Attempting to think of the collective good in the face of individualist propaganda

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The Christmas season – now upon us, ready or not – brings out our better natures. Maybe it’s years of childhood practice: behaving well lest we end up on Santa’s naughty list. Or maybe once a year we take to heart the message of community and goodwill towards men.

Whatever the case, we certainly find it easier to be generous and considerate when it comes to our fellow man (which, of course, includes women, children and small furry animals, in some cases). Once a year, we take the time to think about others, at least for as long as it takes to share a smile, a greeting and perhaps even a bit of charity. The rest of the year? Well, not so much.

That dichotomy begs a host of questions, not least of which is what exactly is it that we owe each other as humans, citizens and residents? It’s a question that goes back millennia, and forms the basis of social contract philosophy, from the ancient Greeks through Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

The topic flows naturally from a discussion of the impact of creeping fascism and the progressive movements to counter our worst instincts. Such movements challenge the rest of us to think about a political and economic system that in essence encourages us to be selfish and not to take into consideration what we can do for each other as a community – to forego our humanity.

Government policies that run contrary to the public interest – an increasing proportion of its actions – surely are the opposite of what we’d consent to. They benefit the one per cent at the expense of the 99, as the memorable slogan reminds us.

Who is responsible for that? Certainly those who’ve benefited have fostered an unending propaganda campaign that’s been every bit as effective in sweeping aside citizenship as the corporate marketing has been in turning us into consumers. We’ve happily abdicated power and responsibility for the comforts of our lives. Excuses about being busy are just that. Still, we’ve opted for the distractions, and can’t even be bothered to show up at the voting booth for five minutes every four years. As a result, we’ve got the government we deserve, one that acts against our interests and against the common good.

We’ve tuned out, bought into consumerism and the ideal of rugged individualism while enjoying the fruits of what years of community-minded spirit and policies brought us.

It’s a trend that has only accelerated in the Trump era, argues Henry Giroux, an American-born academic who is now Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“The bad-faith vocabulary of individual responsibility, self-reliance, and choice eliminates the notions of soul crushing constraints and broader systemic forces, and in so doing produces armies of individuals stuck in the debilitating grip of social atomization, low self-esteem and the anxieties produced in landscapes of battered schools, rusting towns and meaningless work, if available,” he says in an opinion piece this week. “The destruction of collective structures capable of resisting the discourse of fascist politics go hand in hand with a culture awash in civic illiteracy and a culture of cruelty. Persistent denigration now leads to unbridled racism, the resurgence of white nationalism and an indifference to rampant criminality at the highest levels of government.”

There’s nothing wrong with looking out for personal interests, but we’re in danger of forgetting that most of the middle-class gains of the postwar years stem from socially-driven ideas. In purely economic terms, the collective efforts are the rising tide that lifted all boats – some more so than others, certainly. Today, however, there’s an element that seems hell-bent on undoing precisely the conditions that allowed for the great prosperity now under attack.

This is happening because society wants it to. So the question is why we tolerate, let alone embrace this sort of behavior. Is this merely an outlet for the frustration felt by those in dead-end jobs or who don’t have jobs and can’t find them? Is it because the middle-class lifestyle is under attack and disappearing for many? So this is how we share that pain?

Given the evolution of our societies, especially increasingly crowded urban living, we are a collective by default, even as divisive politics play on our basest individualistic instincts. If we’re part of a society – and there really is not getting around that – then we have to have some societal norms and some mutual respect.
Such a view of civil society is under attack as we see the rise of the worst kind of nationalism, a creeping fascism that has reduced discourse to a whole lot of shouting and sloganeering. The very nature of a shared language needed for civility is disparaged.
Governments with fascist tendencies, the U.S. being a prime example, make a concerted effort to subvert the exchange of civil ideas, Giroux argues.

“The language of compassion, community and vulnerability is erased from government media sites, as is any reference to climate change. References to compassion, the grammar of ethics, justice and democracy wither as the institutions that enable and promote them are defunded, corporatized or privatized. The language of egoism, self-interest, hyper-masculinity and a vapid individualism erase any reference to social bonds, public commitments, the public good and the commons. Even worse, under the blitz of a rhetoric of bigotry, hatred and dehumanization, the ability to translate private issues into lager systemic and public concerns is diminished,” he writes. “The language of fascism is now reinforced by a culture of immediacy, stupidity, ignorance and civic illiteracy, and as such promotes a culture in which the only obligation of citizenship is consumption and the only emotion worth investing in is unbridled anger largely directed at Blacks, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and the oppositional media.

“In the age of Trump, self-reflection is a liability. Reason and informed judgment are increasingly viewed as archaic and outdated.”

The very idea of discussing what we owe each other as citizens of a shared society is being marginalized by those who don’t want people to think for themselves, let alone come up with collective solutions to what ails us.

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