Easy Chair — From the July 2016 issue

The Ideology of Isolation

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If you boil the strange soup of contemporary right-wing ideology down to a sort of bouillon cube, you find the idea that things are not connected to other things, that people are not connected to other people, and that they are all better off unconnected. The core values are individual freedom and individual responsibility: yourself for yourself on your own. Out of this Glorious Disconnect comes all sorts of illogical thinking. Taken to its conclusion, this worldview dictates that even facts are freestanding items that the self-made man can manufacture for use as he sees fit.

This is the modern ideology we still call conservative, though it is really a sort of loopy libertarianism that inverts some of the milder propositions of earlier conservative thinkers. “There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher said in 1987. The rest of her famous remark is less frequently quoted:

There is [a] living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

Throughout that interview with Woman’s Own magazine, Thatcher walked the line between old-school conservatism — we are all connected in a delicate tapestry that too much government meddling might tear — and the newer version: “Too many children and people have been given to understand, ‘I have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it.’ ” At some point in the decades since, the balance tipped definitively from “government aid should not replace social connections” to “to hell with others and their problems.” Or as the cowboy sings to the calf, “It’s your misfortune / And none of my own.”

The cowboy is the American embodiment of this ideology of isolation, though the archetype of the self-reliant individual — like the contemporary right-wing obsession with guns — has its roots less in actual American history than in the imagined history of Cold War–era westerns. The American West was indigenous land given to settlers by the U.S. government and cleared for them by the U.S. Army, crisscrossed by government-subsidized railroads and full of water projects and other enormous cooperative enterprises. All this has very little to do with Shane and the sheriff in High Noon and the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-western trilogy. But never mind that, because a cowboy silhouetted against a sunset looks so good, whether he’s Ronald Reagan or the Marlboro Man. The loner taketh not, nor does he give; he scorneth the social and relies on himself alone.

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