Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I’m Russian, let’s just get that out of the way. May 9th is a special day for any Russian. It’s both a joyous celebration of our victory over fascist Germany in 1945 and also a day of reflection and remembrance. To many people it’s the most treasured and most profound, a knot-in-the-throat holiday, as sacred as 4th of July is for any American. Every family has a relative who died or fought in that war. With sadness I watch more and more veterans leave our ranks every year and I contemplate over these special men and women and wonder what I would do if I was born in 1924. Would I have the guts to do what they did, to be on the frontlines, to face an armada of German tanks pacing toward me when I had just a rifle and a grenade? There’s no place of cynicism and individuality on the battlefield. My generation grew up watching war movies and talking to live witnesses of those events, we played “war” and our heroes were young partisans. We grew up picturing ourselves in those situations and admiring real war heroes, just like young Americans grow up admiring comics superheroes. During those games and those daydreams what was always present is the collective spirit. “We’ll show them!” – our thinking went. There was no “I” on our imaginary playground battlefield. Contemplating the victory in World War II (or Great Patriotic War) for a Russian is to invoke the “us” narrative.
Collective is a dirty word in typical American conservative circles. “Individual” is word-du-jour in the current Right’s ideology. Cowboys or lone heroes are admired. Every American actor who played a lone ranger or an oddball police officer is a conservative in real life – Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, John Wayne. Rugged individualism rules the day. This is odd because collective effort is what makes military forces – a staple of any conservative stump speech – function. Collective effort is what makes a sports team win. Collective is what made the “war effort” possible. Everyone had to contribute; everyone was part of the game. Collective effort during those war years did not turn Americans into Communists. America faced the best economic growth in the 1950s, when those fighting in the war came home and joined the labor force. In fact it was the so-called “Golden Age of Capitalism”.
Conservatives’ fear of a slippery slope from communal into communist has atrophied their ideology into a very narrow set of ideas. First of all, they don’t even distinguish between the two as if any deviation from the party line would be a betrayal of conservative values (reminds me of late 70s-early 80s crumbling Communist ideology, that was afraid of its own shade, thus banning any hint of even the most trivial discourse). Second, their own rigidity, the insistence on ideological purity is their own version of “communal values”, the kind of values that would not allow good public servants like Dick Lugar to remain in their ranks. Their hatred of everything “public” or “common” has evolved into a very perverted view of community. Conservative “Community” means “us vs. them” where “them” are not the outside enemy but their fellow Americans. I am dismayed to see how the top 1% of earners in this country is up in arms to the proposition to pay as much taxes as anyone else in this time of crisis. Not more – but just the same share as everyone else! A typical Wall Street worker fancies himself to be a combatant on the battlefield, killing and getting killed, he nonetheless demands to get paid and be praised as an individual hero. They demand the acknowledgement from the public of their superior qualities and of special superhero treatment. Imagine if our soldiers in Afghanistan were as demanding, which in my opinion they have a full right to do. As I do not tire to mention, I believe that Wall Street need a justification of their own activities as socially useful, because if they are honest with themselves, they should be able to acknowledge that they are not really funding that cupcake or barber shop down the road by trading CDS. And it’s a depressing thought to live with. After you made millions and millions of dollars your next goal is not just another million but the public recognition of your own benevolence, of your own social usefulness, of your humanity. Wall Street demands the appreciation of its communal values! Suddenly Wall Street wants public respect! Even though what made their benevolent position possible is a path of destruction if they cared to look back. What made their charitable impulses possible is the scorched earth approach to everything and everybody not in their closest circle, and the corpses left in the process. I guess those corpses are needed after all as a pretext to conduct charity auctions at the high-end, closed up, black-tie venues. You know, fighting poverty, ending hunger, aiding education – all those things that were not supposed to depend on the mood and whim of the richest citizens but on communal contributions, aka taxes. You need to saw destruction so to have an opportunity to show your own goodwill later. Not a bad business plan, if you think about it. Not a bad individual self-promotion scheme. Isn’t that what conservative individualism comes down to – making a hero of oneself at the expense of everybody else?
Gone are the days when victory was a communal celebration with a sense of togetherness. Today’s victors are lone wolfs, celebrated for cheating the “suckers”, for taking advantage of their own fellow citizens. Because it is somehow those citizens’ fault that they didn’t grow up to be predators or don’t want to participate in this ‘game of thrones’. Somehow, teachers and fire fighters and “art history majors” are losers in our new social order. Somehow, being a calculating jerk is now the highest public virtue. How did we come to this?