The Lethal Myth of American Individualism
Let me put it bluntly: most Americans are conformists and followers. Just like most other human beings on the planet.
This isn’t a bad thing — it’s just a part of being human. Down our neurology, not any sort of moral failing.
The pandemic has proven a hard truth beyond a shadow of a doubt: Americans are not special.
Politicians and pundits pretend they are because everyone likes to be told they’re unique.
But they’re not. No nationality is better than any other. We’re all human beings. Same basic needs, slightly different ways of organizing our lives.
How most people responded to the pandemic from day one was determined not by anyone in a position of authority, not Fauci or Trump or even their own doctors.
Their response mimicked that of their peers.
And this is normal. This is human. People are social animals who look to others for clues on how we’re supposed to act.
The vast majority of people on this planet act according to expectations set by the people around them on a regular basis. Family members, co-workers, neighbors — those we share space with shape our ideas and values.
This is a simple, but too-often overlooked fact of life — especially by social scientists, people who study other people in disciplines like political science, economics, and sociology.
Most have adopted an incredibly unrealistic model of human behavior to try and understand why people do what they do and this has tragically filtered into the broader public health debates since the pandemic emerged.
Case in point: If you go back and look at the data from the start of the pandemic, people didn’t begin avoiding public spaces in March of 2020 because the government told them to. They were starting to stay home a few days before the first state-level orders were issued.
Again: Most Americans were already responding to the threat of the pandemic by staying home more before California enacted the first statewide stay at home order on March 19. They were watching developments in Europe and Canada and spreading news to their friends, family, and colleagues.
Frankly, the fact American governments took the measures they did is probably a function of social media allowing people who might have otherwise suffered and died in silence to tell their stories and warn everyone.
Governments merely got on board once they could no longer pretend the pandemic wasn’t going to rock everyone’s world. The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, and then mayor of New York City, Bill DeBlasio, both downplayed the pandemic well into March.
Once fear spread and it was clear the economy was going to take a hit (because people are the economy, after all), only then did the politicians move to shore things up, knowing that a 30% unemployment rate would be the death of their careers.
Their reaction was also prompted by the fact that in the early days nobody was 100% certain just how infectious and deadly Covid-19 would prove to be. Once it struck, even the rich and well-connected feared falling to the mysterious new plague, so they accepted the country shutting down and the massive government spending binge that would be required to avoid a Depression.
But as soon as science had locked down Covid-19’s capabilities and how to mitigate it, the powerful and wealthy Americans who own most of the media began a war not against the virus, but against the danger it posed to their financial interests.
They knew they could protect themselves — a rich person can work from home indefinitely, after all. Workers in grocery stores and distribution centers and medical staff don’t have that luxury.
And to cover for their ability to evade any kind of solidarity with people they’d prefer to forget exist, Americans have been deliberately fed a devious story by political and pundit classes who make their livings by sucking up to billionaires.
They began to tell a tall tale of America being a country made up of 333 million rational people with independent control over how they live their lives.
Manage your personal risk, legions of craven writers started to tell their readers. That is your responsibility in a pandemic — just follow the rules set by the experts and all will be well… probably, at least for you personally. Maybe. As long as you aren’t too old or have pre-existing conditions.
And so a terrible seed was sown: a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card for government leaders unwilling to upset their billionaire masters and do what was necessary to keep Americans safe.
The myth of American individualism is a cruel lie with a brutally simple purpose: to convince you that you are responsible for everything that happens to you in your life.
But it isn’t true — it is a philosophical position that its backers justify by saying it is scientific, that it has been proven that Americans are more individualistic than other people.
In reality, there is no such thing as an individualist or collectivist society.
These are both academic terms meant to help researchers structure scientific investigations into the nature of an apparent variation in how different cultures around the world are structured.
When you do science, you have to start somewhere — ideally, a concrete observation of consistent difference between two things.
Put simply — the sky looks blue to us while the ground seems more brown, and so we ask why.
