The weight of knowledge is too great for one mind to absorb. He saw a time when one man would know only one little fragment, but he would know it well.
East of Eden
Other than chasing down a wild pig, killing it a with a sharp stick, and it roasting it over a fire, no individual has ever produced anything worthwhile. Started or finished something, sure. Been essential to, of course. Jeff Bezos turned retail and shipping inside out, but it took a team of website developers, accountants, marketers, and other employees (the current count is 341,000). The Beatles came together with sound engineers, album artists, promoters, and distributors. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin with iron and steel that other people had mined, smelted, and shipped. Any start-to-finish product needs collaboration, and so does America.
A self-taught naturalist named Dick Proenneke built an Alaskan cabin by hand in the summers of 1967 and 1968, and then he lived in it for thirty years. He cut down trees, stripped their branches and bark, carved notches in the ends, and stacked them into walls. He cut up acres of sod and moss to make his roof. He crafted a stone fireplace, open-air windows, and a latching door. But Dick Proenneke did not build his cabin alone. Construction filled two summers, which meant he lived in someone else’s shelter for three seasons. And even though Proenneke only used hand tools, many with handles he fashioned himself, he did not make their steel. Of the most famous spokesmen for self-reliance: Thoreau squatted on Emerson’ woodlot and had his mother wash his laundry; Christopher McCandles camped out in a hunter’s bus, slowly starved, and died. No individual has ever produced anything worthwhile, because almost nothing has been produced by an individual.
This doesn’t lessen the value of individualism. An imperfect quality is still a quality, and often more of a quality when held imperfectly. Autonomy, pioneer grit, and individual expression all matter—but we already knew that. Every child learned the importance of the individual through cowboys, superheroes, and the likes of Han Solo, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the Terminator. Sure, Han has Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca—but they’re heroes, too. At some level, isn’t that what individualism is all about? Being the hero. Saving the day. Who watches Han Solo blow up TIE fighters, and then decides he’d rather be the air traffic controller who directs X-wings to Yavin IV?
The shouts of individualism often drown out the hum of collaboration. It’s a hum that’s barely noticeable, even without the clamor of kids and teenagers and men and women trying to distinguish themselves. It’s the hum of things working. An online order shows up in the mailbox. A song recorded in England plays through a smartphone in America. Cotton t-shirts sell six for $15, wrapped in plastic and identical throughout the world. This is amazing. Homes, clothes, cars, food, music, science—all of it depends on millions of unsung machinists, electricians, plumbers, custodians, receptionists, secretaries, copywriters, developers, bureaucrats, technicians, safety inspectors, security guards, cashiers, dishwashers, and so many others whose best sign of a job well done is invisibility.
These millions will save America. More than America. These millions are saving civilization, constantly and everywhere, because they are civilization. They are as embedded into existence as breathing or sex. Everything America produces depends on this hum—by, for, and of the people. There is importance in this work, and even greater, there is importance in this belonging. The hum offers a communal identity, not to replace individual identity, but to join it. And sometimes, despite America’s love of heroism and the “self-made man,” to overpower individual identity. A communal one compromises, trusts, and empathizes. It has patience for the banality of progress. It admits individual limitations, and it values the collective knowledge and expertise of the scientific community, the established church, the mainstream media, the government, and other institutions. Not blindly or absolutely, but humbly. America needs these qualities, and self-reliance has not provided them.
Dick Proenneke could not even build a one-room a cabin by himself; no President or Congress can fix polarized politics, a widening wealth gap, environmental degradation, outdated infrastructure, or the opioid epidemic. America is too big for heroes. It needs pencil-pushers. Bureaucrats. Civil servants, social workers, and volunteers. It needs state-level accountants and city-level politicians and community-level organizers. It needs deputy directors of parks and recreation departments.
These jobs already exist, and this work is happening. Revolution isn’t necessary. The hum of collaboration is quiet.