Tuesday, December 9, 2014


According to a report in the New York Times, “Americans and Europeans stand out from the rest of the world for our sense of ourselves as individuals. We like to think of ourselves as unique, autonomous, self-motivated, self-made. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz observed, this is a peculiar idea.” This in itself isn’t particularly shocking news. We know- or should- that the United States was founded largely on the belief in individual rights…granted by the creator.
The article, written for the Times by a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, goes on to state that “people in the rest of the world are more likely to understand themselves as interwoven with other people- as interdependent, not independent. In such social worlds your goal is to fit in and adjust yourself to others, not to stand out.”
The crux of the article, however, was a study published this past May in the  journal ‘Science’ that “ascribed these different orientations to the social worlds created by wheat farming and rice farming.”  Really. You see, rice farming is complex, requiring complex irrigation systems that affect one’s neighbors and have to be built and drained each year. “A community of rice farmers needs to work together in tightly integrated ways.
“Not wheat farmers. Wheat needs only rainfall, not irrigation. To plant and harvest it takes  half as much work as rice does, and substantially less coordination and cooperation.” The authors of the study in Science argue that over thousands of years, rice-and-wheat-growing societies developed distinctive cultures: “You do not need to farm rice yourself to inherit rice culture.”
You can see where this is going, the subtle bias towards those lovable dependent types who just want to fit in with everybody else.
In fact the article closes by noting that, “Wheat doesn’t grow everywhere. Start-ups won’t solve all our problems. A lone cowboy isn’t much good in the aftermath of a Hurricane Katrina. As we enter a season in which the values of do-it-yourself individualism are likely to dominate our Congress, it is worth remembering that this way of thinking might just be a product of the way our forefathers grew their food and not a fundamental truth about the way all humans flourish.” Wow.
If we don’t have a sense of ourselves as individuals we  possess no self-awareness and if we possess no self-awareness we can’t ponder our place in the universe, one of the defining- and endearing- traits of homo- sapiens. We get told by breathless schoolteachers that each and every snowflake is unique. Not us, though…in a perfect world. Wouldn’t want to ‘stand out’! This “peculiar idea” (why are all “peculiar ideas” nowadays the long-held, traditional Western ones?) has led to the freest, most successful society the world has ever known.
As for working hard and being able to coordinate with others in complex ways, we are the first and only country to land on the moon…and bring our astronauts safely back to Earth. Oh yeah, we did invent the assembly line and lots of other inconsequential stuff like that.
“Wheat doesn’t grow everywhere” is a moot point and almost as meaningless as “start-ups won’t solve all our problems” or “a lone cowboy isn’t much good in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.” Start-ups provide many people with jobs and are a font of creativity, a lifeblood for the economy as a whole, in addition to providing a passionate outlet for those that bring them to life. Progressivism will not solve all of our problems either, and in fact will, as always, make most of them worse.
Then there is the closing shot at the soon to be ensconced Republican Congress. I don’t see much, if any, belief in rugged individualism among any of those who will comprise the new majority. (The country has, unfortunately, moved way too far past that quaint notion, and members of Congress like to be re-elected).
Finally, those who believe in the primacy of the individual- by definition- do not typically try to tell others what to believe or how to think.
Those of us unfortunate enough to have inherited the “wheat culture” values are not supposed to want to stand out, apparently. “Stand-out performer” or ”stand-out athlete” are terms that should go the way of the word “Redskins.”

Oh, well. I often like to go against the grain.

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