In Frank Capra’s 1939 classic film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a young senator gets his idealism tested in the face of relentless political corruption. Many of his new colleagues on Capitol Hill had long ago surrendered their dignity to the collective to ride the tide of popular power. He is overwhelmed by cynicism until he finds his spine and realizes he cannot stay free and decent without it. He rises up as a lone individual to face down the collective corruption, come what may.
America’s most treasured ideals and symbols are featured in this movie, but they take on meaning only when a senator stands up all alone as a brave individual willing to live or die for his convictions. Sentimental patriotism is fine but without the courage of one’s informed conviction, it’s nothing.
American movie director, Frank Capra (1897 –1991) was an American by conviction, not by blood. When he arrived here at age five and saw Lady Liberty with torch in hand, his father exclaimed, “Look at that! That’s the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That’s the light of freedom!” Capra believed it. He learned to understand America by her principles, which have nothing to do with one’s race, gender, class, group, or social status. He went on to win three Best Director Oscars.
American individualism has fallen in popularity in recent times. It is often the scorn of preachers and professors alike. If I have heard American individualism demonized once, I have heard it a thousand times. In context, sometimes I agree with the criticism. But for the most part, the virtue of American individualism is being misrepresented.
Of course, every virtue has a dark side. Tolerance is poisonous in response to evil deeds. Patience is lethal when practiced by terrorists. Many Nazis were highly intelligent and brave, making their hatred even more harmful. Pride in one’s family, community or nation can be healthy but when it turns to arrogance, the virtue becomes a vice. When patriotism morphs from informed gratitude into mindless idolatry, it loses its virtue.
Rugged American individualism is a tremendous force for good when it takes shape in you as a confident unselfish advance toward the acceptance of personal responsibility. Virtuous individualism calls up the courage to emerge from the crowd, not to isolate yourself or feed your ego but to play a self-reliant productive role in in the world. You can take it to a dark side, but that is your problem.
In another Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey watches his good life fall apart. He is tempted to sell his entrepreneurial aspirations short and take a cushy job working for a heartless rich competitor. He resists this easy option, affirming his character as a self-reliant risk-taking American individual. George had always used his independently owned business to enable others to fulfill their dreams, while his dream remained on hold. He would not cave. Things get worse before they get better and he considers suicide, losing sight of his worth as an individual. An angel comes along, not to change his circumstances but to enlighten his perspective. He is shown a bigger picture of the good he had done for his community and his worth as an individual is reaffirmed.
Capra’s films embody the plight of the individual against power politics, mass production, mass media, collective greed, lazy dependency, and mass conformity. Exalting the worth and dignity of the individual was a theme Capra relished. It is also featured in the following Capra classics:
- It Happened One Night (1934).
- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).
- You Can’t Take it With You. (1938).
- Meet John Doe (1941).
We need each other. An English cleric named John Donne (1572 –1631) wrote: “No man is an island.” I get that. I love it. But too many Americans today want cradle-to-grave care from our government. Self-reliance is belittled as coldly unrealistic. The desire for dependency is swallowing up nearly every virtue upon which the American character was built. The clamor for politicians to provide for our health and happiness at all levels has yielded astronomical debt and unprecedented corruption. This is no fiction. There will be no way out of America’s debt-ridden state of dependency without some real rugged individualism, leaving all the selfish and arrogant stereotypes behind.
Politicians profess great love for the common man while spinning out promises to use government wealth and power to take care of commoners. Sadly, this works like a charm in the new America that sees rugged individualism as a vice, not a virtue.
In a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on March 3, 2015, John Marini wrote: “For Capra, the real America was to be understood in terms of its virtues, which are derived from its principles.” Capra’s art as a director was dedicated to keeping those virtues alive in the common man, the rugged individual. Ivory tower cynics and socialists scoff at his virtue-centered worldview, but in the spirit of authentic American individualism, go find an old Frank Capra classic—and decide for yourself.