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I used to live on top of a mountain in Tennessee, surrounded by National Forest. When we moved there, like an idiot, I drove to the local National Forest Service office, about 45 minutes away, as if I was introducing myself to my neighbor, which I sort of thought I was. I asked what the rules were for me on government land since it was now 50 feet from my back door. The very nice lady behind the counter started listing all these rules, going on and on, until I interrupted her, “So I really can’t be on government land at all?” She said, “It’s not government land. It’s the people’s land.” I said, “I’m a people.” She said, “No, the people in general.” I asked, “Who, exactly?” The previously very nice lady was now a little irked. She just looked at me for a moment and then said, “Not you.”
That was the last time I interacted with the National Forest Service. Until about two months later, when they needed permission to cross my land to get their trucks to a place up there that needed repairs. You can imagine how that conversation went.
Now, I understand that interactions between government and individuals in settings such as this can leave people like me with a bad taste in our mouths, and that’s ok. But I was taken aback by her term, “the people’s land.” What a strange thing for a middle-aged Tennessee woman like her to say. Her accent sounded like Reba McEntire, but her word choice sounded like Hugo Chavez. Had a Marxist view of the proletariat been adopted by, well, by the proletariat? In the mountains of Tennessee, for Pete’s sake? I will guarantee you that this lady’s husband has a blue-collar job, they go to their Baptist church three times a week, they drive a pickup, go to NASCAR races in their fifth-wheel camper, think abortion is a sin, go deer hunting with their sons … and she talks like Hugo Chavez. What on Earth?
The genius of Christianity is its emphasis on the individual. Jesus taught that each person, even a pauper or a prostitute, is important to God. I believe that Martin Luther played an important role here, as well. He emphasized that your relationship with God was a personal one and that it need not be endorsed or controlled by any organization of men here on Earth. I hope that my Catholic friends will indulge me on this point (and no, that’s not a bad joke about indulgences…). The Catholic Church of today is not the same as the Catholic Church of the early 1500s, and you don’t necessarily have to agree with Martin Luther on his view of an individual’s relationship with God to see the power of the concept. If an individual is important to God, simply as an individual, then that individual must be extremely important. Jesus was a radical for promoting such craziness. You can understand why the Romans feared him – he was directly challenging the sovereignty of the Roman Empire over the people they sought to control. What if Jesus is right, and we’re all that important? Surely that will have an impact on the nature of government. Perhaps our Founders were on to something.
It has been observed that Marxism is a religion masquerading as political theory, and Islam is a political theory masquerading as religion. It is revealing that both of these organizations view the United States as their greatest enemy. I hope they’re right because that would reflect well on the United States. Because what those movements have in common is their efforts to harness the power of groups of people. This creates two major problems, in my view. First, when you are working upstream against human nature and against God, there’s likely to be significant difficulties. Second, when you set groups of people against each other using anger and envy and so on, what you’re doing is you’re creating mobs.
I like people. Even people I don’t like, in most cases. I could enjoy a meal with nearly anyone. But when people form mobs, they become unpredictable, immature, irrational, prone to violence, and, well, inhuman. A group of people that is fighting against what they perceive as evil for the good of mankind – that is a force that is capable of good, but also of enormous destruction.
Any collectivist organization will naturally tend to de-emphasize the importance of the individual. The most important element of you as a person is not who you are as an individual, but what group you belong to. This is why leftist and other collectivist organizations so brutally repress individualism. Try being a gay intellectual in Castro’s Cuba, or Stalin’s Russia, or Mao’s China. Heck, try being a black conservative on a college campus. If your group is there to save the world (and they all are), then dissent is not just disagreement, but a sin against humanity.
I also find it interesting that collectivist organizations tend to wear uniforms (Communists and hippies), masks (Islamists and Antifa twits), and other things to hide their individuality. That’s not a coincidence.
The American Revolution was a remarkable event. The concept of inalienable rights for each individual, that were granted by God and acknowledged by government (not granted by government) was so radical at the time that many political leaders around the world expected this new startup to last 10 years, tops. Some of our founders initially supported the French Revolution, until they saw what happened – the power of mobs. We are fortunate that they learned from that example.
Before the American Revolution, most political movements seeking freedom were groups of people trying to achieve “Freedom for us from you” rather than “Freedom for me from everyone, including my own government.” You can see why politicians of the time thought that it would be difficult to control a bunch of uppity peasants under that concept. You can imagine how astonished the world’s tyrants were when such an impossible system thrived. For a long time. Progressives and other tyrants still don’t understand what happened.
Today, policies that damage Western societies (big government, slavery, government schools, welfare programs, the DMV, and so on) tend to focus on groups of people rather than individuals. Progressives dismiss conservative policies as uncaring – “you’re on your own” policies of negligence designed to hurt the less fortunate. But paradoxically, the progressive, collectivist policies are the ones that do real harm to the underclass, and everyone else. Progressives say we should work together to help those in need. They have a point, but how we do that is extremely important. Welfare is not the same as charity, and the difference is critical.
When someone has a serious problem, it is important to emphasize to that person that he is important to his friends and family, he is important to God, and his actions are important – he can fix this, and there are people who will help him, but he must fix this. Most self-help programs like Alcoholics Anonymous focus on this very concept. But telling him that he is simply part of a disadvantaged group and that it is the responsibility of some other group to fix his problems is poison. Telling someone who has a serious problem that their individual initiative has no impact on their future is worse than mean – it kills their soul. Progressive policies dehumanize people. Welfare systems lead to drug abuse, the breakdown of the family, and loss of social mobility. This is not a coincidence, and I would argue that it’s not an accident, either. The progressive movement needs angry mobs to be effective. If it can’t find them, it creates them.
We need leadership that recognizes the sovereignty of the individual. Leaders who judge the next budget, or a proposed bill, or a decision of a court, simply by asking themselves, “Does this increase or decrease the importance of the individual?” There will be other factors in their decision making. But that should be a central question to any political decision.
It seems counter-intuitive. But if an organization of individuals emphasizes the importance of the organization but neglects the importance of the individual, then that organization will come to an end.
And when it ends, it’s explosive.