“Give me liberty or give me death" were the defiant words of Founding Father and great American folk hero Patrick Henry. For the vast majority of human history, centralized control and rigid social hierarchies were foundational to civilizations. Personal freedoms took a backseat to the power both governments and elites exerted over the populous. Individualism was merely a lofty idea floated around in 18th century French salons, not instituted into governments and societies.
Thus, the birth of our fledgling nation was a bold departure from the feudal and collectivist governance that instilled social class assignment. American individualism was the conscious separation from the limbic preprogramming of our Neanderthal minds. Theoretically, social mobility was to become the ethos of what it meant to be an American. This ethos would later be romanticized as the “American Dream.” This meant individuals had choices and were no longer bound to a predetermined lot in life.
America’s Founding Fathers no longer accepted this innate human division into social hierarchies. They discarded the rigid aristocratic rule and sought an evolution of self in taking control over one’s own fate. The Bill of Rights established the explicit safeguards of individual liberties to an unprecedented extent. The United States supposedly embodied the aspirations of the enlightenment,or so we’ve been told.
Yet, by account of the subjugated, the disenfranchised, the minority and working class, this “great experiment” has been, thus far, a failure. At best, one could say it’s been mixed results, but that’s quite a stretch. the long list of eschewed individualism includes racism, sexism and xenophobia. America is a facade of individualism. Our nation was conceived under tribalism.
Individualism was lost among racial, gender and class divisions that enlightenment idealism sought to eradicate. The very individuals who sought freedom also restricted the freedom of others. It’s an irreconcilable paradox. America’s new government did not overcome human tribalism, and thus this “great experiment” was doomed from the beginning.
The idea of equal representation in government is a concept that was well understood by the American colonists under British rule. The British imperialists levied taxes on the colonies without any input from the colonists being taxed. “No taxation without representation” became a rallying cry from Americans who demanded that they either had a sitting legislator in the British Parliament or had their own autonomous assemblies to impose taxes. They yearned for freedom from tyranny, and through bloodshed they obtained it.
Ironically, the idea of representation in the birth of our young nation was a concept lost on the writers of the American constitution whose idea of “we the people” had not included anyone other than white landowning males. When George Washington was elected president, only 6 percent of the population could vote. This new government was by no means representative of the populous, and it has remained that way for most of American history.
From the beginning, the ideals of individualism and personal freedom were but words on a page. When people in power wielded it, in spite of their aspirational individualism, they subjugated and disenfranchised lower social classes and other minority groups. Deep divisions among race and class lines have persisted throughout American history, and while great strides have been taken, they have yet to be wholly rectified.
Movements for civil rights haven’t translated into equally representative political power, and these groups still face unresolved afflictions.
When crack cocaine flowed through the streets of major U.S. cities during the 1980s and 1990s, the government’s response was harsher reforms, including longer prison sentences for drug abusers to curb behavior. Instead of allocating funding toward counseling and other forms of treatment, law enforcement equated drug abusers to criminals.
Thus, a disproportionate number of young African-Americans residing in urban areas were incarcerated. Once they were released, they went back to their communities without jobs or a financial safety net, causing many to relapse and return to prison.
When more affluent rural and suburban white communities were disproportionately affected by the Opioid Crisis, the government’s response was vastly different. There wasn’t a mass incarceration of white drug offenders. In 2017, President Donald Trump declared the Opioid Crisis a public health crisis and allocated billions to an unprecedented federal drug treatment plan, as opposed to incarceration.
Of course, the injustice is not that mostly white communities received effective government action, it’s that black communities were once more forgotten. You and me both would hope to live in a post-racial society where white government officials had the same compassion for afflicted black communities as they did for white communities. But even to this day, they are not treated the same.
If liberty and individualism meant that individuals were treated equally both under the law and in society, then it wouldn’t matter if every member of government were white and male. But, it clearly makes as much a difference today as it did centuries ago when our nation was founded. The “great experiment” is as much of a failure as the “American Dream” is a farce.
Patrick Gagen is a 21-year-old mass communication and finance senior from Suwanee, Georgia.