The culture of idealised individualism

I subscribe to the New Zealand Herald. I like to read it while I am having breakfast. In these days of a Covid 19 lockdown I can read the paper a bit more thoroughly than I might normally before hitting the Auckland gridlock on the way to work.

But one columnist I do enjoy reading is Mr Simon Wilson. He writes clearly and argues well for his point of view, because his columns are, after all, just his opinion. I don’t often agree with him. I find he tends to be a bit preachy, a bit righteous, at times a bit of a high-horsed moralist. Certainly much of his thinking is to the left of centre. He seems to support the leftist Auckland Council and our slightly left of centre Government. And that is fine. This is a democracy and he is entitled to his opinion and he is entitled to express it as I am mine.

In the Herald of 2 April he focussed his sights upon the United States and it was a little difficult to work out whether he was just plain good old Kiwi anti-American or if he deplored the US political and social system. Having read the article several times I think it is the latter and in many respects I agree with him. For whatever reason – and there are many – US society has become polarised into different clusters or belief and opinion to the point that the consensus which was a characteristic of US politics and life a few decades ago has vanished.

However, one thing I must take issue with is his sneering dismissal of individualism. He says

“Then there’s the American culture of idealised individualism. You’re not taking my gun from me and you’re not going to tell me where I can go. Stay safe? Be kind? Don’t make me laugh.”

Before I express my answer let me provide a bit of context.

In 1964 – 65 I was lucky enough to be awarded an American Field Service Scholarship and completed my final year of high school in a little town in Minnesota called Redwood Falls. It was a very interesting experience.

In our English class we were required to write an essay on the subject of “The Challenge of Citizenship”. Those essays that merited it would be entered in the Veterans of Foreign Wars competition known as the Voice of Democracy. Because not only did the piece have to read well – it had to be spoken and presented.

So I wrote my essay and would you believe that it was submitted to the competition and went through the various District and Regional eliminations and I ended up winning the competition for the State of Minnesota which was pretty cool for a Kiwi kid. It also meant that I had a 5 day all expenses paid trip to Washington DC hosted by the VFW and got to go to some extraordinary places and meet some wonderful people.

The speech itself was read into the Congressional Record for Thursday 25 February 1965

I differ with Mr Wilson on his characterisation of individualism. Although he locates his arguement in the US, and grabs the low hanging fruit of firearms, true individualism is more than just that. I identified it as an important element – if not THE element – in the challenge of citizenship. It has to do with our exercise of the rights and privileges of a free society and true individualism runs up against the fuzzy collectivist thinking that characterises much of today’s commentary, including some of that put out by Mr Wilson.

When we get through the current Covid19 crisis with all its unfortuante but necessary interferences with our freedoms, it is to be hoped that the importance of individualism will again surface and achieve the paramountcy it deserves.

The essay/speech follows. I had to re-type it from a tattered copy of the Congressional Record which did not scan that well. It was an interesting experience because the underlying “voice” is the same. I didn’t have to refer to the master text that often. Some of the expression I would change today – the reference to Communists for example – but here it is as it was originally presented:

When St Paul was brought before the Roman Governor, he used those magic words Civis Romanus Sum – I am a Roman citizen and he had a right to appeal to Caesar, which he did.

Today, as in the time of St Paul, one’s citizenship is a thing to be proud of, but saying that one is a citizen of a country and saying that one practices good citizenship are two different things.

Citizenship is not flagwaving patriotism, but for us it is identifying ourselves as those who are entitled to the rights and privileges of free men, and sensing the qualities of our obligations and responses to a community.

Now let us discover what the challenge of one entitled to the rights and privileges of a free man actually involves.

Today we are threatened by forces that threaten to take away our freedom. We all have heard of these over the media of communication, so there is no need for me to reiterate the dangers that face us. Yet we are faced by an equally dangerous enemy within that threatens to take away our most important freedom – the freedom to think as we please, the freedom to make our own decisions and to act on them. All the time we are told what to do, what to buy, how we should do this and how we should do that, and gradually we are allowing other people to do our thinking for us. The time will come when no longer will we make our own decisions, but some “big brother” will tell us what to do and what to think. We will be told who is good and who is bad, whom we shall love and whom we shall hate.

Happily, today we are only on the brink of this horror, but it is, nonetheless, frighteningly close. What we need to do now, at this moment, is to wake up and think for ourselves. When  we do this we must not be affected by prejudice, be it racial, political or religious, and above all we must stick to our decisions once we have made them. If our ideas differ from those of the majority and if we truly and genuinely believe in them, then we must stick to them as did the American colonists more than 175 years ago.

Individualism is a keynote of our society and it must be maintained by sustaining freedom of thought, and it is up to the good citizen to preserve this freedom as well as all the others. By upholding these freedoms when it is perhaps easier to be passive, which are the rights of every citizen, the citizen practices good citizenship.

Yet how many people criticize the individualist for his different ideas; he is reviled, insulted, even called a Communist. This is the wrong attitude to adopt toward those who use this freedom of thought, and it is this which is challenging us today. We must accept this challenge – a challenge which, if we do not accept, will take away our freedoms. To practice good citizenship we must fight for and preserve our freedoms – the freedom to speak as we please; the freedom to worship as we please; the freedom to live without having to worry; and the greatest freedom of them all – freedom to think as we wish. Preserve them, for if we do not, then we do not accept the challenge of citizenship – for these, as we carefully exercise them, become not ours alone but equal rights of others, strengthened like links in a chain.