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June 19th, 2010


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04:57 pm - Musings on Rugged Individualism
I recently read an article by philosopher J.M. Bernstein discussing his analysis of the origins of the tea-bagger's anger.

My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.
I have no idea how much this idea plays into tea-bagger ideology, and strongly suspect that the basis is instead largely racist anger about having a black president. However, it's also clear that the US has a large number of people who are deeply invested in the ideas of "individual autonomy and self-sufficiency ", and I have encountered such people on all sides of the political spectrum.

This belief interests me in large part because it is so absolutely foreign to my thinking. Rugged self-reliance has never made any sense to me. As a happy urbanite, I am well aware that I depend upon a multitude of others to provide me with clean water, easily accessible food, safe and well-lit roads, and a host of other services that I am exceedingly grateful for and would have great difficulty living without. From my PoV, the sort of moderately isolated mostly self-sufficient rural living that was common among rural Americans before the 20th century appeals to me about as much as a lengthy sentence in a maximum security prison.

In any case, the above article makes me wonder if the ideals of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency are in part responsible for the distrust of social welfare programs or public transportation. If so, then this becomes an ideology that I not only do not share, but also actively oppose. However, I have no data on whether there is any actual correlation between this ideology and an opposition to government programs designed to enhance the common good.

I also do not know if such attitudes are at all widespread outside of the US. I've never encountered them in any European discourse, but that may simply be that I haven't encountered them. Also, I think that I've seen something like this ideology among some Canadians, and yet Canada manages to be a significantly more humane nation than the US, so perhaps there is no actual correlation. I'd definitely appreciate learning more about the prevalence of such attitudes outside of the US.

As a side-note, from what I've seen Colorado Springs has long been a bastion of both a belief in individual autonomy and more general libertarian ideas, and it's grimly amusing, to see what it looks like in the wake of a successful anti-tax anti-government vote.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

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Comments:


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From:krinndnz
Date:June 20th, 2010 12:05 am (UTC)
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I think that the individuality-fetishism is part of it, but I too think that uglier things are behind the Tea Partiers. I tend to attribute a lot of weight to the feeling of looking at successful people who don't "deserve" their success. I think of that as a very widespread, very human failing, that kind of jealousy. I know that part of why George Bush has earned my eternal enmity is that he is safe and reasonably happy and secure, when he's a moral imbecile who has committed numerous crimes against humanity. Similarly, the Tea Partiers think that a variety of targets are enjoying good things in life that they don't deserve - except that in their case, it's pretty much all built on easily-pierced illusions. They're just more desperately held in thrall by that human failing, and are willing to believe all manner of idiotic things about vilified outsiders. I like Fred Clark's perspective, that they have made themselves stupid by believing evil, which is his answer to the "stupid or evil?" question.
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From:slothman
Date:June 20th, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
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True self-sufficiency involves fire-hardened spearpoints and/or chipping flint. It doesn’t generally correlate with a long life.

Margaret Thatcher is known for saying “There is no such thing as society.” This is patently false: all of our ape cousins live in societies, and we’ve lived in them longer than we’ve been modern humans. Even the so-very-idealized pioneers needed someone to dig iron ore out of the ground and smelt it for them to make the tools they used.
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From:mindstalk
Date:June 20th, 2010 06:20 am (UTC)
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And lead for the bullets, and the US Army to help fight the Indians, and someone making paper for the Bibles and someone else to print them...
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From:autopope
Date:June 20th, 2010 11:27 am (UTC)
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No, you can maintain self-sufficiency at a somewhat higher level than flint and fire. If you're willing to go to extended-family level, mediaeval-plus-gunpowder is achievable.

More to the point, the rugged self-sufficiency meme is a positive virtue if you're living in an isolated and simple agricultural community in the hinterlands of a continental empire; it's a positive liability if you live in a complex society with lots of interdependencies and no frontier to light out for. The USA has the foundational myth of the uninhabited frontier (not that it was uninhabited, just that the original owners were successfully expropriated) -- there have been no comparable uninhabited frontiers to settle in Europe for a very long time, Adolf Hitler's wishful thinking about lebensraum notwithstanding.

Canada, I should note, gets a lot weirder and more reactionary -- in line with the independence/autonomy meme -- the further west and north of Ontario you go, with the exception of Vancouver (a coastal city).

Finally, slothman, you're quoting Thatcher out of context. I don't like her, but I feel the need to set the record straight: by tea partier standards she's a raving commie -- here's the whole quote for you:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

-- Prime minister Margaret Thatcher, talking to Women's Own magazine, October 31 1987

I much prefer "It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour." I'm not sure she meant it, but it's a far cry from the stance usually attributed to her by idiots like Sarah Palin.

Edited at 2010-06-20 12:50 pm (UTC)
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From:heron61
Date:June 20th, 2010 04:25 pm (UTC)
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It's been almost a century since there has been anything remotely like a frontier in the US, and yet the myth of the untamed frontier is still reflected in the desires of far too many people to inhabit isolated estates in far ex-urbs. I think part of the problem is the fact that in the mythic vision of the US cities are still corrupt pest holes, while this idea also seems to have thankfully vanished from almost all of Europe.
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From:autopope
Date:June 20th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
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Oops: I said "a very long time". As the saying goes, "A European is someone who thinks a hundred miles is a long distance; an American is someone who thinks a century is a long time." I'm thinking in terms of millennia here.

Oh, and in the UK -- where I live -- less than 3% of the population live outside towns or cities. Compare with the USA which still has a double-digit rural population. More if you count the suburbs (American suburbs are frequently as lightly populated as European countryside).

