Rugged Individualism: It’s Not Really So Real

There is a myth that persists in our society, a myth that the rugged individual (RI)(read: male, usually White, tough, rough, “self-made man“, does it “his way”; think – John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Indiana Jones, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and the Marlboro Man) is the one who gets things done and makes our country the military, economic, and “moral” superpower it is. He explores new places or ideas, fights the “good fight”, goes his own way & finds success, and usually saves the day—in one way or another. He is the reason, some believe, that America is great. He is also the role model for those who wish to remake America in his image (that is to say, without government policies that intervene in social or economic affairs—for the most part). They say that this RI personality trait lies within the social fabric of American society, it’s part of “our” DNA. The only problem with this kind of thinking, is that it’s leaving out 95% of the story, and anyone who is not of the male gender.

The other 95% of the story tells of how these tough guys were often raised by families that cared about their physical, mental, and likely spiritual, well being. Additionally, they were raised in communities (be it rural, urban, or the netherworld that lies between) where neighbors helped neighbors, believing in the notion that the whole is greater than any individual part. Without this solid foundation upon which they were raised (that the well-being of the local polity and its constituents take precedent over any one individual), it is doubtful that the more interesting 5% of their story would ever occur.

It should also be pointed out that rugged individualism, the American type, is not exclusively practiced by the male species nor dominated by the descendants of European Americans; men & women of all ethnicities have practiced some form or another of this character trait ever since our continent was first inhabited by Native Peoples more than 10,000 years ago.

Whether the communities that raise these RIs chose to act in a collective manner because of the biblical teachings they heard on Sunday’s, or because they knew that their community was stronger if every person was healthy, educated (in whatever professions were important to the continued existence of their inhabitants) and engaged in furthering the group’s well being, they worked together for the common good. This fraternal style of living arrangement does not preclude any RI from performing heroic acts, or spending long, lonely, hours developing a plan/model for a new venture; but at the end of the day, the solo acts are only one small part of the lived experience of every individual’s greater existence. The ongoing support from friends, family, neighbors, teachers, community, et al. is far more important in any success achieved by “The Great One”, and in the telling of the full story. And this is where some of Americas’ Great Divides have their beginnings.

The real history of our great country is not one of solo actors daring to be great, but rather communal actors being supported in their not truly individual endeavors. While the period of the Columbian Exchange and beyond was filled with the efforts of many capable sailors and crew, we only know the names of the ships’ Captains; they are given all the credit for traversing the oceans and seas.  Similarly, those brave souls who took their wagons Westward are only remembered by their family, or towns for which they are a namesake (the Donner Party exempted), yet the first Governor of each state is prominently displayed on public schools and other buildings/parks/etc. Civil War buffs remember that General George Pickett showed extreme bravery when he led his men into certain slaughter on day 3 at Gettysburg, but those thousands of men who followed Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble, also showed extreme bravery by marching into an open field— knowing the Union Army waited 3/4 of a mile ahead. Certainly, we cannot hope to remember the names of every person who has aided in every successful venture, but neither should we fail to recognize the importance of all those hands that helped to make events possible.

On the one side, the pro RI side, we have people arguing that individuals, not the government, are responsible for taking care of themselves. Whether “care” entails work, medical needs, 2nd amendment rights, education, or basic needs (food, shelter, safety), they argue that individuals should bear the burden of providing for themselves. These folks are more prone to argue for policies that decrease: government oversight generally, business & banking regulations, and taxes.

The other extreme is the far left-end of a socialist-style system (which is very different from a liberal progressive form of gov’t.). Governance of this sort provides many, if not all, of the necessities that people need to survive, though not necessarily thrive; from free or subsidized food and shelter, to healthcare, education, and employment. This extreme doesn’t find much support in the U.S. Neither of these systems, as is, are particularly useful in a modern economy, but they both offer ideas that could, through skillful compromise and some tweaking, be used for the greater good. Compromise, however, according to Cadillac (ads by Publicis Worldwide) and Elbert Hubbard, is for weak men. I would disagree with this premise, as would any wise politician hoping to gain passage of a controversial piece of legislation.

In between the far left and the far right are a wide variety of political ideologies, belief systems, and traditions that dictate, to some extent, regional and personal mores, values, and norms. While it is likely that we (our collective society) agree on far more than we disagree on, some “choose” (aided by various forms of media) to focus on those issues that divide us. The divisive list includes: Roe -v- Wade, 2nd Amendment, proper role of government(s), social insurance & social welfare programs, military spending, role of Christianity in schools/society/gov’t, immigration, minimum wage and the wealth gap (ideal and actual), social justice, and marriage equality. This seems like a big list of very important issues, and it is. But it’s not bigger than the list of items that we accomplish every day.

Work (paid and unpaid), caring for family, keeping up our homes, preparing meals, supporting others (mentally, physically, emotionally), taking care of the self, remembering to be nice to people (because one never knows what another is going through), volunteering, and learning, are accomplishments that many people successfully conquer, daily. So why do we insist on arguing about topics that are not of great enough import to get a majority of us to the polls on election day? (I believe they are important enough, but our national voting record tells me I am in the minority).

