All the demagoguery of the presidential election season coming at us 24-7, plus the recent hoopla over Olympic athletes and their “reaching of goals,” has set me thinking about the rampant individualism that rules, or purports to rule, our world. Pols like Romney and his new running mate, Paul Ryan, are desperate to demonstrate a) their record of success either in business or politics or both, and b) their possession of “plans” to solve the crises du jour instantly, and for the foreseeable future. In a similar way, the gold medalists, prompted by fawning interviewers, love to point out how they’ve been planning and willing and training for their moment of triumph for years, and thus fully deserve to luxuriate in their success. The background for all this, for all the shouting of USA! USA! at the Olympics, is the confirmation of our most cherished idea: that determined individuals are the engines of success, and that all any person needs is drive and will and a refusal to bow to any handicaps or obstacles to reach the summit of human or national achievement. I did it, I made it, I alone am the author and agent of my own glory (sometimes with a sign of the cross or a pointing to the sky to acknowledge that my personal god has, of course, helped me because he is the most powerful of all gods, and hence, though busy, able to specifically concern himself with my welfare as an individual.)
Included in all this is an implied dismissal of the part played by any other factor, be it luck, or the bounty of nature, or my genetic or financial or social inheritance, or any outside contribution whatever. The idea is that we in the modern world succeed on our own. We succeed as individuals by being individualists, even up to and including being consciously selfish and competitive where other individuals, species, or nations are concerned. We get to be number one by not being squeamish about fighting for our place at the head of the line, at the top of the heap, by standing up for ourselves and making clear that we will crush all competition if that is what it takes to be number one--indeed, that we enjoy the competition, that we shine brightest when the prize is on the line, when victory can be seized by a sheer effort of will that pushes us to beat the hell out of whoever is behind us or beside us or outside us. Life is a brutal competition after all, and not for the faint of heart.
This, of course, is at the heart of the battle between Republicans and Democrats in the current election; with Romney and Ryan as the prime exhibits in this paean to individualism. Romney touts himself as the “self-made” billionaire, the clear-eyed wizard of finance who made billions by buying up faltering companies and “turning them around” to be sold at a nice, fat profit. To do this, he had to be quick, and ruthlessly efficient at not wasting time or mental energy worrying about silly things like unions or people getting fired or communities getting devastated, or any of the other soft-headed concerns so dear to liberals. Efficiency and profit had to be all; followed, when the money poured in, with more cleverly efficient ways to avoid taxes and hide his gains in offshore Swiss or Cayman Island accounts. All of which was perfectly “legal” and perfectly understandable to most Americans. He did it alone, he did it his way, and he has, so the song goes, the perfect right to keep his hard-won earnings. All of it. Paul Ryan sings a similar song. His grandfather (comparable to Romney’s father, who made his fortune in automobiles) earned millions building roads paid for by the government, and so left for little Paulie the right and leisure to go to Washington and become, all on his own, the courageous spear-carrier for the Republican right, unafraid to make “hard choices.” (Ryan’s wife Janna, from a similarly prominent Oklahoma farm/political family, spent a decade in Washington herself, first as a congressional aide and then as a corporate lobbyist for such business stalwarts as cigar makers, logging giants, pharmaceutical bandits, health maintenance organizations and nuclear power plants.) And so we get Paulie’s mantra: freedom comes from god (and/or wealthy families), not from government. With that freedom, we individuals should be able to do what we want with our money (primarily keep it), send our kids to whatever private or charter schools we choose—using government vouchers to pay for them—and even turn health care into a voucher system so we, as individuals, can get whatever health coverage we can afford without having to come in contact with all those unsavory types who can’t pay to cover themselves and thus want ever more of our taxes to pay for them. Because it’s our money, earned (or inherited or stolen) by our individual effort fair and square; so we shouldn’t have to give it to a wasteful, money-hungry government determined to share it with lazy losers and odorous freeloaders.
We all recognize and respond to this, of course, because we’re all subject to the same selfish, self-aggrandizing impulse. When we succeed at something, we want to take full credit for it. It was due to our hard work, our intelligence, our persistence, our rare insight or foresight. When things go wrong, on the other hand, we tend to attribute the failure to others, or bad luck, or our parents’ incapacity, or the animosity or perversity of the outside world. More specifically, we tend to view ourselves, our conscious selves located somewhere in our heads, as generally in control, as the decision makers, the agents of our perception and action who size up a situation and then make a rational, informed decision about what or who or how to choose. We comparison shop for a car or a house, we consult the experts and our friends, we calculate our budget, and we make the right decision. When deciding about a new friend or a new job, we imagine ourselves taking everything into account, mulling over our options, and deciding based on our best reasoned judgment (being careful to choose friends who will ratify our judgment).
