Extreme Individualism was dead. Even Economics, the most individualistic of Social Sciences, knew that it was dead. But Abandoner Screwage didn’t. (“Abandoner´s” real name was “Abner,” a Tea Partier who attended Sarah Palin rallies in a Medicare-supplied “Hoverround,” along with hundreds of others similarly equipped, like a confused geriatric biker gang).
Abandoner saw the ghost of Extreme Individualism everywhere, as if it were alive and well. He saw it in a century-old non-empirical Austrian economic philosophy and in a century-old poorly written and conceived novel expressing an adolescent superiority complex. He saw it in his caricature of the American Constitution, and in fabricated economic principles that no living economist actually adhered to. He saw it in his door knocker, heard it ringing all his bells (like a drunken hunchback defecting from another novel of the same era), filling his dreams with the slack-jawed stupidity of blind fanaticism.
But Abandoner didn’t realize that Extreme Individualism itself knew that it was dead, and that it wanted Abandoner to know it as well. For the Ghost of Extreme Individualism was ashamed of itself, and longed only for peaceful oblivion.
Extreme Individualism’s Ghost clanked its chains in Abandoner’s 3000 square feet of well-apportioned and larded living space that Abandoner knew he deserved by being born into an affluent family (or by being fortunate in other ways, but never primarily by the mythological “merit” with which he always rationalized the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity as inherently just, in much the same way that landed aristocracy had in centuries gone by). The Ghost passed through the door into Abandoner’s room, howling and rattling and moaning, and in general giving Abandoner that warm fuzzy feeling of being favored by a dead and discredited idea.
But the Ghost of Extreme Individualism was repentant, and introduced itself to Abandoner by declaring the error of its, and his, ways.
“Business!” the Ghost cried. “Mankind was my business! The common good was my business!” The Ghost looked out the window and saw the misery that it and its past adherents (now moaning specters floating through the air) had wrought, all tortured by their inability to work toward instituting the public policies that would help alleviate that suffering, the policies that they had all so rancorously opposed in life.
“You will be visited by three spirits,” Extreme Individualism’s Ghost told Abandoner. “The first will come when the clock strikes one. The second when the clock strikes two. And the third when the clock strikes three. Heed their lessons well, Abandoner!”
Abandoner fell asleep trembling at the thought that his beloved dead and discredited ideology had turned on him, and awoke at the stroke of one to find himself confronted by the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Past. The spirit was simultaneously old and ageless, quiet and strong, unpresuming and relentlessly imposing. But it was filled with sorrow and regret, for it knew that ages of suffering that it had failed to prevent had cost so many so much.
“Touch my robe, Abandoner, and I will show you your predecessors in elitism and oppression, in indifference to the unjust suffering of others, in rationalized selfishness and implicit cruelty.” The spirit took Abandoner on a tour of human history, showing him how private property came into being and passed from hand to hand through military conquest and theft, how titles of “nobility” assumed by thugs and descendants of thugs sought to rationalize and justify that distribution of wealth, how the evolution of democracy and capitalism, though generally improvements on what had preceded them, still largely preserved the injustices of past distributions of wealth and opportunity, and how those who were left to suffer in poverty and despair were usually guilty primarily of “being born into the wrong womb,” as much in the present as in the past.
The spirit shamed Abandoner by showing him that even the thugs of the past were more convinced of their social responsibility than he was, the Roman and Medieval aristocrats who understood their “noblesse oblige” and paid for public works and public feasts and alms for the poor with their own money, not as a charitable whim to satisfy or not as they please, but as a sacred (quasi-legal) obligation that would have brought disgrace upon them to fail to fulfill.
The Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Past showed Abandoner the American Revolution, on which Abandoner based so much of his self-justification. The spirit showed both the ways in which that revolution served to defend the current and potential wealth and power of its mostly landed aristocratic perpetrators against the British attempts to protect the Indians of the newly acquired Ohio Valley, the captive African population, the Scotch-Irish rural poor (who sided with the crown), and the French Catholics of newly acquired Canada from the avarice of the colonial coastal landed gentry; and the ways in which its underlying ideals were far more committed to the common welfare and the ideal of equality (as well as a commitment to continuing political progress rather than enshrinement of that moment in history) than Abandoner’s self-serving parody of those ideals recognized.
The spirit showed Abandoner the struggles for justice and equality that followed, struggles often opposed by oppressors using precisely the same language and ideas as Abandoner himself; the struggle for abolition of slavery, which Southern slave owners ironically decried as an attack on their liberties; the struggles to respect the rights of the indigenous population, to secure for women the right to vote, to overcome the legacies of history which deprived some of rights and the most basic of freedoms in the name of service to the “liberty” of others.
