• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

The jerk who opened fire in a Jewish community day care center in
Granada Hills near Los Angeles this week apparently did turn out to have
been affiliated with a couple of white-supremacist groups that can with
some accuracy be described as hate groups with a history of proclivity
toward violence. But it didn’t take that confirmation for the hue and
cry over “hate crimes” and a renewed call for more gun control to fill
the media.

There are plenty of defenders of the Second Amendment to engage those
who think more laws to deal with an incident in which the perpetrator
had already broken numerous existing gun laws offer a hopeful approach
to the continuing tendency of the human species to kill one another.
Although if rational argument were the criterion for consideration of
new public policies, the outcry for more gun control would not be heard
or amplified; so it is probably necessary to continue to engage the
controllers. It might be helpful, however, to consider changing our
myths about race.

I use the term “myth” not in the sense of a statement known to be
false, but in the sense used by literary scholars. A myth, like the
stories of Homer or some in the Bible, doesn’t need to be literally
true to express certain essential truths in a poetic or metaphoric
fashion that often hits home more effectively than an argument in the
form of a geometric proof. Most successful societies in human history
have to some extent been built on such myths, which can give substance
to important core values, express beliefs about human nature or make a
case for a society’s legitimacy. Whether the Adam and Eve story is
literally true or not, it expresses key truths about what kind of
creatures human beings are. Few ancient Romans probably believed that
two brothers named Romulus and Remus were actually raised by wolves, but
the story gave emotional coherence to the idea of Rome as a society with
some legitimacy to its legal and territorial claims.

We used to adhere more closely in this country to the myth of
individualism. Few ever believed that it meant every person was utterly
autonomous, always rugged, entirely self-sufficient and in need of
nothing from fellow human beings. Instead, it stressed the inherent
dignity of every human being, his or her right to make decisions for
himself or herself, and the importance not only of defending one’s own
rights but also of treating other human beings with respect and dignity.
True individualists saw no contradiction between individualism and
communitarianism, as some modern commentators prefer to see; they knew
that aside from the rare person inclined toward the life of a
hermit, most people thrive best in and need genuine communities. But the
communities were to be based on the concept or myth of individual
liberty and mutual respect.

The reigning paradigm of individualism as applied to race suggests
that race doesn’t matter or at least doesn’t matter very much. In a
sense, that’s obviously not quite true. One’s race is an important
aspect of one’s individuality, and insofar as some people think it is
important, it is. But an individualist views race as a potentially
important but essentially secondary characteristic as compared with
whether somebody else shares your spiritual, philosophical and social
values. An individualist would claim to desire to move beyond race and
to judge people (if they are to be judged) on more important
characteristics such as whether they work to provide for their
families, like classical or country music or treat others decently. An
individualist also insists that individual people bear responsibility
for the consequences of their own actions rather than being able to fob
off responsibility on society as a whole or some other group.

In its earliest manifestations, the American civil rights movement
was rooted in the individualist myth. Martin Luther King’s “I have a
dream” speech, with its plea that people be judged by the content of
their character rather than by the color of their skin, is a classic
restatement, quite self-consciously so, of this ancient and humane
American individualism. But policies like affirmative action and quotas
represent an abandonment of the individualist myth and a reversion
(though some insist on calling it a progression) to groupism or
tribalism. A person is to be judged (at least before certain
manifestations of the law) first and foremost as a member of an ethnic
or racial group and only secondarily as an individual human being with
talents, hopes and aspirations that are unique to him or her.

Hate groups like Aryan Nations or The Order embrace this groupist or
tribalist concept of humanity. They might begrudgingly acknowledge that
there are differences among Jews or black people, but the important
thing is to view them first and foremost as members of a group, to be
despised accordingly. Far from rejecting this atavistic way of looking
at humankind, most (not all) establishment “civil rights” groups buy
into it enthusiastically, simply claiming that groups of people who have
been subject to systematic hate in the past (as many have) are now
entitled to favors or special treatment based primarily on their skin
color or ethnicity.

So what has the gradual conversion to ethnically based politics
brought us? Far from promoting harmony it has encouraged increased
hostility. Americans are prodded into thinking of “us” and “them” based
on well, not quite irrelevant but at least secondary or tertiary
characteristics like where one’s grandparents were born. Human
motivations are too complex to declare that the Granada Hills shooter
performed his hateful deed because he bought into groupism and rejected
individualism although the evidence is that was at least part of the
reason. But his action was not that of a responsible individualist.

I submit that sliding into groupism or tribalism in racial and ethnic
matters has proven disastrous for America. Before we can crawl out of
the hole various leaders have made for us, we must begin to recognize
that a massive turn undertaken voluntarily, one person at a time away
from the tendency to view oneself and others primarily as members of
some arbitrary (and scientifically speaking most really are arbitrary)
ethnic or racial group is more important to healing than new laws or new
controls.

In practice, without much consciousness that they are, most Americans
perform as individualists. People of different racial or ethnic groups
might tend to group themselves together, but most of us reach out across
those lines as well, creating friendships, clubs and marriages around
more important characteristics. That’s potentially healthy. But I think
we need a more wide-ranging discussion on what American individualism
really means, followed with any luck by a more conscious embrace of
individualism, liberty and a commitment to mutual respect as the values
that have a chance of uniting Americans (without making them clones)
across superficial barriers.

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.