The New York Times columnist David Leonhardt worked his way into my respect naturally. Somehow, the NYT started sending me his opinion pieces maybe three or four times a week, and my first thought was, “Who’s the new guy?” A page that has featured Charles Blow, Thomas L. Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Nicholas D. Kristof, Paul Krugman, and Bob Herbert creates a high bar in my mind. But, over time, Leonhardt has grown to be one of my favorite and most-quoted writers. In one piece, he gives voice to a core is a political philosophy precept of mine: social cohesion depends on political progress. Another way to phrase this idea would be: social welfare vs. individual supremacy vis-a-vis political progressivism. This is the place where social and economic justice meet philosophy and ethics.
Leonhardt’s short piece is entitled A Great Fight of Our Times. That is an accurate title, but somewhat vague. He is referring to the metaphor that a rising tide lifts all boats. The crux of this idea is that if we have the yawning gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, this will of course not only be bad for those who get short shrift, it will also not be very good for those who have all they could want. I am talking about individualism vs. collectivism; elitism vs. social cohesion.
Elites, consider this: All the influence, pride, glitter, political power, accoutrements, bells and whistles, possessions, elitism, and status will count for naught if the world is coming to an end due to overheating. Or if Trump gets an itchy trigger finger and nukes North Korea. Or the stock market continues to drop as it did today, in the nauseating middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. For, what is the point of having a private jet if the planet has turned into a dystopian wasteland? If no one is there to serve you food because social has decayed to the point of unrecognizability, then you can’t go out and spend $500 on a couple bottles of wine and coq au vin.
If there is further-diminished social cohesion, America is not going to be a place those who are doing well are really going to want to live, anyway. In this sense, we truly “are all in this together.” That is collectivism, and it’s not a pejorative. Familites are surely collectivist institutions, though they of course are structured by a clear sense of rights and duties, responsibilities and privileges. Simply put, if someone is sick, they get the cold medicine; a more individualistic or dictatorial system would have it that the father, being the typically most physically and attitudinally dominant, would hoard the common goods (such as medicine) for himself for some time in the future.
Misers vs. those who give liberally to charity is another example of the differences between these philosophical extremes. Christianity is the prototypical “others before myself” and “to each according to his need” credo, and corporate capitalism (crony capitalism) and objectivism (Any Rand’s philosophy) are its polar opposites. Heralding self-centeredness would probably be Martin Shkrelli, or Bernie Madoff, and carrying the banner for a more ethical kind of communitarianism (or a secular welfare statism) is this Einstein quote:
“For while religion prescribes brotherly love in the relations among the individuals and groups, the actual spectacle more resembles a battlefield than an orchestra. Everywhere, in economic as well as in political life, the guiding principle is one of ruthless striving for success at the expense of one’s fellow men. This competitive spirit prevails even in school and, destroying all feelings of human fraternity and cooperation, conceives of achievement not as derived from the love for productive and thoughtful work, but as springing from personal ambition and fear of rejection.”
Or this quote by Polish conductor of symphonies:
“Think what a single individual in a symphony orchestra can accomplish by giving up his individual traits and ambitions in the service of music. . . . Suppose that in life you had the same all-embracing love for the whole of mankind and for your neighbor in particular. Only when every one of us and every nation learns the secret of love for all mankind will the world become a great orchestra, following the beat of the Greatest Conductor of all.”
The lure of materialism and the idol of the Self has always been prominent in America; we are, after all, the land founded on slavery, and home to “robber barons” such as Carnegie and J. P. Morgan. We allowed unlimited money into the political sphere with the obnoxious Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, and corporations have been granted most of the rights of individuals by the Supreme Court, and giving monetary donations to politicians has been affirmed as “free speech” by the Supreme Court. Now, in the age of the Internet, and with a brand of politics largely pioneered by Republicans and Trump, the individual is ascending. For Trump, the quintessential narcissist, it is all about the self (and a sane society would have barred him from public service, or impeached and removed him promptly).
Isn’t this rampant pursuit of money, power, privilege, selfishness, and hyper-individualism leading society to a bad end? I think that is clearly so. It will be self-defeating to allow the “Greed is good” ethos and the “I don’t have to vaccinate my child if I don’t want to” mentality are corrosive to society.
