Skip to content

The Myth of Rugged Individualism

We Americans are known for our “rugged individualism,” a term coined in a 1928 campaign speech by Herbert Hoover, who fancied himself a “self-made” millionaire. What’s interesting is that during the early days of the Great Depression, Hoover launched the largest public works projects up until his time. So I guess getting help from the government is sometimes okay—like during the middle of a pandemic, maybe?

Speaking of pandemics, how has this idea of rugged individualism, of “going it alone” served us here in America, where absent a national strategy or coordinated federal effort, each state (and often, cities/counties within each state) must fend for itself? Let’s contrast our approach here to other parts of the world, where what’s good for the community tends to come before what’s good for the individual. In China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, the broad assumption is that anyone could be a carrier of the virus, even healthy people. So in the spirit of solidarity, people protect others from themselves. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed this same community approach to defeating the virus: “…we are prepared, we’ve planned for this, and we are ready and if we work together, we will get through it. That’s why now, my request to you is to unite against COVID-19. The government is doing our bit, now we’re asking you to do yours.” As a result, COVID is under control in New Zealand and getting there in places where community comes first. Here in America, where each state is seemingly going it alone, the virus is spreading like wildfire.

Our rugged individualism has even impacted our ability to find a treatment for the virus. “Lone wolf research” studies in the U.S., overseen by individual hospitals and universities, and at times without typical rigorous research standards, have not only failed to come up with successful treatments, but in the case of hydroxychloroquine, exposed patients to potential serious side effects beyond the harm of COVID-19. In stark contrast, the U.K avoided the go-it-alone approach, and as a result, provided some of the most important COVID-19 drug research findings, in part because of coordinated research across its National Health System.

With all due respect to Herbert Hoover, I think the idea of self-made anything is a myth. I’ve never met a business leader whose success was completely due to his or her own actions or abilities. Any athlete, movie star, community leader or academic genius who says he/she excelled completely based upon his/her own grit and determination is a liar. Everyone gets a hand up at some point, whether it be the hand of a parent, sibling, teacher, partner, spouse, friend, mentor, or yes, even the government, that entity that builds our roads and provides our infrastructure, and ensures we have clean water to drink and air to breath. How long will it take us to learn what I think is the most vital lesson this virus has to teach us—that we’re in this together?

COVID is looking for a host. It doesn’t care about your religion, your politics, or what you believe are your rights. It’s a parasite that wants to invade all of us so that it can go on living, and it preys especially on those who have been weakened by the ramifications of institutionalized racism, resulting in decades of economic hardship and serious health deficits. Often, the people impacted are also the very people who are on the front lines because they don’t have a choice about whether or not to work: they need to feed their families and pay their rent. Which means people with dark skin or those who are of lower economic status will get hit harder. Still, since none of us lives in a bubble, all of us are at risk.

If we don’t work together to stop COVID, we’re going to pay a huge and collective price. More people will die. Even people (especially kids) who recover from the virus may suffer long-term and perhaps serious health ramifications that we’ve yet to discover. And our economy will continue to suffer as well, because dead and sick people (as well as people who are afraid of dying or getting sick) don’t or can’t go out to buy stuff or go to work. As several health experts have said: You can’t pee in one part of the pool and think it won’t infect the entire pool. Even if you choose to cling to the myth of rugged individualism, consider this: unless you live on a well-stocked island all by yourself, you are not alone. So your community needs you to act like it—or we’ll all suffer the consequences.

Just think of the world we could create if we simply worked together rather than continuing to go it alone.

Artist: Fred Kaems, @Fred_The_Artist

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *