Obsessed with individual rights, Americans rush into disastrous decisions

February 9, 2022 3:33 am

The audience at an anti-vaccine hearing at the Statehouse on Tuesday held signs expressing their views. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jeromiah Taylor is a Wichita-based writer merging contemplative Christianity with direct action.

There is such a thing as too little too late.

As a people, Americans are dangerously close to irrevocable demise. The cause is our preoccupation with individual rights.

How often do we hear at all levels of national discourse, “Well, it’s my right!”

This sacred invocation is the great Trump card, invoked at dinner tables and on national cable news alike. We seem to hold a collective unquestioned belief that our personal agency is infallible. This belief is espoused, ironically, most often by those who align themselves the closest with law and order — that is, until law and order errs on the side of social responsibility.

While this American cultural phenomenon is by no means new, it is particularly salient in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Large swaths of people undermine the efficacy of a vaccine standing on the sole principle that they simply don’t have to be vaccinated if they don’t want to. 

Large swaths of people refuse to comply with mask mandates standing on the sole principle that they simply don’t have to wear a mask if they don’t want to.

Electoral governments are rendered ineffectual by the sacrosanct tenant of individual rights: sacrificing common good on the altar of short-sighted partisan concerns.

I write not to condemn but to warn, for I too am guilty.

Despite my understanding of Sedgwick County’s reopening policy as irresponsible, I took every opportunity to rejoin society. My vaccinations and masks do not alter the moral fact that I chose my psychological wellbeing and financial solvency over the physical health of my community.

I write not to claim superiority but to point at, through and past our shared idol — the isolated self — and to a higher truth.

The truth that none of us can exist without all of us.

Earlier I wrote that there is such a thing as too little too late.

Locally, I think of Gov. Laura Kelly’s orders under a state of emergency. While these measures might prevent total collapse of our state medical infrastructure, it is too little too late. People died and are dying who would not otherwise have died or be dying if adequate steps were taken in the past two years to prevent what we knew would happen: the catastrophic overwhelming of our state medical infrastructure.

Globally, I think of Charles, Prince of Wales’ latest endeavor, the “Great Reset,” a summit committed to salvaging the legacy of capitalism by making it “sustainable and fair.” While this summit might postpone the popular realization of capitalism as untenable, it is too little too late. The irreparable social alienation and discontent that define our time might have been avoided if adequate steps were taken in the past 50 years to prevent what we knew would happen: unprecedented wealth inequality and environmental damage.

Too little too late.

In Christian theology, there is a concept called “presuming upon the mercy of God.” In other words, doing whatever you want and asking for forgiveness later because you know God’s nature is to forgive. Likewise, Americans have assumed a presumptuous individuality. We presume upon the infinite capacity of our physical and social world to absorb and remedy the damage wreaked by our modes of life.

We presume that the Earth can handle one more plastic bottle, one more tank of gasoline, one more pound of meat.

We presume that the people we exploit via our habits of consumption or political complacency can handle one more indignity, one more brutality, one more deprivation.

We presume that the order of things can be maintained for one more decade, one more generation, one more century.

And we content ourselves with evidence that we might evade the natural consequences of our modes of life.

We presume upon the postponement of a reckoning.

We are out of time. Nothing can be presumed.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought into undeniable light a more ancient and pervasive pandemic: an unsustainable American cognitive dissonance; the willful delusion that we can lead ruthlessly individualistic lives while still presuming upon the benefits made possible by community, collaboration, and sound society.

God forgives, but nature doesn’t. Let us not be surprised when she reckons with us.

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Jeromiah Taylor
Jeromiah Taylor

Jeromiah Taylor is a writer born and raised in Wichita. His commentary and arts coverage has appeared in Kansas Reflector and other regional news outlets. His literary nonfiction is forthcoming in The New Territory Magazine, and he serves as a staff writer for Fauxmoir Literary Magazine. Get in touch at jeromiahtaylor.com.