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A New American Individualism

By Noah I. Dauber

The image of American individualism is changing from the lone cowboy on the range to the lone parent at a Promise Keeper gathering. New York Times reporter Michael Janofsky describes this tendency in Monday's "At Mass Events, Americans Looking to One Another." Citing the recent Million Woman March to Philadelphia, the gathering of the Promise Keepers and the Million Man March, Janofsky argues that the mass events of today "propose solutions based on changing the individual rather than changing government policy." Throughout the piece, Janofsky stresses the role of the individual in these mass movements.

In the 60s, mass meetings were directed at broad political goals like civil rights and the ending of the Vietnam War. But today, Janofsky explains, many Americans have lost faith in the ability of the government to make life better. These mass events are symbols of a newfound belief that the responsibility for social change stops at the individual. Instead of lobbying to change government policy, we should look within ourselves, repent, and change our lives for the better. This, Janofsky concludes, is the message of these recent mass events.

Janofsky's analysis is not intuitive. Mass meetings seem by definition to be anti-individualistic. We expect the individual to feel lost at a million person gathering, not affirmed. As one observer of the Promise Keepers, feminist scholar Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, put it in The Washington Post: "All of this amounts to a concern about the excesses of individualism in our country...It's trying to bring men into a more communitarian mind-set, where they are connected to churches and families."

If Janofsky's interpretation is on the mark--if these marches and gatherings are about individual responsibility--why do they take the form of mass gatherings? Individual responsibility, we are told, usually melts away in crowds. This is the famous "bystander effect." If one person witnesses a tragedy he or she is more likely to act than if a whole crowd witnesses it.

We might ask whether this talk of individual responsibility is not just rhetoric, a cover meant to make Americans comfortable receiving morality "from above." For, if individual responsibility were the order of the day, we might expect it to take another form. We can imagine tortured fathers and overworked mothers sitting late into the night at kitchen tables all over the country, hoping they had done right by their children.

There is something heroic in this domestic image. Alone in the dark, facing his fears, the modern-day parent is a rugged individual of a new sort. We would be wrong to think of this sort of person as an unreflective suburbanite, locked into pre-fab group-think. While we may not ride out into the sunset alone anymore, there is a contemporary heroic individualism that deserves our respect.

But what is individualistic about a Million Man March or a Promise Keepers' gathering? There is none of the melodrama to it that we associate with introspection or life-changing decision-making. We tend to think of individual choices as private choices, made in the security of our homes or in close conversation. It is hard to imagine resolving to be a good dad at a rock concert.

Thinking of these mass events as symbols of individuality requires a change in our thinking. We must first acknowledge that the place of individual action has changed. Most of us cannot hope to change the world by ourselves; even progress in the arts and sciences is becoming a group affair. For many of us, important individual action will be limited to the sphere of family life and morality. Our work may be valued by others, but for the most part, it will only be in our private lives that our actions as individuals will be irreplaceable.

Yet, such individual action is extremely difficult. This shunting of the place of individual action into the realm of moral and family life should not be viewed as a descent. Some, if not many, individuals may be better suited to other activities. They may be funny but not courageous, clever but not generous. However, whether they will it or not, these individuals now find that it is their conduct at home and in church that matters.

The recent mass events understand this difficulty. They serve as support groups and even as communities. Their aim, however, is to help the individual with his actions. It would be a mistake to think of these gatherings as undifferentiated communitarian blobs. These people, when the marches are over, have to return home and make their choices alone, one at a time.

Noah I. Dauber's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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