Time to Kill Rugged Individualism

Rugged individualist. Loner. Aloof. Outsider. Those terms once described the person I sought to be. A man of his own. A guy who steered clear of the crowd, preferring to make his own decisions and think his own thoughts. Someone who would carve his destiny out of solid rock.

I think television commercials encouraged the idea that the rugged individualist was the role model a young man should follow. “Joiners” were the same as “followers;” helpless and weak and as malleable as soft clay. The individualist was the leader. He didn’t care what the crowd said; he was going it alone. He was always taller than everyone else. And he was always a he. And, of course, he was a myth. A more honest description would be this: he was a lie.

Despite the fact that the myth was fiction, it caught on in a big way. Our entire society embraced it and honored it and taught one another to pursue it; each and every one of us on our own, of course. The concept that individualists were good, brave, honest, and hard-working swept through our collective psyches like flood waters pour through a failed dam.  We were engulfed by the flow and most of us drowned in it. I don’t know just when it happened. It may have begun long before I was born, even long before my great grandparents were born; regardless, it had carved deep canyons in our national soul by the time I was a young man. Those television commercials were just polished versions of the myth of the accomplished individualist.

Men who smoked Marlboro cigarettes and road horses into desolate canyons symbolized our national treasure: the rugged individualist. John Wayne, the actor, was the poster boy for the archetype.

Much of the hoopla about individualism either suggested or outright insisted that it was an either/or concept. You were either a loner or you were a follower, a nameless face in the crowd. Like most absolutes, that idea was invalid from the start. Humans have always been hard-wired as social creatures. We form collectives as naturally as we breathe. Families. Villages. Work teams. The rugged individualist would fail miserably in situations that require group efforts. Yet our society continued (continues?) to insist that only by his efforts have we achieved the great gains of which we are so proud. And we have continued to pit the concept of the individual against the concept of the group, as if the two cannot exist in parallel. The arguments against collectivism rely on powerful fear-mongering; democracy and capitalism, they imply, cannot survive collectivism. Those bastions of the modern world absolutely require rugged individualism.

I bought into the nonsense. In fact, I embraced it for almost all my life so far. Only in the last few years have I really begun to contemplate the ideas of individualism versus collectivism. The more I delve into it, at least from an intellectual and purely personal perspective, the more strongly I conclude that collectivism is far preferable. We accomplish much more together than I can accomplish alone. The sum of our joint efforts is exponentially greater than the sum of our individual efforts. The propagandists who serve the lord master of individualism don’t bother to recognize or acknowledge that collectivism cannot exist without the individuals who form the collective. It’s not either/or. It’s both. And it’s really not any different from the real world as it has been and as it remains. The myth of individualism versus collectivism is what it is: a myth. It’s a story without a plot; its main character is drunk on his own power over…nothing.

Agricultural co-ops. Buying groups. Condominium associations. Home-owner associations. Apartment dwellers, for god’s sake! Cooperative engagements are all around us. People recognize the fact that we’re stronger together. But the myth persists. Fear-mongering about communism and socialism persist, even in the shadow of grand socialist experiments like Medicare and Social Security and the tax code! We soundly rejected the concept of being royal subjects to a real loner, a true rugged individualist. Yet, still, the lie persists.

I believe the legend of the rugged individualist should be allowed to die or, if it won’t go quietly, be killed. The merits of collectivism should be talked about at every opportunity. The story should be retold. The successes of collectivism should be celebrated in every city and town. Co-ops should trumpet their own accomplishments.

“The most powerful individual is a member of a collective. The most successful collective thrives because of individual efforts.” How’s that for a tag line? Too long? Yeah, I thought so, too.  How about “I am, because we are?” Okay, enough of that.

I envision a national conversation about making things happen together. Not because of, or in spite of, powerful leaders, but because we are collectively much more powerful than we are alone. No individual, no matter how rugged, can do as much as a committed group of people who share a common vision.

And thus ends today’s rant.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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