The truth, though, is that our decision-making process is far less rational and considered than we think. Danel Kahneman has written a whole book—Thinking Fast and Slow—about this, and it is sobering indeed. The basic idea is that our thinking and decision-making process depends on two systems which Kahneman calls System 1 (our intuitive process that operates very rapidly, and below the level of consciousness) and System 2 (the slower, conscious, logical system with which we identify.) What Kahneman shows us, with countless examples and variations, is the extent to which an alarmingly high percentage of our decisions are in fact made by System 1—that is, quickly, based on rapid impressions and ancient responses that take place below our level of consciousness. As Kahneman notes, “cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain.” This means that thinking in this way is subject to visceral responses (one experiment showed how people presented with odd pairings of words like bananas and vomit tend to immediately associate a tasty fruit with nausea, and hence display a rapid tensing and avoidance tendency to bananas) that happen below the level of awareness. What is happening is that “System 1 makes as much sense as possible of the..oddly juxtaposed words…by linking the words in a causal story” so as to prepare for a possible threat. That is what System 1 is needed for, designed for: real world threats that often do not afford an organism the luxury of time and slow, rational consideration of all the evidence. When an instant response—to loud sound, or an unknown shape or smell—can be the difference between life and death, it is far better to be quick, and safe, than sorry. Hence our System 1 responds rapidly, even when the “threat” is a silly juxtaposition of words like “banana” and “vomit.” The well-known response of “priming” works via this same system: in an experiment at NYU, students were asked to assemble four-word sentences from a group of five words. One group had neutral words, while another had these: Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. The students thought this was a test of verbal skill, but it was not, for when finished, participants were asked to walk down the hall to another experiment. The walk was the real subject of the experiment, for it was timed. And the experimenters found that those students who had made sentences from the words suggesting “old age” actually walked down this hallway far more slowly than the others! Mere words and associations of those words primed a physical behavior, walking; thinking of old age made people walk older. Of course, many people who take part in, or hear of priming can’t believe that they could be so affected. That is because their System 2—the rational, conscious part that they consider to be themselves—believes that it is in charge. When confronted with evidence that it is not, people bridle with disbelief.
More important, when System 1 jumps to unwarranted conclusions, based on its rapid response to limited information, System 2, always seeking coherence, will often endorse those intuitive responses, in order to have the world make sense (“we are pattern seekers, believers in a coherent world,” notes Kahneman). Such an endorsement of intuitive beliefs can operate in a political system too, as when people allow their likes and dislikes (immediate impressions based in System 1) to determine their beliefs about the world. If a person likes the Affordable Care Act, for example, he would tend to believe in its great health benefits and the reasonableness of the costs. If a person dislikes Obamacare, however, then the benefits seem negative and the costs outrageous and Obama a damned socialist.
More than that, people tend to be overly confident in their beliefs, including the belief that those beliefs are the product of rational thought (System 2) rather than rapid impressions (System 1). What this means is that, despite the evidence, people who have had their beliefs confirmed—as for instance, those, like CEOs, who have been successful in business, or the stock market—tend to be overly-optimistic. Like political and military leaders, they feel both smart and lucky and therefore try to convince others to follow them. As Kahneman puts it:
Their experiences of success have confirmed their faith in their judgment and in their ability to control events. Their self-confidence is reinforced by the admiration of others. This reasoning leads to a hypothesis: the people who have the greatest influence on the lives of others are likely to be optimistic and overconfident, and to take more risks than they realize.
Anyone who has looked at the world carefully, of course, knows that luck does not last, that what goes up must come down, and that the complexity of any life situation can rarely be reduced to the rapid intuitions of System 1 that are often responsible for decisions (think only of George W. Bush and his great faith in his “gut feelings” when he took the entire nation and half the world into the disaster that was, and still is, Iraq.)
