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July 2016 Issue [Easy Chair]

The Ideology of Isolation

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.

Himself. Women, in this mode of thinking, are too interactive, in their tendency to gather and ally rather than fight or flee, and in their fluid boundaries. In fact, what is sometimes regarded as an inconsistency in the contemporary right-wing platform — the desire to regulate women’s reproductive activity in particular and sexuality in general — is only inconsistent if you regard women as people. If you regard women as an undifferentiated part of nature, their bodies are just another place a man has every right to go.

Justice Clarence Thomas’s first public questions after a decade of silence during oral arguments at the Supreme Court came this February, when he took an intense interest in whether barring those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence from owning guns violated their constitutional rights. That there is a constitutional right for individuals to own guns is a gift of Antonin Scalia’s radically revisionist interpretation of the Second Amendment, and it’s propped up on the cowboy ethos in which guns are incredibly useful for defending oneself from bad guys, and one’s right to send out bullets trumps the right of others not to receive them. Pesky facts demonstrate that very few people in this country successfully use guns to defend themselves from bad people — unless you count the nearly two thirds of American gun deaths that are suicides as a sad and peculiar form of self-defense. The ideologues of isolation aren’t interested in those facts, or in the fact that the majority of women murdered by intimate partners in the United States are killed with guns.

But I was talking about cowboys. In West of Everything, Jane Tompkins describes how westerns valued deeds over words, a tight-lipped version of masculinity over communicative femininity, and concludes:

Not speaking demonstrates control not only over feelings but over one’s physical boundaries as well. The male . . . maintains the integrity of the boundary that divides him from the world. (It is fitting that in the Western the ultimate loss of that control takes place when one man puts holes in another man’s body.)

Fear of penetration and the fantasy of impenetrable isolation are central to both homophobia and the xenophobic mania for “sealing the border.” In other words, isolation is good, freedom is disconnection, and good fences, especially on the U.S.–Mexico border, make good neighbors.

Both Mitt Romney and Donald Trump have marketed themselves as self-made men, as lone cowboys out on the prairie of the free market, though both were born rich. Romney, in a clandestinely videotaped talk to his wealthy donors in 2012, disparaged people “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

Taxes represent connection: what we each give to the collective good. This particular form of shared interest has been framed as a form of oppression for more than three decades, at least since Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural address, bemoaned a “tax system which penalizes successful achievement.”

The spread of this right-wing hatred of taxes has been helped along by the pretense that taxes go to loafers and welfare queens who offend the conservative idea of independence, rather than to things conservatives like (notably, a military that dwarfs all others) or systems that everyone needs (notably, roads and bridges).

I ran into this hatred for dependency in an online discussion of the police killing of a homeless man in San Francisco in April. More than a hundred messages into a fairly civil discourse started by a witness to the shooting, a commenter erupted,

I’m sick of people like you that think homeless people who can’t take care of themselves and their families have left them for us taxpaying citizens to care for think they have freedom. Once you can’t take care of or support yourself, and expect others to carry your burden, you have lost freedom. Wake up.

The same commenter later elaborated, “Have you ever owed money? Freedom lost. You owe someone. It’s called personal responsibility.”

Everyone on that neighborhood forum, including the writer, likely owed rent to a landlord or mortgage payments to a bank, making them more indebted than the homeless in their tents. If you’re housed in any American city, you also benefit from a host of services, such as water and sanitation and the organizations overseeing them, as well as from traffic lights and transit rules and building codes — the kind of stuff taxes pay for. But if you forget what you derive from the collective, you can imagine that you owe it nothing and can go it alone.

All this would have made that commenter’s tirade incoherent, if its points weren’t so familiar. This is the rhetoric of modern conservatives: freedom is a luxury that wealth affords you; wealth comes from work; those who don’t work, never mind the cause, are undeserving. If freedom and independence are the ideal, dependence is not merely disdained; it’s furiously loathed. In her novelistic paean to free enterprise Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand called dependents parasites and looters. “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency,” said one of Rand’s admirers, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the man lately charged with saving the soul of conservatism from Trumpist apostasy.

The modern right may wish that every man were an island, entire of himself, but no one is wholly independent. You can’t survive without taking air into your lungs, you didn’t give birth to or raise yourself, you won’t bury yourself, and in between you won’t produce most of the goods and services you depend on to live. Your gut is full of microorganisms, without which you could not digest all the plants and animals, likely grown by other people, on which you rely to survive. We are nodes on intricate systems, synapses snapping on a great collective brain; we are in it together, for better or worse.

