Easy Chair — From the July 2016 issue

The Ideology of Isolation

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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).

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