Rugged Individualism died beneath the weight of a collapsing tree branch on the evening of October 30, 2011, one of the many victims of a storm that laughed at our era’s isolation and cubbyhole thinking. No funeral service is scheduled.
The creed, founded upon myth and nurtured in fable, always looked pale when seen in reality’s light: humans have been social animals since their days in the caves; they’ve never reigned victorious alone. Even the solitary sheriff fended off grizzled bad guys with guns and bullets made by unseen hands – and he never crafted the barn doors shielding him from the shotgun blasts or the whiskey bottles he so crudely smashed. Interdependence lay at the heart of his independence, just as it does for today’s entrepreneurs. One wonders if Wozniak and Jobs sent thank-you notes to the construction crew of their garage.
All sing their hurrahs for healthy individual initiative and chutzpah. Give us more and then some. Please. But “rugged individualism” – the I-don’t-need-anyone-but-me-myself-and-I fiend that crawled out of Social Darwinism’s swamp – always ailed with sociological rickets despite its growls. Perhaps that’s why every religious and moral creed stresses humanity’s communal nature along with the individual’s value.
The death came swiftly and ignominiously. The oak tree branch fell on an insignificant street in a relatively unimportant neighborhood in a small Connecticut bedroom community (built by hundreds of workers and maintained by scores of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and handymen). A small-time pastor – alive because medical technicians, doctors, and nurses guided him through radiation therapy two decades ago – walked alone on the road paved by workers in the 1950’s. He saw the branch and attempted to move it so no cars – manufactured by employees in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Michigan, Ohio, Canada, and Kentucky – would get damaged. No police or ambulances would be called and no hospital workers, forever standing by to save the life of every rugged individualist, would be needed.
But the branch was too heavy. Fortunately, several neighbors emerged from the surrounding houses and moved the branch together, totally unaware of the fiend’s last gasps. They needed each other. Community was born. All these individuals were amazingly weak in and of themselves. None could build neighborhoods, towns, states, and F-15s. All were woefully inadequate in streamlining the Department of Defense and none could send people to the moon by themselves. Rugged Individualism would urge them to shake their fists at each other and the sky. It would deny the need for government – which, at its best and when it is checked, funnels our energy for the community’s good and protects us from those who would veil themselves in the monster’s dogma, many of whom did not earn their wealth. The Billionaire and Libertarian Koch brothers, for example, are rich because their father was rich.
Alas, many have ridden on the back of the rickets-laden beast. Connecticut Light & Power, which serves much of the state, has cut back its work force and now responds slowly to emergencies – no small worry in cold New England. What’s more, CL&P has repeatedly asked municipalities for permission to trim overhanging branches. The municipalities have balked. Some have even argued that cutting those relatively few trees would fuel global warming. Such is Rugged Individualism’s fevered argumentation: Use anything – even absurdity – to make your cause.
The consequence: Tree branches have tumbled over wires and CL&P doesn’t have the staff to repair fast enough.
But now Rugged Individualism is dead. The question: Will valid entrepreneurship and initiative take its place? Or will we act as if the beast still lives?