American Isolation and our existential loneliness

The pandemic, and the defiant rise of the mask-free MAGA rally during the pandemic, really brought home two sides of American isolation, and the profound loneliness many feel in a society that mythologizes outsized greed and takes minimal care of its must vulnerable citizens. The enthusiasm of the crowds at MAGA rallies underscores our need to connect with others, a need to belong that is loudly expressed by fans of sports teams or musical celebrities. The loud defiance of medical advice unites MAGA nation, who believe this defiance shows their toughness.

We have never, outside of fandom, been a society that much values community (though, as the MAGA rally demonstrates, Americans long for being part of a community), or the idea of sacrificing for our neighbors, favoring instead the winner takes all myth of the Rugged Individual.

Rugged Individualism, rooted in violent competition for land and wealth in the Wild West, is an absurdity if you examine it very closely, but it exerts a tremendous influence on our culture. The myth is often expressed simply as Individualism. “I come first, you don’t come at all, asshole. Get off my land, red skin. Me and my gun give you ten seconds to skidaddle.” The Rugged Individual is ready to kill to take and defend what is his, and the mythical figure is a man, a toxically masculine man, in the “woke” parlance of our day.

The prevalence of this myth that only the truly tough, those who win the endless competition, are fit to rule the rest of us, makes us a lonely, self-doubting society. How can we ever be good enough if other individuals, competing in the same basic game, manage to amass fortunes ten thousand times greater than our own?

Charles Koch, one of the wealthiest old men in the world (he’s 85), is a classic rugged individualist. He was raised by his tough, demanding self-made father, fist fighting his brothers, and he came out on top, in court and in life. He is the surviving Koch Brother (arts loving philanthropist David having recently gone on to his reward) and arguably one of the most influential men in the USA, certainly for the last twenty years or so.

Starting with nothing more than a lucrative family oil refining business and a small personal fortune of less than $100,000,000 [1], the lion’s share of the family business wrested from his weaker brothers, Charles Koch built a multibillion dollar empire, an influential, many armed political machine, and a vast personal fortune of more than sixty billion dollars. All by himself, because of his guts, drive, brilliance and his determination to be the best.

The millions of dollars and the hugely profitable business he inherited didn’t hurt him, of course, nobody could deny that, but the myth is that he’d have done it all even if he’d been born in abject poverty. It’s all a matter of character and personal strength, goes the myth. The man famously works more than 12 hours a day, weekends too, without a need to relax.

Donald Trump, similar deal. Jared Kushner, another self-made rugged individual. Though, as opposed to Charles Koch, these two rich boys did little to actually increase the wealth their tough, wealthy, ambitious fathers bestowed on them. Never mind, good enough, their vast wealth qualifies them as among the best of the best.

I love this bit of fatherly advice, debunking that bullshit in a few seconds, offered by a longtime White House dogsbody (with a great voice) on the canceled hit show House of Cards:

We have an exceptional degree of isolationist individualism here in our Winner/Loser society. And, I suspect, an exceptional degree of social isolation and desperate loneliness. We don’t have a widespread idea of social responsibility, those who advocate for it are mocked as “Social Justice Warriors,” “Class Warriors,” “Radical Socialists,” “Woke” and so on. There are dozens of ways of summarily dismissing the arguments of those who see our fellow citizens as a community riding in the same boat we are in, making us all a little bit responsible for each other’s welfare. We see glimpses of this community spirit during emergencies, so we still have the instinct and capacity to watch out for each other, though it seems to be emergency-only in our current culture.

If you are a low income worker, the myth goes, born into a family without wealth, you get what you fucking deserve. Everyone starts with the same liberty rights Charles Koch, Donald Trump and Jared Kushner started with, and the only worthwhile social project, for the well-born, is to preserve every bit of the liberties each of us are born with. That is the essence of Libertarianism, leave well enough alone (except for police to protect private property) and if you can’t flourish, you don’t deserve to, asshole.