Abandoner watched the slaughter of innocent indigenous women and children in the name of “liberty” but in service only to the theft of their land. He saw slaves whipped, husbands separated from wives and mothers from their small children in sales designed to increase the master’s wealth, all in the name of “liberty” (as argued, for instance, by John C. Calhoun in his tome Union and Liberty, using language and arguments identical to those used by Abandoner today). He watched the denial of real, lived, shared liberty in the name of his false, greedy, oppressive and destructive mockery of the word. And he couldn’t help but be moved, for his self-serving ignorance and avarice could not withstand the onslaught of reality presented by this Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Past, a spirit who showed the blaring absence of all that it stood for, a surging sea of ignorance and malice rationalized by the convenient idols of petty and shrivelled souls.
Abandoner awoke again in his own room at the stroke of two to find a bright light seeping through the cracks in his firmly closed door. He opened the door to find the robust and hearty Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Present sitting on a raised chair surrounded by bounty, raucous laughter on his face and on his lips.
“Come in, Abandoner!” the spirit bellowed with resonant good humor. “Come in, and partake of our shared feast! Plenty flows from my horn when more are more disposed to share with others, and even deprivations are borne more lightly when borne together!”
The spirit showed Abandoner the rest of the developed world, less diseased by Abandoner’s miserable and miserly ideology than America. In these countries that share many of the same values and ideals, but have been spared the misfortune of enshrining them and thus reducing them to parodies of themselves, poverty has been virtually eradicated, there is less violence and more personal security, health care is universal and less expensive to provide and health outcomes are better by almost every single statistical measure (including public satisfaction), self-reported happiness is higher, and there is greater rather than lesser ability to prosper by virtue of one’s own efforts.
“The folly of condemning THAT, while embracing THIS…,” cried the spirit, showing Abandoner his own hyper-individualistic society, the one that Abandoner himself had helped to shackle with the rotting corpse of Extreme Individualism, with higher rates of poverty and all the social ills that accompany it: Higher infant mortality rates, poorer health, less happiness, poorer educational performance, more violence, more suffering. “This is what you are fighting to enshrine as the perfection of human genius! Clinging to a fictionalized past to impose greater suffering and less joy on a population ridiculed and pitied by all others of comparable economic power! Shame on you, you shrivelled little excuse for humanity! That poor child you’ve abandoned to your false idols is worth more in the eyes of God than all you self-satisfied misanthropes combined, who claim that the suffering of others is no concern of yours!”
The spirit showed Abandoner the other America, the one which Abandoner did not define, filled with many who accepted salaries far lower than they were capable of earning in order to do good works for others’ benefit, the teachers with advanced degrees, the public interest lawyers earning a fraction of what their peers in private firms did, the workers in non-profits and social services struggling to stem the tide of social indifference that Abandoner, with his every word and breath, struggled to preserve and perpetuate.
“Join them, you petty little parasite!” intoned the spirit. ”Join them in the shared feast which you choose instead to horde and call your own!”
Abandoner saw joy; joy in the faces of a teacher who inspired a child to learn rather than despair, to aspire rather than prey on others; of the social worker who helped another child find safety and love; of those who fought to govern themselves with compassion and empathy for one another rather than with individual avarice and mutual indifference; of those who were blessed by the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill and appalled by the specter of Extreme Individualism which so smugly and callously opposed it.
Abandoner couldn’t help but feel their joy, the celebration of humanity’s shared existence, the knowledge of belonging to something larger than himself and lovingly shared rather than being the covetous hoarder of something smaller and jealously guarded. He fell asleep with that joy dancing in his heart, truly light-spirited for the first time for as long as he could recall. He fell asleep knowing what it means to thrive, something that requires generosity of spirit, something that is the fount of true liberty.
He awoke at the stroke of three to see the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Yet to Come standing beside his bed, a lithe form and beatific face, but human rather than ethereal; a mild satisfied glow in its eyes and a slight knowing smile on its lips, unburdened wisdom and contentment dancing across its features and flowing through its every movement and gesture. It was filled with passion but not anger, knowledge but not arrogance, reason but not certainty, imagination but not superstition, humility but not fear. It was what Abandoner would have dreamt of being, were Abandoner wise enough to understand the meaning of human potential.
The spirit stood before Abandoner saying nothing, piercing him with its gaze. Abandoner felt profoundly naked, trasparent, revealed. He felt foolish and small, which, of course, was precisely what he was.
“Are you the Spirit of Reason and Goodwill Yet to Come, whose appearance was foretold to me?” Abandoner asked, having wanted to invoke his customary bombast, but finding himself unable to, knowing now what a farce it had always been and would always be.
The spirit didn’t move, didn’t answer, didn’t even nod, but its smile seemed just a bit more intent, and its eyes to sparkle just a bit more brightly.
As Abandoner gazed into that face, he saw a future he had been unable to imagine, a future in which liberty and mutual responsibility were inseparable ideals, in which the interdependence of all was understood and acknowledged, in which freedom was heightened and enriched by transcending the shallow pretense that its exercise by each occurred in a vacuum, and recognizing instead that no one has the inalienable right to (for instance) contaminate another’s air and water any more than one has the inalienable right to put a bullet in another’s chest.
