Sunday, June 25, 2006

Summer Rerun

Lone Runner

[Reprinted from August 2004]

The Greeks host the Olympics again. Ancient athletes raced and fought naked; the modern ones gathered now in Athens wear clothes advertising the official sponsors. The ancient Greeks, we are told, would be scandalized.

But athletic endorsements happen when athlete and clothing maker angle for a profit off each other. Each obeys the logic of economic individualism. And individualism is a Greek legacy -- an Athenian legacy -- to Western culture.

Individualism defines the West, both to Western and non-Western eyes. In a sociological analysis from 1989, of 50 countries, the top 20 scores in the "individualism" index included all the Western states except Portugal plus Israel.

Individualism is the dynamo that drives disparate expressions of Western culture, from eco-feminist performance art to plutocratic wealth-hoarding. Separation of church and state, the rule of law, social pluralism, representative government, all these hallmarks of Western civilization either define or protect the individual's autonomy from collective power. "Equal rights" is the most advanced expression of individualism. Not only do individuals have rights, the all have them alike, regardless of personal qualities.

These are the gifts we come bearing, like a combative Santa Claus, to non-Western civilizations that have been steeped in collective folkways for millenia. Individualism ranks high on the list of what is universalism to the West and imperialism to the rest.

Islam is communal. To it, American-style individualism looks amoral and unethical. This is true in other world cultures as well (Confucianism, for instance), but Islam presents a particular challenge to America at the moment. Islam is based from beginning to end on the idea of Unity (tawhid), both of God and the Islamic community (ummah). In sermons, speeches, and publications, radical, mainstream, and even Western Muslims reject American-style individualism as extreme and dangerous, and contrast it unfavorably to Islamic communalism.

"Islam's spirit dictates Muslim life in a way that Muslims are prepared even to die for others, rather to live selfishly for oneself. Here lies the root historic reason of Islam's lightning success of winning people's heart in its hey days. Self-centred nature and the concept of 'individualism' has very little to do in a caring and compassionate society. These are departures from basic human qualities and make a society avaricious and dangerously competitive. They are the features of materialistic societies where human beings vie with each other to endure and triumph." [from a British-based site,]

There is no appropriate native word in Arabic or Persian to translate "individualism" (my Persian dictionary renders it with an awkward compound word that means literally "freedom of self").

An individualist need not be an egoist. The ancient Olympics lacked team sports. Athletes strove for personal glory, but that glory was wrapped up in communal identity. The physical prizes awarded were symbolic: the winner of each event at the Isthmian games, for instance, got a crown of dry celery. The real prize was in the adulation of his home state. During triumphant celebrations of their return home, victors at the games were showered with honors and privileges. Their cities voted them free meals for the rest of their lives, or set up statues in their honor.

The whole concept of physical fitness, today such a vanity, was then a civic duty. Sparta was the extreme example, but even in Athens young men and old men spent a good deal of their waking hours at the gyms. His strength was the state's: Every Athenian man under 60 could be called up for military service at a moment's notice, as a hoplite or a marine or an oarsman.

In ancient Greek culture the extended family was the basic unit of society and civic morality was tied to kinship. It was the genius of Athens eventually to break this in the name of individualism. "[T]he liberation of the individual from the bonds of clan and family is one of the major achievements of Greek rationalism, and one for which the credit must go to Athenian democracy." [E.R. Dodds].

Athens had its own recurring athletic festival -- the Panathenaea. No crown of celery for the winners at the Panathenaea games: lavish awards were handed out to the top five finishers in every contest. The winner of the boys' footrace, for instance, got jars containing 1,944 liters of olive oil -- a small fortune at the time. Even at the Olympics, Athenians injected an element of individualism that other Greeks found vulgar. In 416 B.C. Alcibiades, the brilliant and scheming Athenian aristocrat, personally entered seven chariots in the Olympics and took first, second and fourth prizes, "winning, as he claimed, glory for his city, but also popularity and prestige for himself." [Bernard Knox]

The tension between individualism and communalism probably is as deep as human nature. Each culture finds its balance. In some -- medieval Europe and Islam -- the collective ethos prevails. In others -- ancient Athens, modern America -- individualism rules.

