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New Whine, Old Battles

October 22, 1999

Individualists should rejoice! We have been thoroughly trashed by
The New York Times Magazine (Sunday, October 17, 1999) in which over a
dozen articles blast the 'Me Millennium.' Reporting on a poll taken by The
New York Times
, Andrew J. Cherlin's article "I'm O.K., You're Selfish"
laments, "to judge by new evidence, the cycle [of society] has swung back
again to individualism, indeed swung past self all the way to selfish..
When presented with a list of basic values, they strongly identify with
personal responsibility, self-sufficiency and self-expression."

According to Cherlin, the problem with this swing is "that if everyone puts highest priority on
one's own interests, then family and community ties may weaken further." Here is the theme that
underpins the Times analysis of individualism. A strong self-sufficient person is a worse
parent, son or daughter, and makes a poorer member of society. It is a restatement of the old
conflict between individualism versus collectivism, a conflict with profound political implications.

Some background. Mid-century, the debate of the century between capitalism
and socialism came to be cast in more fundamental terms: individualism
versus collectivism. Individualists argued
that the socialist left was forever trying to use the state to equalize
society into a homogeneous blob that was dependent on Leviathan and easier
to control. From the collectivist perspective, there was no such thing as
an individual; there were only groups with aggregate interests. Their job
in the politico-historical drama was to overthrow the capitalists to
achieve total power by means of state power.(This language still survives;
e.g. multiculturalism on campus.)
In contrast, individualists rejected group interests in the belief that only
individuals have interests because only individuals choose and act.

Fast forward to our own times, and what do we find? Collectivism is a mess
everywhere it has been tried. Collectivism doesn't really
makes us happy, peaceful, or cooperative. It makes us poor, pushed around,
and stifled. Ironically, it turns out that individualism is not only good
for the individual; it is also good for the whole society. No wonder
collectivism failed even when allowed to operate on its own terms.

Individualism has triumphed, even if the collectivist apparatus of the
ruling regime is alive and kicking. The people--the individuals--no
longer suffer think in terms of what is good for the state and society. We
think about what is good for ourselves, our families, and others for whom
we care. Classical liberals of old suggested that individuals, in doing what is in
their own best interests, end up promoting the general good. They have been
proven correct.

But the New York Times understands the implications of this triumph:
nothing less than wholesale meltdown of the collectivist-statist project of
our century. Clearly this must be stopped. If not stopped, then ridiculed
relentlessly. And the usual suspects are lined up for blame. "The higher
living standard of advanced capitalism," writes Cherlin, "has reduced the
need for support from others and thus for strong lifetime commitments."
This is new whine in old battles.

Elsewhere, an intriguing stream-of-consciousness entitled "The
Incubator of Dreams" expands upon the (perceived) conflict between
individualism and collectivism. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison reflects,

"One might think it would be possible to foster the inclinations and the
temperaments of the Self within a supportive family, a village, a commune.
Alas, intimacy and Selfhood falter where ties are bound too tight and rules
may not be broken." Here is the cause of the inevitable schism. Selfhood
and intimacy oppose each other and you must choose between the two. The
choice creates a "yearning for the simultaneity of privacy and communality,
individualism nourished by collectivism."

Other articles are more openly anti-individualist. "How 'I' Moved
Heaven and Earth" by Richard Russo, opens with the comment "We've lived
with the me-centered universe long enough now to wonder if this is a good
thing." From this launching pad, Russo propels an argument that weaves
together Woody Allen, Jimmy Swaggart, God, Galileo and Copernicus. Somehow,
it all ends with the statement that "the face in the mirror" may hold
"clues to "something that goes beyond the individual."

To get a sense of the rest of the Magazine, you only have to sample some
titles. Consider,
"Be Different! (Like Everyone Else!)," which reduces individuality to
eccentricities of wardrobe and lifestyle. Or "In the Age of Radical
Selfishness: What it's like being 30-something, overpaid and totally
disconnected."

Clearly, individualism has The New York Times running scared. How scared?
Judge for yourself. Even the 'Food' section found it necessary to sneer at
the individualism of chefs who have the "hubris" to create signature
dishes. As a prelude to offering the recipes for some of these egotistical
creations, Molly O'Neill asked, "do they invent their signature dishes in
order to carve out their own 15 minutes of fame?" The article is entitled
"Coddled Eggs."

Then, there is the 'Style' section which consists of four exquisite
photographs of Narcissa who "committed the sin of being choosy. As
punishment, the gods had her fall in love with her own reflection, thus
wasting a perfectly good wardrobe." The photos are collectively titled "The
New Veneration."

The coup de grace is surely the 'Endpaper' section, meant
to be the final word of the Magazine. It consists of a list of 700 items
such as "My marriage, My kids, My doubts, My claustrophobia, My escape, My
affair, My guilt, My divorce, My damage" which are clearly intended to
provide the stream-of-consciousness of ego. Each item is preceded by a
capitalized 'My' in red letters. Clearly, The New York Times is terrified
of how society is embracing individualism.

Of course, being declared alive may not be as prestigious as
being declared dead. But one thing is clear. Like a person with a hangover
who looks in the mirror, The New York Times scared itself with its own
poll. Of course, an uncharitable person might remark on how self-centered
and egotistical it was for The Times to declare individualism to be alive
only when a poll it conducted said so. Or, to provide my own version of an
'Endpaper'."Your paper, your poll, my reality? My Goodness!"

* * * * *

Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable
Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival
(Prometheus, 1998).


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