Split Personality

December 2004


Americans have always been conflicted about cooperative efforts. On the one hand we have our tradition of rugged individualism, and on the other an equally strong tradition of team spirit. These two opposing forces have done much to shape our nation and our national character.

Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom. -- Albert Einstein

United we stand, divided we fall. -- Aesop

We Americans have always been taught two different lessons. We are taught that in rugged individualism are the highest aspirations of mankind achieved, and we are taught that all the greatest feats of man's achievement have always been secured by the cooperative effort of groups of people who acted in unison.

We are taught the first lesson in school. Our teachers and our textbooks wove a fabric from the accomplishment of a few stellar individuals who rose up and took upon themselves the reigns of leadership and triumphed. At least that is the way the story is told. Our history and culture speak derisively of being "one of the herd" or "failing to rise above the common." The best among us are supposed to separate from their fellows and to distinguish themselves in some way. We support immense industries founded upon the notion of hero worship: in sports, in movies, in music, and in politics.

And we're urged constantly to compare ourselves, our possessions and our accomplishments with others, to enter into a life-long contest with every other person to determine on a thousand levels who wins and who loses at every turn. Most of the reason we're driven to contest with the world is to generate within us a "need" for the products that will help us in this contest; most of advertising is pointed squarely at the notion that we'd fail to win without the advantage their products provide.

Apart from certain radicals, like Gandhi and Jesus, there is very little in the syllabus of education to recommend collective action at all -- except of course for the sum of every experience and observation we have of life first hand. There is nothing so futile as one lone Don Quixote acting alone against the whole world. Or as George Patton put it, "An Army is a team; lives, sleeps, eats, fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is a lot of crap."

Why does cooperative, collaborative effort get such a bum rap? To understand this, you have to understand who makes and provides education in our society. Traditionally, the resources of education were controlled by, and provided for, the same group: wealthy white men. As times changed, and more egalitarian ideals prevailed, this group was diversified to include other people of different cultures, ethnicities, and gender. Still, the driving force behind education were those who had most materially to gain from it: people of means with a stake in the status quo.

About 100 years ago, the power elites were faced with a crisis: some of the best and brightest of their children were becoming disciples of socialism -- a heretical set of ideas that conflicted with their cherished capitalism. So, they set out to capture the hearts and minds of future generations in a very directed campaign to discredit non-capitalist notions and to make those sorts of heresies unpalatable to one and all. They did this by re-writing a lot of history, by choosing what was history, and by orienting the whole of the corpus of humanities away from dangerous skills, like cooperation, conciliation, collectivization, or collaboration.

This has had its benefits and its drawbacks. For one thing, Americans are about the most devoted disciples of capitalism on the planet (even when their honestly stated beliefs are plainly socialist, they still claim to be capitalist and recoil with horror if they're called socialist). This makes people more tractable and predictable. But it also makes them practically incapable of doing anything together, which is why most large organizations composed of Americans are a total mess. We've been made developmentally challenged on purpose. We've been tailored to an environment that is neither efficient nor sustainable

Time, luck and circumstances will determine whether our native human adaptability allows us to escape from our capitalist programming, in which case America has a future, or we're doomed to go down swinging, taking much of the world and our planetary ecology with us.

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