The spirit took Abandoner on a tour of a future devoid of both ostentatious wealth and abject poverty, a world of mutual care and support, a world not cleansed of human foibles but rather adapted to them. People lived to celebrate life, to discover and expand and enjoy and assist others in doing the same. Their work was both more productive and more satisfying for the value and respect that others gave it. Entertainments were edifying and enriching rather than mindless distractions that sapped the soul. Robust and knowledgeable discussions were commonplace, sometimes heated debates, but almost always reverberating with reason and imagination and goodwill. There was greater joy, greater health, greater mental health, less suffering, less abuse, less neglect, less violence, more freedom -real freedom, the freedom born of nurtured human consciousness.
But then the spirit showed Abandoner a different future, or perhaps the inevitable road to the one he had just shown, a road whose length would be longer or shorter depending on the choices of those who comprise it. Abandoner saw all the Tiny Tims that would die because of his callous insistence that denying health care to those who can’t afford it is a requisite of “liberty.” Abandoner saw all of the violence and suffering and heartbreak that could have been prevented, that had been prevented to a far greater degree in places less in the thrall of his shallow and life-denying ideology. He saw that it was real, that the tormented howls of a parent who lost a child to violence that could have been prevented, to a disease that could have been cured, to abuse or neglect by another that a society that placed greater value on empathy would have avoided by investing in its avoidance, were all real, and he knew that each and every instance was a crime against humanity, a crime for which Abandoner and all like him shared a portion of the guilt.
The spirit led Abandoner to a large book on a book stand, like a relic of a previous age. Abandoner’s trembling fingers reached out to trace the embossed letters that formed the title on its cover: “Humanity.”
The book suddenly flipped open, pages fluttering by as Abandoner recoiled in fear. Then the flurry ended and the book lay open, the spirit glancing suggestively at the revealed page.
Abandoner, quaking with fear, leaned over the book and read history’s judgment of the movement to which he belonged. He read how he and his kind would be as disdained by future generations as all others of similar disposition had been before, for just as those before had hidden behind distorted ideals, it was not “liberty” for which these shallow and selfish people were really fighting, but rather injustice and inequality.
History has always condemned the brutal, self-serving disregard for the welfare of others that litters its pages, and it condemned Abandoner. He was just another foolish adherent in another chapter of the long and tragic tale of Man’s Inhumanity To Man, and the false idols he gloriously cloaked himself in were just another swastika, another sickle-and-hammer, another white hood, another brown shirt, another tool of another Inquisition, another blind faith denouncing heretics while obstructing the less stagnant and reducible truths of Reason and Goodwill. He had wasted his life as just another dupe of ignorance and belligerence, and if he were remembered at all, that’s all he would ever be remembered for.
“Spirit!” cried Abandoner. “Are these the shadows of things that must be, or can I, if I change my ways, change what is written in that book?!”
The spirit looked into Abandoner’s eyes, and spoke for the first and last time. “What do you think Freedom really means?”
Abandoner awoke on Christmas morning, a white blanket of snow covering the Earth, and a weight lifted from his heart. He felt free, freer than he had ever felt before, free of a pettiness that had imprisoned him more securely than bars or chains ever could, free to work for the common good, free to be a part of something bigger than himself. He knew that individual generosity was a part of it, something that was as important as any other part, that he had to help others of all ideologies to understand that. But he knew also that it isn’t enough to express that generosity just as a bunch of atomized individuals, that it must also be expressed as a part of our shared existence, that we also each have a responsibility to work with all others so inclined, and to try to convince all others to become so inclined, to reach down into the systems that order our lives and refine them to better express that generosity of spirit that he had been shown by the three spirits who embodied it, not in defiance of individual liberty, but in the ultimate and most meaningful service to it.
Abandoner abandoned his old way of thinking, and gave his name new meaning, for he abandoned ignorance and belligerence; he abandoned extreme individualism; he abandoned fixed and inflexible, rigid and unsubtle ideas that do more to shackle otherwise free men and women than any other agent of oppression; he abandoned the struggle to impose injustice and suffering on the world, and joined instead the struggle to liberate ourselves from the constraints we have imposed on ourselves, together.
And he was forever loved and respected for having done so.
Merry Christmas, Everyone!
(For more precise, analytical discussions of the logical and empirical errors of extreme Libertarian/Tea Party ideology, see the other essays in the fourth box at Catalogue of Selected Posts: “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry, The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, The True Complexity of Property Rights, Liberty & Interdependence, Real Fiscal Conservativism, Social Institutional Luddites, The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism, Liberty & Society, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V), An Open Letter To The American Far-Right, A Frustrated Rant On A Right-Wing Facebook Thread, The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism, Dialogue With A Libertarian, More Dialogue With Libertarians, Yet Another Conversation With Libertarians, Response to a Right-Wing Myth, and The History of American Libertarianism. For an alternative vision, based on the realities of the complex dynamical systems of which we are a part and how we can most wisely and effectively articulate our own individual and collective aspirations within those systems, see the essays in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. For some insight into the nature of those complex dynamical systems and our place in them, see the essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts.)