The deadly tragedy of rugged individualism
There's nothing well-regulated about gun fetishization.
Perhaps I was spoiled.
Working as an international music journalist afforded me many life-enhancing opportunities. One was to talk to hundreds of musicians from across the planet and, on a somewhat regular basis, travel to see them perform.
Journalism, then and now, doesn’t pay much, but there are benefits. The greatest payment, beyond the pleasure of talking to such a diverse array of artists, was perspective.
Discovering the goals, beliefs, and dreams of others—especially people from a range of cultures different from my own—helped me understand the intersections and diversions that make up such a large planet. It taught me that America is one perspective among many, and that within my own culture a diverse range of perspectives exist.
A few lessons have remained with me, and their details are instructive for understanding intersections:
Few artists are satisfied with where their tradition has brought them. While preserving tradition is important, and some artists devote themselves to being traditionalists, the best musicians relentlessly push boundaries.
Only a small percentage of the public cares about the purity of a music form. Artists persistently pursue collaborations—the more unique, the better. Accusations of appropriation usually occur far from recording studios and stages. Musicians discuss unity and invite everyone to listen, learn, and share the experience of music. As music is an extension of culture, they’re really inviting you to learn about them.
Diversity reigns. This is as true with biology as culture. Every music form is an extension of previous genres colliding and combining to create something new. The multicultural exchange between India and Eastern Europe via the Balkans, which involved artisans, explorers, and military trading instruments and melodies, has created exceptionally upbeat and often reflective genres. This trait is a global phenomenon—humans love to explore and communicate. A “pure” music form is political propaganda, not creative ambition.
That last point is of particular importance to me, an American. Many global cities are cosmopolitan, and “citizens of the world” exist everywhere, but the national yearning for sweeping and inclusive diversity is ours alone to manage.
Of course the impulse doesn’t arise from humble beginnings—the “we” was quite limited during the stretch from the doctrinal founding of this country until only recently. And much work remains.
America is as much an aspiration as a reality.
Language matters, and it evolves. The quest for a “more perfect union” means something to many of us, and by its very nature should include all of us.
Which brings me to a fourth insight that helped me better understand the world:
Most people want the same things: food, shelter, the love of family and friends, security. And meaning. That’s a big one. The animal in us demands that physiological basics are met; our social nature, that we’re loved and can love. Hedonic quests for happiness and pleasure generally dissolve over time. Underneath those short-sighted gains lives a universal trait: everyone wants to matter. Our life needs meaning; we strive to make a difference. The artists I’ve talked to pursue it through music, literature, painting, some inner force propelling them forward. Meaning matters to everyone.
Strangely, Americans exist in an extremely secure and, increasingly, much less secure society. Humans dominate the animal kingdom. America spends more money on defense than anyone, by far. (How much of that goes to private contractors billing out bloated budgets is another story.) As a species and nation, we’ve hit peak form.
The only animal we’ve yet to conquer is ourselves.
And that’s why we’re much less secure. We invent demons, and they never look like us. We place our limited worldview on a pedestal and demand everyone else bow in submission. We lash out at anything threatening our perceived righteousness.
And we confuse freedom with responsibility, which invariably makes society less secure for the majority of us, who just want to be safe enough to pursue meaning in our lives.
Yes, a more perfect union is possible, but we’ll never realize it if the unchecked fetishization of guns continues, nor if the confusion between freedom and individual sovereignty endures.
These conditions are related. And they are, in large part, what stop us from achieving a more perfect union.
When an entire media ecosystem’s response to the 200th mass shooting in just over four months is “be prepared to kill anyone you meet,” when elected officials cosplay military on Christmas cards, when a CBD-slinging wellness influencer with millions of followers claims that more guns equals more freedom—in the state experiencing an epidemic of gun violence, no less—you have to take seriously the claim that we’re suffering from a mental health crisis.
Only it’s the mental health of those who fetishize guns that we need to be concerned about.
The crude sentiments that are vomited out of their ecosystem—it’s too soon to talk about gun reform; the left wants to take away our guns—arise from the same population that claims individual sovereignty is a guaranteed amendment of their god’s decree.
