The ideological mix of rugged individualism, freedom, and liberty can become toxic.
If those protesting mandatory vaccination and masking have a familiar sounding message, it’s probably because as what Carmen Miranda brands as “toxic individualism” and the misleading rants about “freedom” and “liberty,” have long roots in the U.S. dating back to the first footprints of English settlers on this continent.
Whether in the Jamestown or Plymouth colonies, the “freedom” they espoused was premised on land expropriated from the indigenous people, and, especially in the Virginia environs, by “defining it against the bondage of the Africans among them,” as Heather McGhee writes in her recent book “The Sum of Us.”
Miranda also traces the linkage of liberty and individualism to “the cultural legacy of Manifest Destiny and the settlement of the West: the myth of the up-by-the-bootstraps pioneer who helped tame the uninhabited West in the name of the United States,” again on land seized from its original occupants.
What later became labeled the “frontier thesis,” held that the suddenly available land spurred national development and the expansion of U.S.-style democracy through self-centered actions of settlers claiming land and resources for themselves freed from the intrusion of governing institutions or regulators as those in Europe who were viewed as constraining their liberty.
Never mind that, as Miranda points out, the “nation building was not the work of rugged individuals working alone but a lot of people working in tandem,” with substantial support from the U.S. government through land grants, tax favors, and support of the military.
By 1928, this concept had another name, “rugged individualism,” defined in a campaign speech by Republican Presidential candidate Herbert Hoover as “a form of self-government and social system which is peculiarly our own” that “differs from all others in the world.” Not the first framing of “American exceptionalism.” At its heart, said Hoover, was self-reliance, a “choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines of paternalism and state socialism.”
Hoover, of course, had the misfortune of becoming President just in time for an epic collapse of the free-market system he touted that was only rescued during the Depression by massive government intervention.
However, the ideological mix of rugged individualism, freedom, and liberty had become deeply embedded among a large swath of Americans, further poisoned by centuries of structural racism that persists today.
In response to the Civil Rights movement, for example, the branding of “liberty” and “freedom,” led to resistance to equality that has undermined a public good that benefits everyone, as in how in “massive resistance” to court ordered integration Virginia closed public schools, and Montgomery, Ala. closed its entire public parks system, including a zoo, and drained a crown jewel public pool.
In a September 2020 study for the National Bureau of Economic Researchers, researchers Samual Bazzi, Martin Fizbein and Mesay Gebresilass assert that the combination of frontier culture, rugged individualism, and opposition to government have “undermined collective action against Covid-19” by encouraging resistance to pandemic safety measures, including social distancing, masking, and stay-at-home orders, and distrust of science, which sabotages “collective action in the face of a public health emergency.”
McGhee similarly cites multiple examples of how large numbers of white Americans oppose many “race neutral” government programs that benefit them too, like expanding healthcare, worker’s rights, climate action, and public health initiatives as “taking something away from white people.”
The idea of a “commons”—that resources, such as public land, clean air and water, food safety, and public health programs, should be accessible to all members of a society for the common interest, is trampled by corrupted concepts of “freedom,” “liberty,” and “individualism,” in the hands of those who always put their self-interest ahead of others—even when it puts them and their own families in jeopardy.
Vaccine mandates, especially for epidemics, also have a long history for the common good, and were upheld as Constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1902, writes Maggie Astor. As Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote, “real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”
Be it the Tea Party protesters against health care expansion who resemble those waving “my body, my choice” signs against vaccines and masks today or what McGhee calls “the tragic example of governments and corporations failing to protect” the Black, brown and Indigenous lives disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. “Though if they had,” she adds, “everyone would have been safer.”
“We live in a culture of rugged individualism run amok,” Miranda concludes. “Call it toxic individualism. Because in the case of this pandemic, it is literally toxic. The focus on individual rights over the greater good is one for which we are paying with our health and our lives.”