Our sacred notion of mobility — the freedom to move — evokes one of our most enduring themes: the New Start. Always, one could pull up stakes, move on, start a new church, change one’s name, dream a new American dream and start over. Mobility also implies expansion: geographic, economic and spiritual. Americans from the start have taken for granted the imperative to constantly expand and grow – and the internalized judgment of those who are not upwardly mobile.
This leads to wildly divergent yet surprisingly similar ideals – both the infinitely expanding consumer economy and “personal growth.” New Age spirituality could not be more American. Consider the book, The Secret (30 million copies in 50 languages), by Rhonda Byrne. In the film version, a series of self-help teachers promote positive thinking, primarily toward the goal of acquiring consumer goods and a great love life. This tradition extends back to the New Thought teachers of early 19th-century America. The film ignores the values of community almost totally. For more on the myths of progress and growth, see Chapter Nine of my book.
A mere half century after the revolution, Alexis De Toqueville observed of American preachers,
…it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.
Eventually, religion and the mentality of business merged as they did nowhere else. Without a state religion and with Protestant churches constantly splitting in schisms, each individual preacher was forced to become an entrepreneur of souls, a salesman, in order to distinguish his church from other churches. Consequently, a business-growth mentality grew within American Protestantism, and its philosophy of optimistic self-improvement merged with the capitalist ideology of greed and perpetual growth.
“New Start” also implies another old idea. In the tribal world, initiation removes youths from their community before returning them with their sense of purpose revitalized. It is a point in time rooted within space. But America inverted this ancient truth; since one could simply leave his community to acquire a new identity, initiation became a point in space rooted in time. As early as 1600, America symbolized the New Start for the entire western world. This aspect of the myth remains nearly as strong today. And it tells us that we rise up not as members of an ethnic group or social class, but as individuals.
The Myth of Individualism
In an odd reversal of initiation motifs, the American heroic son “kills” his father symbolically – if he has one – by individuating, moving away and repudiating everything the father stands for. In truth, we perceive family as at best a necessary evil, something to leave, so that one may get on with the pursuit of happiness. In America, progress happens through separation.
In terms of child-raising, Americans generally consider infants to be so fused with their mothers that we make every effort to encourage autonomy as early as possible. We hold and carry babies less than most nations do, very early admonishing them to be “big boys.” The Japanese, by contrast, consider the infant to be utterly alien, from some strange, other world. Like most traditional people, they make every effort to enfold it within community as early as possible. Neither view of the child is right or wrong, said James Hillman; both are myths, because they are “lived unconsciously, collectively as truths, performed unwaveringly as rituals.”
In the story of modernity, which is essentially an American story, unlike anything that came before, we have convinced ourselves that purpose can be divorced from community. But in a culture of consumerism, the desire to be seen as special produces a quest for expensive symbols – a quest that is ultimately futile, wrote sociologist Philip Slater, “…since it is individualism itself that produces uniformity.”
Paradoxically, our American obsession with individualism produces persons who “cannot recognize the nature of their distress.” This results in a desire to relinquish responsibility for control and decision-making to the images provided by the media. Here lies a great paradox of American life: our emphasis on the needs of the individual always constellates its shadow of cultural and political conformism.
But conformism and rebellious individualism should not be our only choices. In the indigenous world, community exists in order to identify and nurture the individuality of each of its members, who are, in turn, necessary for the community to thrive and reproduce its values. Malidoma Somé writes that in West Africa, “Individuality is synonymous with uniqueness. This means that a person and his or her unique gifts are irreplaceable… A healthy community not only supports diversity, it requires diversity.”
Americans – when not involved in our periodic moral crusades – valued the individual over the community more than any society in history. The opportunist argued for individual responsibility against the suffocating presence of big government. Determined on success, he was in a perpetual state of rebellion against authority (while ignoring the cavalry that protected his property, massive subsidies to the railroads that carried his goods, and later, a military-industrial complex that ensured his oil supply and markets for his products).
His wealth was proof that he lived in God’s grace – and his neighbor’s poverty indicated the opposite. But there was a price, writes Historian Greil Marcus:
To be an American is to feel the promise as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal.
Whether in the relentless drive for wealth or in his obsession to know God’s plan, the American, like no one before him, strove for self-improvement. Inside the word “improve,” however, is the anxiety of one who can never positively know if he is saved. Thus he must continually “prove” his worth. He does so, he believes, only on his own merits. And he proves this worth only in relation to those who have less, those who (according to Puritanism) deserve less.
Mythmakers continually emphasize the individual over the collective. Most notably, Horatio Alger’s nineteenth century dime-novel melodramas affirmed the Protestant virtues of frugality, hard work and delayed gratification. His young heroes “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.” These immensely popular stories of personal success counteracted populist agitation in a time when socialist ideas from Europe were questioning the mythic narrative.
In the 1880s they were already well-established in the American narrative. And for the last 140 years they have only grown stronger. So many of us, born on third base, think we hit a triple.