My wife and I watch a lot of Netflix, both because we find network commercials to be intrusive and annoying, and because Netflix offers many shows with Chinese subtitles. One such show is Land Girls, a 2009 BBC period drama series built around Britain’s Women’s Land Army (WLA) during World War II.
The drama starts with the arrival of the four ‘land girls’ at the remote Pasture Farm, on the Hoxley Estate, where the women are to serve the war effort by keeping the farm producing despite the general absence of men due to the war. There are, however, both British and American troops stationed in the quaint English village nearby.
And that, of course, ultimately leads to romance, or at least sex. It’s a common dramatic principle commonly referred to as Chekhov’s gun, a reference to the point made by Russian author and playwright, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), that if there is a gun on the wall in the opening scene, it is almost assured that someone will ultimately use it.
In this case, a dashing young American corporal temporarily stationed in the nearby village attends a party at the manor where he meets the youngest of the land girls, a seventeen year-old minor who had lied about her age to get into the WLA and escape an abusive father. The young corporal plies her with liquor and false romantic mutterings as a prelude to a sexual encounter in a nearby pile of hay (all very PG). The young woman realizes what has happened before the evening is out, and, of course, feels used and duped. In the coming weeks, however, she also discovers that, while statistically unlikely in the real world, she is pregnant with the corporal’s child.
There is no post-party romance, however, the corporal is shipped out and ultimately killed, and the young victim has the baby, falls in love with the farmer’s son, who knows the child is not his, and marries him.
And that was that. The show moved on to a new storyline. Not too unusual for a Western drama, but perplexing, if that’s the right word, nonetheless, to my Chinese wife.
She was incredulous that the US Army had done nothing to discipline the young American corporal for his behavior. While they may not have known, of course, the boy’s rich industrialist American father ultimately comes to claim the child on behalf of his “legacy” in a later episode, so somebody obviously knew something.
My wife was not offended by the morality, or lack thereof, of unmarried sex. It happens the world over, although seventeen makes the woman a minor and unable in many jurisdictions to actually have given consent, and the fact is that Chinese teenagers, while norms are changing, are statistically far less likely to be sexually active, or to have sex before marriage, than their Western counterparts.
Chinese culture, nonetheless, turns on obligation, and parenting a child, consensually or not, is at the top of the list. While there may not have been a shotgun wedding in China (personal gun ownership is not allowed), there would have been a collective sense that the boy’s lack of any sense of obligation was fundamentally wrong.
My wife claims, with “100% certainty”, that the Chinese army, known as the People’s Liberation Army, would have dismissed the boy from service at a minimum. And while that may not be literally true today (I honestly don’t know), it was certainly my experience as an employer in China that the government, on behalf of the community, would take personal interest in making sure that the boy did the “right” thing, whatever that may be determined to be. (Some sort of financial support, in the least.)
It’s an important distinction in perspective. As staunch individualists, we, as Westerners, tend to view such matters in moral terms. And morality, an increasing number of Americans believe, is strictly personal.
As collectivists, on the other hand, the Chinese would look beyond the individual morality to examine the interests of the common good. Morality may or may not be violated in this case; it is simply irrelevant.
The larger problem we face in our current binary world and its MAGA/liberal split is that both sides are emphasizing individual rights above the common good. We’re just focusing on different individual rights. One side focuses on a woman’s right to choose and an immigrant’s right to inclusion; the other focuses on the rights of the unborn and the right to protect “fly-over country” jobs and rural culture.
But if individual rights are the cause, the collective good is the effect. We want to promote individual rights as we see them, but what we’re all complaining about is the collective result that we’ve actually achieved. It’s—the “it” being society in total—is not very pretty from anyone’s perspective. Minorities, women, immigrants, the rural, the poor, and even the urban intellectuals, all pretty much hate it.
These two radically different individualized perspectives, however, cannot be reconciled. And they never have been. They only appeared to be reconciled in the past. And the reality is that they only gave the illusion of reconciliation because of asymmetric class power—one class’ ability to subvert the interests of the others.
In aristocratic Europe, historically, the asymmetric power was assigned by birth and lineage. In America, on the other hand, the asymmetry tended to be slightly more dynamic, but almost always came back to economic power. (Wealth buys power both economically and politically.)
The volume of the political dissent today is due, in large part, to the fact that we have become more informed at the same time that our economic inequities have greatly increased. We’re living far closer together, both figuratively and literally, and the disparities in wealth and opportunity are more striking than they’ve ever been. It’s no wonder there is so much angst and displeasure.
The only way out of the predicament, however, is not to double down on individual rights, but to recognize the common good. And to accept, more importantly, that there are times when our individual rights must be subordinate to considerations of our common and integrated humanity.
Until the 20th Century, Americans largely lived in news-isolated, localized communities in which family, nature itself, and thriving but voluntary social institutions, provided some degree of financial security and emotional support. And while there were differences in education, personal commitment to acquiring one went a long way.
Today, by contrast, our families are scattered to the wind, our voluntary social institutions have disintegrated, it is virtually impossible to survive without some level of income, and education is dependent, to an increasing degree, on access to technology that the poor cannot afford. In short, we are, both literally and figuratively, all in this together more than ever before in history.
This, in the end, is the reality that our political processes have not yet come to grips with. Our natural inclination, on both sides of the political aisle, has been to merely double down on individualism, however we individually define that.
That is not to argue that we should all become wards of the state. The “state” is not the collective; “we” are. The “state,” as socialists and liberals have historically defined it, is just another individual, conceptually speaking. Socialists, conservatives, liberals, and libertarians alike have even all given the state a very personal face and persona (e.g, the proletariat, Horatio Alger, Steve Jobs, the benevolent liberal, etc).
It is we, not I, however, or even it, which is going to move society forward. And that progress, more than anything else, will require a change in perspective. Taxing the rich, unshackling the entrepreneurs, limiting or promoting immigration, endorsing or banning guns, and promoting or limiting women’s and minority rights, are all prescriptions for individualized notions of disease.
And if modern medicine has taught us anything, it is that health is not a function of organs and discrete ailments. The body is a vast ecosystem of inter-related processes that rely on, and eventually impact, each other. We can’t isolate the pieces; we must treat the whole.
So it is with society in the 21st Century. Think of it as “total individualism” (TI), if you can’t stomach “collectivism” because of its historical associations with socialism and communism. The point is not what you call it. The important thing is what we do. Behavior does have consequences, now more than ever, not just for ourselves, but for all of those we share our communities and our planet with.
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