American Do It Yourself mentality cannot always work

By Hannah Sparks

Flickr/tedeytan

Forget about “rugged individualism” or “Manifest Destiny:” the overarching ethos of the United States is “Do It Yourself.” There’s no need to fret about making logical arguments or using pretentious language: our country is just one giant ongoing craft project.

Growing up, it seemed like we learned the same thing in history class every year. We talked about American history from the Pilgrims to the Revolution and usually stopped just shy of the Civil War. We learned that the Founding Fathers were, essentially, a bunch of do-it-yourselfers, which mentality underscored much of the early development of the U.S.

Don’t like your government? Overthrow it and make another. Want wealth and happiness? Make it for yourself. Those lacking in entrepreneurial get up ‘n go qualities need not apply.

All of this creates an idealized image many Americans like to congratulate themselves on. Our country is, as we’ve all been told since we could stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the land of opportunity, where people from restrictive or abusive countries come to America to make it big. It’s the land that dreams are made of and its streets are paved with gold. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

And if you don’t like it, you can leave. Or at least, that’s what they say.

While this idea of rugged individualism sounds a lot like social Darwinism and annoys young liberal people like myself, let’s give the U.S. a break. After all, it’s not its fault it came of age during a bad time to be creating a long-term political and economic philosophy.

The concept that men had rights that needed to be respected and had the capability to actually do it themselves is, as we also learned as the school years progressed, tied up in ideas of the Enlightenment and the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions. Mix the false arrogance of empiricism with a shot of the newfangled theory of evolution and, voila, you have the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.

But this isn’t a history lesson. This is about how disillusionment with the concept of rugged individualism is intensifying in the modern world, as institutions fundamental to the “American character” are crumbling under our feet.

The unveiling of sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, youth sports, and the Boy Scouts of America, especially the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Illegal war in Iraq. Congressional pettiness. Unchecked capitalism and the arrogance of criminal CEOs. The list goes on and on.

Role models are hard to find in the modern world. Did the time in which our politicians, athletes, movie stars, you name it, were people we looked up to really exist? Or was it just a figment of our nostalgic imaginations?

Is our modern cynicism actually cynicism? Or are we just less deluded than we used to be? The increasingly open flow of information has presented a challenge to the old saying that ignorance is bliss.

Is it better to know the whole truth? Or allow some falsehoods to creep into your mind just to keep you sane? Who do the lies protect?

The U.S. certainly isn’t the only nation with problems. But if we are supposed to be some kind of guiding light for the rest of the world – which we try to portray ourselves as, usually unsuccessfully – what are we to do when we cannot generate enough light to keep ourselves from tripping over everything in our path?

More importantly, the do it yourself approach to life that is so fundamental to “American-ism” is no longer fitting the bill. Does the Self-Made Man really exist anymore? We’re not buying it. People don’t just move up the ladder from mailroom intern to CEO. High school students have resumes. The hoops one has to jump through to get into the National Honor Society are checking even some motivated and intelligent people at the door. And that isn’t good.

Individualism promotes the prerogatives of the individual beyond the influence of outside forces such as the government and society. This idea is all over early American philosophy about small government: the writers of the Constitution were so afraid of a centralized government that they made a precaution allowing the American people the right to bear arms against it.

Skepticism about a large powerful government was and is well founded to an extent. But then again, as the success of the Nordic model has proven, big bureaucratic governments don’t necessarily mean big evil. The Nordic model used in Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway aims to strengthen the work force while promoting egalitarian values and providing an extensive social safety net.

Four of those five countries ranked within the top 10 of the 2011 inequality-adjusted Human Development Index ranking. Finland was No. 11. The United States was No. 23.

The Nordic model isn’t perfect, but its success shows us that the do it yourself American policy is not the only way and that sometimes laissez faire throws you to the wolves.

And that’s the problem: The do it yourself approach is based largely upon the assumption that everyone has an equal shot at success if they follow the right steps. That just doesn’t seem to be true now, when there are a lot more players in the game and many more outcomes to be had.

I’m not advocating for a major shift in the way Americans philosophize about their nation, but rather a reassessment of the American myth.