“Rugged Individuals”

“Rugged Individuals”


John M. Lane

                                        We are all “rugged individuals.” We make our way; we need little help from outsiders (especially from the evil government); we rise and fall on our own merits and abilities; if we fail, it’s our fault. It’s not the system’s fault or other people’s; we are responsible. We have the “liberty” and “freedom” to rise to the heights or sink to the depths. We are “rugged individuals.” When we do organize in groups, it is specifically designed to advance a cause, a profession, a group, or an industry. Rugged Individuals know regulations stifle growth and innovation, and doing what is best for them is best for society. 


                                      The above description of Rugged Individuals has been gospel in the United States since its founding. To understand the history of the United States and its culture, you must understand the previous paragraph. It is why Americans do not have universal healthcare, tolerate polluted air, and drinking water, tolerate not having reliable, safe, affordable mass transit and rail services, and accept unequal K-12 education systems based on which district or jurisdiction has access to the most funding. Because of Rugged Individualism, Americans accept going into sometimes crippling debt as the price of obtaining a university education. The same post-high school education system does not have the capacity to train the millions of young people who need to acquire the training to work in professions where a university degree is not required (which is most jobs). Corporations no longer hire intelligent, educated people (especially liberal arts majors) and train them. Rugged Individuals need to acquire their own training.

                                     Because of Rugged Individualism, Americans accept over 40,000 traffic fatalities a year as normal. Obeying and enforcing traffic laws and norms are seen as violations of personal liberty and freedom. Universal driver training has long since given way to privatization. It probably does not matter anyway since stopping and slowing down are now optional. Firearms: there are more guns in circulation in the United States than there are people. The myth of the “Frontier” is a permanent feature of American life. (Historian Frederick Jackson Turner said the “Frontier” closed in 1890.) Rugged Individuals must protect themselves from other Rugged Individuals. “Liberty and Freedom” must be maintained.

                                     In the land of “Rugged Individuals,” corporations are considered “people” under broad interpretations (to say the least) of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Money is also interpreted as being “speech.” Rugged Individuals with access to the most money have the most “speech.” Voting is an essential part of a functioning democracy.  In our society of “Rugged Individuals,” voting is seen as optional, only if one can find the time from your busy work schedule to appear at the polls personally on the first Tuesday of November. Rugged Individuals know that only direct appearance at the polls is real democracy in action! If you can’t make it to the polls, well, you can vote in the next election. Online voting, mail-in voting, and “drop boxes” only weaken “real democracy.”


                                   Whatever it is called: “Horatio Alger,” Pulling yourself up your bootstraps, or being a Rugged Individual, in the end, the effect is the same. The concept makes it difficult to rise above your origins and achieve the “American Dream.” Rising above one’s “station,” however, can be done. When it is done, it happens because a government system worked, and helping hands from friends, family, strangers, and the community were extended. It also helps to be lucky, being with the right person and in the right place at the right time. “Self-Made Men” are rare indeed. No one makes it alone. Rugged Individuals had better be tough. The mythology is so deeply embedded in American culture that millions of the poor and disadvantaged believe it to be true.

                               The mythology described above to used to maintain power and privilege. It is why the black and white working and middle classes have been effectively pitted against each other; it is why the United States Tax Code is written the way it is written. It is why mercy, empathy, selflessness, and compassion are portrayed as weaknesses to avoid. In the 21st century, it is the reason why Democracy itself is seen as a burden.

                               Time is running out.

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