Individualism, if not rugged individualism, is the publicly dominant theme of today’s American ethos. It goes beyond the apparent popularity of the Tea Party movement with its “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Let Freedom Ring” placards. There is a common grumbling attitude of “I’m not gonna let anyone tell me what to do” that seems to be prevalent among those over fifty and certainly over sixty, especially if they are white, middle class and up. Combine that with an affection for limited government at all levels, a dislike of taxes for any purpose that does not have an immediate selfish benefit, and a sense that “I’ve worked hard for what I have, no thanks to anyone else, and no one is going to take it from me,” and you have a recipe for social chaos.
Put enough of those people on a relatively small ship for a month and it becomes a fascinating experiment in social psychology. For one thing, none of them seemed to be aware of the irony of boldly asserting their self-sufficient individualism while living in the womb of a ship dedicated to anticipating and serving their every need in abundance and to perfection. I was struck by some, a relative few, who assumed the mantle of entitlement, and, like lords of the manor, engaged with staff as if they were their downstairs servants. We were amused by the lady who complained that having spent so much money for the trip she did not expect it to rain. Another person demanded that the ship be smoothed out in rough seas, which, obviously, this captain did not know how to do. A couple we called the Teutonic Duo issued their daily orders for the improved management of everything. Getting into the swing of things, I pulled out my Garmin and said that I must rush to the bridge to let the captain know where we were and where we were headed. Apparently there was no humor in that.
A far greater number acted out their Tea Party independence in another way. Many of our stops required tendering into shore one boat at a time. The ship had a well designed process for doing that quickly and efficiently. Each person going ashore was assigned a ticket for a specific tender. As soon as that tender was available, the ticket number was called over the P.A. so that its passengers could make their way to the gangway on a lower deck. General announcements asked that everyone wait in the theater, lounge or other public space until their number was called, and above all not to congregate in the stairways leading to the gangway. Simple, right? Simple unless enough people decide that they will not be told what to do by anyone, hold themselves exempt from rules they don’t like, and are determined to assume a place of advantage over everyone else. Then, with stairways and the gangway clogged, the entire process grinds to a slow crawl of unhappy old people complaining that the crew does not know what they are doing. It all worked out, and later in the day, after a few drinks, most everyone was happy again.
I suspect that among a majority of passengers there was a blind unawareness of the complex infrastructure, logistical planning and management required to make it all happen. For me, it had metaphorical application to society as a whole, and the complexity of systems needed for modern society to work at all, and for the privileged to enjoy their privileges (I include myself among the privileged). That is particularly true for a republican democracy such as ours with its emphasis on private enterprise as the national pivot point. Individualism, rugged or otherwise, has a certain value and should not be dismissed, but it must live alongside of an equally strong appreciation for the role of community and cooperation. That seems to be missing.