Yet, welcome the pandemic gift, reinforcing no one “is an island entire unto itself”
We all know the mighty mouthful, “rugged individualism,” evocative of boundless personal liberty and the self-evident truth that the transcendent hero, untethered and acting alone, makes history, especially free from “guv-mint.” Behold the myth by which intrepid pioneers and explorers, inventors and soldiers find or make their own destiny. In fact, this American slogan was born not by glorifying high self-reliance but as code for reactionary, unchecked capitalism. Today, the tarnished myth props up the fallacies of aggrieved underlings: “no one tells me what to do” or “dares limit my freedom;” this year, “only a show of force takes back our country.”
Center stage when scam individualism turns domestic terrorism are vaccine-defiers who claim “personal” objections to a national mandate, pawns to a scheming ex-president, fundamentalist ministers (vessels of God’s will), mouthy cable misinformers, or yahoos dead set against expertise, science and Washington advice. So much for independent souls making up their own mind: the vax-defiance brigade suffers from the witchcraft of mass hysteria. Pushing UFOs pales next to “vaccines kill,” are “linked to autism” or swell genitals.
Brashly successful brainwashing explains why parents, obliged to vaccinate their children to attend school, throw tantrums, demonize vaccines and become mass disease spreaders – walking Covid zombies jeopardizing all those within reach. Too bad witchcraft trials are out of date. The good news: nothing like a rousing, global pandemic to remind the knowledgeable that mankind is one intimately-connected tribe – and neither wealth, status, nor faith alone, wards off an air-borne virus, then sickness, misery, death. Must hundreds of thousands of needless deaths reconfirm the commonplace known to fifth graders but not Trumpers: every species shares nearly the same DNA and vulnerability to viral contagions?
Did we need mass mortality to distinguish impulsive “personal” convictions from public health menaces? When does cold-hearted privilege (the “freedom” to sicken) become irresponsible license, like group narcissism on display? And the whopper – this reflex defiance of authority, this self-wounding individualism is especially American, the same wrongheadedness that incites insurrectionists and fuels race, minority and gender hatreds.
Online, off-line, abusers everywhere
Akin to abusers of free speech rights (by inciting riots, causing death by lying), anonymous thugs make the internet a cesspool of adolescent name-calling. Whose bizarro idea was it to foster phony IDs? How much less garbage online would exist if transparent commenters had to use real names to curb appalling impulses. The corrosive price for such abuses, with no end in sight, infects our politics, media and popular culture. Why did the public never get asked what rules must control misbehavior on social networks that, despite private ownership, function as public utilities? Alas, too late to check online cruelty, trollish stupidity or pigheaded raging?
Alongside the pandemic, the online community further proves no one is an island, though willfully partisan, brutal insults to a relatively fragile social fabric poison the whole. Unless unruly anarchy (or blind selfishness) is your thing, no entity, state or federal government, survives a critical mass of radically-individualistic jackasses who scorn rules but not their every raw, untested emotion – as if the universe exists only to satisfy narcissists. Thus Trumpism leans on perverted notions of individualism, reduced to coarse grievances and vented spleens.
Word origins speak volumes
Of great relevance is when “rugged” and “individualism” first appeared together – and not in any rugged landscape where rugged loners dangerously explored the unknown. In English, “individualism” first appeared when 1830’s utopian U.K. socialists needed a pejorative to put down opponents. Notably, “individualism” as a separable category is very modern diction, giving it historical significance, further enhanced by growing alongside the USA. Second, no certifiable personality like Davy Crockett, Robert E. Lee or P.T. Barnum cemented “rugged” to “individualism.” How about that most unradical President Herbert Hoover in 1928? The first usage strictly served a hands-off, nationalistic (judgmental) fat cat defending capitalism against a grossly-distorted enemy: paternalistic, European “state socialism:”
We were challenged with a peace-time choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines – doctrines of paternalism and state socialism. The acceptance of these ideas would have meant the destruction of self-government through centralization of government. It would have meant the undermining of the individual initiative and enterprise through which our people have grown to unparalleled greatness.
Clearly, this pre-Trump, very wealthy president (a true business mastermind) wasn’t anointing brave freedom fighters or epic heroes acting alone against all odds. Behold good, old-fashioned Republican bluster that impugns government intrusion into private, capital-driven “enterprise” as evil. Hoover’s “we” and reference to the “American system,” let alone fabricated threats to “self-government” expose the ploy. This “rugged individualism” is only about the ideology of large-scale corporate development and the glory of free-market capitalism free from regulation, taxes and oversight. This is the robber baron take on “rugged individualism,” wrenched from the mythology of the single, lone hero. “State socialism” is code for communism, and so it followed that the ideology-limited Hoover failed to see that “state interventions” were essential during a Great Depression caused by a decade of irresponsible business excesses.
Socialism for the rich
Forty years later when depicting the “Other America,” Martin Luther King perfectly corrects Hoover’s bombast, “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.“ In fact, King exposes the empty mythology terms for both versions of rugged individualism: the richest “individuals” need not be rugged because they know how to use government to serve direct interests; poorer folks are forced to be “ruggedly individualistic” (on their own, untethered, without leverage) because they have no choice.
And thus we have the discredited, double-edge sword of American mythology: that “rugged individualism” made us great (well, for some rich) and can do so again. Au contraire: radical individualism (whether vax-defiance or when Trump manufactures his own reality, then goes nuts when exposed) today represents the two horns of a political contagion that now threatens to unseat democracy. Developing vaccines against this core, deluded mythology demands the same commitment that produced the Covid cure. We must reform how we think collectively about global medical threats, about appreciating the essential need for diversity, about climate change and how to assess the sustainable carrying capacity of the third rock from the sun. That won’t happen until more of us abandon child-like magical thinking that only inspired, lone individuals matter – or that “anyone can alone fix anything.”
Rogue individualism (via crony capitalism) is what undermines modern civilization. Will we need a looming asteroid targeting the earth to more greatly unify mankind? Can we ever return to pre-radical individualism – something communal like “all for one and one for all”? Either “rugged individualism” is exposed as a mistaken, obsolete path, exploiting and disrupting the many — or we face something closer to “rugged extinction” for millions of earthlings. As Joe Campbell said, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” First step: demolish myths of rogue individualism and/or Hoover’s corporate variation, the source of so much we can’t abide about Trumpism, Republicanism and the politics of deception and division.