Friday, August 31, 2012

The Cult of Self Reliance


So called conservatives are certain that they are the party of rugged individualism and self reliance, and equally certain that all others are liberals, the party of nanny state dependency.  It’s a silly idea at best, but firmly held by many.  The problem with silly ideas is that they cannot easily be refuted, but they can be explored. 

For instance, we have witnessed much ado about an Obama quip taken entirely out of context, something along the lines of “You did not build it.”  Many a self proclaimed self made man and woman took umbrage.  By their own initiative and hard work, they are proud of the businesses they have built up.  And rightfully so.  They have exhibited courageous initiative and worked hard to overcome the risks inherent in starting, building and sustaining an ongoing business.  It isn’t easy.  Many fail along the way.  But  succeed for fail, it is never done alone.  It requires a complex interdependency of time, resources and conditions from others to make it happen, and failure to recognize that is nothing short of unrighteous hubris. 

Self reliance and individualism are not the property of conservatives.  The primary difference between so called conservatives and those who are not, is that those who are not do not fear government as the sworn enemy of self reliance and the rights of individuals, but as a tool to encourage, enable and develop both. 

A couple of side notes are in order.  First, why do I call them so called conservatives.  It’s because I don’t think they are true conservatives who recognize the value of what is tried and true, and work to conserve the best of what it offers.  Second, those who are not are not thereby liberals, especially the sort of liberals labeled by so called conservatives as European Socialists and radical left wingers.  I have no idea what that means, and don’t think they do either.  Third, those of us who claim to be liberal, progressive or true conservative are not naive about the danger of government.  For all the good it can do, government can only be enforced through coercive means.  Therefore, it must always be treated with caution and respect.  As C.S. Lewis said of Aslan, so we might say about government, it’s good but not safe.  But I digress.  Back to self reliance.

The most self reliant men, and they were men, I have ever met have been the homeless men of New York City among whom I worked for several years.  Whether unwilling or unable, a great many of them could not abide any rules other than their own, and often not those.  They had honed the art of survival under the harshest of conditions, and approached the concept of interdependence with the cunning of the urban jungle, knowing that survival depended on separating others from at least some of their resources by any reasonable means.  I guess that if they must be compared to a wild animal, it would have to be the coyote: working alone, living together when needed, opportunistic hunters satisfied by whatever is available, seldom taking more than needed at the moment.

To be sure, their lives tended to be short.  Drug overdoses, exposure, pneumonia, tuberculosis, AIDS, and various forms of organ failure were the usual causes.  But that’s beside the point. They were self reliant to the end. 

That, of course, is not the sort of self reliance the so called conservatives claim and accuse liberals of disclaiming.  What they have in mind is something more in the line of old legend best told in recent times by authors such as Louis L’amour.  His stories always featured the self reliant hero who appeared on the scene of dastardly goings on, managed to clean up the mess, and set things right for a better, more civilized future.  That’s the sort of self reliant individual so called conservatives have in mind.

A closer reading might be in order.  There is always a pre-story explaining how the hero became self reliant through a series of mentors and trials.  On entering the story the hero always finds a set of true and loyal friends who help him at every turn.  The bad guys are almost always rapacious entrepreneurs of private enterprise willing to use any means to gain the advantage over ordinary people.  There is always a scene where the hero appears to be beaten, recovering against all odds through his self determination, the skills he learned from others, and help from the community.  The final showdown ends with the evil guys dead or running, and the hero proclaiming that his own way of life is a dying way that must reject the gun and give way to interdependent communities governed by law, of which he and the girl (there is always a girl) want to become members.

If L’amour wrote morality tales, the far right has forgotten the moral.  Their twisted cult of individualism and self reliance leaves out the part about what makes for civilized society: interdependence, rule of law, community.

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