All societies confront the perennial conflict between individual and community. America’s emphasis on individualism and its puritanical shadow produced a bewildering series of dualities that express, temporarily resolve and often cover up this tension.
Fear: For every story of heroic, optimistic, progressive, entrepreneurial, forward-thinking, frontier-crossing heroism, we have the background of fear and anxiety. Our stories have always focused that fear upon the inner and outer Others of our imagination. And I mean always, as Glenn Greenwald observes, because a mythology built to justify empire and white supremacy absolutely requires a state of constant anxiety to motivate people who, left to their own devices and traditional mythic worlds, would not tolerate such an unsatisfying life.
People, of course, can feel fear about many things, especially of loss. But in America this mythology gets condensed through the generations down into the loss of freedom, which expresses as the loss of opportunity and the loss of money. Just behind the libertarian’s obsession with freedom lies his fear of losing his hard-earned resources, which he believes he achieved entirely independently of a broader social network.
And in this zero-sum American mythology it is impossible to separate the fear of loss of resources from the fear of redistribution of those resources, and those racialized groups whom government would give them to.
Early white fear and hatred of the dangerous, Indian Other created mythic opposites: the hero and the captive. Both our history and our psychology waver between the viewpoints of the helpless, innocent victim of pure evil, and the redeemer/hunter/hero, who vanquishes it and saves innocent Eden. By 1700, America’s first coherent myth-literature appeared: potent tales of people — usually women — who’d survived capture by the Indians.
The heroes of the western expansion became the stock characters of the second theme in American myth. The greatest, Daniel Boone, moved further west as civilization encroached, complaining, I had not been two years at the licks before a d—d Yankee came, and settled down within an hundred miles of me!
Whether Boone actually said that is irrelevant; Americans needed him to. The myth of the frontier contrasted Apollonian Cities with the Dionysian Wilderness (hence, three hundred years later, the spatial center of libertarianism in our Western states). The frontier was a safety valve of free western land when urban conditions became unmanageable, linking militarism with civilization’s moral progress. Since society must grow or perish, it insisted on the racial basis of class difference and taught that such progress required the subjugation or extermination of both wild nature and savage races.
These themes had deep resonance, because they superficially resembled ancient hero myths. Both the hunter (willingly) and the captive (unwillingly) entered a primal world. If they could maintain their racial/cultural integrity there, they might incorporate its power, defeat its demons and return to morally renew their community (even if they rarely did so). It was initiation – and redemption – through violence.
The opposition of Puritan obsessions and the opportunists’ predatory mania led to a division in the psyche that remains with us today. We regularly confront the opposing values of freedom and equality, framed as individualism vs. conformism. To modern Puritans, all are equally sinful, requiring eternal vigilance to prevent infection. But descendants of the opportunists, from robber barons to anti-tax crusaders, sexual hedonists and libertarians, venerate the sacred right to ignore community standards.
Conservatives (more appropriately: reactionaries) often intertwine these values, because one of the privileges of whiteness is to pick and choose among seemingly contradictory positions. Hence, we have the curious phenomena of gay Republicans who overlook their party’s hatred of sexuality; proponents of increased police presence who oppose gun control; others who oppose abortion rights but support capital punishment; and demagogues like Richard Nixon, who terrorized Middle America with warnings of both “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy” in the same speech.
The pendulum has swung back and forth. But wherever one of these values predominates, its shadow soon constellates. The conflict emerges in the tension between libertarian hedonism and wartime conformism – often in the voices of the same persons.
Another example is equal opportunity vs. the meritocratic values of our institutions – and the old-boy networks that actually ensure continued WASP dominance. Two outstanding examples are the C-grade high school student George W. Bush who was the ultimate “legacy” admission at Yale, and the equally under-achieving Jared Kushner, whose father pledged $2.5 million to Harvard shortly before Jared was admitted there. (The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates)
The consensus on the issue of equality is that all Americans have – or at least now have – equal access to jobs, education and housing. This bogus reasoning gave the Supreme Court its excuse to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act in 2015. Assuming that all start on a “level playing field,” we proclaim May the best man win. The winners are those who “try hardest,” applying the Protestant values of discipline and delayed gratification. Theologically speaking, they show by their success that they are among the elect of God — and exempt, by the way, from the Christian obligation to help the poor.
Conflicts in the myth can emerge in terms of fairness vs. cheating. The notion of fairness promises that all who play by the rules will prosper. Cheating breaks the rules, but it also reveals our core, capitalist, individualist values. This explains our moral indignation about steroid abuse and rule violation in sports, one of the few areas in modern life, a ritual space perhaps, in which we claim to honor truth and fairness. But Eldridge Cleaver saw that when we all secretly subscribe to…“every man for himself,” we really do perceive the weak as the prey of the strong.
But since this dark principle violates our democratic ideals… we force it underground… sports are geared to disguise, while affording expression to, the acting out in elaborate pageantry of the myth of the fittest in the process of surviving.
