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Reagan's Ideas Still Rankle
What with Ronald Reagan having shown the power of his influence even as he left us, those who have never taken him very seriously are jumping at the chance to put down his most distinctive views. A case in point is The New York Times essay of June 13, 2004, by John Leland, "Why America Sees the Silver Lining." It basically ridicules Reaganís idea that individuals in American have a lot to do with their own success and flourishing in life. Quoting numerous academics, Leland keeps referring to the idea that we have a good deal to do with our success in life as a myth. "Thereís enough truth to that idea for it to survive," he quotes a professor at Columbia University, "but never as much social mobility as the myth suggests."
One of the oldest tricks of academics when it comes to their efforts to demean common sense is to nitpick it to death. In political speeches one can at most give a Readerís Digest version of a viewpoint. This applies to the idea of the self-made individual.
When Reagan reminded Americans that they need to recover the notion of individual responsibility, he wasnít producing a doctoral dissertation about free will versus determinism or about moral choice and responsibility. He was issuing a succinct reminder, thatís all. And when one does this, one necessarily simplifies. (I have personal knowledge of this since I write both lengthy books about philosophical ideas and very short columns in which these ideas are touched upon.)
The fact is that America in general has been about making it more and more possible for people to influence their own lives and diminish influences from the outside. Unlike in many other countries around the world, where people are largely being ruled by a few and where only those few can honestly claim to be in charge of their own destiny, in America there has been a serious notion afoot that if people arenít ruled by others, they can engage in self-government. This does not mean they can change everything that influences their livesótheir age, height, health, parents, the climate where they lives and so on. That would be an absurd idea and Ronald Reagan no more held it than does any philosopher who endorses the notion of the self-made individual.
But, of course, even a modicum of truth about this disturbs those who seek to rule others, who want to stress everyoneís essential helplessness, who take the bulk of us to be victims of circumstances. These folks do not acknowledge, at least openly, the paradox of their own position. This is that while they wish to belittle the idea of the self-made individual, they are perfectly willing to embrace the idea that they are able to make things happen, including for othersóif only they are put in charge.
In The New York Times piece there is a graph showing the results of a Pew Center poll in 2002, of a survey of 38,000 people in 44 countries. It demonstrates that Americans more than people from elsewhere believe in the idea of the self-made individual. This belief of theirs is then treated as a national myth, a convenient but false image we have of ourselves that scholars and researchers, with their superior sophistication, are able to see through, of course.
But the graph can be taken in a very simple way without having to interpret the American view as myth. In most countries people are not in fact in charge of their own lives. They are regulated, tyrannized, oppressed, and kept in place by enforced traditions and practices that make self-government nearly impossible. Even in America self-government hasnít quite swept the culture.
Yet, one reason this is the land of the free and why millions and millions from abroad still try very hard to come here is that there is at least some credibility here of the idea of the self-made individual, of self-government, or, in other words, of being free.
Even if not a full-blown reality, the freedom of the individual is, in America, a seriously considered promise. No wonder most folks think thereís more if it in their lives in this country than do those living in countries where the official idea is that oneís proper place is in servitude to the state.
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