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


          
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         Travis Charbeneau  3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221
            travischarbeneau@gmail.com    Phone: 804 358 0417
                         www.travischarbeneau.com

                           Ragged Individualism
                             Travis Charbeneau
                               slug "ragged"
                                 784 words
    PULL QUOTE: "Community spirit, not the lone gunslinger, shaped our history."
     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, chain
saws 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."