Posited by Leif Smith as a replacement for the thought disrupting he/she—she/he
construct of political correctness; e is for ego, the individual within. The possessive, er, eliminates his/hers—hers/his (we must take care to avoid the micro-aggressions that send college students fleeing to safe spaces filled with stuffed animals and puppies). I like it and we’re going to test drive the concept in this post.
The Cold War Warrior celebrates the legacy of ordinary individuals enmeshed in an extraordinary fifty-three-year undeclared clash between the ideas of collectivism and those of individualism. By its very nature, the Cold War had a propensity to turn hot at the drop of a political hat.
Collectivism defines one extreme of a pendulum’s arc and individualism the other extreme. Human political history is written along the arc described by that pendulum. In the late 1700s the United States codified individualism into its founding documents inserting enormous creative energy into the pendulum. The struggles, donnybrooks, fits and starts of individualism were humorous and horrifying as the experiment proceeded in whether or not a nation composed of individuals could exist. Great things happened; roads, rail systems, bridges manufacturing opened the land, the middle class burgeoned, farmers fed themselves and a country took shape. Horrific things also happened; wars, takings, and social struggle.
In the 20th Century science and philosophy injected another burst of creative energy into the system. Einstein, Bohr, Picasso, Santayana, Bertrand Russel, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Wells and myriad others released a critical mass of ideas that spurred the pendulum of human history to swing through its prescribed arc with more speed than ever before. Collectivism grabbed Russia by the coattails and tossed it headlong into collectivism. Another great experiment began and spread.
Tens of millions died in the rise of collectivism, an idea and doctrine that attracts followers
with noble ideas and leaders with a penchant for evil—Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-un (with a net worth of $5 billion and a starving nation living in fear), and his daddy, Kim Jong-il to name a few. Collectivism appeals to the young and idealistic with the idea that no one is left behind because they are part and parcel of a group. The group has an identity. The group has goals. The group has rights. All achievements belong to the group. Failure is not addressed. There are no e’s because individuals have value only in the context of the group to which they belong. Except for the leader, of course. Many find solace, a sense of belonging and comfort in such an arrangement. Many others find only a prison with terrible consequences for dissent.
Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, died because leaders inured in the culture of individualism feared the spread of collectivism. Individualism, a philosophy centered about the moral worth of the individual, values individual freedom and stresses self-reliance and independence. The idea of the individual draws a diversity of people like ants, bears, bees, wolverines, and the occasional velociraptor to a honey tree. Individualism’s adherents form a diverse, sometimes raucous, and politically incorrect group who argue ideas and negotiate paths. The power hungry and war-like sit at the same table as the hermit and the poet. Individualism is messy and challenging. It’s
also a source of unending energy as the e’s spontaneously and, sometimes, curiously form alliances to achieve specific goals then, once achieved, disband to fight another day over projects like private space flights, nanotechnologies, and new ideas.
Government form and bureaucracy within a society molded around individualism can be a puzzler because the e’s ‘job’ out those services through an election process. During most election cycles, the e’s are predictable and may be modeled using the law of large numbers and other statistical algorithms. And, the day-to-day business of living goes on. Every once in a great while the e’s wake up and participate and the whole process assumes a gladiatorial fiesta atmosphere. The Circus spontaneously commences when the country is at a decision point, or at least it seems that way: Adams vs Jefferson (Federalists and Republicans); Lincoln stole his nomination from Seward at the Republican Convention; Reagan yielded to George H.W. Bush at the convention; and Bill Clinton went roaring into the White House from nowhere as people definitely did not want a Dole White House. In each case the country chose a distinctly different path in hope of a better future. The U.S. is currently reliving that cyclic drama; participants and eager spectators in another the political and populist Circus.
Another curiosity in individualism sparks a question of ‘What’ the youngish e’s think of the concept of individualism. Many are flocking to the self-described democratic socialist candidate. Where do they think they are going? The hippies of the 1960s morphed into entrepreneurs, thinkers, and doers of interesting art. The millennials will also morph, but to what? I am fortunate, although I use that word loosely, to have the benefit of two teenagers at home. One wants to raise no waves and the other challenges everything including a butterfly’s wing pattern. Curiously, neither appear to be imbued with a sense that they can do or be anything they want if they work hard enough and want it badly enough. They seem to be convinced that their options are limited no matter what path they choose; a view which baffles and disturbs me.
Many years ago adulthood loomed and I embraced it with excited optimism that the world was mine and I would grab the brass ring. I knew there were winners and losers, champions and buffoons, good guys and bad guys. It was a world filled with vibrant colors and great ideas to be explored. Failure was a definite option I exercised frequently. The expectation was that you’d get up, dust off and rush headlong back into the fray. As long as a breath is drawn success was and, I hope, is open to all.
The feeling within the U.S. has changed. More demands from more groups, people afraid to speak openly, bizarre concepts of white privilege, and fear everywhere. What’s changed? Is it perhaps the removal of the word achievement? Everyone gets a participation award (the teens at our house used to bring participation awards home and throw them into the garbage. A trophy for being the win or place team or individual they kept) and high grades must be hidden from view least someone is hurt. Everyone receives a living wage? What does that mean? I worked two jobs to rent a rotten trailer, so what? I was glad for the work and the pay sucked. Actually the pay matched my skill level-entry level at the bottom. My skill sets took time and energy to develop then I landed a real job with good money. Perhaps the concept of individual is being erased from society and in its place are labels—underprivileged, people of color, dreamers, etc. If so, the world will lose color and individual freedom will fade. The e’s of today and tomorrow will drive the future. Where do they want to go?
In musing about life, freedom, and the future, it’s important not to pine for an imperfect past. Rather, engage the vitality of the future through integrating the great prime mover, the e, into new and wonderful patterns. I am reminded of an old boxwood cast iron stove, planted solidly three feet from the bright blue walls that confine it, pumping out waves of heat. The years have turned the rich stove-black dull and surfaces have grayed where the flames licked the metal but the old stove still roars when it draws and heat pours off the to warm the room. On a cold morning, opening the wood door to feed the flames unveils the private dance of the fire sprites. Born of the deep magic in the wood that transmutes the earth’s energy to heat in death and fed by the oxygen in the air that feeds the flame, the fire sprites undulate across the flames, writhing, growing, falling and rising again in their dance of life. The sprites are mysterious, beautiful, destructive, and enigmatic.
My life, in many ways, is analogous to the dance of the fire sprite. I am who I am because of the deep magic of the people I’ve met. The oxygen in questioning, learning and adventure fed the dance and kept it alive. The old, weathered stove belies the fire that burns within and the search for all the magnificent e’s continues.