But the inadequacy of individualism only begins with personal psychology. The more we learn from science and life itself, the more we realize that only a fool could imagine that he or she is in full control of life events, or responsible for their successful outcome. Each of us is a mere speck in the vast panoply of a universe that seems to have no end. Billions of years of evolution have made each of us improbable and improbably-complex beings possible. The very elements like carbon and iron of which we are made required the massive heat of the interior of stars to forge their structure, and further billions of years—once life, another massive improbability, had somehow emerged—to perfect the intricate structures of cells, and then organs, and then sophisticated neural systems and finally consciousness itself. How much did any single, proud “individualist” have to do with that? How much do any of us have to do with the maintenance of the ideal conditions on this planet—another massive improbability—that keeps oxygen at levels sufficient for us to even breathe? How much do individuals have to do with their own breathing, with the pumping of blood through their organs and arteries and veins? How much control do they have over their cellular machinery and its myriad changes and creations of enzymes and depletion of wastes? The mystery of all this, plus the chance encounters that often determine the courses of our lives—the meeting with someone with whom we find a common objective in life, a compatible heartbeat in love—and the very fact that we take the right turn on a highway to avoid a collision or the right airplane to avoid a crash or have had the good fortune to be born in a country that has never been invaded or at a time or a place with parents that foster our survival, is enough to humble even the proudest among us. Or should. And isn’t it this that is the basis of the most wise of religions, of the most sophisticated of wisdom traditions? Is it not this that is the basis of the gratitude and the sacrifice that is traditionally offered to those deities who are seen to be in charge of this unimaginably complex and favorable (to us) system of life?
Sadly, our hyper-individualists seem to think that recognizing this, recognizing our truly deep dependency on and identity with all else in the universe, on all others on this planet, on every tiny mite and spider and amoeba and the bacteria in our guts and in our very mouths that make our digestion possible; and the processes of mineral uptake in plants and their ability to synthesize from the very air, from sunlight, the nutrients upon which we as mammals depend for our very existence—this dependence on all else (including the roads and bridges and schools and fire departments all built and managed and maintained by those governments they love to excoriate) somehow diminishes them. Diminishes their glory. Diminishes their sense of self-sufficiency. But that self-sufficiency is an illusion. A most pernicious illusion in fact. For it allows them to exult in their pride—the deadliest of sins—and delude themselves into thinking that they can ‘make it on their own.’ True wisdom has always known that this was wrong. Wrong headed. Wrong minded. The source of the deepest ignorance. And yet, our entire nation is built on this ignorance. We alone discovered the New World, the New Man. We alone conquered an entire continent. We alone, the special nation, subsequently conquered the world. We the unique nation, the nation blessed uniquely by a unique god, are the nation destined by god to be a model for all nations. The model itself based on the uniqueness of the individual, self-sufficient, making it on his own. With the contrary notion—that of dependency, that we are all, all humans, all creatures, all beings in this together—taking the form of anathema. Paganism and devil worship. The corruption of slave nations, the antithesis of freedom.
In fact, that dependency, that togetherness and its nobility is just the opposite, the real way to true freedom, true worth, true uniqueness. I have always liked the take of the Hwa Yen Buddhists in imaging this, this reverence for all life, for all being, this knowing that all, no matter how humble or apparently useless or failed, have equal worth. The world, said the Hwa Yen Buddhists, is like a huge structure, a house. And each of us, each allegedly separate being, is like one of the rafters of that house. Or one of the nails or one of the roofing boards or windows or pieces of concrete holding it up. Both unique, and integral to the whole. For without each rafter, each nail, each bit of wood or steel or concrete that goes into making it up, without each element in place, there is no house at all. A house without one of its rafters is not actually a house, said the Hwa Yen Buddhists. A house, to be a house, must be a complete house. And that is what life is like. That is what being is like. A whole. Each element, each component, each being, each organ, each cell is necessary and integral to the whole. And so deserves the utmost respect. Deserves the acknowledgment that it depends, intimately and mutually and utterly, on all the others. None of us can thrive, none of us can survive, none of us can even pretend to be on our own. None. Not Mitt Romney, not Paul Ryan, not the homeless guy stretched out on the sidewalk, not the Olympian who wins gold, not the most despised of creatures in a sewer or the most venerated bishop of Rome or president of a republic—none can survive on his own or her own. To pretend that one can, to pretend that one is a self-sufficient individual with no need or concern for others, or for government, or for regulations, or for public schools or a decent system of care for the aged or the halt or the lame, is simply ignorant. Ignorant of the most fundamental laws of life. And to put faith in such ignorance would be ignorance itself.
Which is not to say that millions of people won’t do so. Which is not to say that millions don’t already pervert the teachings of the very god they claim as their own, the god who said “whatever you do unto the least of these, you do for me.” No, they will pervert it and distort it and deceive themselves into the idea that their only connection to the “least of these” is to horde enough wealth to be able to trickle some charity upon them. A penny from the heaven they imagine themselves inhabiting. But this is ignorance, pure and simple, and will, sooner or later, be seen through. And all the alleged wizards seen as the pathetic, frightened faux-individuals that they are.