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Rugged Collectivism

It's 1961. William Stockton, a well-respected doctor, is having a birthday dinner with family and friends. They toast his service to the community and joke about all the late-night work he devotes to his hobby. Dr. Stockton has just finished building a bomb shelter for his family.

Before the guests can repair to the living room for after-dinner drinks, the radio announces a yellow alert. Radars have detected unidentified flying objects heading toward the United States. The good doctor guides his family into the basement shelter to await the nuclear attack. One by one, the neighbors approach the shelter door to ask for admittance. The doctor says no, there's only enough air and water and food for his family. The neighbors quickly go from wheedling to demanding. Growing desperate, they ultimately break down the shelter door with a battering ram. Just as the door splinters, the radio announces that the objects are only satellites, not missiles.

In this classic Twilight Zone episode, "The Shelter", Rod Serling returns to one of his favorite themes: Cold War paranoia. Pushed to the edge, humans will act like wild animals and tear each other apart. "You're acting like a mob and a mob doesn't have any brain," one of the characters remarks during the rising tension. "Keep it up and we won't need a bomb: we'll destroy each other."

Mob rule, groupthink, the tyranny of the majority: these are easy targets in American culture. After all, we celebrate rugged individualism in this country. Jimmy Stewart goes to Washington and, through his personal integrity, saves the country in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Henry Fonda patiently persuades a blinkered jury of the innocence of the accused in 12 Angry Men.

Later, when the apocalypse comes, the righteous individuals (Kevin Costner in The Postman, the father and son in Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road) must fight off the roving mobs of degraded humanity. Crisis, we are told, strips away the veneer of social niceties. Everything quickly devolves into a war of all against all.

We impose these prejudices on the larger world outside. The Washington Post prints a photo on its front page of looters in Haiti carrying away food after the recent earthquake. But are they really looters? "After years of interviewing survivors of disasters, and reading first-hand accounts and sociological studies from such disasters as the London Blitz and the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, I don't believe in looting," writes Rebecca Solnit in TomDispatch. "Two things go on in disasters. The great majority of what happens you could call emergency requisitioning. Someone who could be you, someone in the kind of desperate circumstances I outlined above, takes necessary supplies to sustain human life in the absence of any alternative. Not only would I not call that looting, I wouldn't even call that theft."

In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit reports that in a crisis most people don't act like Dr. Stockton and his neighbors. Even as they struggle to deal with their own problems, people will reach out to help others. Whether it's a relatively minor crisis like two feet of snow dumped on Washington DC or a terrifying disaster like Hurricane Katrina, altruism frequently trumps our basic instincts.

Despite our ethos of rugged individualism and our tendency to describe large gatherings of people as mobs (unless they happen to be removing a government we don't like very much), technology is at work reshaping our collective consciousness. Groupthink, for instance, has been largely replaced by crowd-sourcing: The mob, it turns out, can have some good ideas, as long as it's hooked up to the Internet. Hierarchies headed by take-charge leaders have been replaced by more horizontal networks. Social media facilitates the building of solidarity across borders as the faceless mob turns into the Facebook group (as I discovered recently when we set up a new Facebook page to oppose the expansion of U.S. bases in Okinawa).

We need a new phrase to describe this way that individuals act in concert and groups add up to more than the sum of their parts. Let's call it rugged collectivism (RC). RC is about a community pulling itself up by its collective bootstraps. RC is how a group raises up its best ideas rather than dumbs down everything to the lowest common denominator. RC is how we respond to disasters, current and potential, not by holding fast to what we own but by reaching out to those we can help. It's not just about harnessing the power of the Internet. RC encompasses work on reclaiming the commons, reinvigorating local communities through local currencies and farmers' markets, and remaking government services so that they make a real difference in people's lives. It's time to say, collectively, enough with privatization already!

In one of his last speeches, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC a few days before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. returned to one of his favorite themes: the beloved community. "Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood," King preached. "But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality."

Forty years later, we are perhaps just now glimpsing a way to build this network of mutuality. Possibly just in time. For some years now, the radio has been announcing a yellow alert. Will we fight over space in the bomb shelter of The Twilight Zone or work together in a spirit of rugged collectivism to avert the looming disasters?

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