To come up with the best possible answer — one that stands up from multiple points of view and offers a useful and consistent explanation — you devise tests that assume the two things are totally independent from one another.
You could argue — ancient philosophers often did thought experiments like this — that the entire world must consist of two basic colors: blue and brown. Every other thing that exists emerges from the blue-brown dichotomy, each with its own inherent characteristics — ground is firm, air seems empty, so on.
If all you can measure is the difference in color and texture, that might in fact be the best theory you can derive even if in the real world you know this can’t be entirely true.
Thanks to the work of scientists over centuries we have a much better and more useful theory to explain matters: the brownness of the ground and blueness of the sky are both caused by the fact they are made of different elements that scatter, absorb, reflect, and emit electrons at certain frequencies corresponding to what our eyes and brains perceive as colors.
Blue and brown are not intrinsic features sky and ground. Brown ground can give way to blue sea and the blue sky can turn bright red then pitch black as the sun sets and night falls.
Frame of reference and context matter, even when doing objective science.
Individualism and Collectivism are simply functional terms applied by social scientists to observe tendencies in how different peoples organize their lives.
In America and Europe we are said to be more individualist because everyone is generally expected to be responsible for their actions and advocate for their personal interests — though in a socially appropriate way, of course.
In China and most of Asia, by contrast, people are said to be more collectivist because individuals are generally expected to subordinate their wants to the demands of others with higher social standing, especially family elders.
On the surface, if you study the average family in Seattle and compare them to an average family in Shanghai, it is easy to see this difference in action. I have lived and worked with many Chinese and Korean immigrants or children of immigrants and most will openly attest that their family obligations differ from those of a rural Pacific American like myself.
But the difference is one of degree — it isn’t absolute. It is purely a function of cultural values a person learns as they grow up, much like language. And it is also largely superficial, governing public behavior more than individual actions.
Most Americans actively moderate their public behavior to fit their family’s expectations. Most Chinese are very concerned about their individual and goals and pursue them even while fulfilling family obligations. This is part of being human.
The only use of the individualist-collectivist distinction is to show how certain behaviors are publicly required and that they slightly vary from culture to culture.
American individualism writ large is nothing but an excuse.
A lie sold to Americans from youth to cover for the total mismanagement of the country by the wealthy interests who have always worked to dominate it and exploit the rest, black, white, or brown.
Wealth-worship is America’s true civic religion. It’s the reason a billionaire can pay to fly to the edge of space and have this selfish splurge be lauded in the press as a marker of social progress when American and Soviet astronauts were doing that and more fully sixty years ago.
Over 625,000 Americans have been killed by Covid-19 — and most of them didn’t have to die. Population-adjusted Covid death rates in the USA are among the highest on the planet, despite the United States being one of the richest countries of all time.
American governments — federal, state, and local — utterly failed to perform the single basic function expected of them: protect their people.
And virtually everyone involved in this colossal disaster is working to whitewash their failure, to evade responsibility for their total abdication of responsibility.
The vast majority of Americans wore masks without complaint, stopped doing normal social activities, and worked to understand the threat of Covid-19. They sacrificed substantial portions of their personal autonomy for months on end — not because they were ordered to, but because they were concerned for their family, friends, and neighbors.
Like all people are — that’s why anti-mask and anti-vaccine rhetoric tries to convince people these measures are harmful. They’re not — masks are pants and vaccines are armor. Both useful, powerful tools — though imperfect.
They work better when everyone is similarly equipped, but the holdouts aren’t that important so long as they aren’t more than 1/4 of the population.
The sad resistance of a small and vocal minority has been amplified to cover for the brutal negligence of our elected officials and media who chose not to actually fight the pandemic once they realized it would disproportionately impact the poor.
As far back as May of 2020, when the death toll was barely past 100,000, the fight to evade the inevitable blame for a catastrophe America’s leadership caste chose not to battle.
