Rugged: Dateline September 30

America is devoted to a belief in Individualism, what was called “Rugged Individualism” when I was young.  It is the belief that each of us is a solitary unit, an independent actor who should not rely on government or community for his or her support or success in life.  As Richard Nixon put it in his Second Inaugural Address in 1973:  “In our own lives, let each of us ask-not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself?” (If this sounds vaguely like an anti-Kennedy construction, you are probably correct.)

I call Individualism a belief because we are social creatures, descended from tribes of social animals, who depend on family and community for our identities, values, and understanding of the world.  The notion that we are independent individuals is a fantasy.  We are the product of a family, a tribe, a society, a culture.  America’s belief in this fantasy causes us considerable pain.

The American Dream myth maintains that each of us has the opportunity through hard work and persistence to achieve wealth, power, and fame.  The bootstrap myth holds that anyone of us can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, in other words, to defy gravity to rise in the world of men.  The popular Horatio Alger young adult novels of the post-Civil War era depicted the classic American success story of impoverished boys rising from humble backgrounds to become secure middle-class men, i.e., “rags to riches.” (Notice I didn’t include women in this mythology.  The Rugged Individualism myth is much more a masculine concept.) Socioeconomic mobility is at the heart of the American story.  But American social mobility has stagnated and is now low compared with many European countries. (In Denmark, a poor child has twice as much chance of making it to the top quintile as in America.)  The U.S. has relative mobility rates very close to those in Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Individualism is typified by the lie of the self-made man, as if such a thing were possible biologically as well as socially and economically.  Every human achievement, despite the illusion of the lone discoverer, inventor or creative genius, is the result of countless incremental contributions going back eons.  The notion that a go-getter can achieve great things alone as a super-hero, without the support of the society, is a fairy tale.  The idea that our nation rose up through the determination of solitary frontiersman, settlers, and pilgrims, denies the theft of our land from the indigenous people and Mexicans, and ignores the role that slaves played in every one of the original 13 colonies and early states.

In the 21st Century men believe in teamwork in sports and enterprise, but they are heavily invested in hierarchies, in star athletes, star performers in entertainment, and captains of industry and entrepreneurs in business. The overachievers are seen as deserving outrageous rewards and compensation for their uniqueness and genius.  The corporation, in a neat reversal of the obvious, eschews the fact that it is a collaboration of many people, and dubs itself an individual.

Michael Moore’s comedy documentary “Where to Invade Next” is a good example of the fundamental difference between the United States of America and many countries that enjoy better aspects of their lifestyles than ours.  Moore humorously presents an assortment of novel ideas:

  • Generous statutory vacations and paid leave in Italy, compared with no mandatory vacation in the US.
  • Schoolchildren feasting on four-course school lunches in France vs. low quality American school lunches
  • Free college tuition and non-existent student debt in Slovenia vs. $1.3 trillion of outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. that affects 44 million borrowers
  • Prisons that look nicer than many US hotels where prisoners are treated with dignity in Norway, contrasted with America’s overcrowded inhumane prison system
  • Workers participating in boardrooms and schoolchildren learning about and inheriting the legacy of the Holocaust in Germany — contrasted with America’s surging inequality and reluctant admission of racism at the heart of our history of slavery and genocide
  • Decriminalization of drug use in Portugal in contrast to America’s war on drugs that has resulted in massive prison populations and modern slave labor.

The collectivism and social responsibility of European and other countries results in a way of life that benefits all.

Individualism has its merits, of course.  Liberty is a hallmark of American values, and opportunity for advancement still exists, even if it is not what most Americans believe it to be.  The drive to improve one’s lot in life remains a major factor in American economic growth and shares the credit for American children being better off than their parents in absolute terms.

