“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” Bertrand Russell
Like a warped record you can’t get to play true, America seems stuck on repeating the myth of the rugged individual.
He’s a self-made man.
She pulled herself up by her own bootstraps.
In a free society, it’s every man for himself.
Herbert Hoover was a big fan of rugged individualism. He invoked it frequently in the depths of the Great Depression. It was his way of telling millions of hungry, destitute Americans that as far as the government was concerned, they were on their own.
But what is this thing called America? Is it really just a random collection of 350 million individuals, rugged and not so, butting heads in a zero sum game to see who survives?
The Pioneer Spirit
The much-lauded “pioneer spirit” of America paints a picture of the hardy individual, musket in hand, blazing a trail in the New World (his woman and babes tucked somewhere safe offstage). He’s a guy who likes to go his own way, live by his own rules. It stirs people up, this portrait of our fearless forebears, mavericks all.
Except it never happened that way.
When the first non-native settlers arrived, they took one look and understood the situation: It was gonna take a village to build a colony. The land had to be cleared and plowed for planting. Ditches had to be dug for irrigation. Roads had to be made. Barns raised. Houses built. The rugged individual did not do these things with his little shovel. As European Americans were to do for much of the next 150 years, the settlers accomplished these tasks as a community.
And those Westward Ho-ing pioneers didn’t travel across the plains as individuals in the family’s little covered wagon. They formed wagon trains, BIG wagon trains, because the unknown road was dangerous and people got sick, wagons broke down. Under the best of conditions, the array and amount of labor still demanded many hands. Someone had to hunt for fresh food and someone had to cook it. Someone must fetch the water and feed the animals, repair the wagons and tend to the children. Going it alone, for all the fabled glory of the intrepid individual, would have posed a slew of serious challenges. America might never have made it 10 miles west of Philadelphia.
Our Ancestors Had This Nailed Long Before the Wheel
When our nomadic ancestors began to settle down 10,000 -14,000 years ago, they did not pitch their tents as nuclear families or individuals. My tent here. Your tent in the next valley. They settled in communities. And before they turned to agriculture, they had hunted in groups. Why? Because for all they didn’t know about the wonders to come over the next dozen millennia, they understood this: It sucks to be alone. It’s dangerous and difficult and you don’t do too well.
To thrive and grow requires a society. As legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said: “Individual commitment to a group effort—that’s what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
So, what is this animal, society?
A quick google of the question turned up the following:
“Society describes a group of people who share similar values, laws and traditions living in organized communities for mutual benefits.” (Reference.com)
“Humans are stronger as an organised group than they are as individuals. Humans in societies survive longer, breed more successfully and dominate resources. Therefore society is a survival mechanism and we have evolved for it.” (S. Spencer Baker)
“To love our neighbor as ourselves is such a truth for regulating human society, that by that alone one might determine all the cases in social morality.” (John Locke)
And my personal favorite:
“Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.” (Albert Einstein)
Today, in our fast-paced digital world, with its glut of consumer goods and endless distractions, it’s easy to miss what our ancestors saw so clearly: We need each other. If we don’t support higher education, we won’t have the doctors we need to care for us when we’re sick or injured. If we don’t fund science, we won’t have the research we need to discover cures for our diseases or environmental solutions to save our planet. If we don’t spend the tax dollars to replace our aging infrastructure, we risk repeats of the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed 13 people and injured 145.
Look Around You
- If you had a bowl of cereal this morning, federal safety regulations (OSHA) protect the workers in the factory who packaged your cereal, and federal food standards (FDA) ensure that toxic substances are not floating around in your cereal bowl.
Enjoy a tomato in your lunchtime salad? Farm workers picked those tomatoes, and trucks delivered them to your local supermarket over Interstates built by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. (The $25 billion, 41,000-mile highway system was the largest public works project in America up to that time.)
- Borrowed a book from your local library recently? Public libraries are funded by local, state, and federal tax dollars. And to get there, you don’t have to take your chances weaving between cars in the street because local and state tax dollars, often matched by federal funds, have provided sidewalks for your safety.
3. Enjoy walking in the sunshine and having a cold glass of water afterward? The air we breathe and the water we drink are subject to federal regulations that monitor and establish limits for pollution on both. Though these standards are under attack right now and may be eliminated, they evolved as a response to the growing concern in the 1960s and 70s about the impact of human activity on our environment. The kind of concern that inspired Randy Newman’s 1972 song “Burn on Big River” about Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, so polluted it burst into flames.
Some 30 million Americans in eight states depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water. But urban growth has overwhelmed marshes that once filtered runoff, and fertilizer from intensive farming has filled rivers with highly toxic algae blooms. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, begun under President Obama, provides federal dollars to help protect and restore the Lakes area. The highly successful project hopes not to get the budget axe before it finishes cleaning up the decades-old toxic sites and restoring the necessary ecological balance.
Thanks to EPA automobile tailpipe emissions standards, our children can play outdoors without having to wear face masks. Even LA’s smoggy reputation has improved. According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, “… researchers at the University of Southern California say … pollution in L.A. has declined significantly over the past 20 years … and as a result, residents here are healthier.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) adds: “The cleanup of California’s tailpipe emissions over the last few decades has not only reduced ozone pollution in the Los Angeles area, it has also altered the pollution chemistry in the atmosphere, making the eye-stinging ‘organic nitrate’ component of air pollution plummet.”
4. Deposited a check in the bank lately? If it was under $250,000, you don’t need to worry because the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, created under Roosevelt in 1933, insures deposits up to that amount. Imagine what folks would have given for that in 1929.
5. Glad there wasn’t an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the U.S.? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading national public health institute in America, was there on the ground in West Africa when the epidemic developed. They are still there, working to improve public health and prevent another epidemic.
6. Ever been a victim of a tornado, hurricane, or other natural disaster? Then you were probably mighty glad to see the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) personnel arrive on the scene to handle clean-up. Even the most diehard opponents of federal programs, like New Jersey’s Chris Christie, change their tune when disaster strikes their own house. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Christie was only too happy to take the billion-plus dollars that federal agencies like FEMA and HUD poured into his state.
7. Are you 65 or over? Have parents or grandparents that age? Thanks to Social Security (1935) and Medicare (1965), the people who taught our children, built our roads and bridges, staffed our hospitals, and kept the world turning in one way or another during their working lives are not left to starve by the roadside. Why should people under 65 care about this? Because one day, with any luck, we will all get to be “old geezers.” Because a society does not throw people under the bus when it’s “finished” with them.
The bottom line is this: When your house catches fire, do you really want to try dousing the flames with buckets of water from your kitchen sink, or do you want to call the fire department?
What Price the Public Good?
Donald Trump said Meals on Wheels was slashed from his budget because it “doesn’t work.” Meals on Wheels uses volunteers to deliver hot meals to housebound people, mostly the elderly. Research shows that the program greatly improves both diet and quality of life for its recipients. And it keeps many of those folks out of hospitals and nursing homes.
So, people get a hot meal, feel happier, and stay healthier. How is this not working? Because it doesn’t make a profit?
In his 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe addressed this notion that what serves the public has no worth because it doesn’t make a buck:
I think the enemy is here before us with a thousand faces, but I think we know that all his faces wear one mask. I think the enemy is single selfishness and compulsive greed.
America is a BIG country. It is not possible for each of us to provide all we need. It never was. The myth of the self-made man and the rugged individual are, at root, excuses for not making that individual commitment to the group effort that Lombardi spoke of.
President Obama addressed this eloquently during his 2012 campaign:
“If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own… I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there …
“….there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam … That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people … You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”
Warren Buffett, clever lad, nailed it in one line: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”