Few things in this world are more dangerous than the true believer. If you’re thoroughly convinced that the world should be ordered in accordance with your predetermined ideology, then reality can slap you until your mug is redder than a beefsteak tomato at Uncle Bernie’s Memorial Day cookout and you still won’t change your mind. But every once in a while, the true believer is faced with the ultimate test of his belief: believe or die, or at least believe or get horribly maimed. In some of these instances, the true believer must open his maw wide and swallow that quarter-inch-wide, grainy pill known as pride without so much as a sip of water until that pill tumbles down his gullet and activates his gut’s underutilized reality-check nerve.
Luis Lang of South Carolina is one such true believer, and in addition to swallowing a pill, he might literally be blinded by reality. This month, Lang made headlines worldwide and became a viral sensation after the Charlotte Observer reported that the forty-nine-year-old diabetic had refused to purchase health insurance under Obamacare even though he knew that the law required him to do so. Lang, a self-employed handyman and conservative Republican, had always taken pride in his ability to pay his own medical bills, thank you very much, so he never, EVER bought insurance. After all, as long as he was healthy, he didn’t need insurance. Because freedom.
But Lang’s hardscrabble individualism betrayed an all-too-familiar — and all-too-human — penchant to do dumb, irrational things. You see, this long-time diabetic wasn’t exactly the picture of a healthy-living individual: he still smokes cigarettes, and by his own admission, hasn’t exactly been consistent in his attempts to control his diabetes.
Then Lang started getting pulverizing headaches. His doctor told that him that he’d suffered a series of mini, diabetes-induced strokes, and that he had started bleeding from his eyes. Lang exhausted his $9,000 savings on medical bills to combat his vision problems, but ultimately ran out of cash and could no longer work. Worse yet, he learned that without further surgery, he would go blind. So, in a last-ditch effort, he turned to Obamacare for insurance, only to learn that the 2015 enrollment period had expired. He also learned that since he no longer worked, he didn’t earn enough to qualify for a federal subsidy to purchase a private policy. Of course, Lang would have qualified for Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid coverage, but South Carolina — land of John C. Calhoun and more freedom than the average bootstrappin’ Bubba can possibly stand — was one of twenty-one Republican-dominated states that refused Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Of course, Lang and his wife blamed the Democrats for passing a flawed bill.
Finding himself up the proverbial creek without a paddle or even a friggin’ boat, Lang launched a Gofundme campaign to raise the necessary $30,000 to pay for the surgery that can save his sight. When his story made world headlines, a whole bunch of self-identified liberals pitched in their dollars — as well as their smarmy comments — to help Lang out. “I want to donate enough to really help you out,” wrote one wiseacre, “but I can’t figure out how to get Gofundme to accept bootstraps.” Others were less scolding and instead hoped that Lang would see the error of his ways and support the ‘liberal agenda’ that views universal healthcare as a human right. As of this writing, Lang has raised $24,120 — almost entirely from self-admitted liberals who probably never work and most-certainly hate freedom. To his credit, Lang is grateful for the help, and he told Think Progress that, “Now that I’m looking at what each party represents, my wife and I are both saying — hey, we’re not Republicans!”
Now, I’m tempted to further lambast Lang for making dumb choices and saddling himself with an ideology that’s counter to his own interests. But we all make dumb choices (even if they’re not as dumb as Lang’s). So I’m gonna instead focus on the King Kong-sized gorilla that’s been cluttering up the rooms of millions of Americans like Luis Lang for a long time: the cult of individualism.
In the Western liberal tradition, individual rights are absolutely paramount to achieving personal freedom. This is as true today as it was in 1789 when thousands of pissed-off French peasants stormed the Bastille. But another factor — the commonwealth — plays a major role in realizing the full potential of individual freedom and human rights. Individual freedom has never been — and never will be — absolute, because it’s always contingent on the relative stability of the commonwealth: the notion that a political community must work to serve the common good. Heck, four U.S. states: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania are officially designated as commonwealths, which may explain why those states are godless havens of Marxist chaos. The ultimate paradox of Western political thought rests in the basic premise that the freedom of the individual is contingent on the freedom and well-being of the collective.
