“I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to Hell in his own way." – Robert Frost
America has long been the land of the rugged individualist. From the very beginning, Americans saw themselves as a people apart; we shook off the tethers of our cousins across the pond and began our manifest march across the continent. Not all of it was true, of course. Walt Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas that “there could hardly happen anything that would more serve the States than possessing an aggregate of heroes, characters, exploits, sufferings, prosperity or misfortune, glory or disgrace, common to all, typical of all.” Whitman saw the importance of National Myth to form a common bond among the scattered and disparate peoples of a burgeoning country.
The eventual components of Whitman’s aggregate, from mountain men and cowboys to suffragettes and Depression-era bank robbers, embodied the American spirit most importantly in that they were uninterested in being constrained, either by societal norms, government, geography, or some combination thereof. The American spirit of individualism has always been largely about bucking the system; Americans have always seen themselves as the temperamental descendants of those patriots tossing tea into Boston Harbor to protest a tax. Americans were a contradiction: a people who revered their governing documents but who took great pride in being ungoverned, unchastened, unbowed.
Myths are myths for a reason. They aren’t always accurate. American history is also full of examples of joiners and groupthink. But we create the myth as an example of how we wish to be, how we want to see ourselves. In this respect, for most of our history, America has celebrated the man apart, the lone champion of a cause, the man who believes what he believes, consequences be damned; we celebrated the individual and his desire to exist as an individual above all else. Lately, though, we seem to have taken a disturbing turn towards a desire to force people to choose the categories where they belong.
This tribalism and identity politics are at their core antithetical to our once shared American mythos. Viewing people as boxes checked and filed in this group or that is dehumanizing and subverts the very idea of individual liberty. American governance shouldn’t be decided based on those checked boxes, either. The insidious insistence on keeping the tribes in a constant state of warfare so as to ensure they fail to notice the steady erosion of their rights is a trick used by all sides, and will likely continue unabated as long as “politics” is more about your guy winning than about decisions on how we live together while staying out of each other’s business to the greatest extent possible. It will continue unabated until enough people refuse to be seen as the sum of their checked boxes and issue politics and demand to be classified only as free individuals.
We need a return to the individualism of our myths, to the view of ourselves as people possessed of an inherent dignity based only on our existence as free men and women. We need to demand a government which classifies us not by our identity boxes but solely by the one identity which matters: citizen. We need to stop being people who merely support or oppose a party, candidate, or issue and start being people who take back the right to govern themselves. But the hour grows late, and as Steinbeck said about another form of American individualism, “what I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless.”
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