Unfortunately Individualism has some serious drawbacks.  These include:

  • Anti-democratic government – the rise of American plutocracy (a subject for another article sometime)
  • Anti-egalitarianism that bakes in social and economic inequality and disregards the sufferings of others

The problem with inequality is that not everyone can achieve wealth, power, and fame. Those who fall short are left with a lack of self-esteem and guilt.  In our culture, if you have not risen to the status of billionaire, it’s your own fault.  Medical and social scientists now describe numerous social ills linked to inequality.  Inadequate opportunities for self-esteem and cultural heroism result in social psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, alcohol, drug and other addictions, rising suicide rates, domestic violence, and increases in bias and other hate crimes.

The advantages of collectivism include a cohesive society, mutual support, and empathy as a way of life, the cornerstone of emotional intelligence and personal achievement.

I am not advocating collectivism over individualism. Obviously there are advantages to both and require a balance in each person’s life, as well as in our society. What I am warning against is the overemphasis on individualism in American life, the winner-take-all mentality that permeates our political, social, and economic systems.  There are better ways to live, and we as a nation need to have the courage to discuss them openly without rancor and name calling.  Let’s reform America one idea at a time.

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Stephen James is a member of The Writers Collective.  He is the award winning author of American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture, is the president of Contemporary Heroism Initiative, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation and the New York Society for Ethical Culture.  He is a producer of communications media in the New York area.

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8 thoughts on “Rugged: Dateline September 30”

  1. I am in agreement with all sustained by Jennifer Shelton with this article “Rugged: Dateline September 30”. My interest for the social aspect of human life is very great as I am just writing a book underlining its historical aspects starting with the appearance of Homo sapiens. It is important also to notice how the rugged individualism myth is influencing today our society here as well elsewhere in Europe. Are there possible to join in a practical action against this disruptive tendency? With best wishes, Prof. Giovanni Abrami, member of the International Big History Association.

    1. Hello, Professor. I do not know of any practical action being taken to balance individualism and collectivism in our society. I am afraid that individualism, especially narcissistic tendencies are on the rise. Mass murder is the most horrible and extreme example. The US is averaging about one mass killing (defined as four or more murders at a time) per month. Yet, there is no political action to reduce the violence or a mass movement to address the causes, except a few cries for gun control that go unanswered.

  2. I received this note from my friend Dave Bodine. I am reprinting it with his permission:

    * * * * *

    I have made a small study of the foundation of this country and I find one grave error and moral flaw…our besetting original sin…Chattel Slavery.

    I realize it is silly to suggest just “putting that aside”. And we didn’t….I think you know that more Americans died in our civil war than in all other wars we have fought combined. It is a commonly recited business, and the fact of it does not erase the original sin; it does, in my view, allow room for some amelioration in the harsh judgement of our history now much in fashion.

    And no doubt the “Native Americans” (whatever that term may mean, which is an uncertain thing at best) suffered very badly at the hands of the European crowd, but most of the injustice was done long after the issue had been settled as to who would govern in the long term. Find me a single boundary in the world today not settled at the business end of a gun and I will rethink; Mao, homicidal psychopath that he was, got that part right. I cannot see “us” (if there is an “us”) being unusually culpable in this matter.

    As for individualism versus communal (viz. socialist, fascist, communist) view of human affairs, I have before me the numerical evidence: Communism is the only form of government ever devised by man, and there really have only been a few if you break them down, under which the citizenry is more at risk of being murdered in times of “peace” than in times of “war.”

    That is not a small accomplishment. The very great believers in brotherhood at the point of a bayonet are not given their due.

    No doubt the Randian form of individualism is a form of social disease. But count the bodies. It is very important to count the bodies, because they were once just like us, and had the same hopes and feelings and loves, and surely did not wish to be sacrificed to some “idea” of what man could or should be. No: they wanted to live and make love and raise children and eat well on important days and think whatever thoughts came to them without being stuck like a pig for these simple wishes.

    Humans are what we are. Off course any idea is capable of being blown out of its proper scale and relative importance; the extreme individualists are either dunces or children, the classification depending on how long they have lived and how much of life they have seen and absorbed.

    Thre Catholic Church has a very well defined and sensible approach to all this. We must live in SOLIDARITY with each other but all decisions should be made at the lowest practicable level, which is called SUBSIDIARITY.

