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Individual Exceptionalism Imperils Us All

May 3rd, 2019 by dk

Our 2019 measles epidemic has passed, so now would be a good time to discuss lottery winners, antibiotics, public retirement funds, vaccinations, gun rights and the Electoral College.

Americans value their individual rights, even when they harm the common good. Each individual is exceptional, and so it follows that every instance of an individual exercising his, her, or their right is likewise exceptional — therefore, not subject to rules that should otherwise apply.

Many state legislatures, including Oregon’s, are struggling to tighten vaccination exemptions, in response to the measles outbreak. Impassioned parents storm state capitols, insisting that their situations must remain exceptional. Maybe they should and maybe they shouldn’t, but the matter must be considered open for discussion.

Alas. discussion itself is a group activity designed for individuals to seek a common understanding — a common good. So you can see why we’ve become so brittle with one another. Anything less than total acceptance of your exceptionalism is proof positive that I haven’t listened. Both sides feel disrespected. All we can agree on at that point is that there has been — in the worst case, there can be — no real discussion.

Microbial bugs cooperate better than we do, and it shows. We’ve been using antibiotics so prolifically that they are losing their effectiveness. We take them to ward off viral infections, although they will do no good. Lazy doctors and suffering patients insisted for decades that taking an antibiotic would do no harm.

Now we see that’s not true. Bacteria have mutated to overcome the antibiotic, evolving into several “superbug” strains that are immune to our medicines. Humanity is falling behind, because humans are not sticking together.

Instead, we’re racing in the opposite direction. Oregon and other states are considering new rules that will favor the individual over the collective. Lottery winners may soon be able to keep their windfall hidden from shysters, neighbors and family. States typically give winners a full year to claim their prize. If that year of anonymity doesn’t provide ample protection, the instant millionaires could pay for whatever extra help they need.

Speaking of windfalls, public retirement plans in many blue states — Oregon included — threaten to bankrupt state budgets, except that bankruptcy may not protect something as large as a state. It may not be allowed.

When government funding becomes untenable, society begins to fray on its edges, and gun rights become frightfully relevant to individuals determined to assert their rights.

We can only hope for leaders who will lead us out of the hole we’re digging for ourselves. Those leaders must speak to us as a single, whole, united nation. Instead, we encourage those who will pander to our worried individual selves.

Will we find a leader who can unify us? It’s less likely if we abandon the localism embedded in the Electoral College. Choosing a president by popular vote may sound good. Each individual vote would count equally, but there will be less whole that can become greater than the sum of its parts.

The measles epidemic has passed, but not its underlying cause.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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  • 1 David Andersen May 3, 2019 at 7:54 pm

    I have been thinking lately along the same lines as presented in this piece. There’s a strain of thinking in The American psyche that celebrates heroic individual action and total independence of the individual. While this creates thrilling narratives, it is inaccurate of our actual daily reality. We are interdependent, No one would be feed or have any of their needs met without the rest of society functioning. We are raised by a family, educated in a school, sustained by agriculture and industry and medical services. We can be free but we also need to cooperate and contribute and care for each other. Some sacrifices may be required.