There has been a great deal of controversy over the graduation address of Fairfax County school board member Abrar Omeish to the Justice High School in Falls Church on June 7th. In her remarks to the graduates, Omeish praised a teacher who made social activism part of her class and warned the graduates that they are going into a world filled with racism and white supremacy. However, what really struck an admittedly libertarian chord with me was the third danger that she warned about: “excessive individualism.” Like free speech, individualism is now being presented as a danger rather than a strength in our society.
Omeish is a strong speaker who impressively moved between English, Spanish, and Arabic in her address. However, many parents objected in Fairfax (where I live) to the content of the remarks. She labeled those who do not agree with the activism agenda as effectively opposing anti-racism values: “You understand that social justice is only political for those that can afford to ignore it. You understand that ‘neutral’ is another word for complicit. And you have made a choice to take a stand.” She encourage the students to remain activists and pursue “jihad” because “we struggle with human greed, racism, extreme versions of individualism and capitalism, white supremacy, growing wealth gaps, disease, climate crisis, extreme poverty amidst luxury and waste right next door. And the list goes on.”
As we have previously discussed, “jihad” in Arabic does not mean violent acts despite the common view of the term. It is a reference to good acts or public service. There is no basis to suggest that this speech was encouraging violent action. Rather, she declared “Every part of your being may scream in rage at the ways others have wronged you,” but “let compassion for your fellow human beings, not anger or rage — and believe me this is hard to do — fuel you.”
What stood out for me was the reference to “extreme versions of individualism.” There was a time when individualism was viewed as a core protection and value in our society. Now it is often denounced as a harmful value that resists more collective and communal priorities from fighting Covid-19 to racial justice.
For years, academics have lashed out at individualism as a barrier for public policy goals like health care. On study on the “excesses of individualism” concluded, for example, “Libertarian individualism has created political isolation and prevents the evolution of democratic decision making and real partnerships in healthcare.” The case against individualism has been made in books ranging from Robert N. Bellah’s book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Amitai Etzioni’s The Spirit of Community. Writers like Nick Romeo insist:
Radical individualism today retains this highly circumscribed conception of government’s role; the body politic – above all – serves to protect the safety and the property of the individual. This is exemplified in a line made popular by the US president Ronald Reagan: the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ It is a radical philosophy that suggests the political collective should have no role beyond the protection of the individual.
The old view of “rugged individualism” has become reactionary individualism for those arguing for a new collective consciousness. The move against individualism brings to mind a quote from Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago:
“The main misfortune, the root of all the evil to come, was the loss of confidence in the value of one’s own opinion. People imagined that it was out of date to follow their own moral sense, that they must all sing in chorus, and live by other people’s notions, notions that were being crammed down everybody’s throat.”
Few would argue that there is no value in collective action and policies. Individualism is not anarchy. The concern is that the attacks on individualism are coinciding with attacks on values like free speech. There is a movement to force adherence to accepted norms or values — and a corresponding intolerance for opposing views.
That is why the dire warning of Omeish for the young graduates to fear “excessive individualism” was so jarring for those of us who find believe that on certain rights, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, nothing succeeds like excess.