Since we first leaped out of the trees and established hunter-gather societies, human beings have been social animals, and this is still true in 2015. Don’t believe me? Forget about the pointy-headed anthropologists who have long-established this fact and instead take a look around at how we hyper-individualistic Americans nonetheless spend most of our time running lockstep behind various types of groupthink. We form political parties because we want to ensure that EVERYONE follows the same political ideologies. We line up to eviscerate any fool who dares to individually critique sacred American collective cows such as capitalism, militarism, and the right to hoard our own personal armories in order to stave off the coming (insert the paranoid delusion du jour).
We’re also obsessed with activities like sports fandom that fuel near-obsessive group-think via the bizarre, ritualistic display of thousands of individuals all doing the “The Chop” or putting wedges of foam fromage atop their noggins to show group support for Wisconsin’s favorite, sorta-socialist pro-football team. And then there’s Christianity: the majority of Americans subscribe to this religious belief, and they’re so dedicated to individualism that they think that EVERY human on the planet should believe in this one-true religion.
Yet despite Americans’ penchant for groupthink and our obvious collectivist tendencies, we still subscribe to the cult of individualism. A good percentage of Americans like to think that they’ve achieved everything in life thanks solely to their own efforts, and that any sense of duty to the commonwealth is tantemount to re-animating Lenin’s well-preserved corpse and using him to foist socialism on all freedom-loving patriots.
This isn’t really surprising. As Stephanie Walls writes in Individualism in the United States: a Transformation in American Political Thought, American kids “are taught and encouraged to share, to be considerate, to think of the group. However, as their political socialization progresses, the emphasis…focuses on the individual, what rights he or she has, how other people (especially the government) might deprive him or her of those rights, and what recourse he or she has in the event that this occurs.”* Indeed, the cult of individualism begins with the young in America, and membership in this cult is what may yet cost Luis Lang his sight.
Lang, like so many other Americans, subscribed to the belief that the individual — and the individual alone — is responsible for his or her own well-being, and that forcing the government to offer aid to people is merely a way of taking from those who are responsible and giving to those who ain’t. Of course, it helps that the United States boasts its own unique brand of political conservatism that cultivates and promotes the cult of individualism through the Republican Party and a seemingly limitless stream of print (for the Oldsters), tee-vee, the interwebs, and (shudder) talk-radio media dedicated to spewing out right-wing propaganda like a ruptured, puss-oozing boil on the American body politic.
But as Luis Lang’s case reveals, the obsessive belief in extreme individualism can actually harm the commonwealth and, by extension, infringe on the individual rights of others. The notion behind health insurance is that the collective pooled premiums of the healthy help pay for those who are sick, which is why you can’t just buy into it when you’re ill and opt out when you’re well. The whole premise behind Obamacare was to fix the problem that, in America, the uninsured still had to be treated, and those who were insured paid the price through rising premiums. Thus, by fancying himself as the prototypical bootstrappin’ individual who didn’t need to buy health insurance (because freedom), Luis Lang practically guaranteed that other people would eventually have to foot the bill for procedures that he could no longer afford (because freedom).
Now, lest you break out your Joe McCarthy idols and threaten to impale me with a stake carved from George Washington’s wooden dentures, let me reiterate that individual freedom is a basic and necessary human right. But as Luis Lang demonstrates, human beings aren’t automatons who are always capable of making cold, rational, reasoned decisions. We — the lot of us Homo sapiens — are flawed, emotional, sometimes crazy creatures whose capacity for reason is limited by the power that emotions and belief systems exercise over our thoughts and actions. So while the cult of individualism would have us belief that the worthy among us — the true believers — will always make the right decision for our own well-beings, the reality is that we humans do dumb stuff all the time, often under the pretense of trying to make our ideologies comport with reality.
This is why the notion of the commonwealth is more important than ever before. The idea of the commonwealth means that while we can certainly criticize dunderheads like Luis Lang, we should also recognize that we all make bad decisions, that these decisions affect other people, and that we ultimately shouldn’t be punished with a debilitating medical condition or even death just because we made bad decisions. This is the humane, and, I might add, the liberal approach that should characterize civilized societies in the twenty-first century. After all, being a dumbass is a cherished aspect of the human condition, as is learning from our mistakes to better our condition in the future. It seems that Luis Lang might have finally learned this lesson. let’s hope other Americans follow suit.
* See Stephanie Walls, Individualism in the United States: a Transformation in American Political Thought (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 5.