The Coastal Post - April, 1997

Individual Rights: Social Wrongs

By Frank Scott

Americans have a heritage blessed by some revolutionary principles that still place us in the vanguard among global states. But we also have inherited a legacy of contradictory principles that tend to include us among the lower examples of civilized nations. Foremost among these is our sometimes deadly lack of balance between notions of individual and social responsibility.

In daily life, we are a social group only as commuters, workers and consumers, filling the highways, shops and malls with our bodies, though usually doing our duties in isolation.We're an alienated band of individuals responsible only for ourselves, taught never to expect fellow citizens to help us in times of need unless they are private practitioners of charity, like churches or foundations. Government is seen as a necessary evil, to direct traffic, help during earthquakes or floods and mainly subsidize corporations and kill foreigners when capital feels threatened and we're supposed to think that's us.

An obsession with self and individualism is offered as a counter to state practices that favor the group over the individual, though these practices are mostly found in fiction. Unless the group in question is composed of corporate capitalists. Then we find that individuals can be damned , when rights of investment, exploitation and profit demand social action. For example, we're called to defend shared rights and social responsibilities when mobilized to protect corporate capital in foreign countries, said rights often being a cover for blatant economic domination

. We are to become patriotic protectors of freedom and justice when, say, an Iraqi or Libyan leader threatens corporate oil and western politics in the middle east. We live in a time of open assault on public values, except for sexual or other truly private practices. Here, some worshipers of individual rights

think it is acceptable for the state to push its nose into bedrooms, toilets, and women's wombs in order to assure that a social code is maintained.

We are nearing the end of our confused experience at having government half heartedly fill yawning economic gaps created by privately controlled market forces. Under pressures of global economic change, the New Deal and Great Society of the past have become the Raw Deal and Sick Society

of the present. The system is the same one that has dominated the earth for several hundred years, but it is manifesting itself in ways that bring new contradictions.

The breakdown of nature under the pressure of private accumulation has led more people to question material reality, but even that has its individual and social contradictions. Too often, environmental causes are espoused by people operating from personal views of nature, divorced from any larger attempt to come to grips with forces that have deeper meaning than oneUs view of a mountain, a parking lot or a forest.. The late Judi Bari will be sorely missed for her ability to bring environmental, social and political issues together.

We really need to develop a collective sense of social esteem before we can truly find any personal self-esteem. How can we teach children to feel good about themselves, when society has all but told so many of them to drop dead or go to jail? Attempts at social justice have become the gentrification of equality, affecting only a few when we need programs for millions. Minority group tokenism plays into the social values of market individualism, telling us that only some , not all , can survive. And, because of our personal and minority isolation, we believe it. The obsession with self and identity groups, to the exclusion of a collective public , is our problem, not our solution.The reverse is equally problematic, though it never really existed. Yet that reverse is used to convince us that what we have is better, at least allowing us free choice. Tell that to a kid who has "chosen" street crime to the good life, or jail rather than Yale. Tell it to the unemployed family who have "chosen" living in a shelter instead of a comfortable home.

Most citizens work as private servants, under economic forces that demean the public entity. Those forces only value collective groups as consumers, and so we function as communities most often while incurring debt in the marketplace. And that individual debt is far more dangerous than the much ballyhooed public deficit spending. Personal bankruptcies are at their highest level in history, and plastic debt has become a staggering burden on citizens trying to maintain themselves in an economy that is diminishing them. Meanwhile, the investor minority makes a killing on the market and loans us its profits, for which we incur "public" debt.

Instead of borrowing from the rich, we should be taxing them; instead of paying them for the privilege of investing what they get from the majority, the majority should be making investments in itself with the taxes collected from great wealth.None of that will happen until that majority begins to identify itself as a community, and develops the esteem for itself that might help it to really find out what self-esteem can do for an individual.

Social realization is as important to our future as self realization. Especially if we want to end economic inequality, and the destruction of the natural environment. That means beginning with humans and moving on through the rest of nature that is under capital assault. We desperately need to develop social-esteem in order to create people with self-esteem.We can't have one without the other.