressive police state. We’re unable to treat things like healthcare or housing as basic human rights, positing instead that those without access to food or shelter probably just haven’t “earned” it. And higher education—often treated as the great equalizer by meritocrats—is so expensive, it’s crippling our economy as a whole. Yet too many students are blaming themselves, and too many people are blaming students.
One is the Lousiest Number
These days, it’s hard to pick what to worry about more in the U.S. The list of societal threats certainly is long—climate change, the impending retirement crisis, the ongoing student debt crisis. These problems have been worsening for decades, and they’re all the result of failures at a systematic level.
The climate crisis was ramped up by decades of poorly regulated industries that pumped carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The retirement crisis that will likely come full force when Generation X starts leaving the workforce was set into motion by a shrinking pension system and the increasingly uncertain future of Social Security. And higher education became outrageously expensive over years of unchecked soaring tuition and fee increases.
But not everyone recognizes these mass-scale problems for what they are. Instead, too many people are blaming individual choices for giant societal failures. And these arguments are distracting us from collective solutions. Realistically, no one should be arguing that student loan forgiveness is a “half-baked” idea steeped in self-interest. Or that climate change can be reasonably combatted through laudable (yet mostly insignificant) individual actions like going vegetarian.
The numbers prove just how puny our individual actions really are against these larger-than-us problems. For example, even the most generous, self-massaged estimates put a single company like ExxonMobil’s annual carbon emissions in the range of well over 100 million CO2 equivalent metric tons. The average American, through even the most radical lifestyle changes and discipline, would likely only lower their annual emissions from about 20 metric tons to 8 metric tons. It would take millions and millions of people selling their cars and going vegan to equate to just one ExxonMobil. (Spoiler alert: There are way too many companies just like it.)
As Aaron Huertas of the Union of Concerned Scientists eloquently states: “We can’t ignore individual choice and responsibility; at the same time, we also have to recognize that our individual choices are constrained by corporate practices and government laws and regulations.”
A Way Out and Up
All is not lost, though. There is hope.
While the 2020 presidential pool for the Democrats may be a bit flooded, the makeup of the pool has revealed a trend: the ideas of sweeping economic relief and safety net programs are becoming more mainstream. If the Democratic party can just avoid spending its time strategizing against democratic socialism, we could enact policies that tackle these problems at the level they’re actually at.
Party insiders and centrists aside, it looks like voters are—even if just subtly and slowly—pressuring politicians to stop blaming individual choice for societal woes. The idea of multiple presidential candidates touting competing student loan relief programs would have seemed outrageous even a few election cycles ago—and now Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julián Castro are all on board.
The point is, we’re getting there. And if we can fight against our very American instincts, we can realize—en masse—that our efforts to save our planet might be better spent organizing than remembering to recycle our empty salsa jars. We can take solace in knowing a liberal arts degree isn’t a personal failing that deserves financial punishment. We can accept that, as individuals, we may not be as powerful on our own as we thought, but we also may not be as much to blame for our struggles.
And then, we can mobilize.
Ramsay and the Rabble: Miseducation at the University of Queensland
Conservatives should not flee campus just yet. There are good reasons to stay and fight.
For good reason, controversies in higher education are usually of short-term and limited interest to the Australian public, which is undoubtedly much more intelligent than anyone at a typical humanities faculty meeting. Examples abound, but for a measure of proof, look to Dr. Dean Aszkielowicz of Murdoch University, who recently expressed a chirpy contempt for ANZAC soldiers, or, as he called them, murderers unworthy of commemoration.
Fashionable whinging about a pervasive university rape crisis also comes to mind. The idea that Australian campuses are somehow comparable to the Congo or downtown Mogadishu cannot be believed by a thinking person, which is probably why it’s so popular among feminists of the young and mulish variety.
Such examples of academic mischief dominate the headlines and then disappear. The ongoing debate over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, however, has proven to be an interesting exception.
Put simply, Paul Ramsay, the late businessman and philanthropist, left a sizeable bag of money for any Australian university that wanted it. The funds would go toward the establishment of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Western Civilisation, the hiring of academic staff, and generous scholarships.
The centerpiece is a Great Books program in which small groups of students would read and discuss the imperishable works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare, and others. This would provide students with a real liberal education – “the best that has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold put it.
That all sounds great, I hear the thoughtful Reader agreeing, and yes, it does. Our universities have centers for the study of China, Islam, and the like; why not establish one devoted to our own intellectual and historical tradition? Ramsay’s goal of promoting “an interest in and awareness of Western civilization” should strike any reasonable person as sound and modest.
