Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Individualism: The ersatz form and the real deal

Nelson Hultberg has confronted the phenomenom he refers to as "ersatz individualism" in a recent Free Market column. Portions of this column are welcomed by yours truly and should be grasped by those who may have a false notion of what individualism is all about. There are parts of this essay that I'm also not real fond of. I'll briefly discuss both.

The column focuses on basketball icon Dennis Rodman, the man who is well known on and off the court as a ferocious defender and rebound specialist who displays many flashy, non-conformist traits while living a party hardy lifestyle. Here's the commentary from Hultberg that should be noticed:
To those on the radical left, Rodman is not corrupting society at all. He is merely American individualism blooming. He and others of his ilk like Larry Flynt and Howard Stern are manifestations of the American credo, the liberals tell us. Defying cultural traditions requires a contrarian courage and the ability to march to the beat of one's own drummer. It's one of the measures of a man's mettle. On the contrary, this is not what individualism is about at all; this is "ersatz individualism." True philosophical individualism has nothing to do with the crass defiance of common sense and decency that runs so abrasively through the hallucinatory veins of today's culture. Individualism is not a call for license and heedlessly doing whatever your whimsical fancy drives you to do; it is a call for self-reliance. It is expressed through personal productivity and the full exposition of one's abilities, not through compulsive weirdness in one's style of living...

Aside from what he mentions, I would add that true individualism involves respect for and defense of individual rights against those who wish to thwart them in an attempt to promote some sort of political agenda. It contrasts with collectivism since it rejects the illusory notion that some non-existant collective has rights and needs that trumps the natural rights of individuals. A non-conformist who fully expresses him/herself whose values conflict with true individualism (such as by advocating any sort of political coercion against individuals) is no individualist, no matter what he/she and others may claim.

What I don't like about Hultberg's column is his blatant cultural conservatism. I may not care for Rodman's nihilistic attitudes and many other aspects of his persona, but I respect his desire to express himself, even if much of it is nothing more than self-absorbed attempts to get media attention. There is nothing wrong with non-conformity. Nothing wrong with going against traditional gender roles, dressing like a "carnival geek", or anything else that these "ersatz individualists" engage in. In many respects, I'm a non-conformist. I may not cross dress, but I give those who engage in such a practice props for doing so. I don't like the fact that Hultberg flat out condems such people as symbolizing "everything that is wrong with our society". Not every real individualist who values non-coercion and the free market is a cultural conservative, a traditionalist who goes to church and expects people to dress and act in cookie cutter fashion.

Such mindsets can actually be dangerous. There are many everyday people of the "there ought to be a law" variety who hold such traditionalist views. If I wish to paint my own house pink, not maintain an artificially green and weed-free lawn, place goofy ornaments in my yard (that's yard, not lawn), have an organic garden, and perhaps even have a chicken or two, it is none of my neighbor's business. Such behavior that some may consider to be non-civilized "dementia" (a word Hultberg uses) is perfectly acceptable for people to engage in, and in fact they have every right to partake in such activities and live as they please. Unfortunately, many laws have been enacted that force people to do or not do certain things on their own property in order to please their traditionalist neighbors. I am reminded of a recent Cryptogon blog post that brings attention to people in Arizona who are not fond of their neighbor's organic garden and want the local government to do something about it.

Why can't people just mind their own damn business? Who cares what Dennis Rodman chooses to wear? Who cares how I decide to maintain my property? While Hultberg may not advocate such state action, he indirectly lends support to those who approve of and attempt to create and enforce such nonsense. And he is just flat out wrong if he thinks that being "consummate conservatives in a cultural context" is what real individualism is all about.


Anonymous Sunni said...

I clicked through to read the article for myself, but when I saw it, just shook my head and moved on. If a person can't (or won't) organize his or her thoughts into paragraphs, I've found that, more often than not, they aren't worth my time.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Vache Folle said...

The traditionalist you quote is sucking all the meaning out of the word "individualist". To him, an individualist conforms. To be free is to be free to act within rigid constraints (thus the liberty and license distinction). Liberty is reduced to the freedom to do what one ought to do, presumably as decreed by authority.

