I don't remember what link from what blog lead me to this a couple of days ago, so I'm sorry for giving no credit. But I read William Greider's Rolling Back the 20th Century
and spotted the Big Repug Lie; the Myth of the Rugged Individual.
Repugs say they value the rugged individual who works hard, doesn't ask for handouts, pulls himself up by his own bootstraps (nevermind the physical impossibility of that). It makes for a more robust civilization, apparently, when people don't rely on others for assistance, even when one group is actively oppressing another.
Also nevermind that no one in the history of the world has ever accomplished anything truly great alone. Even great authors and artists take from what has come before, and often rely on the patronage of the wealthy, starve to death, or create their masterpieces during their off-hours (if they're able to in their weakened exhaustion from "freely contracting" their labor services). Heck, even Jesus Christ had 12 apostles to spread the word after his death.
The image of the rugged individual is the homesteader. He sells everything but the essentials, packs up, and undertakes taming the wilderness with nothing but an axe and pit stains. If only our nation's poor people had the homesteading spirit, goes the thinking, they would pack their essential belongings on their backs and walk to where there is safety and work, and NOLA and recessions would never happen.
The symbolic (and literal) obstacle to the success of such a philosophy is, of course, the Sheriffs of Gretna, Louisiana. That is, the power of the wealthy to oppress the poor and keep them from succeeding and saving themselves.
An immutable fact of life that explains alot throughout human history is that the powerful want to keep their power. It's part of the survival instinct, and is thus a lizard-brain response. Another technique for survival is to join together and work for a common cause. That, too, is a form of power.
And that's why Repugs want to destroy public assistance programs, unions, and the very ideas of socialism and communism (which have their drawbacks, but that's for another discussion). They require disorganized, uneducated, powerless masses to serve them. That is why they revere the myth of the rugged individual: the rugged individual will not whine that the wealthy are using their power to keep him down, he'll just work harder; he won't join forces with other rugged individuals to demand fair treatment from his employers, he'll just make his own business -- and exploit those weaker than himself.
The myth of the rugged individual is a way to divide and conquer us.
Obviously there are those who would take advantage of a system that gives aid to those born to inauspicious beginnings, just as there are those who take advantage of a system that favors those born to auspicious beginnings. Both users have a sense of entitlement, either that society owes them a living just for existing, or that their parents, universities, and frat buddies owe them a living just for existing.
Neither should be allowed free reign.
The 20th Century had a lot of problems. But there was greater wealth, stability, inclusion, and success for more Americans than any other century. That happened after an era which attempted to correct the irresponsible and unfair practices of the wealthy and powerful. Labor unions, civil rights, the New Deal -- these things are anathema to those who didn't need them to succeed, but they were a boon and a blessing to the masses.
My mom, who grew up in the 50s, likes to say that I don't know what's been lost, so I don't miss it. I wonder if she, and the other generations who came after the Great Depression, realize what has been gained, since they don't know what was lacking before. The middle class utopia of the 50s was created by people who were tired of being used and abused, who wrested power from those who nearly destroyed a great country for personal profit.
And here we are again, in the hands of the great-granchildren of the same people who not only don't value collective action, organizations, and civic responsibility, but fear them as threats to their privileged way of life. And here we are on the brink of a breakdown of those institutions and values that lead us to a prosperous, more-inclusive country.
I may not have known what was lost from the 50s, but I do know what could be lost now. As Willliam Greider wrote
Autonomy can be lonely and chilly, as millions of Americans have learned in recent years when the company canceled their pensions or the stock market swallowed their savings or industrial interests destroyed their surroundings. For most Americans, there is no redress without common action, collective efforts based on mutual trust and shared responsibilities.
The former scares me a heck of a lot more than marauding bands of pierced punks who moon cops and have premarital anal sex, and the latter is my comfort and hope.