To use an analogy, if you have a new Ferrari but no street on which to cruise, or no track on which to gun it, is it really worth the money? What good is money if you can’t breathe the air or live outside your tall walls? Do the rich really want to have sex while a bodyguard looks out for marauders?
Presidential contender and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has thought about issues of income inequality and the like quite a bit, addressed this when asked by a questioner why student loans should be canceled after they themselves worked their loans off. What she said is embedded in commentary by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Michael Hiltzik:
“Look, we build a future going forward by making it better,” she said. “By that same logic, what would we have done, not started Social Security because we didn’t start it last week for you or last month for you?” Warren was confronting, with typical clarity, one of the most common objections to policies that fix manifest injustices: “I suffered, so why shouldn’t everyone else?” Sometimes the point is articulated through its converse: “I got mine, too bad about you.”
His article (LINK) is a pretty compelling case for why it is wise and just and good to take others into consideration. Mr. Rogers taught us all this when we were children (those in Gen X, at least). Hiltzik goes on:
“We’re talking about canceling student debt because we recognize as a society that those who had to scrimp and save to get themselves or their offspring through university should not have needed to do so. We understand — or should, at any rate — that all these needs are properly the concern of the entire community, not merely those immediately affected. America used to be much more tolerant of programs that aimed to improve social justice. What changed? Benjamin M. Friedman, who has made studying the moral consequences of economic changes his life’s work, has posited that economic inequality has sapped American society of its tendency toward fellow feeling. ‘America has made progress mostly when living standards for the majority of the nation’s citizens are advancing,” Friedman wrote in 2009. ‘Leaving aside the depression of the 1930s, the opposite has been true when incomes have stagnated or fallen.’”
The same case can be made for changing now in order to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions soon which will contribute to a habitable planet later. Yah, if you’re 60, you might not be here to benefit. But a moral inventory would elucidate the plain fact that we are either billions of individuals who have no responsibility for the health and welfare of other people, or we are essentially a very large community, and what is done by one can have a major impact on others. We’re not all Jeff Bezos or Rush Limbaugh, with outsize money, power, and influence, but a properly functioning moral sensibility ought to engage the sense that I’m not the only one involved, and coupled with consideration of The Golden Rule, should lead to decision-making that does not place one at the center of the universe.
“The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself,” suffragette Jane Addams advised.
Think about the elitism and the upper-class ignorance demonstrated by Larry Kudlow when, during the Trump-imposed “government shutdown”. It was brought up by a reporter that everyday working-class Americans would have severe financial stress should they not get a paycheck for one week, two weeks, three weeks – however long it took Trump to cease this “unforced error”. Kudlow’s response: they should just get a loan. This is reminiscent of Brahmin Mitt Romney’s suggestion that one way to get ahead in life is to obtain a loan from one’s father or other close relative. Who do these capitalistic, privileged older white Christian straight men think is going to offer a loan to a low-wage worker who lives in an apartment with five other people? How many peoples’ parents can or would offer them a loan to start a business? This attitude demonstrates how hopelessly out of touch – how self-referential – some people are. They have little concern for the “unwashed masses” who comprise 98% of the people in this country. Indeed, one can see the economic strata when one considers that schools are largely supported by the property tax base in close proximity to a given school; and thus, rich neighborhoods have good schools, and poverty-stricken urban and rural communities educate their young citizens proportionally poorly.
A bit more from Michael Hiltzik is illustrative. He references an exchange between Renee Elmers (R-NC) and then-Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius. The context is whether males should have to pay, indirectly, for women’s childbirthing, considering men do not directly encounter childbirth. It’s essentially a “Why should I pay for something that doesn’t directly benefit me; to subsidize you?” Unlike the refrain “Why should the obese and habitually unhealthy drive up insurance premiums for the young and health-conscious?”, this one is clearly selfish and — here is the kicker — dysfunctional for society, therefore. This is the incisive moral philosophy put into a nice, bite-sized chunk:
“To the best of your knowledge, has a man ever delivered a baby?” Ellmers asked, thinking she had found the ultimate ‘gotcha.’ As we explained for Ellmers’ benefit, while no man has ever delivered a baby, no baby ever has been born without a man being involved somehow. If you limit maternity coverage to only women of childbearing age, you’re placing the entire financial burden of propagating the species on the shoulders of women aged roughly 18 to 38. Society, moreover, has a vested interest in healthy mothers and newborns. Unhealthy babies and mothers impose a cost on the entire community, as a squandering of human capital and a generator of costs for treatments that often would have been unnecessary if mothers got the care they needed during pregnancy” (Michael Hiltzik).
