The Rugged Individualist

I was raised on a steady diet of the “rugged individualist” as a child.  My television was awash with it from “Little House on the Prairie” to the reruns of westerns.  Shows with cars instead of horses, such as “Knight Rider,” rehashed the idea that a man on his own could accomplish anything if he set his mind to it.  At least, there, “Little House on the Prairie” seemed to divert from the narrative that it was a man alone.  “God helps those who help themselves,” was oft quoted (so often that many people over forty think that is a line from the Bible) but in practice problems on the show were solved as a family or as community.

It is an American ideal, the person who strides into the world, makes right the wrong, and does it single-handed (more or less ignoring his faithful companions who did most of the hard work).  He passes judgement on those around him and hands over the evildoers to the authorities who were too inept to solve the crime.  Or the person, who wronged by society, can escape into the wilds and live, rather comfortably, due to their exceptional skill.  From “Grizzly Adams” to Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear novel our media is awash with people “doing it alone.”

Like most college students I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  Perhaps because I read the book knowing it was my mother’s favorite book (she imagined herself as Dagny Taggart), it didn’t lull me into thinking I was one of the special few, the worthy.   Instead I read with a skeptical eye.  Early on, when Dagny instructs the train engineer to proceed on the tracks despite the warning light because she “knows” there is no other possible traffic, I knew this was a dangerously stupid book.  She, in fact, nothing of the state of the rails ahead.  She substitutes her judgement for an existing process, designed to keep people safe.  Dagny Taggart is reckless yet Rand holds her up as a hero.

I was deeply troubled by the question: “What about mothers?”  There was no room in Ayn’s world for children, let alone the disabled.  There was no room for those who acquired a disability, those who just got unlucky.  There was no room for the college student who would need family support to eat even if their tuition was in loans.  I couldn’t help but wonder who cleaned John Galt’s toilets.  I knew one thing for certain.  It wasn’t John Galt.

There are unnerving studies that show if you give a person an advantage in the game Monopoly they, knowing full well they had an advantage, will attribute their victory to their decisions making and not the the fact the game was rigged in their favor.  The more confident a reader of Atlas Shrugged is that they were worthy of escaping to Galt’s Gulch, the more likely it seems they were the “looters,” dependents on the largess of others to support them.

Chris McCandless bought into the idea of rugged individualism.  Born to a well off family, offered every opportunity, he shrugged it off to live more like Grizzy Adams than Grizzy Adams did (Adams at least had a bear and human side kicks).  He was a poster child for building it yourself, making it on your own.  He died at age 24, weighing only 67 lbs, alone in on a trail in Alaska.

And what of “Little House on the Prairie“?  Perhaps there was a time when a man could make his fortune, striking off with his nuclear family into the wilds?  Well, no.  Charles Ingalls dodged a debt by moving his family out of town in the middle of the night.  He squated illegally on tribal lands.  And the charity and government subsidies given to Westward bound settlers is strangely scrubbed from the novels.  Laura Ingalls Wilder goes so far as to erase an entire family from one of her books, to make the family seem more isolated than they were.  The truth is far more complicated.

Even a strong, privileged, and healthy young man, like Chris McCandless, can’t make it alone.  Efforts to live up to that ideal cost him his life.  Rugged individualism is a lie people tell themselves.  Sometimes its a lie they tell so they don’t feel bad about how lucky they were.  Sometimes its a lie they tell themselves so they don’t have to share their privilege with others.  Regardless of the reason it is a lie.  Be skeptical when someone says they did something themselves.  There is likely a good deal they have scrubbed from the narrative.