Sunday, July 7, 2013

THE ILLUSION OF RUGGED INDIVIDUALISM

I am not a self made person. No one is. We depend on our fellow human beings, whether parents, siblings, relatives, neighbors, teachers, or hundreds of others who influence our lives. I owe my academic life to the dedication of my elementary, junior high, and high school teachers, who encouraged me, praised me, and greatly expanded my knowledge. I learned from my father how to read a lot and how to learn from those who call themselves communists, liberals, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, and even reactionaries. I learned from my blind teacher, Morris Cohen, while reading the classics of Western Civilization to him, that every generation experiences existential issues and we respond in different ways. I consider myself an amalgam of Job, Ecclesiastes, Plato, Socrates, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, Epictetus, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Dante, Machiavelli, Rabelais, Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Pepys, Copernicus, Galileo, Condorcet, Darwin, and Freud. All of that before I attended NYU as an undergraduate. I assimilated Muller as my mentor at Indiana University. Throughout my life ideas have come from reading essays, classics, and novels. I even learned as a child reading comic books (True Comics and Real Heroes were my favorites) and used that knowledge even in the Honors College at Stony Brook University (I remembered that the first submarine was used in the Revolutionary War in New York Harbor thanks to True Comics). I am doubtful when people proclaim they are rugged individualists and that depending on others is a sign of weakness or a weak personality seeking a dole or stealing the “hard earned” profits of the thrifty. I think of Bounderby in Charles Dickens’s novel, Hard Times, who proclaimed he was a self made millionaire. He was a phony. We are social beings. We get depressed or go mad if we are isolated from other human beings. No one of us can make all the things we need to live – our clothes, growing our food, slaughtering our animals, making our pencils and paper, building our homes, making our own airplanes, making our own phones and computers. We benefit from diversity. The less diverse we are and the more we share a common set of beliefs, the more narrow and intolerant we can become, narrowing the universe around us. I praise the person who gave the money that enabled me to go to NYU on a scholarship. I praise the government for providing the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health that provided fellowships so I could benefit from graduate studies and research at Indiana University. I thank the people of Indiana and the people of New York for supporting through their tax dollars two first rate centers of learning – Indiana University and Stony Brook University. I thank government regulators for protecting my health and providing confidence that the foods I eat, the air I breathe, and the medicines I require, have been screened for agents that can induce mutations, cancers, or cause birth defects. If I had not had this generosity of society and individuals caring about each other I would not be writing this article. I would have made a living as an elevator operator like my father. There is nothing wrong with hard labor but what a pleasure it is to write and teach and share the knowledge I have gained to a far wider portion of humanity. Thank you, all of you, for your kindness.

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