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David Bouchier: The Rugged Individualist

David Bouchier

Commentator David Bouchier suggests that this is not the moment to pretend to be a rugged individualist.

America has always been famous for its individualism, the idea that every person should be unique and free to live in his or her own way. This romantic myth originated with European philosophers in the 18th century, and quickly made its way across the Atlantic where it was eagerly embraced. This was a new nation ready for new things and, with a vast territory and a small population, it seemed like the ideal testing ground for this revolutionary idea of individual freedom.

So history unrolled through the 19th century as a gigantic carnival of individualism: the robber barons, predatory capitalism, the survival of the fittest, the Civil War, massive political corruption and, out West, the cowboys and all they symbolized. To Europeans it looked like anarchy, the absence of civilization rather than a new civilization. But in due time things settled down and most Americans became and still are well-integrated members of their community, like any German or Frenchman, or any Chinese or African.

But the romantic myth of individualism has lingered on with sometimes disastrous results. It has been endlessly recycled in movies with the figure of the lone hero (or more rarely heroine) – following a tradition that goes back to ancient Greece. But in real life (whatever that is) all of us, heroes included, are part of society whether we like it or not. We are formed by society from the moment we’re born: pressured to conform at school, where nothing is worse than being a “loner,” and bombarded all our lives with media messages promoting the same standardized images, roles and ideas. If we decide to break out of the straight jacket of conformity we are immediately embraced by another group of conformists. For example young people who claim to be different because they are “woke” are simply conforming to the kind of rigid political correctness that I remember all too well from the 1960s.

Freedom is a different matter. We have many private areas of free choice: what to wear, drive, say, what kind of gun to carry, and so on, which are important but don’t change the fact that we are social creatures. In fact we are more social and sociable than we ever were.

Individualism has been blamed for the failure to control the coronavirus, but there just aren’t enough individualists around to do that -- they are rarer than the proverbial hen’s teeth. The fashionable anti-government, anti-science movement is in fact is no more than another kind of conformity, what George Orwell called Groupthink. The epidemic has made it rather obvious that what a great many people really want to do is to submerge themselves in the comfort of the crowd: a packed beach, a motorcycle rally, a rave party, a night club, or even a mob because they want to do what everyone else is doing. This is normal human behavior. Sociability is one of the strongest human instincts. It is just unfortunate that, at the moment, it is dangerous.

A true individualist, if any exist, would have an advantage here. He or she would enjoy solitude, which is richly available and desirable at the moment. Never have there been such good reasons to seek solitude, and so few reasons to join a crowd. In a famous poem John Donne wrote: “No man is an island…” a cliché that is profoundly true. But sometimes an island, even if it is only a fantasy island, is the safest place to be.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.