Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Individual v. Community: False Choice

(reflections on a discussion by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen on SPEAKING OF FAITH, and comments by Margaret Thatcher in RONALD REAGAN AND MARGARET THATCHER: A POLITICAL MARRIAGE by Nicholas Wapshort.)

Some Conservatives I knew used to cite Ayn Rand's novels to justify their rebarbative and callous individualism. I read her ANTHEM, in which an escapee from a collective utopia stumbles upon a holy book in a ruined church, and discovers the pronoun "I."

Conservative icons Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan never thought that way, and, while reading about them, I heard resonance with an icon of new age new medicine, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen.

Here's Thatcher, p. 80 in Wapshort's book, speaking to her constituency in 1975, declaring her support for...

compassion and concern for the individual and his freedom; opposition to excessive state power; the right of the enterprising, the hard-working and the thrifty to succeed and to reap the rewards of success and pass some of them on to their children; encouragement of that infinite diversity of choice that is an essential freedom; the defense of widely distributed private property against the socialist state; the right of a man to work without oppression by either employer or trade union boss.

Remen, an M.D. who pioneered "holistic" medicine, looking at the spirit as well as the body, seems to be veering a bit left of Thatcher when she tells host Krista Tippett, "We know that property and success do not keep us safe; all we have is each other. We all know this -- but we don't live there."

Hearing both, I wrote these notes on a pad -- and I confess that I don't know from my notations whether these came from Remen, Thatcher, or me:

Religion teaches us to treat each other as individuals (Jesus's encounters with Simon, woman at the well, the rich young man) and to think of ourselves as parts of a community that depends on us.

If we apply that approach to public affairs, we get a McCain reaction: Even prisoners and illegal aliens are individuals first, each with his own story. There must be some room in our response to them at least to hear their stories.

The book about Reagan and Thatcher includes, somewhere (again, I didn't cite the page), this charming notion from Reagan, that "an unanswered question is a fine travelling companion. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking. My magic words turn out to be 'I don't know.'" Surprising words for a man derided for being incurious and ignorant.

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