Even when there were many other countries equally if not more sociologically individualistic than Americans — Australia being a perfect example — who did far better at handling pandemic outbreaks.
War is in fact the precise and correct term to use when describing a fight against a virus, because all war ultimately boils down to resource conflict.
We are the virus’ vital resource. So we have the power to beat it, if we can get organized. This is a major reason why SARS 1.0 didn’t turn into a similar pandemic 15 years ago — it was swiftly identified, tracked, targeted, and contained.
SARS-CoV-2, like all viruses is fighting a constant war to survive. The landscape it requires to live is our own bodies. Its ancestor was probably a virus that evolved to be capable of surviving in multiple different kinds of animal, eventually mutating further to acquire the ability to infect human ACE-2 receptors after getting into the upper respiratory tract.
The virus jumps between infected hosts when they exhale — especially when talking loudly, singing, coughing, or sneezing. It doesn’t usually live very long long outside our bodies, but in spaces where the air doesn’t move much the amount of virus particles can get high enough survive the harsh outside world long enough to find a host and replicate.
This process involves injecting itself into vulnerable cells where it literally consumes them to make more of itself. Viruses are like the replicators from Stargate — all they do is make more of themselves using our cells as raw materials.
As they do, they mutate — most mutations resulting in disadvantageous changes that mean these variants can never spread, but some getting ones that allow them to spread even faster — the alpha variant was about 40% more infectious than vanilla Covid and the delta variant is at least 100% better at jumping between hosts.
Eventually the immune system catches on and activates defenses that raise the body’s temperature and clog affected tissues with antibodies. This happens much, much faster if you are vaccinated, but for most of those who aren’t it takes days to weeks.
The immune system is a system and like most in the body it doesn’t respond as well in the elderly or someone with a compromised immune system, like many cancer patients. This gives the virus more time to infest and destroy cells and reach higher concentrations in the body that mean more virus is shed when victims exhale.
And the body’s immune response itself can be a problem for many people, even the young and healthy. Because ACE-2 receptors are in most of our organs, this fight often has substantial collateral damage. Adjacent cells are harmed and take time to regenerate when the immune system starts trying to destroy the invader with its full force.
Long Covid is very likely the aftermath of this battle — and some victims’ bodies just aren’t capable of handling the strain — particularly the elderly.
For the younger the risk is lower, but still not nothing. Over 10,000 Americans under the age of 40 have died from Covid-19.
Including over 300 children and teenagers. So no, David Wallace-Wells of New York Magazine, the kids were not safe all along.
Their families know exactly how safe their country kept them.
Covid-19 has always been a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and Covid-19 vaccines are an absolutely critical weapon in the war against the virus.
But they can’t end it on their own unless vaccination rates reach 80%-90%. This is because even if vaccines do cut transmission, they can’t stop it entirely.
As a result Covid-19, absent other measures, will circulate until it has infected almost everyone who hasn’t been vaccinated. Even prior infection likely won’t be enough to offer protection, because it doesn’t generate the same level of antibody response as the vaccines.
It takes time — hours or days — for the body to recognize Covid-19 even once you’ve fully vaccinated. It has to detect the threat before it can respond, and the virus is only going to be detectable once it is physically present and trying to spread.
With the Delta variant being so efficient at transmitting, that creates a dangerous gap where even vaccinated individuals who have been exposed can pass on the virus to a more vulnerable host.
This WILL increase transmission rates. It has to. Virus spread follows clear patterns governed by mathematics. A Biden Covid surge has begun.
And because vaccinated individuals are being told by elected officials as high up as Joe Biden himself that they can resume their normal pre-Covid lives, they are helping to accelerate the pandemic.
But the reality of the threat isn’t being hammered home — we’re being told by politicians and writers that if we’re vaccinated, we no longer have to care.
We’re all individuals in their eyes, and we the vaccinated have to manage our own risk.