Part of the problem stems from our lack of understanding each other. We interact with and live amongst people, with whom we share commonalities. This serves to reinforce our beliefs and polarize those who dare to think differently. When we are continually told that our beliefs are right/correct/valid, and we hear the vitriol directed at those with other ideas, it’s natural to assume that “those people” have it wrong. But what if they don’t? Or, what if they do but don’t know it, because no one is willing to engage in civil conversations to understand another perspective. Or, what if the truth lies somewhere in the middle (like the suburbs)? And what about the RIs who claim that all sides have it wrong and that we should rebel against all government action and fend for ourselves (while surrounded by 500 friends and family members, a whole crew of RIs)?

This calls for conversations. Real conversations, one-to-one, face-to-face, “a” to “b”, you get the picture. These conversations take time, and courage, and sometimes cold beer(s). But this is the best way to learn about our differences, our fellow citizens, our brother and sisters, our countrymen/women and those with whom we share so much yet know so little about. Urban and rural people need to connect and learn why each feels the way they do about gun control and gun rights; it’s not as simple as one might think. Republicans and Democrats could learn a lot from talking to each other about the employment, economic, and moral dilemmas that come with income inequality and the pro’s and con’s of unions. Children of privilege could gain new insights into the power of words by talking with Ta’Nehisi Coates. And those Americans in positions of power and/or with greater wealth could speak with folks in middle and lower socio-economic communities and “get in touch” with what it’s like to not be wealthy; possibly giving them pause before spouting off about the minimum wage being one of the Democrats’ lame ideas .

Policies that promote individual risk and reward (such as deregulation of the banking and business sectors or tax cuts that do more for those at the top than those at the bottom) over the needs of the greater society are responsible, by and large, for many of our current economic issues. When more of the wealth (which is finite) is concentrated in the pockets of fewer individuals, it serves to depress an economy. The concept is not complex; if you have less money, you will spend what you have in order to survive and support anyone that depends on you. If you have more money (a lot more), you will invest it, or stash it offshore, or play other sorts of games to keep from paying taxes. Money that is hidden is not helping our economy; money that is spent in local businesses, whether on french fries, fuel, or fixtures for the kitchen, is contributing to the supply and demand cycle that economies rely on.

We have come to this point in our nation’s history (vast economic inequity) in part by crediting individuals with making America what it is today rather than talking about nation-building as an effort undertaken by all of us: enslaved Africans & African Americans; construction, industrial, & agricultural workers; miners; lumberjacks; fishermen/women; teachers; engineers; volunteers; men & women of the Armed Forces; bakers & brewers; salespeople, I.T. professionals, athletes, public servants, thespians & artists of all types, and all the other Americans and immigrants who have taken part in building our country, should be recognized for their substantial efforts in making America the country it is. By placing the elite on a pedestal, we have given them carte blanche to do as they please in all matters financially, legally, and politically; and they have done what is in their best interest, made money for themselves and their friends and left everyone else standing on the far side of the moat.

I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to make money. Money is not the issue; the issue lies in the mindset that those who are the most successful have achieved their goals through nothing more than their own hard work, tenacity, and sheer brilliance, choosing to ignore all the people that have played a role in them reaching their zenith (which tends to lead to less sharing of that created wealth).

While individuals accomplish goals everyday: open businesses, graduate from college, get promoted, win a wrestling tournament, write a book, etc., etc.,;  they don’t do it without the support of their extended family/community. Be it financial, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, they are supported by many people from the various contacts they have made. Additionally, they are encouraged/motivated by loved ones; AND, the Local, State, and/or Federal government(s) provided services (e.g. infrastructure, emergency services/first responders, disaster relief, education, possibly tax breaks, grants & loans, and much much more) that allowed them to focus on achieving their goal.

Rugged individualism is not a myth, but neither is it the whole story. Some people have the innate ability to rise up and conquer whatever is thrown at them. This doesn’t happen through DNA alone, it is a skill that is first learned, then honed, and eventually ready to be used. It only exists because s/he had the opportunity to learn and the time to hone, and finally, the access to a place where using it offers the potential of reaping great rewards.

Leif Erikson—Rugged Viking type, got by with a lot of help from his friends
Leif Erikson—Rugged Viking type, got by with a lot of help from his friends

If you’re interested in exploring the political relationship between public and private actors and how policy actions shape societies, read Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox. This book lays out some of the major issues that policy makers have to deal with when considering new policies and the communities they affect.

A few political cartoons about rugged individualism: AlaskaMedia production; RI

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Leif

Bent on making public education more equitable, economic opportunities more widely available, the general public more empathetic, and food more tasty. Rich experiences in Inner-city public education, rural America (farm to factory), restaurant industry professional, and animal & plant caretaker extraordinaire. 11 States and counting.