Having been born into the Great Depression followed by World War II the role of the federal government felt like mother’s milk, even after I was weaned from the bottle. Roosevelt provided alphabet soup with his NRA, WPA, CCC et al. If the New Deal had its enemies most of them fell away on that day of infamy, Dec. 7th 1941. The pronoun, WE, was the order of the day.
Since the second half of the 20th century, We the People, has given way to, Me/Mine. We’ve gone from plural to singular. On the political spectrum the greedy who ask, What’s in it for me or I got mine, don’t bother me, are aligned with the so-called rugged individualists who love their guns almost as much as the gospel. Together they comprise the Republican Party.
The Wild West on the frontier is now wild Appalachia and the Heartland for whom the beneficent government of my day has become, in their eyes, some diabolical force out to take away their Social Security and Medicare even though the government is the provider.
The notion of Man-Alone translated to Indian-Killers, slave-owner’s inhumanity vigilantes, and the lawlessness of Jim Crow lynch-mobs.
The irony is that the so-called rugged individualists are really the conformists who march in lock-step to the demagogue having abdicated their autonomy in mindless obedience.
Poor Karl Marx. He got it all wrong. Groucho could have done better. The working class is allied with Wall St., coalmine operators and hedge-fund operators. The down-trodden masses have swallowed the opiate in massive doses. Maybe that’s why they are unmasked. After all, Macho men don’t get sick and I suppose they don’t care if you do.
Masks are the new bumper-stickers, the great signifiers. The unmasked face is the emblem of pathological individualism. Donald’s behavior suggests masks are for suckers and if you happen to die I suppose you’re nothing but a loser.
Walt Whitman in Song of Myself wrote, I celebrate myself, I sing myself. Even on the Progressive wing there is a confusion between Individuation and Individualism. Psychotherapists have long urged their clients become their own best friend. Self-actualization is not the language of community or necessarily receptive to global responsibility. In a perverse way it can lead to the Not In My Backyard argument as we see in the rejection of homeless shelters or wind-farms which are perceived as driving real estate values down.
We lack the words for collective social discourse, the language to express programs for the greater good. The case for public service or even sacrifice has been subsumed by louder protests of self-interest. America-First translates to America alone heedless of global concerns.
If asked why one either supports or opposes measures to meet the challenges of climate change, the answer is regarded as authentic if they make the person feel better about themselves. This, I submit, is a poverty of language. We are inarticulate speaking in moral terms.
Trump, of course, has exacerbated the situation with his malignant narcissism. If Whitman were alive today would he still hear America Singing? I expect he would hear two tribal camps in a discord of voices.