Posted by Jay Livingston
The sitcoms of my youth often featured a plot line that might be called “It’s Your Decision.” Typically, a teenager, though sometimes a younger child, faces some moral dilemma:
- go out with the handsome football player even though it means breaking a previous commitment to your best friend?
- help your friend keep his drug use a secret or betray him and let grown-ups know about it?
- take the offer of a wonderful summer in a villa on the Riviera with a rich friend or stay home and help out the family, who really need you right now?
Despite this disclaimer, the parent's desires are quite obvious, and the child, no surprise here, always winds up making the right decision. (And, this being American TV, after the child makes the right decision, some deus ex machina Hollywood ending removes the cost of the decision. It turns out that her friend had always wanted her to go out with the football player anyway and has brought him along; the rich friend invites the whole family to the Riviera, etc.)
I was reminded of this plot-line when I started reading Claude Fischer’s new blog, Made in America,* a companion to his new book of the same name. In his most recent post, he takes on the question of American individualism. The post is a response to a right-wing song of praise to American exceptionalism by conservatives Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru writing in the National Review. America, they say, is “freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth.”
Is it? Fischer provides some data from international surveys showing that when you compare the US to some of these other nations, we’re not always the most individualistic. Given a choice between individual conscience on the one hand and the law on the other, Americans are nowhere near the top in choosing individual conscience. In other hypothetical conflicts – individual vs. country, individual vs. marital norms, individual vs. conventional morality – several European countries are more on the side of the individual than are Americans. In fact, in all these cases, less than half of us put the individual ahead of the group. (See all of the Claude’s graphs here.)
Fischer offers some ways to explain the apparent contradiction, and the one he seems to favor is that America combines individualism with “voluntarism.”
Voluntarism is about being part of a community, but belonging voluntarily. Americans have long held that people can and should join or leave groups – families, congregations, clubs, townships, and so on – of their individual free will.But once you voluntarily join a group, you must play by its rules. “Love it or leave it.”
I’ve commented elsewhere in this blog that a substantial part of the right wing in the US applies this ethic only to Democrats, not to themselves. When conservatives are in power, they see dissent as disloyalty (“Love it or leave it”), but when Obama is president, dissent (i.e., their dissent) becomes the higher patriotism).
Fischer’s formulation resolves the apparent contradiction between our professed love of liberty and our conformity, but only if you recognize that the voluntarism isn't really all that voluntary. As de Tocqueville noted 170 years ago
I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be advocated and propagated abroad. . . . .In America the majority raises very formidable barriers to the liberty of opinion: within these barriers an author may write whatever he pleases, but he will repent it if he ever step beyond them. (DIA, Vol. 2, Ch. XV.)O.K. I know de Tocqueville seems like a long way from Cosby. But here’s my point. Other cultures – especially stable, aristocracy-like cultures – allow the individual a wide range of opinions and behaviors. They can tolerate eccentricity because the group is certain that the individual will never defect. He will always be a member of his class or his family. But in America, affiliation is voluntary and therefore not necessarily permanent. Because of our ideology of individual freedom, we must worry that the person who does not love the group might well leave it. So we must be on guard against anything that hints at deviation from the group's norms.
The more efficient solution is socialization -- to instill in people both the desire to conform and the idea that their choices are their own and not influenced by the group. That's basically the message of Cosby and the other sitcom parents.**
As David McClelland,*** years ago, put it, the American is saying to himself, “I want to freely choose to do what others expect me to do.”
It’s your decision.
* Hat tip: Chris Uggen.
** Not all sitcom parents are like Cosby. We also have the sitcom tradition of dad-as-buffoon, a TV line that extends back from Homer Simpson to Chester Riley. It probably has roots in radio and even earlier media.
*** I’m pretty sure that Claude Fischer began his graduate studies in Harvard’s Social Relations department when McClelland was on the faculty there, but I somehow doubt that their paths crossed very often.