Allan Powell: A critical debate that cries for balance

December 28, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

It is almost a certainty that the ongoing debate about the merits of individualism versus the need for a profound community spirit will not be a compelling interest for many citizens.

Such an old and subtle issue can only get a yawn. For this reason, author and well-known news commentator, E.J. Dionne Jr., deserves wild applause for dedicating a book revealing our nation’s unresolved tension between those who prefer giving recognition and honors to “rugged individuals” over praise and status to those who are committed to the bonding power of community.

In “Our Divided Political Heart,” Dionne shows the wisdom typically on display in his columns and personal appearances by not leaning “… to radical-self-reliance and self-interest but to a balance between our love of individual freedom and our devotion to community.” He is keenly aware of the tendency for clear preferences between those who marvel at tales of single knights, one of a kind Robin Hood and lone captain of industry while others prefer accounts of a village warding off a horrible disease or recovery from a massive flood. Dionne is focused on a balance of interest.

Dionne traces the periodic rise and decline of these two points of emphasis from the days of our national founding to the present political struggle to control the policies appropriate to these conflicting perspectives. It is as though one of Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion applies to this clash of values: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” There is little possibility of halting the swings. Republicans favor the individualist with Libertarians and Tea Party being on the extreme. Democrats are clearly partial to social policies intended to serve the general welfare.

In a world clustered with huge urban centers, large organizations and mobile populations, it is nearly impossible to maintain a much-needed sense of community. Sociologists describe this sense of isolation as “anomie” — a sense of drift and disconnection — and suggest ways to provide a sense of belonging.

There are models in sports and other areas of experience that demonstrate the possibility of finding balance and harmony of individualism and communitarianism. In sports such as football, we observe that even the most talented quarterback must depend on other teammates to protect him long enough to complete a pass or run for yardage.

I experienced this balance between the individual and the group as a gunner in a large sea plane in the Pacific during WWII. Each crew member stood out as an indispensable, unique contributor to the success of each mission. Pilots, navigator engineers, radiomen and gunners had a distinct role and each was a part of the team needed for survival on a massive ocean. If the navigator made a flawed calculation we would have been lost. If the radiomen made a wrong read of our radar, we could have shot at friends rather than the enemy. No one but the gunners knew how to arm the bombs or fire the .50 caliber machine guns. All individuals became a community of nine.

While a city, state, or nation is much more complex than a nine person plane crew or a slightly larger football team, the challenge is to somehow treat the individual with care and respect (while also sufficiently restrained) so that they can contribute to the whole society. It is folly to have divisive and poisonous internal conflicts over whether the whole or the part is the most significant thread in the social fabric. What is needed is a balanced view of this subtle, but significant, issue.

Dionne ends his story of the never-ending tension between individualism and the shared altruism required for a needed sense of community, with a close look at two present-day symbols of this social contest: the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement. The former is exemplified by a statement made by Rick Perry who proudly blurted out, “I’ll work every day to make Washington, D.C. as inconsequential in your life as I can.” The Occupy Wall Street movement speaks for a well-ordered community when one carried a sign declaring “Corporations Are Not people.” With such a huge chasm between these two visions of society, there does not appear to be much hope of a sorely needed balance.

Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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