Living in Texas as I did for two yrs, if you want to win over a crowd of Texans use the term rugged individualism; they will salute it like the flag, invite you to kill a steer and barbecue it. But is rugged individualism a Hollywood myth or reality?.
Everyone always says that rugged individualism is the backbone, and the jawbone, of America; that a country as grand and sturdy as this could only have been built by the self-propelled and self-interested strivings of wild-eyed nonconformists, each fur-laden Daniel Boone pursuing his independent errand into the wilderness. The term is fairly precise. More aggressive than mere individuality, less narcissistic than the “me” decade, it does not refer to people who live in health clubs or on roller skates, or to the hotly cultivated yuppies who have come to mean so much to themselves. The “rugged” saves “rugged individualism” from shabbiness by implying not merely solitary but courageous action. Look. Here comes America. Davy Crockett, Thomas Edison, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Ford. Those fellows built a nation with their hands.
Of course, the picture is pure hollywood, and everybody knows it. The West was won by wagon trains, the East by sailing ships, and they all had plenty of passengers aboard, by necessity working together. “In history,” Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin explained, “even the great explorer had been the man who drew others to a common purpose.” Try to imagine an individual so rugged he could raise a roof beam on his own.
In the matter of the nation’s soul, the impulse was collective from the start. Our so-called Protestant ethic would appear to endorse rugged individualism as the engine of hard work, but in fact the Puritan fathers were mainly concerned with individuals as contributors to a social compact. From John Cotton’s The Way of Life (1641): “If thou beest a man that lives without a calling, though thou hast two thousands to spend, yet if thou hast no calling, tending to publique good, thou art an uncleane beast.” From John Winthrop (1630), the first American to see the new land as a “City upon a Hill”: “If thy brother be in want and thou canst help him, thou needst not make doubt what thou shouldst doe; if thou lovest God thou must help him.”
Such sentiments cannot surprise modern Americans who see in their own lifetimes far more evidence of a tame, cooperative society than an open zoo of unclean beasts. For all its apostrophizing of the open road, most of the nation dutifully drives at 55 m.p.h., willingly undergoes searches before boarding planes, humbly douse cigarettes from time to time. Even those who storm against gun control must use the collectivism of lobbies to make their individual stands. The term rugged individualism was coined by Herbert Hoover only a decade before the onset of Big Government and of a war where victory depended on America’s sense of belonging to the world. Behold two rugged individuals of popular culture, the Lone Ranger and Sam Spade, helping the weak and troubled, and keeping communities stable and intact by enforcing the law. How rugged can you get?
Hmmm…Ayn Rand was receiving BOTH Social Security AND Medicare before her death. I don’t know why this is NEVER mentioned!
So why the pretense—why the evident pleasure—in seeing the country as a collection of loners? It may just be a game, a casually preferred national image requiring no analysis, like English gentlemen or Latin lovers. It may be a holdover from the country’s beginnings. Any institution that starts out with a Declaration of Independence may feel obliged to uphold the standard. The myth may also arise from a logical contradiction; that once the revolution is done, every rugged individual must be whittled down to a mere citizen for the revolutionized society to function. Thinking of oneself as a rugged individual may preserve the revolution as we cross at the green.
Or it may be part of an effort to keep life simple, especially when simplicity swims increasingly out of reach into shark infested waters. The simple life, too is a basic American myth, but it was a lot closer to being realized before the age of genetic finagling, Facebook and twitter. Complex social problems do not harry pioneers. The constant conflict between capitalism and Christianity, for example, could be resolved, at least in words, by the figure of the rugged individual who gives to charity of his free will, not by paying his taxes. No socialists here. Perhaps we just seek to preserve our distinctiveness from the Old World. The American Dream, the American Novel, the rugged American Self.
Perhaps the Pilgrim nation has run out of places to wander to, and thus clings to a term that implies a perpetual future by going back to the past.
The fact is that the country has consistently shown its best face and best strength when it has defined rugged individuals as those people rugged enough to come to the aid of their fellows, and intelligent enough to recognize when they need such aid in return. Could there be some national embarrassment in that, a blush suggesting that Americans risk becoming sissified when they acknowledge normal human dependencies? Who should be called a rugged individual these days? Rick Perry ? All Perry needed was millions of dollars from the Government, and he was ready to stand alone.
Do we preserve the loner ideal as an act of national defensiveness, to protect the country from conceding that it is too much alone in the world? Before the Second World War, a great many Americans sought international isolation. Once the nation be came a superpower it achieved more isolation than anyone ever dreamed of; in a bipolar world, both poles are alone. The individualist Henry David Thoreau called America “The Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow.” Do they indeed?
All right, then, says the proud country: If we would be left alone, let us be’ alone gloriously, ruggedly. And by extension: Let every individual be alone. Prop him in front of his I-PAD, and point him toward the prairie.
It’s an odd that people like to say such things, yet know, and believe in, the opposite. One of America’s saving graces has been its ability to live comfortably with certain forms of hypocrisy; essentially we are no different today from our forebears who gave their lusty solo king-of-the-hill yells while helping the people across town to fight a fire and demanding that the central government provide roads, protection, cheap land and transportation. Inscrutable West. Why does America prefer to wear a fiction when the facts show the nation in a better light?
Perhaps Thomas Friedman said it best
“As for America, we’ve thrived in recent decades with a credit-consumption-led economy, whereby we maintained a middle class by using more steroids (easy credit, subprime mortgages and construction work) and less muscle-building (education, skill-building and innovation). It’s put us in a deep hole, and the only way to dig out now is a new, hybrid politics that mixes spending cuts, tax increases, tax reform and investments in infrastructure, education, research and production. But that mix is not the agenda of either party. Either our two parties find a way to collaborate in the center around this new hybrid politics or a third party is going to emerge — or we’re stuck and the pain will just get worse”.
Who was that masked man?