Now apply that logic to, say, an alien invasion. What’s the point of having a government at all if we can count on it surrendering to leave us to manage our risk of abduction or vaporization?
Governors across the country said they were “following the science” but it was clear even then that officials always tried to cherry-pick from the available scientific studies and epidemiological opinions to justify their preferred responses.
Red states, blue states — all of them effectively surrendered to Covid-19. The six states boasting the lowest death rates in America as of July 2021 are Hawai’i, Vermont, Alaska, Maine, Oregon, and Utah.
Hawai’i and Vermont are the bluest of the blue, Alaska and Utah the reddest of the red — both renowned as havens of conservative individualism.
The best performing states — Hawai’i with 370 deaths per million and Vermont with 410 — in America were still worse than most other countries around the world. And they mostly have lower death rates for one key reason: they’re relatively remote from America’s biggest population centers.
Densely populated states like New Jersey and New York are in the top 5 for death rates worldwide. Hungary, Brazil — these are their peers.
California, far and away the best of the large states in terms of its pandemic response, has done a worse job than Sweden which has a government that relied almost entirely on public health warnings with few outright restrictions.
And paid for it, by the way, in comparison with neighbors Norway, Denmark, and Finland.
Americans are told this is because they are too individualistic to follow public health guidance but this cloaks a darker, more unpleasant truth.
That most governments in America totally failed to enact basic policy measures that would allow people to stay as isolated as possible for as long as possible without jeopardizing their livelihoods.
To win a war where bodies are the literal battlefield, separation is vital.
You have to segment the population as much as possible, test widely, and perform rigorous contact tracing until you are sure entire geographic areas are virus free. This takes 2–3 months and is deeply painful — but done right, as Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and many other wealthy, sociologically individualistic countries have figured out — you can keep causalities incredibly low without putting everyone out of business.
What is required is the creativity, flexibility, and leadership needed to realize that the economy is, in fact, a structured game — one it is possible to pause until conditions improve.
You can use every existing businesses and individual’s tax records to know how much money they would have earned under normal conditions and guarantee them stable income streams even if they have to go into lockdown for a quarter.
You can establish door-to-door checks to make sure people are isolating but have everything they need to get by. Neighborhood patrols to remind people that vigilance is needed and offer help to anyone who is outside so they can stay distanced. Protections and bonuses for essential workers fighting to keep normal systems up and running while necessarily short-staffed.
But America doesn’t have true governments by and for the people. They have settler-colony regimes, complex bureaucracies imposed by state and federal authorities to administer a bare-bones social safety net designed to force people to work as much as possible for as low of wages as they can be made to accept.
This is a direct function of the total corruption of America’s democracy by moneyed special interests, which — surprise surprise — really like it when people are alienated, atomized, and unable to fully appreciate how badly the country’s systems are rigged in favor of the wealthy.
At all levels and across the parties American elected officials are ultimately concerned not with public health, but with keeping the bottom from falling out of the economy.
They knew that scenes of overflowing hospital wards and mobile morgues were too shocking to ignore, especially when New York City — the center of wealthy America’s prestige culture — was the focus of the first pandemic wave in the country. They would be a symbol that would scare people into staying home.
So keeping the hospitals from being overrun — a laudable but inadequate goal — effectively became the only pandemic response.
Now hundreds of thousands more people will die in silence because vaccines have insulated enough of the population in most places well enough to keep hospital wards from overflowing. They’re scorned in the media for having failed to get the vaccine, blamed for the fact that they prefer alternative news sources who peddle lies when those are the only ones willing to speak their language.
Yes, some people are avowedly anti-vaccine. But many who think they are — and this is crucial to remember — are just imitating what they think is normal based on the words and actions of their peers and others they trust.
Most people know full well they have families and neighbors and co-workers who depend on them — and who they depend on, in turn. Society wouldn’t be possible without these low-level bonds permeating our lives. People defend them, they make up the real fabric of society as we experience it.
But these bonds are maintained by communication, sustained by a shared language.
