Almost all of the dangers now facing our country, in this Age of Trump with Republican Control of Congress, stem from the primary American Myth of “Rugged Individualism”. Belief in this mythology is at the base of the Republican hatred of government and its’ unfounded belief that we are all better off as lone individuals without any societal protections. This myth has been destructive to our country in the past and it may well completely destroy us in the future. When a society conflates heroic mythology, with mundane reality, it always results in devastating danger.
“I returned to the Holiday Inn — where they have a swimming pool and air-conditioned rooms — to consider the paradox of a nation that has given so much to those who preach the glories of rugged individualism from the security of countless corporate sinecures, and so little to that diminishing band of yesterday’s refugees who still practice it, day by day, in a tough, rootless and sometimes witless style that most of us have long since been weaned away from.”–Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Papers, Vol. 1: The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time (1979)“
Mythology can be seen as the social glue of diverse groups. It is the accumulation of tales, beliefs, moral strictures and mores that gives a specific population a sense of homogeneity, allowing it to exist with synergy. This is true of nations, ethnic groups, religions and even political movements. One of the defining conditions in our nation is that we are one of the most diverse on this planet when it comes to religions and ethnicities. All of our original thirteen States came into existence via individual peculiarities of settlers, religious sects, slavery, climate and the spoils system of colonialism. About a third of the citizens of those thirteen colonies, chafed under foreign domination and engendered a rebellion against the British Empire’s exploitation. Among that fractional populace, there fortunately resided a group of the colonies wealthiest citizens and greatest minds. The rebellion succeeded and a decade later a government emerged created by the novelty of a Constitution delineating how it was to be run.
As improbable as the rebellion against the world’s greatest power might have seemed, the ongoing success of this enterprise is even more of an improbability. From the beginning most citizens saw themselves as attached more to their individual states, than to the Federal Government. The subsequent history of this country is well-known, but what I think often gets missed is that the history as we know it is mostly a creation of an American mythology, which has given consistency to this diverse enterprise and served to inculcate waves of immigrants into seeing themselves as part of America. While a nation’s mythology may serve it as “social glue” it can also contain within it seeds of social dysfunction. What follows is my take on the American Myth of the “Rugged Individualist” and why though it may have had initial utilitarian value; it has become cancerous within our country and may lead to the disintegration of America as we know it.
Robert Becker’s OpEd at The Nation of Change which is titled “The Right’s Sham Religion of Rugged Individualism” presents an excellent short essay on how the Right Wing today is using the myth of Rugged Individualism to attain and maintain political power. It served as my inspiration for this piece, but rather then extensively quoting it I urge you to read it, while I spin off in a less political direction looking at Rugged Individualism from the standpoint of American Mythology. The study of Mythology in the tradition of Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves, Sir James George Frazer and Richard Slotkin has been a lifelong avocation of mine. Using Mr. Becker’s article as a kind of muse, I will look at “rugged individualism” from my synthesis of the ideas I’ve absorbed through the years and it is an insight that influences much of the way I view America’s current situation.
“Rugged Individualism definition:
The belief that all individuals, or nearly all individuals, can succeed on their own and that government help for people should be minimal. The phrase is often associated with policies of the Republican party and was widely used by the Republican president Herbert Hoover. The phrase was later used in scorn by the Democratic presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman to refer to the disasters of Hoover’s administration, during which the stock market Crash of 1929 occurred and the Great Depression began.” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/rugged+individualism
While it is true that Herbert Hoover is given credit for the coinage and usage of the words “rugged individualism”, in my view the concept and connotation of these words goes further back into American history as a mythological theme. With the advent of the “Social Darwinist” philosophical movement, that “pseudo-science” lent credence to the concept and helped blend it into the common wisdom of the country.
One way to view history is from a conspiratorial perspective. While I do think there have been many conspiracy’s that have indeed influenced the course of human events, I think that to view them as the result of evil cabals plotting their execution is to be naive as to the way we humans act and think. It is certainly true that the NAZI’s in Germany and the Communists in the USSR, conspired to gain power and then used propaganda to create national mythologies that were ultimately destructive in nature. Similarly, FDR’s Administration used ideology, and mythology to create propaganda to defend against these foreign forces. My thinking is that propaganda and its creator’s, no matter how cynical, ultimately start out with a set of mythological beliefs, sincerely understood to be ultimate truths by the propagandists. Julius Streicher and then Joseph Goebbels of the NAZI Party really believed that Jews were an evil plague upon humanity and then created propaganda to convince others of its truth. The un-examined acceptance of mythology, common wisdom if you will, is perhaps a person’s greatest handicap in trying to understand the world they live in.
Central to American mythology is the idea of the “rugged individualist” as the driving force behind our country’s success. This myth holds that all of American progress came through the exertions of extraordinary men, going their own way, charting their own courses and bringing the rest of the populace along with them as followers of their iconoclastic natures. We have the legends of Daniel Boone, “Johnny Appleseed” and Paul Bunyan to represent how individualists helped spread the White Man in his quest to claim all of our “manifest destiny”. Like most mythology, the process of the accretion of heroic stature onto real people came from a need to find “men” the populace could emulate and follow. This need came from the loose alliance of business and political interests seeking to make this country into a world power and seeking to exploit the bounty of its natural resources, as they each pursued their selfish interests.
In the Revolutionary War we saw the creation of heroic myths used to rally people to the cause and then glorify the revolution to a population that did not overwhelmingly support it. Once the battle had been won, a national mythology was needed to make this collection of localities and populations coherent. Think of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys in upper New England. Remember Nathan Hale’s speech on the gallows; Sam Adams radically rousing the people of Boston; Paul Reveres’ Ride; “The Shot Heard Round the World”; and of course the Boston Tea Party. These people and instances, along with the individual mythology surrounding the wisdom of our “Founding Father’s”, were used as a common mythology to take a collection of diverse localities and meld them into a national whole. That there was much truth to the fact of the extraordinary talents of some of these individuals does not diminish their mythological aspect, merely it enhances it.
To bring us forward in time we see the mythology of the “rugged individualist” as the driving force of the American success story throughout our subsequent history. Behind that of course, is the belief in “great men” doing “heroic deeds” as being those who impel history, leading along the rest of us who lack their stature. We see this myth-making in the “Taming of The West”; in the Civil War; in our “Industrial Revolution”, in fact this theme of individual greatness runs through the entire history of this country and to illustrate it let me just list a bunch of names and allow you to conjure the images these names produce:
Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, George Armstrong Custer, John Jacob Astor, Eli Whitney, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford, Teddy Roosevelt, William Randolph Hearst, FDR, Dwight D. Eisenhower, JFK, MLK, RFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
I’m sure as you read these names all of them are familiar to you, but beyond that familiarity there comes to your mind a back-story that is full of detail. Though all of these were real people, they have already passed into American Mythology, because of the mental associations you have with them and the partially mythologized detail of their particular life stories. I specifically chose those names because all of them can be associated with “rugged individualism”, American History, American Progress and the belief that great “Men” impel progress. The “Great Man” theme is certainly not unique to our country; it is in fact a common thread throughout humanity. Where America has taken this theme though, in the ideals of many powerful political and economic forces in this country, is into the sense of “rugged individualism” representing the backbone of the “great men” who drive our history and create the mythology of “American Exceptionalism”.
If you accept “rugged individualism”, as exemplified by “Great Men”, as the driving force of progress and growth of our society, then logically it is to the needs of these “great men” that we must all cater. We see the truth of this today in the popularity of the works of Ayn Rand and the pervasive influence of libertarian philosophy. Viewing issues from this perspective leads one to the conclusion that any attempt by the government (or society) to restrain the individual rights of any person, or corporate entity, creates stifling counter-productive effects upon our country. If we are all merely individuals ultimately responsible to ourselves, then we must be the sole guardians of our personal interests, without any mediation from the “nanny state”.
In this 2012 election there was a recurring theme of much Republican and Libertarian argument that is the outgrowth of the “rugged individualism” mythology. The counterpoint between the people who “produced” for our economy and the 47% of those who merely took from it, was put forth repeatedly. The idea of the entrepreneur as the modern “rugged individualist” hero creating wealth for all of us, was so common as to be a “given” in much political debate. Even the ultimate representative of collectivist bureaucracy, the Corporation, was seen from a “rugged individualist’s” perspective; since they were run by “entrepreneurial hero” CEO’s, who with their strength of leadership and wisdom provided for their workers.
I believe that the idea of the “rugged individual”, seen through the lens of American History, is not only dangerous but utterly false. I assert that it is contrary to the history of humanity from prehistoric ages unremembered. Humans are by nature “social” animals and humanity’s ascension to dominance on this planet is the result of building societies of ever greater complexity. Yes, to be sure, the actions of great individuals have spurred progress and change for better or worse, but all change occurs limned by the social structure where it occurs. We have had “great people”, geniuses perhaps, moving us forward via innovation due to their thinking outside the box. Yet this genius was nurtured in a particular social context that allowed it to grow. Michelangelo was a genius in his time, but his time included Leonardo Da Vinci and was after all “The Renaissance”. Sir Isaac Newton was a singular genius, but then too Gottfried Liebnitz was his contemporary and their time was the beginning of the “Enlightenment”. Thomas Edison was a genius electrical inventor, but his contemporary of no mean skills and accomplishments was Nikola Tesla and their time was the height of the “Industrial Revolution”.
Despite common belief to the contrary, Henry Ford invented neither the automobile, nor the “assembly line”, but he certainly helped to perfect both, again in the context of an ongoing “Industrial/Technological” Revolution. I celebrate the “individual” who has the ability to think counter to the myths they are born with and who strives to introduce new ways of looking at the world. For better, or ill, I’ve tried to act that way in my own life, so I certainly am no justifier of collective thought and action. Yet no matter how much I would like to believe that I am not the product of my heredity, my social milieu and the country of my birth, I must accept that all of those elements and many more shaped me.
The specious philosophy of “rugged individualism” has caused much ill to this country. It has lent itself to the companion myth of “American Exceptionalism”, because that thinking goes with our “ruggedly individualistic” mythology that this country has been raised above all others and it is our destiny to enforce our hegemony. This myth has actually allowed us to create a mythology similar to the mythologies created in countries with overwhelming ethnic homogeneity, like Hitler’s Aryan purity premise in Germany, French “cultural superiority” and/or the Serbs vs. the Croats and vice versa.
We humans do have a need for mythology as a means of establishing societal connectivity. At the same time though, when we allow ourselves to become blinded by the myths we live by, we lose the ability to see our world clearly enough to make logical decisions on the issues that we face. To me the scariest thing about politics in the world today is that our discussions and our debates are muddied by mythological premises to such an extent that we can’t hear other points of view, or allow ourselves to consider them. While this has been generally true throughout human history, our species has never had the power before to destroy everything and everyone. Because of that destructive ability it is imperative that we look beyond our myths to see our present world as it really is. We are on the brink of so many disasters like climate change, over-population and water shortage, that we must seek means of dealing with them. Yet due to the inhalation of various counter productive mythologies we merely talk at each other, allowing events to overwhelm us, as we remain in a state of inaction. In our America, the myth of the “Rugged Individualist” is the most destructive myth of all.