“[D]o not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; â€” though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”
— “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson.
There was a time when every school child in the United States read Emerson’s essay on Self Reliance.
You used to ask, out of politeness, for permission to light your cigarette, and the conventional reply was “It’s a free country.” When’s the last time you heard someone say that?
Fred explains how what used to be small towns and the country got changed into extensions of the city, and everything went to hell. And that’s where gun control comes from.
Things… changed. The country increasingly urbanized. So much for rugged.
It became ever more a nation of employees. As Walmart and shopping centers and factories moved in, the farmers sold their land to real-estate developers at what they thought mind-boggling prices, and went to work as security guards and truck drivers. Employees are not free. They fear the boss, fear dismissal, and become prisoners of the retirement system. So much for Marlboro Man.
Self-reliance went. Few any longer can fix a car or the plumbing, grow food, hunt, bait a hook or install a new roof. Or defend themselves. To overstate barely, everyone depends on someone else, often the government, for everything. Thus we became the Hive.
Government came like a dust storm of fine choking powder, making its way into everything. You could no longer build a shed without a half-dozen permits and inspections. You couldnâ€™t swim without a lifeguard, couldnâ€™t use your canoe without Coast-Guard approved flotation devices and a card saying that you had taken an approved course in how to canoe. Cops proliferated with speed traps. The government began spying on email, requiring licenses and permits for everything, and deciding what could and could not be taught to oneâ€™s children, who one had to associate with, and what one could think about what or, more usually, whom.
With this came feminization. The schools began to value feelings over learning anything. Dodge ball and freeze tag became violence and heartless competition, giving way to cooperative group activities led by a caring adult. The female preference for security over freedom set in like a hard frost. We became afraid of second-hand smoke and swimming pools with a deep end. As women got in touch with their inner totalitarian, we began to outlaw large soft drinks and any word or expression that might offend anyone.
Thus much of the country morphed into helpless flowers, narcissistic, easily frightened, profoundly ignorant video-game twiddlers and Facebook Argonauts. …
Serving as little more than cubicle fodder, they could not survive a serious crisis like the first Depression. And they look to the collective, the hive, for protection. The notion of individual self-defense, whether with a fist or a Sig 9, is, you know, like scary, or, well, just wrong or macho or something. I mean, if you find an intruder in your house at night, shouldnâ€™t you, like, call a caring adult?
The echoes of the former America linger in commercials in commercials for pickup trucks with throaty bass voices and footage of Toyotas powering through rough unsettled country that almost no one ever even sees these days. Mostly itâ€™s just marketing to suburban blossoms. The number of vehicles with four-wheel drive that have actually been off a paved road is not high.
Many who grew up in the former America, and a good many today in the South and west, substantially adhere to the old values. They wonâ€™t last. We live in the day of the Hive, and in the long run there is no point fighting it.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when every school boy read Emerson’s essay on Self Reliance. That particular essay was looked upon as as a fundamental expression of our national ethos, as vital instruction on how an American ought to approach life.
There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark. …
These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, â€” “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.
Today, we live not in the age of Emerson, but of Obama, and for many Americans, including the current president, the American ideal consists of statism, regulatory protection, and dependence on government.
At a million-dollar San Francisco fundraiser today, President Obama warned his recession-battered supporters that if he loses the 2012 election it could herald a new, painful era of self-reliance in America.
â€œThe one thing that we absolutely know for sure is that if we donâ€™t work even harder than we did in 2008, then weâ€™re going to have a government that tells the American people, â€˜you are on your own,â€™â€ Obama told a crowd of 200 donors over lunch at the W Hotel.
I think the seedy, crooked detective who delivers the 1:17 opening monologue of the Coen Brothers’ “Blood Simple” (1984) speaks for a lot of us:
An opening voice-over plays against dissolving Texas
landscapes–broad, bare, and lifeless.
The world is full of complainers.
But the fact is, nothing comes with
a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re
the Pope of Rome, President of the
United States, or even Man of the
Year–something can always go wrong.
And go ahead, complain, tell your
problems to your neighbor, ask for
help–watch him fly. Now in Russia,
they got it mapped out so that
everyone pulls for everyone else–
that’s the theory, anyway. But what
I know about is Texas…
We are rushing down a rain-swept country road, listening to
the rhythmic swish of tires on wet asphalt.
And down here… you’re on your own.
13 months from now, Barack Obama is going to find out that the whole country is a lot more like Texas than he’d like.