Last night we were watching an episode of The Man in the High Castle, in which the Obergruppenführer explains to his son why an individual who thinks independently is doomed to failure. He explains why the group is all, why motivation from outward sources is the only valid motivation. It became obvious that an examination of the two worldviews, one predicated on the heroic individual and the other on the glorious group, was the whole motivation for the creation of this series. The writer wanted to follow each to its logical conclusion.
I have always thought of the sublimation of the individual to the group as a distinctly Eastern cultural norm, because we see it in various Asian cultures. The fact that it is articulated in this series by a Nazi, then, is striking, because the Nazis are the opposite of Eastern. What occurred to me last night, while I watched this, is that the focus on the group is not about East-West. It’s about tribalism.
Which brings us to the push-pull of the individual vs the tribe within America.
The American archetype is the cowboy, the rugged individual. Why is that? Within America, we have all sorts of enclaves, particularly on the coasts, where immigrants came not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, and they bonded together in little communities. So for instance, New England is replete with towns or neighborhoods that contain a predominance of one ethnic group or another, from the English Puritans to the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Poles, the Portuguese, the blacks, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Puerto Ricans, the Guatemalans. At first, the group takes care of itself. You need to go to a doctor, you go to someone in your group. You need a job, you look for someone in your group. Over the decades, these ethnic groups shift, so as one ethnic group assimilates, it literally splits up. The children or grandchildren leave the self-imposed ghetto to go live and work amongst the Others. Another ethnic group comes in, occupies the same cheap apartments, the same cheap houses, and the cycle begins again. And the children who leave to be amongst the Others, they’re on their own, but they still have their connections to the previous generation. They have to navigate the tension between the Tribe and the Self. They are a battleground.
You might ask, why do we have this archetype in America, why do the Europeans think Americans are cowboys? I would say it comes down to all the westerns on 1950s television, but you have to ask, why did the medium of the western become so popular? And why, as it persists in variations of the gunslinger in space, the gunslinger against zombies, the gunslinger against criminals, why is this cultural archetype so central to Americans?
It has to do with history — the US was populated by the riffraff of the rest of the world. The poor, the dispossessed, the hunted, those cut off from their communities. Some gathered in groups and some went into the wilderness to be alone.
But those ethnic groups who gathered together also spawn off their “cowboys”. It has to do with neoliberalism and the economic destruction of small businesses. The generation who has to leave home to make a living is without backup. Part of American identification with the lone individual has to do both with assimilation and with the economic breakdown of community.
I am reminded of Earl Butz’s mantra to the agricultural industry, “Get big or get out,” that dates from 1971. The push to corporatism has been going on for more than 40 years, not just in agriculture but across the economy. Corporatism killed mom-and-pop businesses, and in the process destroyed the economic viability of the ethnic enclave. It encouraged a different kind of tribalism, loyalty to the corporation. Some corporations have had a notion of a social contract, a duty to provide for the workers who helped grow the business. However, over time this social contract has been eroded by the profitability of raiding pension funds and replacing labor with cheaper foreign workers, or with software and robotics. So the individual, who may have thought he was part of a group, finds that he was on his own all along.
As we find ourselves corralled into cities and into isolation, new groups appear. The growth of religious fundamentalism has a lot to do with the lure of instant community. The growth of online groups and social media is a symptom of the loneliness of the heroic individual, out there fighting every day for survival and sanity, fighting without backup.
People are looking for backup. Even André the Giant has a posse.
You even see the breakdown of the group within families, because automation and global competition have eroded the purchasing power of the salary to such an extent that both parents must work. Some have time to prepare a meal but many do not. Some have time to eat together but many do not. The family becomes an aggregation of individuals; it is no longer a group.
Much has been written, and rightly so, about the tyranny of the group. Groups enforce groupthink, which is the price of solidarity. Some people are willing to pay that price. Some are not. People to whom individual thought comes naturally may find that it is simply not possible for them to conform to a group, that it requires too much acting, too much hiding. But people who fit into the group, for whom group membership is effortless, get to enjoy all manner of support that comes from having allies.
This is what the Obergruppenführer was referring to. Unity is strength.
To some people, freedom of thought is nothing desirable. If you think your own thoughts, if you make your own choices, you could choose wrong. As Laurie Anderson said, “Freedom is a scary thing. Most people don’t really want it.”
Just tell me what to think. Tell me what is acceptable to think. I’ll think whatever you want, just don’t make me go out there and fight on my own.
Right now the US is in the middle of a battle between the group and the individual. A pattern has emerged whereby individual liberties are being snuffed out state by state. It is the effort of the group to enforce thought conformity. It is, essentially, corporatism of the culture.
Get big or get out.
What’s a cowboy to do?