America’s Rugged Individuals… Not!

There’s a lengthy piece by Claude Fischer in yesterday’s Globe about America’s myth of rugged individualism and rugged individuals.

Turns out Americans are a bunch of conformist wusses. Which would explain the mass hysteria favoring the drunken Joe McCarthy and the cult of Reagan, who planned through astrology and went senile in office while starting the country down the road to today’s financial and environmental disasters.

The article is based on decades-long sociological surveys of dozens of nations by the International Social Survey Programme, and the World Value Surveys.

Some of the findings:

Americans are much more likely than Europeans to say that employees should follow a boss’s orders even if the boss is wrong;

to say that children “must” love their parents;

and to believe that parents have a duty to sacrifice themselves for their children.

We are more likely to defer to church leaders and to insist on abiding by the law.

Though Americans do score high on a couple of aspects of individualism, especially where it concerns government intervening in the market, in general we are likelier than Europeans to believe that individuals should go along and get along.

The Lion would add that the more wrong the boss is, the more fanatic is his support. George W. Bush and Ronnie Reagan were wrong about just about everything, but their followers want them canonized.

Research suggests that Americans do adhere to a particular strain of liberty — one that emerged in the New World — in which freedom to choose your allegiance is tempered by the expectation that you won’t stray from the values of the group you choose.

Yup, American groupthink masquerading as rugged individualism. “Yup, yup, I’m a rugged individual. As long as my group says it’s okay.”

Their findings suggest that in several major areas, Americans are clearly less individualistic than western Europeans. One topic pits individual conscience against the demands of the state. In 2006, the ISSP asked the question “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?”

At 45 percent, Americans were the least likely out of nine nationalities to say that people should at least on occasion follow their consciences — far fewer than, for example, the Swedes (70 percent) and the French (78 percent).

Similarly, in 2003, Americans turned out to be the most likely to embrace the statement “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong.”

That would tend to explain half the country’s embrace of waterboarding as a benign form of interrogation. Or maybe all those rugged individualists on the Republican Tea Party side of the country are just so terrified of terrorists, or anybody with skin that isn’t pasty white, that they can justify hiring people to commit the ugliest forms of brutality on human beings that the mind of man can generate. (Those hirelings would be CIA agents and various other agents of the United States government.)

The nature of individualism is complex, however, and there are at least a couple of ways that Americans in the ISSP and similar surveys do appear more individualistic than Europeans. For one, Americans are usually the most likely to say that individuals determine their own fates. What happens to you is your own doing, not the product of external circumstances. For Americans, things are the way they are because individuals made choices.

That’s the choice the Republicans and the Libertarians make, and it goes a long way towards explaining their view that people always choose to be homeless, that people who get sick (because they choose to, of course) aren’t entitled to health care, and why ketchup is a vegetable. Their motto: “Extremism in defense of what I got is a damned virtue and if you expect me to pay taxes on it I’ll shoot your sorry hide.” That’s what Republicans and their pals call ‘personal responsibility’.

The article also notes, “Americans are the most hostile to having the government redress economic inequality” and “Americans seem much more willing to submerge personal liberty to the group than Europeans are.”

The article goes on to note that American individualism seems to be a matter of contracts. A person is individually free to sign on with any group he chooses, be it a job, a social club, a political party, but once signed on he is obligated to conform to the group, and he is also free to leave.

Of course conformity is so much easier, particularly in a country that chooses to put so much of itself under the thumb of the most authoritarian, conformist organizations in history – religions. And when the religions of choice are as vile, as anti-freedom, anti-liberty, and anti-American as American fundogelical religions choose to be, you can bet conformity is and will remain the rule in America.

Interesting, isn’t it, how real individualism and real critical thinking thrives in Europe and Scandinavia where religion is dying, while America, home of the cancer-ridden Marlboro Man, home of John Wayne hypocrisy, the new home of waterboarding and endless mass war against tiny threats, yes, America, where individuality is crushed and Soviet-style conformity is exalted, is the true paradise of religious arrogance and ignorance.

And for those of you who want to chant ‘Love it or leave it’ at The Lion, thank you for making my point, though inelegantly and ineloquently. All together now…


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3 Responses

  1. Reminds me of the Monty Python scene from Life of Brian:


    • Definitely! I’d forgotten that bit.


  2. America, where individuality is crushed and Soviet-style conformity is exalted, is the true paradise of religious arrogance and ignorance.

    I think I like your blog. Please keep up the good (if somewhat depressing) work.


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