When you structure a society so that every person must be an island, you cannot then blame people when inevitably they act as if they are. If we want a country that takes solidarity seriously, we will actually have to build one. Jamelle Bouie, August 2021
Separating ourselves from the “other” has been the plight of humanity and part of our storied evolution. Tribes, territories, and Darwinian strategies to cull the herd. I think therefore I am. There is no WE in survival. I must separate myself from the “inferior” people who dilute the march towards progress.
Covid, voting, giving time, money, religion, parenting, social media, race, gender, disability can spawn mythical islands of isolation and separation. Dream-like places where we are all powerful, we control everything and conveniently eliminates our dependency on so many people and resources. An island oasis that is superior because it has exiled the unwashed bad apples.
Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. David Foster Wallace 2006
“Skull-sized kingdoms” are atolls of another name. Self-centered spaces of safety that defy reality I the name of freedom.
This country was founded on freedom–individual freedoms that are guaranteed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Over time individual freedoms have evolved into “separate” freedoms, isolated personal rights. I do what I want without harming others. I pursue my happiness. You pursue your happiness. May the best person win. From our earliest days, Americans have been de-coupling these freedoms and rights from the community, state and country that grants these rights. The original point of this robust individualism was to enable us to fight fascism. The ability to speak, assemble, and bear arms was to help individuals protect this nation from tyranny. Yet, our collective regard for one another, for the well-being of our neighbors, and neighborhoods and fellow Americans has been fractured into tiny islands that are losing their affiliation and our allegiance to one another. The tragedy of the commons, the consistent erosion of our common interests to preserve and enhance our collective well-being are evaporating.
Alexis de Toqueville was a French social scientist who studied the development of America in the 1830’s and made very clear and insightful observations in his prophetic and seminal book, Democracy in America.
de Tocqueville issued a warning when he pointed out that this tendency toward an exclusive preoccupation with personal well-being and the dogged pursuit of material comfort inevitably diverts the attention and talent of individuals of “superior intellect” from politics to business and from public life to private affairs. Vartan Gregorian 2006
“Individualism is a feeling which disposes each citizen thought to isolate themselves from society at large”…..and “we lose interest in the future of our descendants.” Alexis de Toqueville 1835
Bouie is correct. This is a country that created and supports island mentalities. Blaming people and their islands is pointless. The notions of the American Dream, and “pulling one up by one’s own bootstraps”, remain fundamental ideals of living in the USA. Underlying these blue-sky values, is a robust platform of freedoms, rights, privileges and resources that all Americans have sacrificed to make. These ideals can inspire, but more often conspire to indoctrinate us to believe the “Self-made” American myth. None of us were self-made. Unless you chose your mother, built the infrastructure, fought for freedom, and made the ultimate sacrifices for the opportunities and privileges we enjoy. But extreme interpretations of these self-serving fables undermine the collective strength of a nation.
No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne 1623
Every person is a piece of the continent, the earth, and the human race. No one lives alone, suffers alone, and can be isolated from the world, nature or others. Actively living in connection to one another, conscious of the consequences of our actions, and improving the lot for the next generation can make the continents of humanity terra firma again.
While there are many examples of the proliferation of islands, there are just as many models for the continent building of reuniting and strengthening of our connection to our common interests and furthering the ideals of America. Where is patriotism? Public service? Civic engagement?
There are so many green fields of activity and optimism. Voting, activism, volunteering and civic awareness are at all-time highs. This next generation is showing great leadership in leveling the playing fields of inequity, addressing climate change and pushing us to confront our racist history and systems. We must help them, enable them and propel them forward. We cannot be the ones to “lose interest in our descendants” as de Toqueville surmised. Get off our islands! We must build the land masses of commonality with our children and grandchildren. They have much to teach us.
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to one another. Mother Teresa
Thanks for reading. John