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Bridging the Gap: Individual/American Exceptionalism vs Social Responsibility

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Message Linda Thurman
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Today in reading a review of Andrew J. Bacevich's "Limits to Power: The End of American Exceptionalism"- on the Daily Kos,  "The End of American Exceptionalism, What no President will acknowledge", I was confronted again with my own personal conflict in bridging the gap between my desire for individual freedom and my need for being a responsible family or group member.  Allowing the personal introspection to guide me in the political discovery process I've been pursuing (Finding my own Voice), I came to a more enlightened understanding of the purpose behind the system of checks and balances our founders built into the Constitution.


It's very basic: Individual freedom is a desired state of being which 'should' only be limited by social responsibility. Social responsibility necessarily limits the expression of individual freedom under certain conditions, the condition of needs for the social good--the "common good"- or "commonwealth". 


All the ills being discussed in the book and in the review about America, as a Power, and Presidents/Chief Executives, as Powers, originate in this one conflict.  Power can and will be misused in human systems.  Individual, executive, imperial power will/can be used to dominate and control others for private advantage.  At the same time, concerns for the good of the whole can suppress and smother individual freedom and excellence by giving undue focus to the need for preserving the social order, which results in bringing the full range of individual differences down to the lowest common denominator.


Both these principles, these characteristics of human nature are necessary for our survival--human survival--the survival of life on earth.  Yes, Life.on.Earth! These are the principles of competition and cooperation, of opportunism and altruism. Humans are the only species on earth who have the power of discernment and choice--and the ability to misuse that power in such a way as to upset the balance of life on our planet.

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  • When individual excellence/achievement/ambition, or imperial exceptionalism/dominance/avarice get out of hand, the social order, the living system of nature is put at risk.
  • On the other hand, when a repressive social order, such as that of Lenin and Stalin is over-built and forced onto the people--when all individual freedom and opportunity are squelched in lieu of the so-called good of the state (whole), then the 'living system' is also out of balance.

It is the first imbalance mentioned here, (that of individual/national exceptionalism vs the survival of the whole/planet), that plagues us today and is the premise of this discussion.


Systems growing out of balance become dysfunctional at greater degrees until they push past the "tipping point" and collapse into chaos and disorder.  It's up for grabs then who or what controls the next form of order and rule--and the results of the collapse limit the conditions under which that new order is established.


The "middle way", was the advice of Daedalus to his son, Icarus, upon gifting him with the wings he'd fashioned for him.  Held together with wax, they would not be sustainable soaring at great heights (too near the heat of the Sun).  Father cautioned son not to fly too high, but to go the "middle way" across the tumultuous waters or be at risk of falling into their grasp to be tossed and torn apart.

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We all know Icarus, in his hubris, in his greedy desire for exceptionalism, did fly too high and so fell to his fate.


Aristotle, too, cautioned us that "the secret of happiness is in the moderation of all things."  I'm thinking he meant a functioning system has checks and balances that allow it to run homeostatically.  Alas, systems do wear out and lose energy--they fall into collapse and restructure themselves according to a new and more efficient and effective order.  Different principles come into play during such a first order change as that.


We are going through such a first order change.  I'm not sure we have learned which principles will guide us through. Perhaps they will be new ones--a challenge for the next step in our evolution of knowledge and ability to govern ourselves sustainably.

Only a wise and benevolent leader and an awake and aware, educated public, or citizenry can take the rudder and guide our ship of state, our planet earth through this maelstrom and into a sustainable future.  At least now, I have hope.


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I am a marriage and family therapist and clinical social worker who follows a systems perspective in my work. I see individual and family problems as an integral part of a complex socio-political whole. My purpose now is for speaking out from the (more...)
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Bridging the Gap: Individual/American Exceptionalism vs Social Responsibility