The American myth of the rugged individualist

Rugged individualism is a myth.

At one time, the rugged individualist did have a place in America. However, the once noble ideal has been perverted into a myth that is perpetuated to give people living in substandard conditions a reason to crow about the fact that they refuse to take what they would describe as government handouts.

They also refuse to apply for programs which most of them directly paid into, such as workers compensation, to cover costs when work-related injuries arise. The rugged individualists are too proud to claim what is rightfully theirs, and as a result the government keeps it—no questions asked.

The working poor are the ones primarily responsible for keeping this myth alive, because by keeping their heads just above water so as not to become homeless, they feel that they have accomplished something. That is probably what is most disturbing about this situation. The same people who I am scolding for draping themselves in this feel-good attitude feel a very real sense of accomplishment, yet are somehow unable to see that life in America should not be so cutthroat.

They are unable to see that their tax dollars, which could be spent on improving their standard of living, are wasted on pet projects thousands of miles away and military spending. Meanwhile, they are sitting there silently, not asking for a dime. It is sad really. These poor saps have been conditioned to sit down, work and stay quiet, and then maybe one day they might have something to show for it.

I hope they have a fairy godmother like Cinderella had, because as a friend of mine who ships boxes at UPS and bounces at a bar downtown put it, “I work two jobs, and I’m still poor.” Unless his fairy godmother pays him a visit, he is going to be scraping by for quite some time.

This myth would be a great case study for my Communications 316 class this term. The cognitive dissonance theory could be applied. Basically, the working poor who would classify themselves as rugged individualists are a miserable bunch and need to rationalize why it is OK for them to suffer. Accordingly, the myth arises, and these poor people are able to count themselves among a mythic bunch who “don’t ask nobody for nothin’.”

And if they make it, they are somehow better than those who took assistance from government or social programs along the way. Well why don’t I just fire up Microsoft Word and print them an award.

A person who is able to overcome obstacles and pull themselves up by their bootstraps is to be applauded. However, when a person is down in the gutter spewing this nonsense in between swigs from a flask, it is enough to turn my stomach.

While the person with the flask is merely a representation of what I know to be out there, allow me to reconstruct a real rugged individualist whom I used to know. I say I used to know him because he turned out to be a scumbag. The connection between him being a rugged individualist and a scumbag is entirely coincidental, I am sure.

Let us call the rugged individualist Frank. Frank is from Arizona and somehow washed up in Portland. Frank has been struggling for years and years. One day I asked Frank why he doesn’t try to get his act together, get loans and go to school or something so that he would not have to worry about where his next meal was going to come from. These talks usually occurred as this rugged individualist was receiving a handout from the Bank of Mike in the form of a fully subsidized Muchas Gracias burrito.

Frank responded that he never asks for handouts from anyone. It wasn’t so much what he said that got under my skin, it was how he said it. Never mind the irony of the situation. Frank made it seem like he was doing something noble. He made it sound as if he was Jesus on the cross, and he was performing God’s work by suffering.

It wasn’t noble. It was pathetic.