Sunday, October 14, 2012

Raw Individualism as Romanticism

I moved back to the Tulsa region, out on the fringe of the metro area, for a new job.  The metro is doing well with numerous construction projects ongoing.   This is quite different from depressed California and Washington, my last two locals.  Broken Arrow is magically expanding.  When I lived here 8 years ago, they were in the midst of a housing boom.  It busted, but not too bad.  Most local banks are doing well.  This suburb is hopping.

As usual, I read the local rags to get a sense of the food and entertainment.  The Urban Tulsa Weekly is a great local paper that is independent of the many other weeklies found around the country.   Its Oct 3rd issue had a cover story about small family restaurants in Tulsa called “Where Everybody Knows Your Name:  Individuality and Intimacy Tie Tulsa Cooking Together”, here.  The essay pointed out that the several places reviewed

 did not share cooking styles or spices, but each combines the virtues of humility, individuality, and intimacy… each owner or manager poured his or her own personality -- often including spirituality -- into the restaurant.  Instead of using marketing jargon to describe a restaurant, each owner or manager is able walk into the kitchen and say, "This is me."

I comment on this because it highlights a very basic aspect of our new Romanticism—expressive individuality.  Our culture is full of individuals doing their own thing.  (Let’s not dwell on the obvious conformity displayed when “everyone” is “doing their own thing”).   The Dionysian values the real, nature in its rawest form.  Our contemporary Romanticism is about people being raw and real (and accepts illusion as raw and real).  The Apollonian likes the abstract and cultivated, refined.  Modernism was all about refinement and betterment.  Both ethos’ dislike fakes, or the faux, and both have plenty of fakeness.  We all know that the fake is acting in some way, hiding the authentic.  The difference is in the raw entity versus the refined one.  Levi-Straus called this the “Raw and Cooked.”

During the Modernist years, it was authentic to better one’s self.  Get educated and enter a profession or become skilled in something and become a journeyman.  The important value was equality of opportunity for this self-improvement.  Here is Herbert Hoover, 1928:

Equality of opportunity is the right of every American, rich or poor, foreign or native born, without respect to race or faith or color, to attain that position in life to which his ability and character entitle him. We must carry this ideal further than to economic and political fields alone. The first steps to equality of opportunity are that there should be no child in America that has not been born and does not live under sound conditions of health, that does not have full opportunity for education from the beginning to the end of our institutions, that is not free from injurious labor, that does not have stimulation to accomplish to the fullest of its capacities. Here

It was Hoover who popularized the phrase “rugged individualism,” and the quote above was taken from a speech with that title.  He also published a pamphlet on American Individualism wherein he states:

No doubt, individualism run riot, with no tempering principle would provide a long category of inequalities, of tyrannies, dominations, and injustices. America, however, has tempered the whole conception of individualism by the injection of a definite principle, and from this principle it follows that attempts at domination, whether in government of in the processes of industry and commerce, are under an insistent curb. If we would have the values of individualism, their stimulation to initiative, to the development of hand and intellect, to the high development of thought and spirituality, they must be tempered with that firm and fixed ideal of American individualism-and equality of opportunity. If we would have these values we must soften its hardness and stimulate progress though that sense of service that lies in our people. Here

For Hoover, Individualism had to be tempered and softened through that sense of service to community.  A rugged individualist works to better society.  Government should help people in having equality of opportunity; otherwise, it should get out of people’s way.  This sense of service to society was very much akin to the Enlightenment idea of republican virtue and civility.

For much of the Modernist era this idea held sway.  Recently the Heritage Foundation published an essay about the waning of rugged individualism in America, here.  They started by describing how the movies of John Wayne and John Ford depicted characters who manifested the ideals of Rugged Individualism and personal responsibility.  They write:

“Out here a man settles his own problems,” said Wayne’s character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), summing up the idea of personal responsibility. This so-called rugged individualism, unique to America, was not detrimental to community; indeed, it was the key to building strong communities. It was this attitude that settled new territory, built cities, established industry, and fostered greater prosperity. Wayne’s and Ford’s movies and countless other examples from popular culture of the post–World War II era helped maintain an American spirit of individualism and enterprise, as Americans began navigating new frontiers including space, communications technology, and the darkened borders of the “captive nations” long occupied by Soviet forces.

Most people under age 45 could care less about John Wayne or the role model he represented.   Today, Individualism is raw, not rugged/refined.  There appears to be little interest in working for the public good or the betterment of society.  Go back and read Hoover’s 1928 speech; it was full of progress and cooperation.  Rugged Individualism required a sense of personal responsibility.  It was virtuous and noble.

Today’s Individualism is about raw expressions of individuality—this is me, take me as I am.  Mostly, this raw individualism is helpful or at least harmless.  People open restaurants and the ambiance is idiosyncratic to the owner.  People get tattoos to express some emotional or social connection; it doesn’t always mean they are gang members, outlaws, or societal misfits.  It’s just people using their bodies as canvases.  Likewise, we do most things to the extreme:  extreme sports, extreme tricked out trucks, extreme ghost hunting, etc.   

Much of this individuality is purposefully faked because the Dionysian likes to blend truths; the illusion is just as raw and likeable as the trickery behind it. (The Apollonian would separate them).  Individual expression and conformity are mixed because, hey, this is what we do in a Romantic era.  We blur everything.

Thus, the insidious side of individualism prospers.  And, it is also true that rugged individualism is fading in America, mostly because conservatives abandoned the idea long ago in favor of the Ayn Randian version (selfishness is a virtue).  Take the most selfish behaviors and call them something respectable, like Rugged Individualism, or worse, take selfishness and call it a virtue, and we see the worst of Individualism.

And this is what we have in our national politics and our financial centers.  Raw, unrestrained, running riot, Individualism without a sense of personal responsibility or public service.  The illusion is that this is supposedly all okay and we put up with political candidates that express these twisted values (here).

The irony of all this is that if we were to try to teach personal responsibility and public service in our schools the conservative folks would scream “socialism” and knock it down.  Today’s conservatives really don’t believe in either which makes the Heritage Foundation's essay a farce.

Selfishness is not a virtue no matter how you color it.