The Myth — and Liability — of America’s Obsession with Rugged Individualism
When society becomes so enamored with individual success, it forgets, and even attacks, the very institutions that enable it
This week, I get to cross something off my bucket list: a byline in The Economist. Those familiar with the newspaper (how the firm refers to itself) know it doesn’t byline its writers. However, The Economist also runs an online “By Invitation” section, which has featured Madeleine Albright, Garry Kasparov, Arnold Schwarzenegger — people I roll with all the time. So, how did this happen? I. Don’t. Know.
Anyway, below is an excerpt. The full essay is available here.
American individualism and institutions
I grew up on stories of the second world war. During the aerial bombardment of London known as the Blitz, my mother, aged seven, had to sleep in tube stations for protection. She was given a mask against poison gas. It was difficult to put on, and frightening to wear, so a thoughtful designer had modified the children’s version with a rubber nose — my mother thought it made her look like Donald Duck. Sheltering underground with a gas mask was traumatic, but society was under threat and sacrifices had to be made. Today, when people refuse to physically distance or wear a mask at Walmart, I envision my seven-year-old mother as a child, on a dark tube platform, with her awkward Donald Duck gas mask.
Once again, society is under threat — not from tanks and bombs but from an enemy one-400th the width of a human hair. The toll has been catastrophic. In America, Covid-19 has claimed more than 500,000 lives. Millions of people have lost their jobs and 40 million face eviction. A generation of children has had their education interrupted or impaired.
America’s failure to defend itself against the virus is not unique, but neither was it inevitable. Other countries have beaten back the virus with fewer cases and deaths, with less interruption to daily life, and at lower economic cost. The pandemic has dealt a blow to the notion that America is exceptional. Why has it fared so poorly? What is behind…