R310: Rugged Individualism

An article in the Utne Reader from the early 90’s has stayed with me and may well be one of the first Myths America I started seeing as utterly false. That is, the myth of the rugged individual in America is manufactured propaganda. I am more than thrilled that the maver-icky team lost utterly in the election and that the party of fuck you, I’ve got mine is on the skids. It isn’t surprising that the swaggering bravado of Neocon boys has engendered a whole spate of this genre like the lone survivor television programs, with one guy whining throughout about how hard it all is and the other one continually drinking his pee and other gag-worthy strategies.

Having said all that, I need to point out to myself the ethnocentric pattern of mine to continually use America when I refer to the United States while ignoring all the other countries in the Americas. I noticed this after first realizing the post below is filled with this very same indulgence.

We stand at the brink of a great possibility for surviving the social and planetary degradation and community is at the heart and soul of it all. I thought it time to resurrect this essay to be reminded of the fictional United States, fictional leaders, fictional character traits.
We Americans are proud of our "rugged individualism." The right of the individual to "do his own thing," free from state control and the interference of busybodies, is often cited as the chief difference between us and other nations. Rugged individualism is our sacred, mythic frontier heritage, handed down from the good old days when a man was a man, standin' alone against the wilderness, tamin' a savage land with just his iron will and a trusty six-shooter.

Hogwash. Anyone who has so much as flown over what American wilderness remains knows that any damn fool wandering out there with just his iron will and a pistol would soon be turned into a buzzard burger. This is one reason Americans went West in wagon trains. If a fellow traveler's wagon got washed down the Big Muddy, you were expected to help out--and he did the same for you. And, when—and if --you got where you were going, neighbors came from miles around to help you raise the barn, round up the strays, and chase away or butcher the original, darker-skinned owners of the property. Only if you were truly unlucky did you encounter any real Wild West loners, typically sociopathic killers like Billy the Kid, soon to become a hero to millions of Americans.

"Community," not the lone gunslinger, is what really "tamed" the Wild West--and a sense of national community is what we currently need to revitalize our country, to tame the "Wild West" of the future: that thicket of nuclear weapons, those tangles of foreign economic competition, that desert of environmental collapse, the savage wasteland of our growing Underclass.

But all the fables about the heroic loner provide an ideal and irresistible rationalization for greed. "Pioneering loner" today translates into rapacious corporations and institutions hungry to devour anything, from each other to you and me to the whole planet. Our "loner" now has not only an iron will, but iron bulldozers, chainsaws and oil-drilling platforms. Our "loner," now invariably in the company of a troop of lawyers and lobbyists, can boggle up whole city neighborhoods, acquire great enterprises in "hostile takeovers," raid the banking and health care system, pollute the countryside, belly up to a prime feeding spot at the Pentagon trough, and generally sacrifice the national interest--all under the banner of "rugged individualism."

Of course, when rugged individualism gets "too rugged" for those who oppose abortion, unorthodox sexual preferences, the right to privacy, the smoking of certain weeds or the viewing of certain portions of the human anatomy, the myth conveniently explodes, the front door comes busting open and in comes the ham-fisted power of the state. Clearly, and as ever, the limits of "rugged individualism" depend on which individual you happen to be.

When it gets down to the manly art of settling an argument "loner" style, the Western archetype gets even less respect from those who tend to blow hardest in favor of rugged individualism. Modern day gang bangers trying to settle the Wild West of America's drug frontier are just as iron-willed as Billy the Kid. In terms of fire-power alone, their Uzis and Kalashnikovs make Billy look like the creation of some dime novelist (which, of course, he was). But do these guys get any respect, let alone the hero treatment? No. It's police harassment for these rugged individualists. They may even be sent to jail and forced to watch the 43rd remake of "Billy the Kid" on TV.

Our interdependent American heritage, the community-minded legacy which truly enabled us to settle the West, survive the Depression, beat fascism and extend civil rights to the oppressed is exactly what's required to survive and prosper in the increasingly interdependent national and global community. But I guess "community" sounds too much like "communism" to some folks.

In many essential respects, individualism is Americanism. Still, in an era of accelerated change, living cheek-by-jowl with one another and a host of challenges that increasingly call upon us to function as a family, let's quit selectively elevating "rugged individual" to the status of automatic hero on the basis of foolish fancy and fiscal convenience. Let's face it: some of us are just plain selfish -

- or sick: it's instructive to note that, even as we continue to thrill to this "loner" crap doled out from Hollywood to Washington, the first characterization invariably made of every Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray or John Hinckley is

"Yup, I guess you could say he was a loner."

Enough is enough. Sociopathic Cowboy Clusterfuck Bu$h is out in 70 some days. Rugged individual is just a romanticized term for selfish and it is not something to be proud of being. Let us begin to spell this out to ourselves, our families and our friends. Bring this up in conversation. Barack Obama has proven that being a Community Organizer is a powerful thing.

I have already signed up to November5.org where Ralph Nader has turned his grassroots organization over to all progressive groups to use to take the issues to the 535 men and women of Congress. It will be based on congressional districts. This is a good thing to help us have a stronger voice than big money. We have votes, they don’t. This is a non-partisan movement that starts right now. (I am sorry Nader didn’t do this four years ago, but oh well.)

Last night my first Nov. 5 action was to attend a special City Council special group session on low income mobile home rental assistance program planning. This was my first step in understanding the 4 funding sources the City has for asssistance and the half dozen different avenues of support intended for this group. I am becoming an advocate and this is my tentative beginning. This next year of blogging about sustainability will morph somewhat into this particular direction.

Original article by Travis Charbeneau appeared as "Ragged Individualism," In These Times, 11/13-19/91:
Utne Reader: May/June 1992
selected for the Utne Reader Almanac, October, 1996.

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