New Whine, Old Battles

From, October 22, 1999

by Wendy McElroy

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 make 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  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.

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!"