There is a pestilence on this land, a cancerous, festering philosophy that threatens the future of the country. It is not al-Qaeda, dear friends, nor is it necessarily the province of the major political parties. For lack of a better term I am referring to this plague as the American cult of individuality.
This is the worship of the individual, a sort of self-deification in which adherents believe that their lives are immeasurably more important than others. These are the people who demand that they receive their birthday off from work, or who wait until they reach the service counter before they begin to collect their thoughts about their transaction. I am not writing about our cherished individual freedoms or human rights, but rather the rise of the individual as the Alpha and Omega of human existence, and the sole focus of one's daily efforts.
Part of this cult is driven by our consumerist society, as music, fashion, and technology capitalize on self-worship to move merchandise. Yet the cult of individuality has roots deeper than Madison Avenue, and even deeper than the rise of capitalism, which Marxists sometimes blame for the evolution of self-worship.
I would wager as I look back across several millennia of human history that the problem of narcissism is a recurrent one, and we trace the etymology of this phenomenon to the Greek myth of Narcissus. Of course, the Greeks were wise enough to recognize that self-worship is a destructive force to both the self and to society.
Yet in American society we seem to have have lost the balance between the individual and the community, and my perception is that each of the most recent generations has shown an increasing atomization and self-absorption. We wander around in our own isolated iPod worlds, wearing expensive clothes that are supposed to highlight our uniqueness (but which demonstrate we are slaves to fashion), and look upon communal activities as a drain upon our oh-so-important self-time. Mass transit? Hell no! Give us eight cylinders and the biggest freaking truck we can buy, because the individual is king in the United States.
And everyone has to have a blog. Ahem.
The height of the cult of the individual might be exemplified by a recent driving experience on Secor Road in Michigan. While driving on this stretch of rural highway, I came upon a slow-moving vehicle whose driver appeared to be fumbling for a CD. After a few moments of driving 10-15 miles below the 45-mph speed limit, I decided to pass the car.
Yes, I too was in a hurry, and I am as prone to the cult of the individual as the next shlep, so turn the blinding quoizel lighting my way.
The driver of the car in front of me, in a fit of hyper-testosteronity, took offense to the fact that he was about to be passed by a 4-cylinder Hyundai, and floored his accelerator. Not wishing to play with the self-absorbed twit, I slowed down, but Mr. Racey-Boy wanted to demonstrate that HE was in control, and he slowed to match my speed.
I speed up, he speeds up. I slow down. He slows down. Speed up. Slow down. The game continued for him for almost a half-mile before an oncoming vehicle necessitated that I come to a complete stop and let him get ahead. Not exactly a white-knuckle moment for me, but unnerving enough, and I am too old to be getting into road-rage incidents with self-absorbed idiots.
And until I see otherwise, I remain convinced that this uniquely American cult of individuality looms over this nation like a portentous storm cloud, poised to undermine - through our obsession with the self - the collective strengths we have demonstrated so many times in the past.