In 1980, I read Ayn Rand’s novel, Anthem, and was struck. What a great concept: the discovery that ‘we’ was actually ‘I’, and that ‘I’ was all-important. My 20-year old self, yearning to be independent but not really knowing how, found it very alluring. But fast-forwarding 40 years, ‘I’…and I … no longer look so attractive.
Rand’s perspective seemed impressive many decades ago when it was written in reaction to communism and the USSR (where she lived the first twenty years of her life), and when the value of individualism was working to propel the US forward. However, now, taken to an extreme, that same individualism is outdated and is bringing America to its knees, both on a personal level and on a national level.
On a personal level, we have long enjoyed Hollywood’s long-running love affair with the lonely hero and visualizing ourselves as one. I don’t know about you, but advertisements have repeatedly told me that I’m worth it. Whitney Houston’s song, The Greatest Love of All struck such a chord with us because we were already in love with ourselves. And lately, a plethora of ‘I’ technologies (including hardware like mobile phones and software like Facebook) has allowed us not only to express our self-love but also to create our own silos of information. Somewhere along the line, we transitioned from a me-first society to a me-only society. We now see ourselves as individually all-powerful, invincible even, and feel we should be able to solve every problem alone. We’re in an echo chamber of one.
On a national level, capitalism – practiced in an unchecked manner and without socialist protections – has proved to be an exemplary ‘I’ concept, resulting in a growing and destructive social inequality. Strangely, this seems acceptable to many. In international relations, the US has become more isolated by pulling back from several collaborative agreements (e.g., the Iran Deal), joint ventures (e.g., Paris Climate Accord), and cooperative institutions (e.g., UNHRC, UNESCO). American culture and media have glorified the individual to such an extent that ‘we’ and concern for the group at large is thought of as weak and wimpy.
This unquestioning belief in the singular power of the ‘I’ can be delusional, leading to a vast number and array of psychological, social, national, and global problems.
Having drunk the Koolaid for the past 40 years, I do not want to be bothered to wear a mask or social distance or indeed in the future take a vaccine because ‘I’ am invincible. And I certainly don’t want to do it to save the lives of others because ‘I’ am most important. My right to carry guns not only makes me look super cool but also supersedes your right to live. If pushed, I may empathize with those of my country people who vote like me and look like me. I may extend that to those who pray like me because after all, I have God on my side. Since I am the ultimate, I do not want others around who are different: read, inferior. And while I’m at it, I do not wish to vacate the White House if I lose the election because rules do not apply to me. The individual uber allies.
And what do I care about what is happening over the border or across the ocean? I’m not there.
Eighty years ago when Rand wrote Anthem, she saw the world of ‘we’ as dystopian. Today, our world of ‘I’ is dystopian. Different perspectives are appropriate and indeed necessary at different times. We need to swing the pendulum away from the extreme ‘I’ and back towards a bit of ‘we’, and we need to do it now. It requires a difficult and fundamental shift. Fortunately, as ‘I’s, we have agency. We can act to move ourselves and our society towards ‘we’ by focusing on shared values and building a foundation of shared information.
Covid-19 could be just the first test to see if we can do that. And so far, given over 200,000 dead, the US seems to be failing it. In addition, there are many global issues looming on the horizon – like mass migrations, pandemics, and climate change – that desperately need a ‘we’ perspective and approach if we are to survive.
As I grew older, I realized the importance, the strength, and the necessity of ‘we’: family, friends, the local community, and the global network. It’s time that America grew up too.
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer, editor, and commentator. She divides her time, energy, and passion between North America and Asia.