There is, of course, such a thing as society, and you’re inside it. Beyond that, beneath it and above and around and within it and us, there is such a thing as ecology, the systems within which our social systems exist, and with which it often clashes.

Ecological thinking articulates the interdependence and interconnectedness of all things. This can be a beautiful dream of symbiosis when you’re talking about how, say, a particular species of yucca depends on a particular moth to pollinate it, and how the larvae of that moth depend on the seeds of that yucca for their first meals. Or it can be a nightmare when it comes to how toxic polychlorinated biphenyls found their way to the Arctic, where they concentrated in human breast milk and in top-of-the-food-chain carnivores such as polar bears. John Muir, wandering in the Yosemite in 1869, put it this way: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

This traditional worldview — for a long time, it was called conservative, and stood in contrast to liberal individualism — could be seen as mystical or spiritual, but the accuracy of its description of natural systems within what we now call the biosphere is borne out by modern science. If you kill off the wolves in Yellowstone, elk populations will explode and many other plant and animal species will suffer; if you spray DDT on crops, then the stuff does the job you intended of killing off pests, but it will also, as Rachel Carson told us in 1962, kill the birds who would otherwise keep many insects and rodents in check.

All this causes great trouble for the ideology of isolation. It interferes with the right to maximum individual freedom, a freedom not to be bothered by others’ needs. Which is why modern conservatives so insistently deny the realities of ecological interconnectedness, refusing to recognize that when you add something to or remove an element from an environment, you alter the whole in ways that may come back to bite you. The usual argument in defense of this pesticide or that oil platform is that impact does not spread, that the item in question does not become part of a far-reaching system, and sometimes — often, nowadays — that that far-reaching system does not itself exist.

No problem more clearly demonstrates the folly of individualist thinking — or more clearly calls for a systematic response — than climate change. The ideologues of isolation are doubly challenged by this fact. They reject the proposed solutions to climate change, because they bristle at the need for limits on production and consumption, for regulation, for cooperation between industry and government, and for international partnership. In 2011, Naomi Klein attended a meeting at the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank, and produced a landmark essay about why conservatives are so furiously opposed to doing anything about climate change. She quotes a man from the Competitive Enterprise Institute who declared, “No free society would do to itself what this agenda requires. . . . The first step to that is to remove these nagging freedoms that keep getting in the way.” “Most of all, however,” she reported, “I will hear versions of the opinion expressed by the county commissioner in the fourth row: that climate change is a Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism.”

On a more fundamental level, the very idea of climate change is offensive to isolationists, because it tells us more powerfully and urgently than anything ever has that everything is connected, that nothing exists in isolation. What comes out of your tailpipe or your smokestack or your leaky fracking site contributes to the changing mix of the atmosphere, where carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases cause the earth to retain more of the heat that comes from the sun, which doesn’t just result in what we used to call global warming, but will lead to climate chaos.

As the fact of climate change has become more and more difficult to deny, the ideologues of isolation deny instead our responsibility for the problem and the possibility that we are capable of acting collectively to do anything about it. “Climate change occurs no matter what,” Paul Ryan said a few years ago. “The question is, can and should the federal government do something about it? And I would argue the federal government, with all its tax and regulatory schemes, can’t.” Of course it can, but he prefers that it not do so, which is why he denies human impact as a cause and human solutions as a treatment.

What keeps the ideology of isolation going is going to extremes. If you begin by denying social and ecological systems, then you end in denying the reality of facts, which are after all part of a network of systematic relationships between language, physical reality, and the record, regulated by the rules of evidence, truth, grammar, word meaning, and so forth. You deny the relationship between cause and effect, evidence and conclusion, or rather you imagine both as products on the free market, which one can produce and consume according to one’s preferences. You deregulate meaning.

Absolute freedom means you can have any truth that you like, and isolation’s ideologues like truths that keep free-market fundamentalism going. You can be like that unnamed senior adviser (probably Karl Rove), who in a mad moment of Bush-era triumphalism told Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Reality, in this worldview, is a product subject to market rules or military rules, and if you are dominant in the marketplace or rule the empire, your reality can push aside the other options. “Freedom” is just another word for nothing left to limit your options. And this is how the ideology of isolation becomes nihilism, trying to kill the planet and most living things on it with the confidence born of total disconnection.

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