Individuality — a defining characteristic?

Today the debate reopens on health care reform.

This is what intrigues me:

Many U.S. citizens have characterized change to the current system as requiring a shift in fundamental American ideals. Specifically, many see change as a threat to that red-white-and-blue strain of American individuality.

This debate segways into a great question —  Is individualism the defining characteristic of U.S. culture, and does changing our health coverage system threaten it?

Bill Robinson, a doctor in Bozeman, Mont., whose quote is featured on the back page of today’s New York Times, explains why health care reform is so contentious in the U.S.

American culture simply has never been based on caring about what happened to your neighbor. It’s been based on individual freedom and the spirit of, if I work hard I’ll get what I need and I don’t have to worry about [the] fellow that maybe can’t work hard. It’s a pretty cynical view of America.

But I honestly think that drives an awful lot of this debate — the notion that I’ve done my job, I’ve worked hard, I’ve gotten what I’m supposed to get. I have what I need and if the other people don’t, then that’s sort of their problem. And unfortunately the big picture — that our nation can’t thrive with such a disparity between the rich and the poor, the access people and the disenfranchised — that hasn’t seemed to really strike a chord with Americans.

So your average person actually has fairly good access. They’re happy with their physician and they’re really frightened that something’s going to happen to that, on behalf of people that maybe they don’t think it’s their job to take care of.

Does his definition of American culture line up with yours? His point is supported by other quotes featured in the same Op-Ed.

Adam, from Grand Junction, Colo.

Our founding fathers went to war to throw out tyranny, to overthrow a tyrannical government without proper representation. We are about at that point now. We’re here to say we want our country back. Health care … is socialism. And socialism is not an American value. … No, I do not have health insurance. I’ve never had insurance. [If I need medical care] I should pay for it. I’ve been to the doctor one time since I was 12 years old. I paid the full bill. … If I truly needed, had a medical need, I have a catastrophic plan that I bought. But it just covers something that’s truly catastrophic. Has a huge deductible. And if that came about I would pay that. You know, you don’t look for a handout.

Anonymous nurse, Western United States

When you come to the West, you have a different mentality. There’s an independence and an individuality here that you don’t get anyplace else, because when you’re in the city, you’re kind of like part of the hive … Here, people are really, really proud, and they cherish their independence. And they cherish the fact that we are all individuals. And that’s what we’re afraid of, is that we’re going to lose our individuality and we’re just going to be part of the hive. If you’re just part of the hive, then what are you going to do? You’re going to cull out the weak links. You’re going to cull out the lady that’s on crutches and got diabetes, because she may be a good grandmother and she may be a good person, she lives by herself, and her house is paid for, but you know, her medicines cost a lot.

So are changes to the system menaces to individuality? And in the pecking order of U.S. ideals, does individuality trump concerns for your neighbor? Why? Is health care reform a sign of encroaching socialism*? Are we all going to become part of the hive?

Food (ahem, medicine) for thought. Read the full article here: Obama’s Audience Speaks First.


*Why is this a dirty word in the U.S.? A topic for another post.


1 Response to “Individuality — a defining characteristic?”

  1. 1 Clint September 9, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    “Is individualism the defining characteristic of U.S. culture, and does changing our health coverage system threaten it?”

    I think it’s the defining characteristic for a vocal subset of Americans, who are often wealthy and conservative.

    But most people in the country support (and have long supported) universal coverage for the population. I think the majority understands the need to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the society as a whole.

    I personally don’t think changing the health system threatens individuality. In fact, I think it enables it.

    It’s all well and good to talk about the virtues of individual freedom, but that means very little if opportunities are highly unequal – as they are in the United States. So yeah, a child born in the ghetto has the freedom, but it’s very different from the kind of freedom experienced by a child born in Beverly Hills.

    Without minimal protections like health care, individual freedom becomes perverse.

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The "Unstatic Blog" documents the changes going on around you and me. It will ask and answer — and then ask again — how is your world changing? Read and participate in the conversation.


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