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  • Shane Caraway

David Brooks on Erasing the Individual


David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times and frequent contributor to a number of media outlets, decried a society that is “pretty individualistic” as the largest barrier to collective utilitarianism, especially to legislation intended to deprive law-abiding citizens access or ownership of specific firearms. More recently on PBS Newshour, a broadcast corporation funded by public taxation, Mr. Brooks described individualism as an obstruction to unconstitutional firearm legislation at the Federal level and, ironically, to issues of “privacy.” He explained:

“I would be willing to give up certain privacies for that to happen. But, for many Americans, that would just be a massive cultural shift to regard community and regard our common good more frankly, in a European style. I think it would benefit our society in a whole range of areas, but it's hard to see that kind of culture change to a society that's been pretty individualistic for a long, long time.”

While Mr. Brooks is often lauded for his novel insights, this particular talking point is a platitude at least as old as Plato who decried the egoism and selfishness of Athenian individualism. It is fitting that the progenitor of collectivist totalitarianism shared the anti-individualist sentiments of later Leftists like Karl Marx and despots like Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse-Tung, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. All of these tyrants hold something in common: a shared rejection of individualism as an obstruction to their collectivist utopias. Like Plato, they consistently maligned individualism as a selfish, greedy, and destructive quality most often attributed to their favored oppressor strawman: the bourgeoise, the capitalist, the industrialist, the wealthy, and so forth. Individualism is antithetical and incompatible with a collectivist worldview and government. They also joined other communists in slaughtering over 100-million of their own citizens.


Picking only one from this tantalizing list of historical despots, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was particularly blunt about his hatred of individualism, a vitriolic rage that he (naturally) attributed to capitalism. another messianic figure on the Left, explained that individualism was incompatible with the communist revolution and its aims of a single, global State. While useful in the initial stages of violence and murder, individuals were destructive to a collectivist society. His future was “not a vision of something for the individual” but a was reserved only for “the society of communist man.” It was only through the complete extirpation of individual identity that the “new man” would “reach total consciousness of his social being.”


To erase individualism required social engineering and the proper application of genocide. “The vestiges of the past are brought into the present in one's consciousness,” he explained, “and a continual labor is necessary to eradicate them.” This "labor" process involved direct action by society, a euphamism for the State, through direct and indirect education through propaganda and social conditioning. The other component required that an “individual submits to a conscious process of self-education.” One is reminded of the climactic scene of Orwell’s 1984 and the infamous equation of guided self-reeducation: 2+2=5. The destruction of individualism enjoyed the erasure of history as a convenient corollary. Historical knowledge was, after all, an additional obstruction to collectivist utopias expounded throughout Leftist dogma, especially its long history of bloody failures.


The erasure of individualism has been a strategy of dictatorships reaching into prehistorical tribalism. It has continued as a mainstay of totalitarianism since. The open embrace and elevation of the individual—and especially individual civil liberties as a protection against the collective society—is one of the components of American exceptionalism. All other civilizations subordinated the individual to majoritarian or monarchial will; America proposed the first alternative, and with tremendous success.


Mr. Brooks views the purpose of civil liberties and government in a different light. The role of American government was not the protection of the individual, but a fixation on conforming individual behavior to the presumed and subjective “good” of society. This is not a shocking development since he views individualism as an adversarial social form. The purpose of American government was never designed to protect “the common good” as he suggests, at least not in the manner he is proposing. The common good was encouraged by the reciprocal protection of all its citizens; civil rights, not entitlements or positive freedoms. It was only by supporting the individual that the society benefitted, itself comprised of a social compact between consenting individuals. The “common good” did not emerge by infringement on the civil liberties of fellow citizens, liberties that were extrapolated from natural rights. In American political and social philosophy, the “common good” of society depended on individual citizens and families, two components that the Left has sought to destroy.


The list of infamous, murderous, democidal maniacs mentioned shared another commonality: they marketed gun confiscation with utilitarian, collectivist appeals. Firearm possession is synonymous with individualism and autonomy by placing adequate self-defense capabilities into the common citizen. It is only natural that its removal, often alongside the kind of “gigantic cultural shift” Mr. Brooks expounds, is a necessary predicate to a collectivist utopia itself premised on the force-of-violence from a centralized State.

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