Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Individualism vs. the culture of death

Posted by sanityinjection on June 8, 2009

The phrase “culture of death” is often heard applied to modern American society by conservatives and religious groups. This refers to a system of secular values that, in contrast to the religious value of holding each human life as sacred, seems to glorify and facilitate death. Examples include advocacy of abortion, video games where the goal is to slaughter enemies in as bloody a fashion as possible, and a media endlessly fascinated with violence.

However, there is a countertrend that runs through American history, which is the philosophy of individualism. Individualism extols the value of each individual human being, as opposed to any group or class in which they may be categorized. It celebrates the ability to make one’s own decisions and choices without being dictated to by religious, corporate  or governmental bodies.

At first glance, it may not be apparent that these two ideas are fundamentally contradictory. By way of support, I offer the example of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, currently being viewed through the lens of the notorious Khmer Rouge jailer “Duch”, now on trial. Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge represented an extreme swing of the societal pendulum toward a culture of death and away from individualism. Recall that the Khmer Rouge were agrarian Maoist communists who wanted to completely remake their society for what they believed to be the good of the whole. They advocated and used violence against individuals on a massive scale to achieve this end. Keep in mind, too, that Duch and the Khmer Rouge leadership were intelligent, Western-educated intellectuals just like those who make up much of our own country’s leadership. The values they applied in the killing fields of Cambodia were learned from students and faculty of Europe’s finest universities.

For the Khmer Rouge (and the European Marxist radicals that spawned them), the individual had absolutely no value except as far as he or she could serve the State. An individual life consequently had no intrinsic value. This is best illustrated by the policy of the regime toward the children of prisoners who had been executed – which was to kill the children: “There is no gain to keep them.” What better illustration of the triumph of the culture of death than to find no “gain” in the lives of children? Even the brutal military dictatorships of Argentina and Chile did not slaughter the children of their enemies – they kidnapped them and had them adopted and raised by families loyal to the regime. Cynical and evil, yes, but nowhere near the level of the Khmer Rouge. To the latter, anything was justified in the name of the State and the People.

To be sure, the fascist regime of Nazi Germany shared the same combination of a culture of death (The SS wore “death’s head” skull rings and glorified the concept of death for the Fatherland), and a totalitarian state that saw the individual as nothing but a slave. The gas chambers bear witness to the results.

Conservatives and religious groups are right to try to combat the culture of death here in America. But they should defend with equal vigor the principles of individualism as the flip side of the same struggle. Those who would subsume the rights of the individual under the care of a powerful, centralized government controlling the economy, health care, transportation, and every other aspect of American life are ultimately herding us in the direction of the killing fields and the gas chambers, whether they intend it or not.


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