No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody fucking chance.
— Ernest Hemingway, To Have And Have Not
On March 1, 2017, I did something dumb. Call it an error of judgment.
The winter had been hellacious: Unusually cold and one heavy snowstorm after another. We were measuring the stuff in feet, not inches. The weather warmed up and the snow started melting off in late February, and I was itching to get out to the woods to burn some powder. We have a nice big cinder pit about five miles from my house called Zimmerman Butte, where ODOT mines cinders to spread on icy roads. It makes for a fine, expansive, safe shooting range.
I sent Rullman an e‑mail: “I’m heading out to scout the ingress to Zimmerman.”
You see where this is going…
I got maybe 500 yards off the highway when I determined that the snow was still too deep to make it back in to Zimmerman, so I turned around. And got stuck. Not shovel-your-way-out stuck. The differential of the truck was high-centered on solid snow and the rear wheels were spinning. I wasn’t going to be able to dig out of this one, not for several sweaty, swearing hours at least.
So, I called Rullman and our friend Pete Rathbun and they dropped what they were doing, grabbed tow straps and headed out and pulled me out of the fix I’d got myself in.
If you’ve got a couple of “help-me-bury-the-body” buddies who’ll do that sort of thing for you, you are a lucky man. I do, and I am.
The principle of Rugged Individualism is one of the foundational myths of American culture. Supposedly, it was Rugged Individualism that pushed the frontier ever westward and made the continent safe for ruggedly individualistic entrepreneurs to build the most spectacular economy the world has ever seen.
It’s mostly bunk. And in recent years I’ve come to believe it is especially insidious and pernicious bunk.
To start with, it’s ahistorical. For example: Our image of the Mountain Men, shaped mostly by movies like Jeremiah Johnson and most recently The Revenant, is of a lone man contending with the forces of nature and savage men (Indian or white) in a struggle for survival.
The reality is that fur trappers in the early 19th Century, like their Longhunter antecedents in the 18th Century, operated in groups. Fur trapping brigades numbered in the dozens of men, and were run along military lines. Brigades included trappers, hunters, camp-keepers, horse wranglers, and cooks and bottle washers. Even the elite Mountain Men, the Free Trappers who were not employed by or contracted to a fur company, operated in sizeable parties of men, often with Indian wives and mixed-blood children in tow.
The reason is simple and self-evident: There was just too much work for a lone man to do and still make trapping profitable. And trapping alone was exceedingly dangerous. A lone trapper was easy pickings for hostile Blackfeet, and a bad fall or a horse wreck alone in the wilderness could be a death sentence.
Far from being a lone High Plains Drifter, the typical frontiersman was part of an outfit — often comprised of kinfolk and neighbors. American frontiersman Frederick Russell Burnham was famous at the turn of the 20th Century for his scouting exploits in Rhodesia and South Africa. He scouted and prospected from Alaska to Arizona, from Matabeleland to Mexico. He narrowly escaped death in the the First Matabele War in Rhodesia in 1893, evading a Matabele ambush in the company of his best friend and relative-by-marriage Pete Ingram.
Although frontiersmen are often portrayed as loners, Burnham lived in the Daniel Boone manner, combining adventure with business in the company of relatives.*
Burnham led an effort to colonize the Yaqui country of Northwest Mexico, and when that project failed under the duress of the Mexican Revolution, he and his brother-in-law bought land in the Three Rivers country of the Sierra Nevada in California and established a kind of clan homeland with about 30 relatives and family friends. He called them his tribe.
That kind of clannishness is far more common in frontier history than the mythic lone gunman or the man alone against the wilderness. Yet the frontier myth is the Myth of Rugged Individualism, not the Myth of the Clan. Lay that to the myth-makers of the ideology of liberalism, which exalts the autonomy of the individual in the free market. The writers of Westerns — novels and movies — were operating in that ideological space, and the lone Western hero, separate from and often in opposition to the broader society, quickly became a trope.
The social and cultural decay of the 21st century demands a critical look at the Myth of Rugged Individualism. The valorization of radical individualism gives us the Ayn Rand hero, much in vogue among the libertarian right; the egoist unmoored from any responsibility beyond his own self-actualization. It bequeaths to our progeny an atomized society that breeds pathological loneliness and disengagement from constitutive relationships.
The prices of liberal, globalist modernity include rootlessness, detachment, an emptiness and desperation for identity that is easily exploited by commercial interests, a lack of community, and a lack of intra-national loyalty that encourages financial greed and insulates elites from the social responsibilities of nobility and the social penalties for betraying their kin, neighbors and countrymen. As the modern, liberal State is easily influenced by large amounts of money, it also insulates the wealthiest individuals from taking physical responsibility for their crimes and betrayals. **
Perhaps a mythology that is truer to our frontier history might serve us better — a mythology that valorizes the Clan.
Mark S. Weiner, in an essay arguing for the liberal State’s preservation of individualism against the “Rule of the Clan” acknowledges that clannishness has much to offer:
This radically decentralized socio-legal organization offers many profound benefits. Most important, it fosters a powerful sense of group solidarity. It gives persons the dignity and unshakable identity that comes from clan membership, and it generates a powerful drive toward social justice—a political economy that prizes economic equality. This makes it attractive. Artists in modern liberal societies often romanticize the rule of the clan for this reason.
As an artist and a romantic, I’m probably guilty as charged.
Certainly, clannishness or “tribalism” has a downside — especially for those who don’t connect well with the ethos of the clan.
In clan societies… each member seeks to ensure that every other member of his or her clan acts honorably, generating powerful pressure toward social conformity.***
And Weiner rightly notes that individualistic liberal societies are rich while clan-based societies are relatively poor. Yet, our vaunted individual autonomy and wealth is not making us happier — and we seem to long for a sense of connectedness that we have sacrificed on their altar.
I can tell you this: If I have to choose between romanticizing the clan or valorizing the egoist, I’ll take the clan every time.
I am blessed to live among many friends who are to me as close as kin. Each of us is very much an individual — some of us colorful ones at that. Nobody is repressed by pressure for social conformity. I would argue that we all help each other become more fully ourselves and that we are stronger for the bonds of kinship and creativity that we have created amongst ourselves. I certainly feel, as the Ian Tyson song goes, “I am a better man for just the knowing of you.”
We are not less self-reliant for our connections — we strive to be more capable, more resilient so that we can better be of service to each other. We push each other; we hold each other accountable — not in some stern manner of judgement, but through the positive and internalized pressure of wanting to live up to each others expectations, to be worthy of honor in each others’ eyes.
And when one of us gets an itchy trigger finger and goes off and gets the truck stuck, well… the clan comes through. And he never will hear the end of it.
*** Weiner The Rule of the Clan