Field of Science

Peanut Allergies and the Future of Democracy

Parents are picketing a school in Edgewater, Florida because of restrictions the school put in place to protect a child with a peanut allergy (thanks to my sister for alerting me):

To summarize: a number of parents apparently feel that common-sense measures such as regular hand-washing (which the school is legally required to enforce by the Americans with Disabilities Act) are too onerous to bear. They are demanding that instead this child be removed from the school.

What's going on here? First of all, the claim that these procedures are taking away from educational time is ridiculous. A child with even a moderate behavior problem will waste far more instructional time than these hand-washing procedures ever could. But disruptive students aren't targeted for picketing by parents. Then there's the distraction created by the protesters themselves, which I'm sure is seeping into the classroom.

So it's not about educational time. What is it about then? I can't read these parents' minds, but there are disturbing clues in the language that some of them are using. "They're trying to take away all our rights," says one parent, while a sign reads:

To which rights are they referring, exactly? The Right of Sullied Hands? The Rights of the Unwashed Masses?

This picture is so disturbing because the methods and language of democratic civil rights movements are being used to sacrifice the educational rights of one child so that others can be spared a few minor inconveniences.  In this way, these protests are part of a larger, unsettling pattern. The past few years (or perhaps decades?) have seen a subtle shift in the way that terms such as "rights", "justice" and "democracy" are invoked in the US. More and more, these terms are being used to defend indvidual, rather than collective interests, and these individual interests are defined in increasingly narrow and selfish ways.

Mark Lilla, in a New York Review of Books article, sums this up brilliantly:

Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink… the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.

Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that “the people” can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

This all makes me wonder about the future of democracy, and human society more generally. While young people in the Middle East are are staging revolts to overthrow decades of repression and corruption, the Tea Party and Republican Party more generally are attacking the very notion of collective action for the common good. (See "Republicans Vote To Repeal Obama-Backed Bill That Would Destroy Asteroid Headed For Earth" for a satirical example.)

Unsettlingly, the one recent US protest movement on behalf of collective action---the showdown over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin---has apparently failed. The result is a further weakening of unions, themselves one of the few institutional standard-bearers of the idea that we can achieve more together than apart.

The history of humanity, and indeed of life itself, is a story of transitions from the individual to the collective, from lower to higher levels of organization. This can, of course, be taken too far, as it was in the case of Communism. But happens in the other extreme, of radical individualism and resistance to all forms of organization? Are we headed for an evolutionary regression?

I don't know the answers to these questions, and I don't think they are simple. But since this trend appears to have enormous momentum, it's worth thinking about where it might lead.

(Many of the ideas in this post actually come from my partner Anna. Yay collective action!)