The estimable modern philosopher Daniel N. Robinson addresses one aspect of the self-other dialectic with the following comment on “rugged individualism”:
“[We tend to picture John Wayne, on horseback, in the wilds, with his shotgun over his shoulder], but that’s not the America at the founding. The America at the founding is a communitarian America—colonists who understand their obligations are chiefly to each other. In fact, the idea then that the whole point of revolution, the Constitution, a just form of government is, to quote Justice Brandeis: ‘that somebody is to be left alone’ … would have been regarded as pathological. These were communities that understood themselves largely in Christian terms, very much in the patrimony of the Puritan fathers, understanding that a community of people must live together in such a way as to put private interest and self-interest aside and to operate in behalf of the good of the whole. That communitarianism shows up in the founding documents themselves. There are so many attempts to resist and avoid and deflate faction —to continue to remind people of common cause. The Puritans regarded themselves as so-called ‘Commonwealth men.’ They were part of an extended community and a brotherhood, and indeed, essentially, in Christian terms.”
Indeed, two considerations one ought to entertain when writing on behalf of social cohesion, communitarianism, and collectivism are political polarization and individualism.
First, political polarization. If you watch Fox News, you get the distinct impression that up is down and black is white. It’s virtually an Orwellian propaganda machine meant to enrich the owner and carry water for the extreme conservative movement. It tells little truth, and it never tells truth that doesn’t jibe with the overarching goal — especially since they got rid of Shepard Smith.
Point being, yes, America is polarized to an extent not seen since perhaps the Vietnam War, or even the Civil War. And Trump merely exacerbated this divide, he didn’t create it. As we can see by viewing the long and ignominious history of Fox, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Breitbart and so on, there is money in them thar hills! Dividing Americans and running interference for the ownership class is the name of the game, despite how pernicious the effects have been. I suppose if one possesses a motorized lifeboat stocked with a week’s worth of food, profiting greatly from the Titanic sinking is a decent plan (if one has no scruples). Unfortunately, America itself is the Titanic in this analogy.
When social cohesion breaks down to a great enough degree, you have what we saw in Rwanda during the pre-genocide and the genocide. The well-to-do lived in nice houses protected by high walls and guards, but when the men with the machetes come a-knockin’, there may be no one to save you.
Indeed, conservatives (well, I should say, Trumpists) should take heed of the Martin Niemöller poem about the government coming for the Communists. Spoiler alert: they get the writer of the poem in the end, and his very selfishness and passivity facilitated his own demise.
The other caveat is individualism. This is, in this context, a philosophical concept that carries a lot of weight. At its best, it is the last bulwark of the individual against massive forces bent on destroying him. It’s Ayn Rand-style libertarianism on the extreme, but in general the idea is a counterforce to the idea that welfare statism is the right way to organize a good and functional society. America is perhaps one of the most individualistic countries on the earth today. “Greed is good” and “Me, me, me!” are the quintessential cries of the individualist.
As we see with the anti-vaccine, anti-mainstream-media, anti-mainstream-science movement (LINK)(LINK2), one can make a case and find a lot of camaraderie and fodder online for why one needn’t do what is in society’s best interests if it conflicts with one’s idiosyncratic (or at best, fringe) interests. A quote from Link2, Gabriel Schoenfeld points out that “In periods of stress and rapid economic and social change, irrational currents tend to flow and the appetite among the public for extraordinary explanations of events begins to swell. Conspiracy theories begin to proliferate, and also to migrate from the margins to the center.” With both extreme conservatism (Trumpism, white supremacy, supply-side economists, fringe think-tankers, and bomb-throwers like Steve Bannon) and misguided approaches to libertarianism, the individual takes on an importance that may serve the interests of the ego, but which are counterproductive from a societal point of view.
Case in point in my claim about dangerous individualism would be choosing not to vaccinate one’s children against an array of dangerous and preventable childhood diseases. This is not because there is a danger to the children (though, that is a very solid reason to mandate vaccines, just as it is wise to outlaw child abuse and neglect and trafficking), but it is a danger to the rest of society as well. I am referring to herd immunity, which the anti-vaxxer movement does a number on in order to rob it of its legitimacy and its moral weight.
