Politicians profess great love for the common man while promising 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.
Rugged individualism is a tremendous force for good when it takes shape as a selfless advance toward accepting personal responsibility. Virtuous individualism calls up the courage to emerge from the crowd to play a self-reliant productive role in in the world as a grown up. You can take it to a detached or arrogant dark side, but that is your misunderstanding.
I enjoy movies with a message. In Frank Capra’s 1939 classic film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a young senator named Jefferson Smith 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. Smith is overwhelmed by cynicism until he finds his spine and realizes he cannot stay free and decent without it. Finally, he rises up as a lone individual to face down the corruption, come what may.
In Mr. Smith, the American ideals and symbols we treasure take on meaning only when a man 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. Coming to America from Italy, he saw Lady Liberty with torch in hand for the first time at age five. His father exclaimed, “That’s the light of freedom!” The boy believed it. He learned that being an American had nothing to do with one’s race, gender, class, group, or social status. It has to do with seeing individual worth and dignity in all human beings endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights and liberties. Capra went on to win three Best Director Oscars.
In another Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey watches his personal 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. When things went from bad to worse, 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.
Authentic American individualism is not about rejecting mutual association with others or running from commitments to family, church, community, or nation. We need each other. An English cleric named John Donne (1572 –1631) wrote: “No man is an island.” We get that. But belonging to a family, church, state, and country should never mean forfeiting your individual worth, personal integrity, or moral responsibilities.
Frank Capra’s films embody the plight of the individual against power politics, mass production, collective greed, mass media, lazy dependency, and mass conformity. He dedicated his art to keeping the principles and virtues he valued alive in the common man, not to make him/her weak and dependent but to cultivate strength and liberty. To this day, Ivory tower cynics scoff at Capra’s virtue-centered, freedom-loving worldview and it seems the scoffers are winning.
Having demonized rugged individualism, many Americans today seek 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 wealth, health, and happiness 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.