Against all this must be set the utterly unhinged reaction from university staff and students. Countless protests, op-eds, and social media denunciations have left the Ramsay Centre homeless and its millions of dollars unspent. To recap: the Australian National University flirted with the idea and then impolitely declined; the University of Wollongong said sure why not and is now facing legal action by the National Tertiary Education Union seeking to reverse the decision; the University of Sydney, led by the indefatigable Dr. Nick Riemer, is sure to reject the proposal. Riemer, who spends an incredible amount of time sniffing about Ramsay and organizing protest conferences, allegedly teaches students in the Linguistics department. He was the academic loon, you may recall, who argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Ramsay curriculum “validates the worldview” of the Christchurch terrorist who murdered innocent Muslims at prayer.
This brings me to the University of Queensland, where there is some interest in setting up Ramsay despite the fact that the humanities board has twice rejected the proposed curriculum. Of course, radical anti-Western zealots desire to be the cause of radical anti-Western zeal in others, so it’s no surprise that the lecturers have corrupted the students.
In an apparent nod to Athenian-style democracy, Student Union president Georgia Millroy organized a meeting in the Schonell theatre, where some five hundred students gathered to debate and vote on whether negotiations with Ramsay should continue, the Brisbane Times reported on May 29.
It must be said that the young toads approached the task with a combination of demagoguery and smugness. With the lecture hall stacked, they loudly asserted their opposition, which was undoubtedly what Ms. Millroy hoped to achieve. Her comrade on the student council, Priya De, described the Ramsay Centre as “racist” without bothering to back up such a claim with evidence, and then she banged on for a bit about white supremacy. Other speakers of similarly limited vocabulary proceeded in a reliably platitudinous manner and added all sorts of nonsense to the Ramsay bill of complaint. In the end, only eight students voted in favor, and the Times should really do its journalistic duty and conduct a second headcount; those brave souls may have been sent off for reeducation.
This incident at UQ and similar ones elsewhere are not mere tussles in Australian higher education, soon to be forgotten. There is much more at risk. The failure to establish the Ramsay Centre would signal the success of “the culture of repudiation”, Roger Scruton’s term for Western culture’s masochistic hatred of itself and its inheritance. One must ask: is a considered appreciation of Western philosophy and history even permissible in its own home, the university? In Australia, the debate over Ramsay will help to settle this question.
For many conservatives, however, the debate is already over, and the losers are on the run. Roger Kimball, writing recently in the New York Post, argued that the Right should give up on trying to change the universities; such institutions are unsalvageable and new ones must be set up in their place. Salvatore Babones, associate professor at the University of Sydney, recently made the same case in relation to the Ramsay Centre.
This is a tempting path to take, especially for someone like me. I graduated in – good grief, when was it? – 2013, and since then I’ve undertaken the most intellectually liberating experience of my life: the gradual relinquishment of almost all the convictions I held as a university student. This has involved deep reading in a variety of sources, especially the Great Books, and a shuffle to the Right, well ahead of schedule.
That said, I don’t think conservatives should flee the campus just yet. There are good reasons to stay and fight: first, surrendering to the likes of Georgia Millroy and her mob is intolerable to me; and second, I think a kind of victory is possible.
This may be surprising, but I sometimes notice a certain lack of resolve in the anti-Ramsay crowd, despite their vociferousness, and I wonder if their hearts are really in it. Perhaps, deep down, they might even enjoy losing this particular fight.
How so? Well, the successful establishment of the Ramsay Centre would give many lecturers and their students their favorite thing of all: it would satisfy their desire to feel aggrieved all the time. They’d get quite a kick out of carrying on whinging about their victimhood and oppression. Imagine the safe spaces they’d have to build to protect themselves from those fellow students across campus, the ones who may have a shot at a decent and truly liberal education.
If U.S. presidential candidates were rock bands they’d be…
Here’s where we think the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates stack up if they were a band headlining a 2020 music fest
We still have a long, long, long way to go until the 2020 U.S. presidential election — and the list of candidates seems to get a bit longer every day. So, how do you actually keep track of who’s who? Let’s try turning it into a soundtrack.
Admittedly, the list runs too long to actually break down all of those candidates (there are 20+ actually running in the Democratic primary, though several are polling close to zero percent), so we’ve focused in on the folks who are actually showing a bit of buzz in the polls. Plus, of course, the incumbent who is currently president. From hip-hop to corporate rock and everything else in-between, here’s where we think the current crop of would-be presidents stack up if they were a band headlining a 2020 music fest.
