One Nation After All

July 4, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: Since the Oklahoma City bombing, there has been much loose talk connecting militia groups with American individualism. The premise of the connection is that the federal government exists to diminish every citizen’s singular identity, that American individualism is best protected by these militia, which represent the right of individuals to stand against their country.

An older idea, which has proved itself durable, is that American individualism is based on the privilege of individuals to stand up for themselves within and as part of their country. The classic American loner has sought to be alone for definite reasons, to nurture independence, to develop a sense of individual morality, and to establish a contributive relationship with the surrounding community, a nation included. The individual has not stood apart to attack a country but to fortify it.

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This has been true of the most attractive loners in American history, both fictional and real. Huckleberry Finn had to place himself at a remove from the slave state in which he lived. But Mark Twain’s implication was that the state, the country, had to catch up with Huck’s way of thinking to do the right thing. Holden Caulfield was on the outs with a conformist society that needed more people like Holden Caulfield. Go back to the prince of American solitude and read David Thoreau.

Contentedly shut away in Walden Pond or in prison, Thoreau railed at the whole idea of government. “I believe,” he said, “that government is best which governs not at all, and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government they shall have.” The key phrase in Thoreau’s prescription is, “when men are prepared for it.” Since people have shown that they are never prepared to function without government, Thoreau must have known that his point was moot.

But the deeper instruction of civil disobedience, the title of the work from which that quotation comes, is that government, specifically American government, requires civil disobedience to guide and shape it. Just as individualism requires government to keep it orderly, American individualism was built into American government. It doesn’t gripe and scheme against the government. It lobbies its Congress, it marches in the streets; sometimes in order to overcome, it goes to prison.

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It isn’t difficult to appreciate how life in the 1990s can make the solitary citizen feel besieged. There are few grand scale injustices around these days. No more slavery, not even much of a conformist society. Oddly, we may be too isolated from one another to be conformists, but there are plenty of specific injuries.

Can’t get work; can’t get meaningful work, feel abandoned, not solitary, discarded, not free. The only time one hears from the government involves a war or a tax bill. All that can contribute to a seething resentment of every institution larger than oneself. Put a few seethers together, collect some rifles, build a stockade, and there’s your militia. What this has to do with American individualism beats me, but some call it that.

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Other people see American individualism in events like the 4th of July, sweet, lazy, dutiful, old holiday. It pops up or pops off every year in the name of independence. The independence one can read in it is not just the country’s quaint old independence from 18th Century Britain but the everyday independence of which the country is made. Militias call what they do rugged individualism.

According to their alliance, the rugged individual is one who arms himself to the teeth, holes up in a mountain cabin, and waits for the enemy, who is often the rest of us. But most others still see Americans as people who respect the free life of others and who have created a government in their image for which they will fight with indefatigable love.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt. (music playing)