The birth of modern individualism coincides almost exactly with the rediscovery of classical Greek (mainly Athenian) civilization in the Renaissance. Petrarch, in the 14th century, decided to climb a mountain for the sheer personal gratification of getting to the top --

To-day I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum. My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer

-- and some people say that "humanism" began on that day (though men had climbed mountains before and it's not at all clear Petrarch was much of a humanist). Since then, Westerners have circled the globe, scouting out the highest mountains and getting to the top of them (or dying in the attempt). Locals in the Andes or the Himalayas could have done that. Perhaps some did, but they earned no immortal glory in their cultures for it. The drive to do something like that came from the individual Western mind's yen to be the first.

Individualism is a general Western quality, but it is taken to its extreme in America. Some immigrants came over as groups, in communities, but by and large the United States is a nation of people who defined themselves as individualists by the very act of pulling up their roots and crossing the ocean to a new world.

Hamilton and other founders in the 1780s fretted over this quality in the people. To these men, ancient Athens was an anti-model: reckless, mob-ruled, excessively democratic and perpetually at the mercy of the next Alcibiades. Their models were rather Sparta and the Roman republic. They sought to tutor young America in the classical public virtues: firmness, courage, endurance, industry, frugal living, strength, and unremitting devotion to the weal of the public's corporate self.

Yet there never was a Golden Age of classical virtues in America, unpolluted by greed. A force was afoot in America -- Renaissance humanism, honed by Enlightenment rationalism -- and it steeled the new nation with naked materialism and acquisitive individualism.

If the founders had not read Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville directly, they were familiar with their ideas, filtered through popular writers and poets like Pope ("Essay on Man"). In this model, prosperity depended on free individuals acting freely in their self-interest. Greed is good. Self-interested individuals promote the interests of the whole society more effectively than they would if they really tried to promote it.

Millions endeavouring to supply
Each other's Lust and Vanity ...
Thus every Part was full of Vice,
Yet the whole Mass a Paradise.

[Mandeville, "The Fable of the Bees," 1705]

Smith put it more scientifically, but not less clearly.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their own advantages.

The individualist need not be an egoist -- but the egoist always is an individualist. DeTocqueville saw individualism as a peculiar vice of democracies. "Egoism sterilizes the seeds of every virtue; individualism at first only drains the springs of public virtues, but in the long run it attacks and destroys all the others too and finally merges into egoism."

America's great wars in the past century have been against collectivist societies that formed in revulsion against Western individualism -- Prussian militarism, Nazi fascism, and Soviet communism. These were imperfect secular expressions of the socialist ideal. Now the United States faces a more permanent, functional collective power in Islam.

Even where they seem to be alike, the two cultures differ. Both the United States and the Muslim ummah were slave-owning cultures, for instance. But under Islam, those who serve the faith, by scholarship or soldiering, enjoyed greater prestige than those who merely made money. Thus in Muslim lands there was no plantation system, no masses of agricultural slaves gathered for the sake of raising cash crops. Slaves in the ummah served as cooks, porters, concubines, soldiers. This hardly means Islam was kinder, of course: a slave is a slave, and being a eunuch in a harem or a family sex toy is hardly better than being a field hand.

The tension between individual and collective priorities drives much of the debate between "conservatives" and "liberals" in modern America and spikes it with venom. The split is hardly absolute. Many liberals are solid individualists, and certain modern conservatives, notably in the Russell Kirk school, believe unbridled free market individualism can be a disaster, destructive of those institutions that must be conserved.

But the identification of America's uniqueness in the world with its individualistic qualities made it easy for the anti-communists who battled collectivism in the Cold War to slip into battle with the extremists in the Islamic ummah when they attacked the U.S. Old foes with new faces. On the other side, the Lenins and the bin Ladens marked America as their enemy for the same reason. Bad enough, in the eyes of the Islamists, that we practice this decadence. Far worse that we export it into their holy space.

The running battle over individualism allows people in the West to swallow a certain illogic in their positions. Liberals, perhaps reflexively opposing an anti-collectivist U.S., align themselves as allies or apologists for the utterly il-liberal Taliban. And social conservatives wave the flag for relentless war on Islamist clerics whose critique of America's decadence is almost identical to that of the social conservatives.

Ultimately, though Bush is right, whether he knows it or not: rights, liberties, freedoms, are the things "they hate us for," because these things spring from the supremacy of the individual, above the collective or the communal, in American culture.

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