Herd immunity and the subversion of vaccine science and public health are apropos of how individuals may feel entitled to put their own interests first — to the detriment of the society at large — and the effects are clear and negative. “A drop in immunizations poses a threat to the herd immunity the medical world has worked hard to achieve. Global communities are now more connected than ever, which translates to a higher probability of the transmission of pathogens. The only thing that can protect populations against a rapidly spreading disease is the disease’s resistance created by herd immunity when the majority are immune after vaccinations. Given the highly contagious nature of diseases like measles, vaccination rates of 96% to 99% are necessary to preserve herd immunity and prevent future outbreaks.”
Again, what is the point of not vaccinating your children if everyone else does the same, and therefore herd immunity is destroyed? Your children are going to get the diseases! That is, you were previously relying on others in society to protect you as a herd of animals protects its young from predators; but when all cheat at their social responsibilities, the breakdown in social cohesion, ironically, affects you. This concept subverts the “myth of the individual” and illustrates the horrific moral consequences of insisting on one’s entitled and privileged status to the detriment of society as a whole.
The men of the Titanic drowned in large numbers because they were willing, due to a sense of honor and societal mores (I would say, social cohesion), to sacrifice the self for the sake of the many. That is, masculine courage and bravery were values that were extolled in such a frightening scene as the sinking of the world’s most elite luxury liner. They had only minutes or perhaps an hour to accept that their previously-held positions of superiority now meant their need to accept death or live as a coward. In a remarkable commentary on how addicted to wealth and privilege some individuals are, it is worth noting that the upper class males were largely (ignominiously!) exempt from the gender prescription that self-respecting males are supposed to save women and children before saving themselves.
Thus, the dictum for the well-heeled men on the Titanic that night was, by and large: First off the ship are the rich and entitled; second are the women and children from the other classes, and last, if possible, are the men of lower station.
So, back to David Leonhardt’s main point about social cohesion. Here is a telling quote from the compelling piece:
Rejecting Trump isn’t enough. If that is all we do, Trumpism will return, with a savvier front man. The real answer has to involve ensuring that a large majority of Americans enjoy a rising quality of life. Doing so means better, more equal schools. It means a tax code less favorable to the rich and, yes, the upper middle class. It means criminal justice reform. It means a bigger emphasis on good-paying jobs. The moral case for a fairer society is clear. But there is also a self-interested case. If the trends continue, the United States will ultimately become a worse place to live, for all Americans, no matter how insulated they may feel today.
Social cohesion is the glue that holds communities (as well as the nation as a whole) together. If political extremists, cheaters, selfish actors, or rugged individualists are able to subvert the social welfare of the whole, then both the functional and moral cases for a stable and progressive society are endangered. True, if the individual is diminished and disenfranchises, society can devolve into a dystopian existence marked by paternalism, an overweening bureaucracy, and totalitarian governmentalism (think: Orwell’s concept of “Big Brother”). This is the stuff of conservatives’ nightmares (causing them to wake up wanting to shrink government down to the size at which it can be drowned in a bathtub, as Grover Norquist infamously put it).
However, a class of unscrupulous power-mongers (what I call Fox News executives), foolish consumers of propaganda (what I call Fox News viewers), hyperindividualists (those who never got past their obsession with Ayn Rand), and neo-libertarian elitists (what I call anti-vaxxers) is threatening the social cohesion that has more or less held together through slavery, foreign wars and entanglements, depressions, dust bowls, McCarthyism, presidential impeachments and assassinations, and the Civil War.
I think of McCarthy as being the consummate hyperindividualist. He was self-centered and unethical in the extreme. I also think of the way the Coronavirus has led to price-gouging online, elite attitudes, misinformation, disinformation campaigns on Facebook, social media-fueled conspiracies, and other types of chaotic and anti-social phenomena to be a death-knell for American social cohesion if we are not careful.
My sister actually sent over an article of a guy sitting in bed, claiming the Coronavirus really wasn’t that bad — this while a nursing home in Washington is a deathtrap and cruise ships are now a hellish prison reminiscent of Sartre’s No Exit. I was struck by both the blasé attitude and the reliance on cognitive biases to support her pet theories that the U.S. government is corrupt and ineffective, beholden to pharmaceutical industry power, and that, therefore, no individual need take any vaccine or other mandated public health measure they weren’t emotionally comfortable with.