This is a deeply mythic story not necessarily because it is untrue, but because its pervasiveness and its unexamined assumptions produce a consensus reality. It is a container of multiple and inconsistent meanings; its very ambiguity gives it the energy that motivates us.
It allows the privileged to select either one of the two polar ideals to justify themselves. For example, segregation – “separate but equal” – was legal for sixty years. Libertarians invoke equality to reject affirmative action, calling it reverse discrimination. Assistance to minorities only encourages idleness (let us not forget that in Puritan theology there is no greater sin than laziness). Though the argument is false, it has potency because it contains some truth: since individuals have occasionally succeeded on their own, then, claim conservatives, everyone should be able to. If others cannot, then it is their own fault.
(Few libertarians, with their permissive attitudes around sexuality, would admit to being part of any organized religion, especially anything puritanical. But we are talking about “boy psychology,” the characteristic expression of uninitiated young men, where one’s rebelliousness is merely the mirror-opposite of the father’s authoritarianism.)
Conservatives attack progressive legislation by invoking the ideal of individualism, terrorizing working-class white males with the prospect of lost jobs and, paradoxically, suburban homogeneity. “Freedom” reverts to the right to accumulate and invest wealth without government regulation.
Marketing exploits both sides. As early as the 1830’s, De Tocqueville noticed the tendency toward conformity that resulted from an ideology of equality in a materialistic society. Now, we purchase identical sunglasses, cigarettes, leather jackets and motorcycles because they symbolize rebellion against conformity. Fashion is a simultaneous declaration of freedom and membership: we present a unique self to the world while looking like selected others. “Individualists” often look and think, for the most part, within narrow parameters.
Military recruiters offer romantic images of individualistic warriors while simultaneously emphasizing the joys of dissolving oneself into the group. They seduce young men with images of noble knights in heroic, solo combat, conquering dragons in video games so as to entrain them in the automatic responses of large, anonymous armies.
Each contains the seed of its shadow. The conservative ideal of shrinking government inevitably produces restrictions on personal freedom and a prison-industrial complex.
Here is the essence of our story: both the Puritan and the Opportunist perceived freedom in autonomy and material possessions rather than in social relatedness. Eventually, both figures became somewhat interchangeable, as history transformed the aesthetic, religious notion of predestination into Social Darwinism and the secular culture of consumerism.
The grand product of this mix was the American: enthusiastic, confident, practical, optimistic, extraverted, competitive and classless. But to those who endured his excesses, he was arrogant, childish, narcissistic and belligerent, the “Ugly American,” innocently trampling tradition, making fine distinctions between the elect and the damned, or gleefully crushing the weak with astonishing cruelty.
Generally, a unique if superficial balance has ruled; the land of freedom and equality remains profoundly attractive to the world. Philosopher Jacob Needleman suggests the American ideal poses the ancient question of “what man is as opposed to what he can become.”
And yet, we have a Bill of Rights but no Bill of Responsibilities. Radical critics find the source of this paradox of freedom and equality in unexamined definitions of just who is a member of the community, the polis. When only a small percentage of the population is admitted to that rarified atmosphere and all “Others” are excluded, then both the contradiction in the rhetoric and the sense of denial and innocence are heightened.
During wartime, we quickly forget the civil liberties that the nation was founded upon. Terrorized by the Other – or being told this – we almost unanimously ignore or condone the grossest violations of the right to dissent. As the mid-term elections of 2018 approach, and keeping in mind the history of various “October Surprises,” we would do well to recall that on September 10th, 2001, G.W. Bush was the most unpopular president in our history, and that on the 12th, he had a 90 percent approval rating.
This is Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority. For all their emphasis on individual rights, Americans had put so much emphasis on equality rather than upon diversity that they became intolerant of the very freedom to be different. He wrote, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.”
Over time, unrestrained capitalism provokes responses such as the New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt reframed freedom: of speech, of religion, from want and from fear. But after FDR’s death, Harry Truman dropped the last two, replacing them with freedom of enterprise.
More fundamental to American myth than ideals of freedom or equality, the unrestrained quest for wealth trumps them both. And yet, as noted above, during the Eisenhower administration, the rich paid extremely high income taxes, because (until the Reagan years) the consensus of social compassion still existed. Still, even now, corporate welfare, federal subsidies and regressive taxation prop up big business and big agriculture; both they and their “small government” libertarian spokespersons would be horrified at the notion of a truly free market.
Yet the myth retains its pervasiveness, as middle class resistance to increased taxation on the super-wealthy indicates. Americans characteristically dream of becoming wealthy. Our sacred expectation of social mobility – the opportunity to move up into a higher social class – has been decreasing significantly for many years. But as recently as 2003, in a poll on the Bush tax-cut plan, 56% of the blue-collar men who correctly perceived it as favoring the rich still supported it.
The myth of the self-made man is so deeply engrained in our national psyche that our ignorance of the facts is equaled only by our optimism: in 2000 19% of respondents believed that they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought that they already were. And it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to find similar thinking among Trump supporters today.