Vox Populi

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Dawn Potter: The Marketing of American Individualism

On the morning after our most recent election debacle, I received a note from a bewildered Canadian friend:

Not my place to comment, at least publicly, on another country’s political choices.  But for what it’s worth, I felt sad and puzzled and, yes, a bit angry yesterday when I saw the early return predictions.

I feel bad that anything I do know about American history isn’t enough to let me put this time into some kind of perspective.  But it’s discouraging to see.  The question I asked myself more than once yesterday, rightly or wrongly, was: what’s happened to the American people?  Which all sounds grandiose and maybe over-dramatic, but I am genuinely saddened and puzzled at your great nation’s choices.

My friend’s forbearance toward our “great nation” was more than we deserved. Voters in my home state of Maine chose to reelect a governor, who, during a rally on the night before Election Day, made suicide jokes about a local journalist who has criticized his policies. That remark was mild compared to others he has delivered: verbal cruelty is a hallmark of his communication strategy. Yet he was reelected. Did voters overlook his words, excuse them, revel in them? Whatever the answer, our choices reveal an electorate that neither seeks nor expects basic civility in government. And while bad behavior is nothing new in American politics, its reiteration is symptomatic of the way in which Americans have always been to vulnerable to the marketing of individualism.

In his 1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens lampooned the rambunctious, self-satisfied America he had glimpsed during his lecture tours—a nation of braggarts and forgers, proselytizers and cheats, but also a place that impressed him as vast and strange and joyously naïve.

“We are an elastic country,” said the Rowdy Journal.

“We are a young lion,” said Mr. Jefferson Brick.

“We have revivifying and vigorous principles within ourselves,” observed the major. “Shall we drink a bitter before dinner, colonel?”

In this interchange the speakers rapidly toss out the catchwords of a jingoistic national identity founded on jaunty individualism—those “revivifying and vigorous principles within ourselves.” At the same time, none of them seems to be paying much attention to what the others are saying. And why should they? Their words are slogans, not conversation. Slogans depend on a strategic balance between words and insinuation: the language must be memorable, but the manipulations must be opaque. It is concocted precisely to prevent a listener from questioning its message.

As I have written elsewhere, Americans’ particular bent for jingoism and catchphrases has been an element of our national personality since colonial days. Numbers of our writers, from Horatio Alger, to Mark Twain, to Louisa May Alcott, to Walt Whitman, have captured the joy, cynicism, and naïveté of the fast-talking, self-satisfied American striver. The sound of those voices can be infectious, and the marketing of individualism does, to a large degree, take advantage of our trust in them. “Hey, pioneers! Hey, young lions! Say NO to big government. The revivifying and vigorous principles lie within yourself. Now have a drink.”

Dickens’s satiric description of the ideal nineteenth-century American statesman is disturbingly familiar:

He was the greatest patriot, in their eyes, who brawled the loudest, and who cared the least for decency. He was their champion who, in the brutal fury of his own pursuit, could cast no stigma upon them for the hot knavery of theirs. Thus Martin learned in the five minutes’ straggling talk about the stove, that to carry pistols into legislative assemblies, and swords in sticks, and other such peaceful toys; to seize opponents by the throat, as dogs or rats might do; to bluster, bully, and overbear by personal assailment; were glowing deeds. Not thrusts and stabs at Freedom, striking far deeper into her House of Life than any sultan’s scimitar could reach; but rare incense on her altars, having a grateful scent in patriotic nostrils and curling upward to the seventh heaven of Fame.

It is painful to read such mockery, written more than a century and a half ago, and to immediately recognize its contemporary accuracy. This may not be the version of America that my Canadian friend is yearning for, but it’s the version that’s been in power for a long, long time. Consider these exemplars from history: In 1798, a pair of congressmen from Connecticut and Vermont fought with tongs and a hickory stick in the chambers of the House of Representatives. In 1856, a representative from South Carolina attacked a senator from Massachusetts on the floor of Senate, brutally beating him with a cane and almost killing him. In 1896, numerous state office holders were involved in a four-hour mass brawl in the Indiana Statehouse. More recently, in 2007, a Republican state senator punched a Democratic colleague in the head during a regular session of the Alabama State Senate, supposedly because the Republican had overheard the Democrat call him “a son of a bitch.” Undoubtedly, all of these patriots would claim they were standing up for “Freedom” when they threw that first blow. But if I didn’t know better, I might have mistaken them for schoolyard louts.

“He was their champion . . . in the brutal fury of his own pursuits.” Our voting habits prove that many of us enjoy the spectacle, and those who dedicate themselves to electioneering have taken note of the ratings. Yet even as we continue to insert these patriots into public offices, we are assaulted with the parallel marketing of hero, a word no longer limited to remarkable personal bravery. Basic good manners can get you into the hero club. For instance, if you’ve had a long, productive career in baseball, and you haven’t publicly behaved like a jerk at any time during that career, then you can be a hero. Even signing up for an unpleasant or dangerous job can automatically turn you into a hero. No doubt, that’s a comforting thought for a parent whose daughter has joined the air force. Nonetheless, it masks the darker realities of recruitment—that this notion of hero is a marketing tool, wielded with the goal of roping us into a job that may damage our bodies, minds, or morals. It also masks the very individualism we claim to celebrate. While signing up for the army because you can’t pay for college, or you struggle with self-discipline, or you want to learn a trade doesn’t automatically make you a hero, it does suggest that you are trying to figure out how to lead your life, and that is an honorable and fascinating and sympathetic and eminently human position to be in.

So, here we are: citizens with a longstanding urge to elect bullies and blusterers, citizens who seem to accept that everyday virtues such as “I’m not a jerk” and “I do what the boss says” are defining qualities of heroism. It’s hard to find a coherence here. For as Twain pointed out in his essay “As Regards Patriotism,” published more than a century ago, “men can be trained to manufacture their own Patriotism”:

There is nothing that training cannot do. Nothing is above its reach or below it. It can turn bad morals to good, good morals to bad; it can destroy principles, it can re-create them; it can debase angels to men and lift men to angelship. And it can do any one of these miracles in a year—even in six months.


— by Dawn Potter writing for Vox Populi


Dawn Potter

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