Edited at 2010-06-20 04:54 pm (UTC)
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From:slothman
Date:June 20th, 2010 11:16 pm (UTC)
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Aha— the excerpts I had seen omitted the last three sentences of that quote. Thanks.

How big an extended family do you need to get medieval-plus-gunpowder? Does that also require a fair bit of luck about access to near-the-surface iron ore deposits?
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From:mmsword
Date:June 20th, 2010 01:44 pm (UTC)

Some vaugely sorted thoughts

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I come from a rather odd position in this world, as I do live in a mostly self sufficient rural community, and have done so for most of my life. These are mostly just random notes about behavior I've seen in the local folk here that links back to the Tea Baggers.

There is a lot of resentment about taxation and services. The particulars of this tend to fall in line with "All of our taxes goes to the City", for City being equal to the largest population center in their tax area. They see a system in which they pay into but get little benefit from since most of the services provided by the taxes pass them by. Typically the rural communities get the short end of the stick when it comes to any of the major services, including things like emergency response and disaster recovery. There are roads but they are poorly maintained, water comes from a well that's not tested for safety, sewage is handled by septic tanks and cesspools that you need to maintain yourself and there is no public transportation to speak of.

The reason why this happens is mostly economic: Low population density means a low ratio of returns for any program you put out here. Even the purest in capitalist ventures fail because there are simply not enough customers to cover the costs of creating infrastructure to support things like high speed internet. Currently, I'm coming to you live from a 3G mobile card stuck in a wireless router. Five years ago, our only option was dial up.

Why live in a place like that? Economics again. Most of the people out here were born out here. There are literally families that moved here in the 1700s and still exist here today, within 10 miles of their first family homestead. Going to a substandard school (Rural schools get about 1/3 of the funding as urban ones) with very few college prospects ensures that you'll likely stay in the same trap as your parents and their parents before them did. There just aren't as many opportunities available to someone out here and the cost of leaving the system is even higher due to the lack of support structures. You can't catch the next bus out of town to the big city, there's no bus within a 40 minute's drive from you.

Part of it is psychology. A lot of your self identity can be wrapped up into living out here if you let it. There's a sense of belonging that can come with being in a community of folks that have the same issues that you have, in which the 'city folk' have no clue about. Us versus them mentality is pretty easy to sustain, particularly when "them" typically stays out of your domain. Keep in mind that it is far more common for a rural person to go to the city (as the city has goods and services that unavailable in the rural areas) then a city person to go to the rural areas (typically only for recreation or in the process of traveling). It's easy to be isolationist in the countryside and also pretty easy to spot the outsiders.

An interesting phenomenon related to this is that of proximetrics. Most rural people typically require a lot more personal space to feel comfortable than some one who lives in a city. This leads into another odd avenue when you then run into some one who is from a culture that defines personal space even closer than the typical American City-goer does. You'd be amazed at what happens to a person's outlook when every time they interact with a person of a specific ethnicity, they are made to feel very uncomfortable in their presence due to a mechanic like that.

All of this together creates a rather perfect storm to creating the Tea Bagger mindset. Xenophobia, resentment, and a self sustaining culture all brew together into that. But why is this phenomenon fairly recent? In part I believe it is because of the natures of the current American political parties, the crux of which is that there is no longer a fiscally conservative party. Neo-Cons are extremely liberal with money, particularly when compared to the pre-Regan era Republicans. So you have a group of people who feel like there is no representation for their particular politics in the current political arena.
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From:heron61
Date:June 20th, 2010 04:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Some vaugely sorted thoughts

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While all true, it's equally true that the total number of people living in such places in the US is fairly small. From what I've seen, the true hotbed of tea-bagger activity is the suburbs, where people often maintain that they are not urbanites, but where this protestation is merely a lie (or at least self-deception).
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:June 23rd, 2010 03:39 am (UTC)

Re: Some vaugely sorted thoughts

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I wonder how much the Tea Party is a creation of mainstream media. If Keith Olberman, Rachel Maddow, et. al. didn't ever give those people one iota of publicity, I don't think many people outside the movement would have ever heard of it.
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From:heron61
Date:June 23rd, 2010 04:25 am (UTC)

Re: Some vaugely sorted thoughts

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I think more of the publicity is coming from the far right news media. Glen Beck did a huge amount to popularize the "birthers", and both he and Rush Limbaugh are major forces behind the tea-baggers. If Olberman and Maddow vanished off the air, you'd still have Beck, Limbaugh, and others like them being the media arm of the tea-baggers.
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From:rjgrady
Date:June 23rd, 2010 04:45 am (UTC)
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I don't like to oversimplify, but if I could characterize the Tea Party with one basic failing, it would be: A misunderstanding of the nature of freedom. Jefferson romanticized the free farmer's life not because he was isolated, but because he was secure. Every successful advancement of freedom, whether the founding of the Republic, voting rights, the formation of workers' unions, and opposition to warrantless spying, came about as the result of engagement in the political process, not a retreat from public life. I am not free to eat an apple if I do not have one, nor may I bear arms if I am held without trial in a federal prison. There is no value in being free to be exploited by businesses with more expertise, naturally, in their business than a consumer possesses. In Texas, workers have the "freedom" to be let go at will by employers, and to lose food stamp benefits in a matter of months after this occurs. The Tea Party understands that the massing of power by an armed government is a potential threat to liberty, but they vastly underestimate the risks posed by enemy states, armed anarchy, corporations, plutocrats, and anonymous criminal activity.

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