We must not let these concepts be coopted without calling Bulls**t.

2:38 PM  
Blogger freeman said...

Sunni - Yeah, I thought about calling him out on that as well. It certainly was a chore to read that whole thing, and I wouldn't have read it if the subject matter didn't catch my interest.

Vache - Yeah, aside from calling out the "ersatz individualists" as not representing true philosophical individualism, he really doesn't grasp what it's all about either.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Wolf DeVoon said...

I've been quoted fairly often as saying that property is more or less what the neighbors will allow. It's not my full position on property, which has moral as well as political dimensions (i.e., what an individual chooses to value determines his or her ambitions, especially "property" sought and defended by fences and force, the political party or jurisdiction he/she supports, etc).

But put all that aside for a second. I have a new neighbor as of October 1st. He thinks he's a car mechanic. He wife is an incorrigible snoop. They bought chickens. The value of my adjoining land and home has been cut in half -- noise, filth, toxic fumes, loud music, you name it. I put up a steel barrier 8 ft tall and 75 ft long on my property line, which cut out the snooping and half the noise. But there's no question about my financial loss. This new neighbor put his filthy hand in my pocket and deducted $50,000 by being "an individual."

This explains why gated communities and exclusive neighborhoods exist, why zoning laws exist, why good fences make good neighbors. I have no legal right in my community to forbid a neighbor from keeping chickens or hammering on sheet metal from dawn to midnight -- but I sure as hell want out, and they next place I buy won't have any "individualists" next door.

11:48 AM  
Blogger freeman said...

Things like filth, toxic fumes, etc. are concerns in that if they cross over onto other peoples' property, their property rights have been violated. In cases where this is happening and some form of harm exists, then should be a course of action for people to take. The typical statist route of passing laws (including zoning laws) is an immoral solution if you ask me, but lawsuits or private arbitration of some sort could come into play here.

With freedom comes responsibility, and people need to be responsible for their actions, and that includes the behavior that they engage in on their property.

As far as the shallow folks who feel that, for example, owning chickens or having a garden is for "redneck savages" and not striving to attain a perfect, weed-free "lawn" is simply "uncivilzed" are concerned, fuck 'em! Let them go live in gated or exclusive communities - that is one of the reasons why they exist, right? They have no right to force people not to grow their own food or to waste time and money on lawn maintenance and other shallow endeavors. I sure as hell don't want any people like that living next door to me.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Wolf DeVoon said...

There are real, inherent, intractable and profound problems with gated communities. I mentioned them only to point out that its a trend, not for the better, that began with "white flight" to the suburbs. Worse are the condos, where every breath is regulated by a committee or management covenant.

I've advocated individualism as fully as I know how, but it seems to me that culture matters and that we need to rebuild much more than a "rights"-based polis. Sorry to use such an arcane term.

Anyway, the problem is not equitable remedies for nuisance (noise, crack houses, upstream polution, etc). What has been lost is a culture of civility, an awareness of one's social footprint and desire to get along with one another.

The last thing I want is to be fenced in and segregated from my neighbors or the wider community. Globally, we need to tear down walls by treating people as individuals. It happened in Berlin. It could happen in Palestine, if folks quit the tribe-clan-race-religion myth.

I'm willing to be wrong on this subject, but I felt it was important to state the facts. Bad behavior wrecks everything and the state is always incompetent to cure individual moral-epistemological gaps. The difference between crime and boorish ignorance is only a matter of degree.

1:26 AM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

Dennis Rodham is not an "ersatz individualist". He's not even and individualist. He is an individual... but that's not a high aspiration to achieve, seeing many of those everyday myself. It's like all the hipsters who choose not to conform to society's conventions by... looking exactly like every other hipster. Great. Principled. Quite a credo there.

Conservatives love to believe that because their way works for themselves, it OBVIOUSLY must be right for everybody else. And that's the exact opposite of individualism. Although I'm sure I can find a German language prefix for what it is.

Spot on, Freeman.

7:23 PM  

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