04/01/2009 01:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Blindness of Individualism

Our individualistic ideology has spawned absurdities in every field of American endeavor, from sports and the arts to corporate finance and the war on terror. Consider, for example, our policy of dropping bombs on terrorist leaders. This is based on the premise that terrorist networks are rigid bureaucracies that will collapse in confusion if you kill the boss--a policy about as effective as cutting the head off a dandelion. The military, who are organized in a rigid authoritarian hierarchy, don't seem to understand that terrorists are organized in loose networks. In accordance with the sacred military tradition of preparing for ancient wars, the American and Israeli generals seem to envision themselves as modern Pizarros, and fondly believe that once they've eliminated the top man, resistance will crumble. Instead, like a hydra, each dead leader (usually accompanied by 20 or 30 civilians) spawns a dozen more. It's ironic that a supposedly democratic nation, born out of guerilla warfare, should be so clueless about networks.

Our individualistic ideology has also led to our fatal reliance on individual stars in sports. We send collections of big stars to international competitions where they're routed by 'inferior' talents who understand the meaning of teamwork. We're always surprised when a group of young nobodies wins a pennant or a superbowl--they're called a 'Cinderella team', but actually, it's just because they are a team, not just a collection of hot dogs. Egomaniacs like Terrell Owens and Manny Ramirez are never the assets to their teams that their talents would seem to ensure, mainly because they're a destructive influence on every team they've been with.

Small wonder the hot dog is a national symbol today. We've forgotten the gift of spontaneous cooperation that made us great.

Studies show that Americans tend to overestimate their abilities, the Chinese to underestimate theirs--an ill omen for the future. Perhaps this overestimating tendency is why our nation has been visited with such a plague of aspiring artists with little ability. When asked what they want to be, many adolescents can only say, "I want to be famous". And, indeed, we live in a culture in which it's possible to achieve celebrity status with no discernible talent. There are wannabe singers who have managers and a complete promotional package who can't carry a tune or read a note, and wannabe bands where the star is the one who knows four chords. 'Conceptual art' is the rage today for the same reason--less and less need or willingness to develop a skill of any kind.

This is not to say that there aren't hundreds of serious musicians and other artists in America--people who care about their art, who are willing to study, who recognize other talents and are willing to learn from them.
But the ratio of ego to ability, of promotion to talent, is at a dangerous high.

Having an inflated ego is not incompatible with talent. There have been great artists who were desperate for attention and loved the limelight. And there have been even greater artists who never sought attention and died unknown. The vital element is the ratio of self-love to love of the art itself. Those who care about their art devote themselves to it, and admire other great artists. They're always learning, seeking to master their craft, and will learn from anyone who has something to teach.

The fake artist has no interest in his craft, just wants to be admired. Hates anyone who's truly talented, doesn't want to learn, wants to be adulated just for showing up.

It seems counter-intuitive that the inhabitants of a major democracy could be so allergic to the welfare of the group. Put any large number of people together and the average American individualist immediately feels antagonism toward them. Such Americans are closet monarchists. They worship individual celebrities who do nothing and are nothing. To them, any individual opposed by a crowd is automatically lovable. If Hitler had been captured and paraded in front of angry, yelling American troops he would have immediately become a tragic hero to the average Ayn Rand-worshipping American.

The Obama election was a strong collective effort, and seems to suggest that our ability to cooperate to achieve goals hasn't been entirely lost. Whether the trend will spread to the average celebrity-doting individualistic couch potato remains to be seen.

(In his inauguration speech, President Obama talked of a new way of doing things. To understand the cultural paradigm shift that engendered this change--the change that both the neo-cons and the Taliban have resisted so fiercely, see my latest book, THE CHRYSALIS EFFECT: THE METAMORPHOSIS OF GLOBAL CULTURE).