So we get a political party now openly devoted to protecting the interests of this wealthiest 0.01%, the truly great Americans, the generous liberty-loving citizens who fund America’s dedication to liberty and democracy. That party will block a federal living wage, because people too lazy and stupid to make more than $7.25 an hour don’t deserve a dime more. (And a big “fuck you” to Kyrsten Fucking Sinema for signing on to that). That freedom loving party will insist that stupid, lazy poor people should not be allowed to easily vote (and if they do vote, political partisans must have the final say on counting votes), since they will inevitably vote for wealth-wasting projects like good public schools (tyranny!), slowing global climate catastrophe (killing jobs in fossil fuel!), affordable healthcare as a right for all citizens (killing jobs in the private sector!), reining in gun violence (tyranny! regulation is unconstitutional under the second amendment [2]!) curbing police murder of unarmed civilians (dangerous job! split second life or death decisions!), giving qualified citizens access to an affordable college education (Communism!), making sure no American child goes to bed hungry (waste of money!), etc.

The Libertarian project to combat ‘social welfare’ programs kicked into high gear as soon as the Supreme Court belatedly ruled that public school segregation imposed unconstitutional disabilities on students forced to attend poorly funded schools, based solely on race. Charles Koch’s father, Fred, was one of the founding members of the then lunatic fringe John Birch Society, which arose in response to the brutal “government coercion” represented by this radical Supreme Court. Trumpism, the modern Republican party, the 2021 incarnation of privilege-protection, flows directly from the John Birch Society lunatic fringe, whose founders included Charles Koch’s dad, who worked for both Hitler and Stalin (before the war!).

Robert Welch (wealthy candy baron) founded the John Birch Society, incorporated as a Massachusetts non-profit educational organization, to fight the judicial activism that had reared its ugly head in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling. An Eisenhower-appointed chief justice, Earl Warren, had ruled, along with a unanimous court, that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This “judicial activism” was felt, by Welch and his circle, as an intolerable blow to human liberty.

In an address in Indianapolis on December 9, 1958, shortly after establishing his non-profit educational far right-wing advocacy group, Welch lambasted Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles (a conservative anti-communist), as a covert communist agent and said that Eisenhower himself was also working for the Commies, though possibly unwittingly. Welch laid it all out, cogently, in black and white, foreshadowing Trump’s unhinged rhetoric from his American Carnage State of the Union address:

We are engaged in an end-time struggle between good and evil, the battle lines are drawn in a struggle from which either Communism or Christian style civilization must emerge, with one completely triumphant and the other completely destroyed.

You will recognize this as the dramatic zero-sum battle language of fascism. Hitler stressed this over and over — good vs. evil in a fight to the death. Purity vs. deadly blood pollution. Good people vs. evil child blood drinking Satanist pedophiles, etc.

It is, in many ways, one against all here in the USA — and the sides are not drawn by any rational calculation of what is right, and sustainable, and what is wrong, and destructive, but by what we might call fate and the accident of birth.

I was reminded of this by a remarkable bit of autobiography I encountered the other day. A guy whose every joke is at his gamely smiling wife’s expense, responded to a story about violence in my own family (my grandmother’s to my mother) with this:

“When my brother and I used to fight, my father would tell us to fight outside — and the winner will fight me. My father and my uncle were both prodigious bar fighters, they got in fights every day, with anybody. Their father used to run the waterfront in [I forgot which city] and he was a very tough guy, in fact, he was a crime boss. He was basically Johnny Friendly from ‘On the Waterfront’.”

Which reminded me again, you can know somebody for years, and learn a detail like this, and a light goes on. My father, a difficult character, was an unsolvable puzzle to me, until I learned how viciously he’d been abused as a child. His implacability and overwhelming need to rage suddenly became very understandable. As well as the terrible loneliness that comes from being betrayed by your primary caregiver, a loneliness he evaded only momentarily while dazzling others with his quick wit and making strong arguments to support his firm opinions.

[1] first hit when querying “how much did Charles Koch inherit when his father died?”

Charles’s brothers Frederick and Bill had inherited stock in Koch Industries. In June 1983, after a legal and boardroom battle, the stakes of Frederick and Bill were bought out for $1.1 billion and Charles and his younger brother David became majority owners in the company.

It is not easy to find out how much Charles Koch inherited when Fred died. It’s not mentioned in his Wikipedia biography, which points out that he and his brothers inherited a “medium sized” oil refining business and that Charles and David (on the Forbes top ten wealthiest list until 2018) turned the renamed Koch Industries into the “largest privately held company by revenue in the United States, according to Forbes.[6]“.

[2]

Particularly if you discard the first four words of that inartfully drafted amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

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