Saturday, July 4, 2020


The SARS-2 coronavirus pandemic had prompted from fairly radical measures from governments worldwide as they attempt to slow or stop the spread of the disease while medical science applies itself to the task of searching for a vaccine. There has been some amount (although not as much as one might think from watching or reading the news) of pushback against such measure here in the United States, from people who cite the American values of freedom, liberty and independence as reasons to do they will.

This, in turn, has lead to a what seems to be a cottage industry of articles that seek to define (or redefine) these terms in relation to community and one's responsibilities to the community. Which I understand. When people live in communities such that an individual's actions can have consequences for the whole, there is a push for people to sublimate their individual interests in favor of those of the group.

Generally speaking, when it comes to an individual, terms like freedom, liberty and independence don't necessitate being completely cut off from groups of people. But they do mean that the associations are voluntary. And for most people, that simply isn't the case. It's exceedingly difficult for a person today to be genuinely independent of other people; the infrastructure that supports most people is expansive. And this makes it not only the work of many different individuals, but nearly impossible to truly escape. While it's not impossible to be a hermit, and create a life for oneself completely "off the grid" and self-reliant, it's a lot more difficult that it was 200 years ago.

When David Brooks set off a teapot tempest with his article "The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake," he was clear on what he felt were the advantages of an older model that offered greater social connection. What he glossed over were the reasons why people walked away from it. The piece starts with a recounting of a scene from the Barry Levinson film Avalon. "The big blowup," we are told, "comes over something that seems trivial but isn’t: The eldest of the brothers arrives late to a Thanksgiving dinner to find that the family has begun the meal without him." Said eldest brother bridles at the disrespect, and Mr. Levinson confirms to Mr. Brooks that it was, in fact, disrespectful for the family to start eating prior to the brother's arrival. Nothing is mentioned about whether it was disrespectful of the bother to not ensure that he was on time.

The American colonies sought independence from Great Britain because they felt that the relationship was one-sided. Great Britain expected its overseas holdings to meet their obligations, yet, in the eyes of the colonists, the Crown shirked its responsibilities to its faraway citizens. One expects, of course, that King George the Third and his court saw things somewhat differently.

Such is the same today. It's all fine and good to lecture people on their responsibilities to the collective. But people are going to push back against that if they believe that the collective feels no responsibility to them. Some of this is going to be inevitable, and some is going to seem distinctly unreasonable; there is always someone who's definition of "tyranny" is having the majority vote against them on where to order an expensed office lunch. But the collective ignores the discontent of its constituents at its own peril. One can imagine that Great Britain would have been much better off had it maintained the fledgling United States within the greater Commonwealth. But it is the habit of people to more attuned to what they feel they are owed than to what others may understand their debts to be. And as the United States slides further and further into factionalism, one of the side effects is that people no longer believe that the nation as a whole feels any need to look out for them. And for some, being abandoned is also a form of independence.

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