March 2006 -- Some of the most frightening images from Nazi Germany can be seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the cinematic record of the 1934 week-long party rally held in Nuremberg. In scene after scene, the metronomic synchronization of marching feet, arms angling upward in Nazi salutes, and thunderous “Seig Heils” document the transformation of 200,000 individual hearts and minds into an ant heap or termite mound—a vast, unified collective whose submission to a diseased racialist nationalism led to history’s most gruesome crimes.We would do well to remember these images of collective evil, particularly given the fashionable complaints about “rootless individualism” that continue to dominate much of our cultural conversation, from sociology to art. This indictment of individualism holds that modern, free-market, technologically sophisticated, liberal democratic societies have reduced people to insignificant “atoms” bereft of the traditional, nurturing, humane ties of “organic” communities. Certainly, Nazi ideology played on this theme, constructing a mythic Germanic Volk unified by mystic racial solidarity. This unity, the Nazis said, was threatened by the cold, fragmenting forces of modernity as embodied in the rootless Jew, who had mastered the economic mechanisms that erode the nationalist spirit and fraternal bonds of the people.
Yet this complaint is inspired as well by communist ideology. Throughout the twentieth century, Marxian cultural criticism exploited the sort of Romantic dissatisfactions with modernity expressed as early as 1802 in the Preface to Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. No matter that the next two centuries saw remarkable improvements in material existence wrought by capitalism and science, and saw individual freedom extended to millions by liberal democracy, these modern cultural critics exaggerated and dramatized the social costs of such benefits. They contrasted life in industrialized capitalist societies with a mythic golden age of pre-capitalist communal life in which the “alienation” fostered by capitalism didn’t exist and the individual was nurtured in a warm collective cocoon. Indeed, according to Marx and his followers, this communal paradise also lies at the end of history: Once private property is abolished, capitalism and the state have withered away, and people are once again united into an organic, mutually supportive whole, the needs and desires of the individual will be identical with those of the community.
So pervasive are these critical analyses that they have become received ideas found throughout social commentary and popular culture alike. In 1995, Robert Putnam made a splash with his “bowling alone” essay, which was expanded into a bestselling book of the same name. His thesis is that “the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs.” Contrasted with the Golden Age of the PTA, bowling leagues, and the Rotary Club, contemporary middle-class Americans, trapped in their isolating suburbs, are cut off from each other—mere atoms bearing the whole weight of life and meaning on their own narrow shoulders. A similar thesis dominated the 1999 movie American Beauty, which won five Oscars, though its banal anti-bourgeois prejudices were stale 150 years ago when Gustave Flaubert explored them in Madame Bovary.
It is hard to judge the accuracy of Putnam’s generalizations, based as they are on notoriously unreliable polling data and raw statistics on organization membership. And given that such complaints are as old as the poetry of Wordsworth and the novels of Flaubert, it is even more imperative that we view them with suspicion. When Putnam’s essay first came out, I had two children in grade school, and I remember thinking that my problem wasn’t a lack of “community” but too damned much of it. I was spending seemingly endless amounts of time with school, sports, and church, and with the committees of tiresome busybodies that typically dominate these activities.
In their zeal to strain out the gnat of individualism’s flaws, the idealizers of lost community swallow any number of communitarian camels. They forget the deadening conformity and petty tyranny that frequently characterize so-called “organic” communities, typically based on castes and classes that subordinate individuals to the group. Few of our modern “communitarians” really want to return to a world of invidious gossip, invasive surveillance, and oppressive conformity—a world without privacy, personal liberty, or opportunities to escape the restrictions of one’s community and the dead hand of unexamined traditions and pointless customs.
For Americans particularly, the individualism that so frets the communitarian idealizers is central to the American character. Of course, groups such as the Puritans are also important for American history and identity. But increasingly, over the last two centuries, the unique individual who pursues his own vision of the good life and his identity has defined the American character. That’s why the cowboy, that icon of individualism par excellence, occupies such an important place in our national mythology.
But long before the invention of the cowboy in the late nineteenth century, American literature was filled with characters who embodied this essential attribute of Americanism. Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo is an early embodiment of the American individualist who finds on the frontier the freedom and autonomy that are stifled by the dull routines of the village and town. But this theme is perhaps best embodied in Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, that outcast from respectable community who relies on his own energy and personal values to seek meaning in his life. Indeed, through his friendship with the runaway slave Jim, Huck ultimately challenges antebellum Southern society over one of its most fundamental beliefs: the superiority of the white race and the justice of slavery.
Along the way, of course, Huck has to resist the well-meaning but stifling forces of conformity. These are embodied most memorably in the Widder Douglas, who keeps trying to “sivilize” Huck—which is to say, restrict his individualism and autonomy and make both conform to the mediocre norms of the larger community. Huck succeeds in escaping the Widder’s efforts, finally “lighting out for the territories,” the frontier to the west where the individual has the space to pursue his own vision of the good, free from the herd that seeks to compromise his autonomy.
Huck thus is one of the great embodiments of American individualism, that force of innovation, creativity, freedom, and progress that accounts for the spectacular success of American civilization. Yet like much of the American character, this individualism has been demonized of late by no end of Widder Douglases. They wish to tame the energies of individual freedom in order to fit people into some larger vision of communal good, some utopia of perfect equality and justice, always to be challenged by the quirky, unique individual.
Hence the ideology of “communitarianism,” which gains traction by obsessing over the trade-offs and costs that necessarily follow when each person possesses his own freedom and autonomy. Yet these costs are more than outweighed by the benefits resulting from freeing the imaginations and minds of millions from the stultifying shackles of group norms and herd mentalities.
And whatever these costs, they are as nothing compared to the mountains of corpses created by the various ideologies that dissolve the individual and personal responsibility in the aims and needs of the collective. After all, you’d never get 200,000 Huck Finns to goose-step and “Seig Heil” with the mindless, robotic fervor of those Germans in Triumph of the Will.