The Myth of Rugged Individualism

I just finished watching Howard Dean's speech announcing the formation of DFA 2.0, and his plans for the group are exactly what I was hoping for.

The plan is to turn the newly titled Democracy for America" organization into a resource for progressive candidates while working with the existing party, and it's a good one. One of the more intriguing ideas Dean mentioned was called "campaign in a box," an information trove for people getting into politics for the first time. I'll be looking into it more deeply in a couple of years when I get settled into a community.

But the part of the speech that spoke most loudly to me was the concentration on the idea of Americans as a community, as compared to the rugged individualism meme that Ronald Reagan espoused.

The fact is that in this day and age, the number of people in the US who could survive outside civilized society is small and is shrinking rapidly, and to be honest, those who can or try to are often scary. For Republicans, "rugged individualism" means lower taxes and no penalties for hiring illegals to watch our kids and clean our houses. Okay, so that's an exaggeration--it's only the Reagan Republicans who are of that ilk.

But they've dominated the debate so long that we've lost sight of ourselves as a society, a group of people who depend on each other to make a better life for ourselves. This book is quite instructive on this matter. Robert Wright argues that society evolved because it was advantageous for human development for it to do so, that greater strides for humans in general come from working together than from working separately.

It's so simple that it would seem self-evident. And yet we mythologize the individual as the paragon of humankind. It's crap.

Everyone depends on everyone else--if we were a species of individuals, we wouldn't have nearly the advancements in technology, medicine, science, art, literature, politics or any other field you can name that we do now. We have to work together--Ben Franklin said it best when he said "We must all hang together, or indeed, we shall all hang separately." The Founding Fathers weren't individualists or anarchists--they just didn't like the leaders they had and wanted others. But they didn't believe in breaking down the systems that existed at the time.

More on this later.

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