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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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."