And because thanks to Facebook people selling misinformation and disinformation can reach any identifiable sub-group open to their message most Americans are continually bombarded with messages telling them how they’re supposed to behave as part of their group.
Conservatives often say stereotypical conservative things not because they necessarily even believe what they’re saying, but because they’re expressing membership in a community they think demands that they share certain values.
Liberals and Progressives and even Independents do the same thing — it’s how humans organize themselves. But deep down, people’s real views vary.
They are open to persuasion, even if polls say they aren’t.
I personally come from a deeply conservative, rural, Christian, military family.
I am myself Berkeley-educated and hold two graduate degrees — in short, I am a trained scientist.
And if you had to put a label to my personal political beliefs, something like Independent Progressive would fit best. If I have to choose between Antifa and Alt-Right, I’ll always pick the former.
Yet I have had little trouble convincing my deeply conservative, Fox News watching parents to accept vaccines, mask wearing, and social distancing.
Because I know how to speak their language.
I’ve managed to keep them safe — with precious little help from the federal government or the state of California, which could care less about anything not in Los Angeles or San Francisco.
It is possible to fight vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaxx attitudes. You just have to have the right messengers with the right message.
Hundreds of thousands of lives now depend on finding a way to communicate not that people are at individual risk from Covid-19 — something people will always be bad at estimating in real time anyway— but the perpetual collective risk posed by letting Covid-19 continue to circulate and evolve.
It is a betrayal of the public trust to say nothing of the thousands of medical personnel who have died and the hundreds of thousands who have been forever changed in a war that ought to be recognized as such and waged as one.
They and their families, like the largely abandoned and ignored veterans of the failed War on Terror, are owed a blood debt by America for all they have been forced to endure by a government that has totally failed them.
We are all in this together — as a species, as communities. And most people know this— that’s why they look to others to decide whether to mask up or get a shot.
Despite my state, Oregon, having lifted mask mandates, every week now more and more people are wearing them again. They see delta spreading, they know the government won’t be straight with them about the dangers.
Covid-19 isn’t going away until it is defeated.
To beat Covid-19, Americans have to be reminded of this day in and day out.
To get vaccination rates up there must be a full-press push to make vaccination clinics and transportation to them so publicly visible the 50% of people who haven’t been vaccinated but might be persuaded are confronted with opportunities at every turn.
In Black and Latino areas, that means members of the community sponsored to go door-to-door, to set up information booths in grocery stores, organize rides, speak in churches, any point of sustained contact that can be made and cultivated must be.
In rural conservative areas, this will mean deploying the National Guard — NOT to go door-to-door, but to simply be visible everywhere people in those places go, unarmed, just there in their uniforms hanging about, patronizing local businesses.
Have them set up booths in front of stores and shops, outside bars — offer to drive them to a local pop-up clinic, take care of errands, whatever is keeping them from getting jabbed. Tell everyone it’s their patriotic duty — remember, National Guard soldiers wear an American flag on their arm. A symbol all but the most rabid alt-right psychos still respect.
Over time, the longer they’re visible, simple curiosity will drive people to them. People who have been lost in their social media feeds for too long will start to realize there is actually bigger world out there.
Plus, a lot of the National Guard soldiers actually come from these places— this is true of predominantly Latino and Black communities too. Vaccinated national guard personnel are probably some of the very best people to do perpetual public outreach to get more people vaccinated. They often know the people in the places they serve, they can become trusted voices if given the training — and the mission.
The only reason governments aren’t doing this fine-grained already is that they’ve written most of these people off. To try something and fail poses a political risk — and most politicians fear failure above all else.
Which is, ironically, precisely why they fail so often.
Something must be done to stop the delta wave, and soon.
Because this is a war. Covid-19 will keep killing us until we kill it.
And if elected officials want to avoid an outpouring of total and justified fury at the next elections when the trauma of hundreds of thousands of needless deaths finally hits home with full force, they’ll act.