“If America ceases to be exceptional,” says Newt Gingrich, “it will have lost its core values of individualism, liberty, and the rule of law.” It’s not clear what this means: I think it means “America is exceptional because it has the core values of individualism, liberty, and the rule of law.” But all societies have some sense of individualism and its range and limits: in that sense they “have individualism.” Lots of societies value liberty–it’s not exceptional to the United States.
In 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours, Newt and daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman tell us that “Theodore Roosevelt came to believe that the strong individualism of American was due, in part, to the western frontier.”
Roosevelt often stands as a paragon of American individualism: he certainly posed himself that way, delighting in stories about his own transformation from asthmatic youth to second best lightweight boxer on the Harvard squad.1 TR was really good at getting his own imaginings of himself into circulation.
But to make TR into a paragon of individualism you have to overlook his obsessive concern with race. Roosevelt saw himself as a member of the “Anglo Saxon race,” an imaginary thing which he understood in world-historical terms. For Roosevelt history was a clash of races: the Latins against the Semites, the Anglo Saxons against the slavs, the Asians against the whites; everybody beating up on the blacks.
Take a look, for example, at how Roosevelt talked about “National Life and Character:” it’s one long ranking of “races.”
The Spaniard, however, because of the ease with which he drops to a lower ethnic level, exerts a much more permanent influence than the Englishman upon tropic aboriginal races; and the tropical lands which the Spaniard and Portuguese once held, now contain, and always will contain, races which, though different from the Aryan of the temperate zone, yet bridge the gulf between him and the black, red, and yellow peoples who have dwelt from time immemorial on both sides of the equator.
It’s ridiculous to call a man who talks like this an “individualist.” it’s even more ridiculous to imagine that his time on the frontier, which he understood as the place where the “Aryan” displaced the “red aboriginals,” gave rise to individualism. “The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages,” TR argued in The Winning of the West: “it is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.” Roosevelt’s western frontier was about race, not individualism.
Roosevelt was no simple-minded bigot, but he was a racist in the sense that he believed race was the fundamental cause of world history. Racial expansion, racial progress, competition and struggle between races: you can’t call TR an individualist without ignoring the plain and overwhelming evidence of his racism. It’s the ground on which his sense of “individualism” formed.2
If Americans have been so drawn to racism, how can we say Americans are exceptionally “individualistic?” Because racism is the opposite of individualism, a collective identity, a way of thinking that ignores actual individual differences in favor of group identifications.
One answer, a pretty good answer: Gingrich is a buffoon. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But Gingrich isn’t alone in touting the special love of Americans for individualism, even though we mostly exterminated “the red man”, had hundreds of years of racial slavery, and institutionalized segregation, and we pretty much invented eugenics, the science of weeding out the biologically unfit.
Here’s Senator Albert Beveridge on the question of liberty for the Philippines.
It is elemental. It is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns…And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world.”
It’s not about rubber, or bananas, or competition with the Japanese: it’s not about individual ambition. It is racial.
I don’t write this because I think the United States is particularly bad or evil: it’s not. In the roll call of world nations it may be among the best and the most moral. It’s just odd indeed that a country which has been so plagued by racism should want to pat itself on the back for individualism.
Can we call the crowds, often in the 1000’s, that attended spectacle lynchings like this “individualist?” Or the people who bought this postcard? Can we call state legislatures dedicated to maintaining segregation “now and forever” “individualist?”
And of course it’s not just race: Americans love gender essentialism as much or more than they love race. Yes, men and women are physically different: the interesting question is what that difference means, and for most of our history, the physical difference has meant seeing women as gender first, individual second.
Just look how often the “family values” conservatism Gingrich professes comes with a sense of tradition, meaning women at home doing what their nature compels them to do, raise children, while according to Gingrich “males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes.” Surely it’s odd to see Gingrich, who earlier we saw touting individualism and liberty, describing men as a group biologically compelled to hunt giraffes? The statement contains neither liberty, since biology compels you, nor individualism, since the biological compulsion extends across all men.
I’m picking on Gingrich because he’s the low-hanging fruit. But family values conservatism talks all the time about the crucial centrality of marriage. It’s hard to make marriage the foundation of individualism, since marriage is a state in which two people willingly surrender large parts of their individualism.
Do any parents out there not agree with this? Being married, and raising children, is not a condition of individualism: you do X because your spouse wants you to: you don’t do Y because you kids have a soccer game.
I like being married, I like being a parent, but you can’t advance marriage as the central pillar of society and then also advance “individualism” as the central pillar.
Alexis DeToqueville, the French aristocrat who toured Jacksonian America, observed that Americans were individualistic, but it drove them to intense conformity. In France, he argued, men have a permanent social position: a noble can be as eccentric and odd as he likes, because his social position is secure. But the American, says DeToqueville, is driven to conformity: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” Or to put it another way, a nation committed to individualism oddly promotes uniformity: every city in America has the same malls with the same stores. You might object that this is just economics, that it has nothing to do with individualism, but this is the economic system, the consumer landscape, that “individualism” produces. Travel anywhere in America, and for the most part the same chain stores sell the same familiar goods.
Again this is not an argument that the United States is bad: it is what it is, but what it is seems not very “individualistic.”
Of course “individualism” is famously hard to define. What Gingrich means is something like laissez faire; unrestrained economic markets and limited government; lots of consumer choices at WalMart. But limited government doesn’t result in less racism or less consumer uniformity: it doesn’t produce “individualism.” Individualism doesn’t mean “difference” for Gingrich, because he’s quick to condemn liberals as dangerous to the republic. If I were to define liberalism, I’d come up with something like “multiculturalism” and talk about tolerance and cosmopolitanism.
Beyond that familiar fight there’s a way in which America is an intensely individualistic nation, and that’s in the sense of individual record keeping and tracking. Most of us shift identities during the day–now a parent, now a spouse, now a commuter, now whatever we do for a living, now a consumer of media entertainment: we have identities which shift depending on context. I’m a very tall man in most situation, but in the NBA I’d be very short. I’m gray haired but only compared to that group of people who have dark hair.
But my social security number, my DNA, my fingerprints: these things are entirely individual, they ever change with context, and they’re also instruments of state surveillance and control. I’m individualized to the state, and so I can be tracked and monitored, given benefits or imprisoned. If I weren’t individualized, if I were part of a mass of unknown people, I’d be untraceable. Individualism in this sense has nothing at all to do with liberty: the more individualized I am, the less free I am.
The State’s pretty feeble compared to the market. I’m individualized to employers and to my credit card company and Amazon.com. They know my preferences, my buying habits. They know more about me than just about anyone, and they get better and better at providing me with what I always already want. Because I’m individualized, I can be more effectively directed towards goods designed for people like me, more effectively steered.
This is not necessarily bad, but having all your actions micro-tracked by a credit card company or your boss isn’t what most people mean when they claim Americans are individualistic.
So I’m inclined to say no, Americans aren’t individualistic at all. Or rather, that American love individualism as an idea, but hate it as a practice.
Left wing types like (also people raised Catholic, like me) me tend to argue that people realize their best selves in social settings–as members of families or organizations, like the military or a church group or a team. People are fundamentally social creatures. In that sense, you could see persistent racism as the stubborn survival of the social. Or you could read it as a sign of just how ambivalent we as Americans are about individualism.
- People always cite this boxing thing with TR–think about it–how many people were at Harvard in 1880? Maybe 1000? How many boxed? How many were lightweights? Three guys? You can see where this is going. Ok, he boxed. It’s not NCAA football. Probably the janitor could’ve kicked his ass. ↩
- critique mcgerr here ↩