Joe Biden: The Rolling Stones
Uncle Joe has been a fixture of American politics for decades, and he’s launched failed bids for president over the past few decades. But with 2020 in sight, Biden is — by far — the most popular Democratic candidate on the ballot. He’s leading most polls by a mile, thanks in large part to the good will he accumulated as President Obama’s vice-president and a solid legislative record (though it does have some troublesome bits in there, too). But, pretty much everyone sees him as likable, solid and — keyword here — “electable.” Translating that to music, Biden feels like The Rolling Stones of this election cycle. Most everybody likes The Stones, from your granddaddy to your aunts and uncles. They also run pretty high on a bunch of those lists of the best band ever. They’re a solid bet, and pop in just about any Stones record, and you’re bound to get something pretty darn good. Sure, it can get a bit worn at times, but even after all these decades, it’s still good stuff.
Bernie Sanders: Big Star
Bernie has been around the scene for decades, much like Biden, but despite the name recognition he’s still not polling as well as Biden. He was huge in the last primary running against Hillary Clinton, and briefly hailed as the Next Big Thing for a while there. He also introduced some forward-thinking policy ideas, many of which have been adopted by a bevy of candidates now running against him this time around. Take that resume to the music world, and Bernie feels a whole lot like Big Star. The Memphis-based rock band burst onto the scene in the early 1970s, and sadly flamed out not long after. Much like Bernie, it took a while for folks to really latch onto just how great Big Star was at the time. They found a cult following a few years later in the 1980s, and went on to influence pretty much every decent band that’s formed ever since. That said, there are still plenty of people who still love and appreciate Big Star to this day. But, they’ll never be as big as bands like the Stones, or The Beatles.
Elizabeth Warren: Radiohead
Elizabeth Warren is a smart, smart candidate. Of the folks vying for the Democratic candidacy, she arguably has the best ideas and platform concepts laid out in detail. Oddly enough, she’s also polling well below folks like Biden and Sanders. Turning to music, she feels like the Radiohead of this election. She’s smart, probably one of the smartest if not the smartest candidate out there. That feels a lot like Radiohead, an indie band that puts out some clever music and has developed a strong, loyal fanbase with their excellent output (a lot like Warren has these past few years).
Kamala Harris: Tupac
This may seem a bit obvious, considering Harris has spoken publicly about her affinity for Tupac’s music, but hear us out. Much like Tupac, Harris has some OG bona fides. Before running for the senate she served as a district attorney and attorney general in California, leading an up-tick in the conviction rate for homicides and overall felonies. She also took on hate crimes during that time. As a senator, she’s taken full advantage of her DA roots to ask the smart, hard questions — without backing down. She has guts, much like Tupac did. Tupac also has a ton of name recognition, something Harris is quickly working to acquire as the campaign heats up.
Pete Buttigieg: Conor Oberst
As a city mayor in Indiana, Buttigieg has exploded onto the scene as a bit of a wunderkind candidate over the past few months. He’s young, smart, energetic and almost always knows the right thing to say when the moment comes. He comes off as accessible and fresh, much like the Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst has during his career. Sure, Oberst’s output has always been a bit niche, but if it’s your flavor it’s fantastic stuff. Buttigieg has had much the same kind of run in the lead-up to the primary. In certain circles, he’s quickly becoming a buzzy, respected voice. But, ask random folks on the street, and odds are they have no idea about Mayor Pete. That said, Oberst has always had the potential to blow out the Top 40 with a chart-topper — and Buttigieg is in the hunt to do much the same in the presidential race.
Beto O’Rourke: Foss (just kidding, Weezer)
The handsome, punk rock candidate from Texas became a national sensation when he gave Ted Cruz a scare — but ultimately lost. So, he used that buzz to launch a presidential bid. He’s had some missteps, but there’s no doubt O’Rourke is a tall, charismatic dude. He was also literally in the little-known punk band called Foss back in the day, but we won’t go with that one. Instead, O’Rourke feels more like the Weezer of this election. He’s the dude bro, and is largely popular in a broad, thoughtless, “Oh It’s On The Radio So Just Listen To It And Idly Tap Your Toe” kind of way. Weezer is sometimes the butt of jokes (like that run SNL skit), but they’re still huge — and Beto has much that same kind of potential
Donald Trump: Kid Rock
Time for the big, loud Commander-in-Chief himself. Trump isn’t refined, he’s not all that bright, and he typically just beats you over the head with whatever he’s saying. Kind of like one of his biggest supporters and golf buddies, Kid Rock. He appeals to a certain conservative type of redneck, which is where most of his popularity lies (that applies to both of ‘em, to be clear). There’s also the fact that, if you actually listen to what he says, it’s typically really stupid and nonsensical. We’re just waiting for the presidential radio edit.
Editor’s Note: To be clear, this is all meant in good fun. The presidential race in 2020 looks to be one of the most contentious and important in the modern history of the United States. It’s a big deal, and everyone should take it very, very seriously. But, between all that seriousness, there should be a bit of space to have some fun musing about the folks who want to lead the free world.