I am in my happy place, snug in the middle lane of the 101 coasting at a modest 60 miles per hour, listening to The Daily, driving to Topanga with Micah. Schuyler thinks I drive too slowly. I prefer “cautious.” It might be genetic.
My beloved Nana, barely 5 feet in heels, seldom broke 25 on the speedometer. As a young boy, I would often accompany her to her sacred weekly hairdresser appointment. There was a soda fountain there in which I enthusiastically indulged, creating madcap papercup cocktails of Mr. Pibb and Fanta. Eventually, she’d emerge from the chair, grip my hand, her long glossy red nails digging at my forearm skin, and lead me out to the mini-mall parking lot.
Automobiles did not spare steel in the 1970’s. Nana would board her colossal Cadillac, often unwittingly parked askew across two spots, like a mouse saddling an elephant. She didn’t drive it as much as it drove her. She’d crawl out of the lot into traffic like a cruise liner leaving port, eyes peering out underneath the top curve of the wheel, nothing but her fabulous frosted red coiffure visible to leery fellow drivers. She would retell the same yarn of her father’s arrival at Ellis Island and then improvise with Ethel Merman schmaltz, “Only in America.” We’d stop to get Carvel. Heaven.
Generally, one podcast episode perfectly fills my commute to Topanga. Fourth of July weekend approaches and host Michael Barbaro is reciting our founding doctrine from our greatest piece of American literature. We know it almost too well, like a prayer uttered so many times that we forget its meaning:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This lofty egalitarian ideal is the plot line of our national mythology. In its time, it was a radical repudiation of feudal European pre-destiny, where you were born either into aristocracy or serfdom and there you remained. This Declaration dispensed with the divine right of kings, ushered in the Enlightenment and anointed individuals with the power to choose their own government.
Of course, we know this national folklore has been so often a fairytale, a false narrative. Just because these rights were scrawled on a parchment did not mean they came for free. Generation after generation, passionately engaged citizens have waged principled battles to better align our human condition with our most cherished principles. And, again, this call beckons.
When the framers penned the notion of all men as equal, they were certainly not drawing from evolutionary biology. A Darwinian understanding of the world was a century away and, of course, from a genetic perspective, we are all snowflakes. The concept of equality was based in the spiritual, specifically in the Judeo-Christian notion that every person is born with an eternal soul judged equally before God.
Yet, in the same stanza of this Declaration, there is a paradox. The spiritual notion of a land of equals striving for a common good echoed eleven years later in our Constitution by “We the people,” “a common defense,” “general welfare,” “more perfect union” and “United” states exists in stark contrast with inalienable individual entitlements. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have become increasingly applied to sanctifying the rights of the individual and protecting the ability to own property and amass material wealth. How we square our commonality and individualism has always engendered fierce national debate.
This tug of war between the common good and individual rights, often narrowly reserved for white, straight men and systematically denied to others, has been our messy national story. Slavery to abolition, Jim Crow to civil rights, codified patriarchy to women’s suffrage, discrimination to legalized gay marriage, we inch along, bumper-to-bumper, down the highway of the moral universe.
We have, from time to time, coalesced to dull the sharper edges of capitalism: a graduated income tax, social security, unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, student loans and SNAP. And we have surfed waves of alternative community-based approaches to living, built on shared resources and distributed leadership.
But that sea has now flattened. And for a good fifty years, America has been dominated by unrepentant individual materialism. Unbridled capitalism, in cahoots with neo-liberalist government, has put its fat finger on the scale, tilting the balance between “we” and “I” so wickedly that, now, three people in the United States own more collective wealth than the bottom 50% combined. Of course, this grotesque inequity is the exact conundrum we set out to address in declaring our independence in the first place.
From the captain’s chair of my dusty vehicle, I reliably estimate that I can see a thousand cars of every conceivable color and size across this sprawling ten-lane superhighway. In front of me and behind, moving with me and against, there are tens of thousands more. Driving these sedans, pickup trucks, 18-wheelers and minivans are operators of every color and creed, race and religion, class and orientation – moving as if under the direction of Esther Williams.
The thruway is a poignant if banal portrait of a well-oiled social contract. We eschew certain rights to receive greater ones. With minor exception, we don’t drive 120 miles per hour and, in turn, we have the luxury of a road to travel and a safe return home.
Road traffic serves as a rare alignment of self-interest and common good. We drive mindfully, only as fast as the car in front of us. We brake when needed and let people merge in regardless of tint. The consequences of our autonomous actions are mutual. Recklessness results in a collective wreck. We may not share a destination but we do share a meritocratic destiny. Nobody gets downtown before anyone else.
Here, on the Interstate, the intersection of shared humanity and self-preservation, the common good and individual rights, is in perfect and ordinary lockstep. Our individual freedoms are dependent on each other.
As I take the Topanga exit, I can’t help but superimpose this metaphor on COVID, which is again spiking dramatically across the United States with 50,000+ new daily cases. The solution to stanching the spread is, or was, hidden in plain sight. There is a playbook that other countries have successfully executed: mask-wearing, social distancing, identifying clusters, extensive testing and contact tracing, and quarantine of the infected. It works. And businesses can remain partially open. But this plan is predicated on social cohesion stemming from the willingness of an entire citizenry to put social good above perceived self-interest. In other words, you must get in your lane, put on some music, go slow, and take a breath. Eventually, you’ll get there.
I can only imagine the patriotic pride felt among Kiwis, Taiwanese, Irish, Norwegians and Icelanders. Through shared sacrifice, they collectively stepped up to meet the greatest public health challenge of the millennia and conquered it, together. Yet in America - with our competing masks of patriotism - our greatest enemy has become each other. Our much-celebrated rugged individualism not only currently prevents us from entering Europe but many Americans cannot even travel to Connecticut.
In the end, there is both an irony and a beauty to the communal embrace of interdependence; a realization that our individual freedoms and the collective good are actually one and the same.
And perhaps our framers, despite their personal hypocrisies, were wise enough to comprehend this.
There is a spiritual lesson in this and it’s not a novel one: The self is illusory. And this illusion, the notion that we are all distinct individuals living among other separate individuals in an external universe, is at the core of income inequality, racism, climate change, the unfettered spread of COVID and just about every other source of human misery. Our ability to solve these existential riddles will stem from a collective spiritual revelation as much as political resolve.
I think about my Nana telling me stories in the car, fables of America and the promise of its dream. I glance at Micah wondering what stories am I going to tell her children’s children?
Wishing all a Happy Interdependence Day.
Commune Co-founder and CEO