It is akin to letting children decide what is on the menu for the family dinner 365 days a year! My reply to her was, curtly, “This is irresponsible. The elderly are dying and my retirement account is shrinking! This is a big deal worthy of you rethinking it!” I keep getting struck by my sister’s reliance on pseudoscience, cognitive biases, and hyperindividualism, and this is self-serving to the point of absurdity. I’m not in favor of a totalitarian government, but I want leaders at the top who have the scruples, preparation, character, resources, and leadership ability to manage a pandemic. That is Government 101. I also believe that citizens should prize social cohesion as a laudable goal, both for ethical reasons (the others in society) and the self (how can one be fruitful and multiply during a pandemic that is poorly controlled)?
Society feels like it’s coming apart at the seams. There used to be more of a sense of social duty and self-sacrifice. America means little when it is merely a conglomeration of bull-headed individuals and tribal factions. The Founding Fathers knew was a danger faction was. They also knew demagogues could whip up popular sentiment. Unmoored from the idea of truth as objective (the relativization of truth), those who would put their particular interests above those of the community and nation to an alarming degree can flourish. For a time.
Those on the political and anti-scientific extremes should consider that if society is further damaged by idiosyncratic privilege and elitism, it’s not going to be a place that is worthy of the Founding Fathers’ visions for the Republic, what Reagan called “the shining city on a hill” could be. Ω
Eric Alterman, the accomplished historian and writer for The Nation, frames this issue thusly: “As it has developed during roughly the past 250 years, contemporary liberalism may be understood in its present incarnation to hover between two philosophical poles loosely defined as “rights-based” liberalism, which derives from the writings of twentieth-century political philosopher John Rawls, and “communitarian” liberalism, which arose in large measure as a response to Rawls’ writings but also owes a great deal to the “republican” beliefs that animated the visions of many of America’s founders.”
Here are a few other quotes for your consideration:
Quotes for Individualism: “The fundamental political conflict in America today is, as it has been for a century, individualism vs. collectivism. Does the individual’s life belong to him—or does it belong to the group, the community, society, or the state? With government expanding ever more rapidly—seizing and spending more and more of our money on “entitlement” programs and corporate bailouts, and intruding on our businesses and lives in increasingly onerous ways—the need for clarity on this issue has never been greater.” ~ Craig Biddle
“What characterizes all societies is a persistent, varied, relentless effort to mutilate, truncate, and impede human liberty in every way possible.”
Quotes for Communitarianism: “Our individualistic heritage taught us that there is no such thing as the common good but only the sum of individual goods. But in our complex, interdependent world, the sum of individual goods , organized only under the tyranny of the market, often produces a common bad that eventually erodes our personal satisfaction as well.”
“The communitarians, unlike modern liberals [libertarians], make the case for a politics of the common good. …Following Aristotle, they argue that we cannot justify political arrangements without reference to common purposes and ends, and that we cannot conceive of ourselves without reference to our role as citizens — as participants in a common life.”
“Paideia is based on the idea that a healthy democracy requires a certain sort of honorable citizen — that if we’re not willing to tell the truth, devote our lives to common purposes, or defer to a shared moral order, then we’ll succumb to the shallowness of a purely commercial civilization; we’ll be torn asunder by the centrifugal forces of extreme individualism; we’ll rip one another to shreds in the naked struggle for power.”
“If greed and self-interest can destroy the world, perhaps cooperation can save it.”
“We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being. The notion that one can begin anything at all from scratch, free from the past, or unindebted to others, could not conceivably be more wrong.”
“The goal of a good society is to structure social relations and institutions so that cooperative and generous impulses are rewarded, while antisocial ones are discouraged. The problem with capitalism is that it best rewards the worst part of us: ruthless, competitive, conniving, opportunistic, acquisitive drives, giving little reward and often much punishment — or at least much handicap — to honesty, compassion, fair play, many forms of hard work, love of justice, and a concern for those in need.”
Bonus: Cognitive Biases and the Anti-Vaccination Movement (LINK)
Bonus: Scholar J. Haidt on Why Social Media is a Gift to Confirmation Bias (LINK)
Bonus: Fostering Social Cohesion (LINK)
BLOG SUGGESTION: Social Cohesion vs. Selfishness: