Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Our Subversive Individualism

I'm reading Francis Fukuyama's Trust, and there's a fabulous chapter where he compares the individualism of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism with the east Asian Confucian tradition.

Confucianism puts a big weight on conforming to society, particularly to the elders in the family.

But US Protestantism is radically individualistic. It began by cutting out the mediating position of the Catholic Church; now believers could have a direct relationship with God with no human gatekeepers in between.

In the long run, the individual's ability to have a direct relationship with God had extremely subversive consequences for all social relationships, becaue it gave individuals a moral ground to rebel against even the most broadly established traditions and social conventions.

Yet, Americans, freed from conformity, actively seek out voluntary relations in our famous aptitude for voluntary associations. So, in a way, by freeing us from the age-old obligations of being born into an existing social world, our individualism frees us to be freely social.

Here's an example of this working out in practice, with the American Thinker's recovering liberal, Robin of Berkeley. She notes how she has always been a perfectionist, ever since her mother threatened to withhold her love.

This is my first childhood memory, a hazy image seared into my brain: I am in my bedroom at around age 5 with my mother, having just done something naughty. My mother explodes, "If you keep doing things like that, I won't love you anymore."

Night after night, I cried myself to sleep, overwhelmed with despair at this potential tragedy. It didn't seem humanly possible to survive without her love.

Robin solved the fear of being cast out into loveless isolation by becoming a perfectionist. "I became an anxious adult, a pleaser, someone who bent over backwards not to offend." It meant, of course, that to make a mistake was always an appalling trauma.

Until now, until the scales fell off her eyes when Obama became president.

Recently, Robin made a mistake in one of her articles. But it wasn't a matter of life and death any more. Now she could ask God for forgiveness.

I realized this: it doesn't matter ultimately what any person thinks of me. I am living my life before an audience of One. And in the end, it is only His judgment that matters.

It is a profound mystery that, in her life as a liberal, Robin of Berkeley was imprisoned in a cruel world where there was no redemption except through liberalism. But the liberal priests never quite offer their congregants absolution and redemption. Certainly not Obama.

The extraordinary power of Protestant individualism is that, by loosening the age-old bonds of social conformity, it liberates us from our personal demons and empowers us, most of all in these United States, to open our hearts and enter into voluntary friendly social association with the whole world.

What a country.

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