I traveled by Amtrak to Philadelphia this weekend, in the quiet car, surrounded by others who were quietly reading, writing, and doing crosswords. And for good reason. The spectacle of humanity I usually encounter while traveling is anything but quiet. The way I got onto the train was another spectacle of humanity—by pushing my way through a crowd of people, each pushing the other, making our way to the gate like a herd of cattle. A man fell in the confusion and barely anyone took notice or stopped to help, myself included. So I rode the entire way to Philadelphia feeling guilt and hope. I hoped that he made it onto the train alright.
Why didn't I stop or try to help him? was the question on my mind. I can make plenty of excuses for this sort of behavior, but in the end none of them cut to the heart of the real reason. I suspect the real reason is the same for almost everyone who neglects to help in similar situations, and it's difficult to admit without making an excuse:
If I stopped, I wouldn't have made it onto the train ahead of the crowd.
We always want to get ahead of the crowd. Our society is built that way. The ones who make it to the front have their choice of the best—the best colleges to attend, jobs to be considered for, homes to buy, land to build on, seats to pick from on a crowded Amtrak train... And pushing to get there usually means hardening ourselves to be comfortable with dropping our concern for others.
I read an excessively long article in The New Republic the other day about our new libertarian age. "Americans call it Democratic Capitalism, and they are delighted with it. Europeans call it Neoliberalism, and they are unhappy with it," the article said. But, delighted? I, for one American, am not. I've learned that I'll do what's necessary to advance, but it's certainly not always a delight.
This problem of rampant extreme individualism is one that's easily solved. I love the recent upswing of User Experience Design because it suggests that a switch in operations and design is all that's needed. Ticketing assigned seats and redesigning the boarding system and areas at Penn Station would easily solve the specific problem I experienced while boarding. Make it so people don't need to compete so much and give them a system that gets them through the line in an orderly way. No one falls down, everyone gets a seat, and no one has lost any individual rights in the process. So why can't we work to design a society that operates this way? Why is it so hard for the few to concede their perceived "awesomeness" for the good of the masses?
I want to be careful here, because I think it's important to let people know that they're special, cared-for, that they matter. We all matter. We're all special. We're all unique. We're all free to be who or what we want. But holding these opinions does no good when we allow ourselves to be of the mind that we're more free to be who or what we want than another. Or when we view others as nothing more than a means to achieving our own end. Or value the objects and land that we possess more than we value each other.
Civil rights laws were put in place for this very reason. It's the basis of the social justice progressives fight for. And when we live in a country whose founding document states that "all men are created equal", it's incredibly hard to understand why some men and women still aren't treated equally.
Individualism and profit from others' loss is ingrained in U.S. history, though. Instead of government reparations for slavery and aid for a war-torn South after the Civil War, we had a Presidential assassination, a Reconstruction fraught with turmoil, and "Carpetbaggers" and "Scalawags", for example. So we're not talking about anything new. We're talking about the status quo.
On top of our constant desire to outdo each other, deep down we are a terribly frightened society. Because why should anyone trust another when nearly everyone is out to get ahead, most by any means within the law necessary, and some by any means at all necessary?
I've been fascinated by libertarianism recently because it seems to have drawn more public appeal, although it's not entirely clear that the public fully understands the ideology. A quick search pulled a trove of information that lead me to this understanding:
Libertarianism is an ideology based on innate individual freedom. True libertarians don't seem to stray from a linear following of their dogmatic views, which boil down to the belief that individual property rights trump human rights and a bizarre neglect to understand the real-world consequences of establishing a modern society that operates on such freedom. Consequences like child labor (to impose laws against it would infringe on parental rights), and racism (to impose civil rights laws would infringe on the individual's rights), and discrimination (to impose regulations would infringe on the rights of private business owners).
Sounds like a wet dream for hate groups, selfish people and Machiavellian free-market capitalists the world over; and a modern-world recipe for disaster to me. Like Marxism many parts of the ideology itself sound interesting, but real-world application would lead to a host of unacknowledged problems.
The reality? Libertarianism is a model for a society full of people who care very little for anything other than themselves and their own interests. When an ideology becomes dogmatic and extreme, and threatens to control a society—whether, for example, it be Islamism, Christianity, Marxism or Libertarianism—that's when trouble arises.
I saw another one of those ridiculous Lincoln commercials featuring Matthew McConaughey today. It ended with the actor stating, “It’s not about huggin’ trees. It’s not about bein’ wasteful, either. Just gotta find that balance. Where taking care of yourself takes care of more than just yourself. That’s the sweet spot."
This feels like the new American motto. Something that in reality is akin to logic that goes like this:
My avocados are draining a South American community's drinking water? That's no problem as long as I'm willing to pay extra for those avocados so the farmers can make enough money to keep producing them. I'm taking care of my body by eating avocados and the farmers by paying them extra because they're running out of water.
And just like that, draining a community of its drinking water, along with a treasure trove of other questionable acts, can seem perfectly acceptable.
Here's my McConaughey monologue:
It's time we ask ourselves what kind of world we want our children growing up in—one where nature and humanity are valued above possessions and money, or one where possessions and money are valued above nature and humanity. It's our choice. Let's be thoughtful enough to make it wisely.