    I appreciate that this approach is cloaked in a very elaborate scheme of metaphysical claims that are off-putting to large numbers of persons….still the psychological truth is undeniable: we are social animals who do not like being bossed around or shot at.

    Well, even I run out of gas at some point and I am tired from moving and ready for a snooze. I appreciate the fact that I can make my own schedule and that it is highly unlikely that anyone is going to kick my door in tonight while I sleep. Many are not as blessed.

    Dave

  3. This was my reply:

    * * * * *

    You are correct about the radical collectivist governments of Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and China, etc. They were and continue, in the case of North Korea, to be a horror. However, they were radical experiments that disregarded the science of human psychology in their formulation of what they probably believed was a holy and sacred attempt to make the world a better place. I am in no way advocating totalitarian radical collectivism to be ruled by madmen like Mao or Stalin.

    I mentioned our nation’s regrettable history concerning slaves and indigenous people because we as a nation are in deep denial of the facts. We are not alone in this sort of behavior. The Japanese have yet to acknowledge their slaughter of the Chinese in the 1930’s and 40’s, and the Turks deny their mass murder of the Armenians. As George Orwell once said, “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” Racism is baked into the European-American culture and is at the heart of most of the world’s international troubles. The notion that minorities in this country should pull themselves up regardless of the legacy of slavery, oppression, bigotry, and injustice is an obscenity.

    What I am advocating now and have advocated in “American Stew” is that benign individualism is necessary and important. It is fundamental to our shared American value of personal liberty. I am also advocating collectivism as equally important and necessary, that what is most desired is a balance between the two. Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were clearly out of balance. 21st Century America is out of balance in the opposite direction.

    No, I am not presently afraid that Trumpian brownshirts are about to crash into my house and seize this computer for uttering anti-nationalist thoughts. But I am concerned that my social security will be cut, the cost of my health care coverage will go through the roof, my middle class tax deductions will disappear, all to fund a series of endless wars that as many as 82% of Americans have opposed. Think about that. In what Democracy can 82% of an electorate oppose something as monumental as a war and not topple the government? (Of course, this is not a democracy, it is a burgeoning plutocracy — but I digress.) The wars continue. Inequality continues to rise unabated. Global climate change cannot be discussed without inviting attack from the Washington elite. Racism and police brutality against minorities continues and protests are met with disdain.

    But I’m not telling you things you don’t already know. The question is, what is the solution? If I read between your lines (“Find me a single boundary in the world today not settled at the business end of a gun”), I believe you are saying something like: Humanity is a nightmare, always was, always will be. I hope I’m not putting words in your mouth, but it sounds like there is no hope.

    I, for no rational reason, continue to have hope. And the reason I do is because I can’t think of any other way to think and feel while continuing to go on. I have hope that the crimes by and against humanity can be reduced and maybe even ended if enough of us learn to understand human motivation and throw off antiquated, outmoded worldviews. Rugged individualism is one of them. It needs to be understood as a fantasy, devoid of scientific reasoning. We need balance, and my hope is we will get there through intelligent discourse.

  4. Steve:
    More and more I look back at the Transcendentalists, the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau, who were strong but gentle people, in response to the blur of what is called life today. Their philosophy of taking care of yourself, taking care of others in widening circles of influence to the community seem to us so naïve today, that we cannot comport them with the manic influences of social media, retargeted marketing, internet of things, and ubiquitous computing. Ours is the generation caught on the fence between 19th century ideals and the modifications we’ve found necessary to adjust our consciences and mores in order to make any sense out of life at all. Yes we need balance, but what I fear is that we are forgetting what’s on either side of the plates on the scales.

    1. John,
      I completely agree; Thoreau and Emerson had it right. You are talking about mores and I’m saying values, but I think we’re talking about the same thing. We as a people have lost our moral compass. What’s on either side of the plate is destruction of the ecosystem on one side and endless war on the other. I believe we make sense out of it by using science to understand human motivation. We have to speak out and hope someone is listening.

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