I wrote my in-class micro essay on a quote from “Barn Raising” by Daniel Kemmis, and wanted to expand my initial thoughts for my post this week. As Kemmis opens his essay “Barn Raising,” he starts with this resounding proclamation which stood in stark contrast to the individualist readings from last week.
“In many instances in which public undertakings or community development initiatives are blocked, there is a latent public consensus that would be more satisfying to most of the participants that what finally emerges. But in fact this consensus rarely sees the light of day. Another way to say his is that in most cases there is more common ground, and higher common ground, than the people involved ever succeed in discovering. The common ground is there (just as it was in the stock sale or the trace race), but our prevailing way of doing things blocks us from realizing it. Our failure to realize is twofold: we do not recognize the common ground (a failure to realize its existence), and we do not make It a reality (a failure to realize its potential). This twofold failure leaves out communities poorer than they need to be.”
He goes on to describe rather communitarian experiences to drive home his point that these ideas are lived out and experienced in a context that involves others. I don’t want to fall prey to the caricature that ‘individualists’ are the extremes of anti-social or completely self-centered and care nothing for other. However, as I discussed in my post The Difficulty of Emersonian ‘Self-Reliance’ I noted the inherent tension that exists when one embraces and follows the individualist ‘ideals’ to their logical outworking. As we discussed in class, this may be why there don’t seem to be many adherents to either extreme of individualism or communitarianism, but that many fall somewhere between the extremes and fluidly move around as the context and situation requires of them.
This, however, highlights the interesting element of individualism and self-interest. While last week’s readings from Emerson and Rand in particular take a stance of the individual as autonomous from others, Kemmis develops his argument that not only is isolation and individualism an inaccurate approach when compared to one’s experience, but that taking such a posture actually harms the potential outcomes that could be had, both for the individual and the collective, and it is this ‘higher common ground’ that is to be sought by way of consensus within lived community. The ideas espoused by Kemmis in “Barn Raising” are also contrary to Sumner’s position that one’s duty is ultimately to themselves and not to anyone else. As Kemmis highlights, it is not a prerequisite that the people working together and toward consensus have to enjoy each other, but that even in spite differences that the collective can and should accomplish more together than one can in attempts at isolation. The specifics of “Barn Raising” may not resonate with those that have not experienced like in a rural community, but Kemmis does well to take the reader into the events being retold so that the audience has the opportunity to take some of the underlying ideas back to the context in which they live.
One interesting example that came to mind reflecting on this tension between communitarian and individualist ideas was the documentary series produced by Ken Burns, titled, The West (due to copyright laws, I don’t believe the episodes are freely available online but if you have Netflix or Amazon Prime, you may be able to watch them there – I found them very interesting for many reasons beyond the scope of an example here). The story of America’s western expansion is one of incredible individual ambition, effort, and struggle but also one of communitarian cooperation, innovation, and adaptation (for better and worse). The motto of Manifest Destiny stands and a rather interesting intersection of both of the often conflicting approaches.