Don’t forget fraternity

August 12, 2008 at 9:05 am

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David Brooks, who was the first major columnist to highlight Danny Kruger’s work in the UK with regard to fraternity, pens a column this morning regarding individualism vs. collectivism. Brooks wonders if we are at the dawn of a new global conversation in which collectivism is given a second look.

The Chinese opening ceremonies in Beijing, with their repeated emphasis on the harmonious society plus the growing consensus that we now live in the Chinese century, may respark the conversation.

If Asia’s success reopens the debate between individualism and collectivism (which seemed closed after the cold war), then it’s unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge.

For one thing, there are relatively few individualistic societies on earth. For another, the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the Western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social contexts.

Scientists have delighted to show that so-called rational choice is shaped by a whole range of subconscious influences, like emotional contagions and priming effects (people who think of a professor before taking a test do better than people who think of a criminal). Meanwhile, human brains turn out to be extremely permeable (they naturally mimic the neural firings of people around them). Relationships are the key to happiness. People who live in the densest social networks tend to flourish, while people who live with few social bonds are much more prone to depression and suicide.

This would seem a natural spot in the column to mention the work of Kruger, who has himself posed the question about a new global conversation. But Kruger, as we have seen, throws a third topic into the mix:

In the late 20th century, politics was the clash between Liberty [individualism] on one hand and Equality [collectivism] on the other – a battle over the respective roles of the individual and the state. This remains the basic axis of our politics. But rather than a straightforward clash between Liberty and Equality, politics today is a contest for possession of the principle beyond them both: Fraternity.  

Fraternity — the loving bonds formed between free individuals, families, communities and civic associations — provides the proper context for individuals to thrive. Instead of pointing this out, Brooks unintentionally leaves his readers wondering whether the “densest social networks” in which people “flourish” exist in so-called harmonious and collectivist regimes like China’s.

It seems an odd omission from a columnist who has been a champion of Kruger’s work.