Matt Lewis

Are we all ‘radical individualists’ now?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

Kurt Anderson, author and the host of “Studio 360” on NPR, wrote an interesting 4th of July piece in the New York Times’ op-ed section.

The countercultural revolution of the 1960s, he argued, produced a surge of individualism, selfishness, and greed. And so while it helped accomplish many goals desired by the left — such as “women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll” — it utterly failed to usher in the socialist (or communist?) utopia imagined by the stoners at Woodstock, leading instead to the rise of “old-school free-market ideas.” (I think I first learned this all on “Family Ties.”)

While we can disagree about whether a truly free market encourages greed, the ensuing decline of bourgeois norms described by Anderson is entirely accurate.

But what else would he expect? From the 1930s-1960s, what I would describe as the height of the New Deal-era, America was a heavily-taxed, highly-regulated and almost suffocatingly orthodox society. By rebelling against that culture, the flower children ushered in a degree of rapid social change unmatched in American history.

This revolution was not without unintended consequence. What else should they have expected?

When you seek to change gender norms, why would you then be surprised that civic institutions associated with those norms collapsed as well? When you build up a welfare state that seeks to care for people from cradle to grave, how are you then shocked when families go into decline? When you assert an absolute right to “privacy” — in order to abort unborn babies — is it unexpected that people come to care less about each other, too?

There is a natural tension in this nation between absolute individualism and communitarianism. For several centuries, we managed to find a relatively acceptable middle ground (though that world was far from perfect). But that compromise — and the resulting social bonds that promoted solidarity in this nation — was demolished as a result of the 1960s. That’s what we should have expected — and it’s precisely what cultural conservatives warned would result.


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