That’s not how it works.
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In his 2004 essay, “Rugged Individualism,” Wendell Berry distinguishes between two types of individualism:
One ultimately concerned with the communal good
A “tragic” version, in which every individual believes they have the “right” to do as they please
We know where this mindset began, or at least increased in intensity: Obama declaring “you didn’t build that.”
The tragedy of soundbites: Obama’s argument was sound—we live in an interdependent nation, so everyone should get credit for their labor and recognize the labor of others makes your profession possible—but the hyper-individualistic and overly-politicized mind translated it as “he’s saying I’m lazy.”
Another victim of social media’s inability to carry nuance. The entire speech was quite nuanced, though that’s not how it was clipped, shared, and politicized.
Tragedy occurs, Berry writes, when individuals think they built everything. Having built up such a space in their minds, they allow themselves the freedom to do whatever they want—the opposite of responsibility and citizenship.
The rugged individualist forgoes community and society in a selfish display—a lonely space to inhabit, yet one they’re willing to defend.
At times, violently.
Berry further divides tragic individualism between conservative and liberal, letting no one off the hook:
The right focuses on property as ultimate domain of ownership
The left focuses on the body as ultimate domain of ownership
Tying a bow on it:
Conservative rugged individualists and liberal rugged individualists believe alike that they should be “free” to get as much as they can of whatever they want.
Leaving aside the astute conspiritualist observation years before the term was coined, this “every man for himself” ethos results in thinking of the other as an enemy. This mindset is bad enough (but at least evolutionarily understandable) when it comes to the other from across an ocean.
When you’re shooting at cheerleaders and kids mistakenly knocking on the wrong door or turning into the wrong driveway, when you’re walking through a mall randomly spraying three-year-olds or not so randomly entering schools and murdering children, something has gone terribly wrong.
Yes, with their mental health, and yes, with the mental health of those who refuse to admit the problem is too many guns.
There are no free passes to do as you like, whenever you like.
This mindset is appropriate for infants who have yet to understand that citizenship is a privilege and a responsibility.
Speaking of Donald Trump, he recently doubled down on pussy talk during a deposition for a case in which he was ordered to pay $5 million for sexual assault.
The transcript is…instructive.
KAPLAN: And you say – and again this has become very famous – in this video, ‘“I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” That’s what you said. Correct?
TRUMP: Well, historically, that’s true with stars.
KAPLAN: It’s true with stars that they can grab women by the pussy?
TRUMP: Well, that’s what, if you look over the last million years I guess that’s been largely true. Not always, but largely true. Unfortunately or fortunately.
KAPLAN: And you consider yourself to be a star?
TRUMP: I think you can say that. Yeah.
KAPLAN: And now you said before, a couple of minutes ago, that this was just locker room talk.
TRUMP: It’s locker room talk.
KAPLAN: And so does that mean that you didn’t really mean it?
TRUMP: No, it’s locker room talk. I don’t know. It’s just the way people talk.
A perfect synopsis of a cultural inability to evolve: the idea that where we come from—or how we’ve always talked—implies that’s where we’ll always be. Or should be.
The psychology of a shallow mind.
This mindset isn’t limited to misogyny, though that trait often crosses over into gun fetishization.
So much chatter about the Second Amendment, so little about the fact that nothing is well-regulated about the individual militias murdering children and innocent people on a daily basis.
The fact that gun fetishizers believe themselves to honor American principles is laughable. Nothing is more frightening than armed men who can’t regulate their own emotions.
Who can’t understand that other people listen when they talk the way they’ve always talked, and plead with them to talk differently.
Who can’t comprehend that the other they fear and loathe so much is not actually that different from them.
Who have no perspective.
The realization of a more perfect union depends upon a civil society safe enough for all voices to be heard. It requires the collaboration and coordination of a plurality of voices and orientations. And it demands that we stop thinking our freedoms depend on being armed to the teeth.
That’s not how any of this works.
Which is why none of this is working.
Beautifully written. Go tell it on the mountain.
Let us pray.