The “rugged individual” is one of the most enduring archetypes in American history and culture. Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Rosie the Riveter. These people, real or fictional, are all held up as paragons of American virtue—people who made it into myth or history books through sheer force of will, overcoming every obstacle in their path. These are people who picked themselves up by their own damn bootstraps, whether it was going to work during WWII, laying more track than a steam-driven machine, or becoming the first President not born to an elite slaveholding family. The myth of the all-powerful individual is one of the defining components of American culture, and it is also one of the most damaging. The American focus on the individual has in large part subsumed any large-scale cultural understanding and push for empathy.
One of the most obvious places this focus on individualism exists is in the teaching of history. Most students in the U.S. don’t study any sort of mass movement history, such as LGTBQ, labor, or women’s rights until college, if even then. In high schools and middle schools if these movements are referred to, it’s generally through individuals, Martin Luther King Jr., Eugene Debs, etc. This helps reinforce the idea that history is made by “great men,” by the heroic workings of individuals. This is asinine garbage. Martin Luther King would have been nothing without the work of the Black Panthers, or the millions of black people supporting his cause, or the people who came before him. Same for Debs. He would have been nothing without the IWW, the theorists in Europe, or the people who supported his several attempts for the presidency. Without people these men would have been nothing. Were they special? Sure. Did they tap into something in a way that no one had before? Absolutely. Could they have done it by their damn selves? No. Did they have to have an understanding of and empathy for the people that came before them and worked alongside them? HELL YES THEY DID. And that’s why they succeeded. Not because they were ur-men born above the rest of us, they simply understood that looking out for one’s self and only one’s self is a dangerous and immoral way to live.
History, of course, isn’t the only place where this individualism can be found. The popular appeal of Ayn Rand in recent years proves this out. The success of superhero movies is another place where the celebration of the individual is all-present. Sports, pop stardom, and countless other cultural arenas also prove that the cult of the individual is inescapable in the United States. The ideas of individualism have far more serious consequences than what movie series Marvel tries to make next however.
Take the recent ACA gutting by the Senate Republicans. Obamacare, despite it’s many many many flaws, objectively saved lives. People denied healthcare for pre-existing conditions were able to afford healthcare after its implementation. And yet its opponents crowed when it was banished in midnight meetings, saying that the repeal of the ACA would allow individuals more choices and better access to healthcare. The discounting of the lives of millions because an individual has more choice is incredibly poisonous and directly traceable to the fetishization of the individual in American culture.
While Obamacare was repealed on the basis of individualism, it was also built to support individualism. When the ACA was originally being built, going to a single-payer system, much like Canada or most of Western Europe, was much debated over. It was ultimately rejected, partly on the grounds that it would limit individual’s choices over what type of insurance they wanted. So instead of affordable, universal healthcare, we got stuck with an easily gutted, incredibly complicated healthcare system, all in the name of individualism.
The rise of “right to work” states is another example of the power of the cult of individualism in the U.S. Right to work states make it essentially impossible to start, or maintain, a union in that particular state. Right to work laws are passed so that individuals may bargain. It’s often sold as providing workers the ability to not have to bow to the whims of an “evil union,” or get paid “what they’re worth.” It always works exactly the opposite. Right to work states have consistently lower average wages and worse working conditions than states where unions are allowed to exist.
All three of these examples show that individualism is working to kill all vestiges of empathy in American culture. As is evidenced by the Civil Rights movement, the Labor movement of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the healthcare fight, and 21st Century Union battles, it is impossible to have success working as an individual. There must be a large mass movement. And large mass movements are impossible without empathy. And yet time and time again, American culture and politics are telling us that individuals, individual choices, and what’s best for yourself, are more important than thinking about your neighbors and coworkers and what’s best for them.
Empathy is antithetical to individualism. Individualism forces us to think about ourselves first and everyone else second if at all. This is toxic and dangerous. Empathy requires that you join a group, that you give part of yourself to others. And this can be scary. But giving part of yourself doesn’t mean that you are losing anything, it just means that you are gaining something else. You can still like Harry Potter over Twilight, or The Rolling Stones over the Beatles, but with empathy you can understand that your choices are no more or less important than everyone else’s. With empathy it’s easier to understand that paying taxes to build a road that you’ll never use is a good thing and not a waste of money. Through empathy it’s easier to understand that drone bombing foreign countries in the name of American Freedom makes absolutely no fucking sense.
Empathy not individuality is what the U.S. needs right now.
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