Self-Reliance and Its Many Dissenters

Posted: January 5, 2012 in authoritative, ConsumerResearch, Learning, misinformation, politics, SocialCrit, SourceConjugation

It’s hard to fathom an hour clad and out of bed better spent than last Thursday’s OnPoint from WBUR. A spirited forum led host, guests, and callers to philosophize between pragmatism and our perfect worlds.

I’ll take my inspirations from internal quandaries over debating public policies and handicapping horse races any day. Inside, looking out, and taking in a crisp and resonating distance. The broader business of our daily practices and how they present in our public American discourse is much more interesting than arriving at these meanings through the mundane abstractions of our fetishistic tax laws, per capita pollution levels, “good” cholesterol counts, and aggregations buried in the algorithms of Google and Facebook. That’s what OnPoint listeners witnessed in a zeitgeist-popping and enigmatic question of Too much self-reliance?

For the panel, host Tom Ashbrook snagged literary critic Benjamin Anastas. Ashbrook was justifiably smitten with Anastas’s New York Time Magazine essay, The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’, which raked Ralph Waldo over the “looking-out-for-#1″ coals in the December 4th issue.

To Emerson’s defenders, self-reliance was never a vehicle for piety or privilege but a reaction to conformity. Professor Alex Zakaris of the University of Vermont described Emerson’s rejection of his fellow New Englanders and their casual materialism as a loophole into “moral thoughtlessness.” He cited the travesty of obeying the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 by returning these inventory turnovers to their receipt-bearing masters.

Emerson did not write blank checks to the future from unquestioning urge “to speak what you think now in hard words.” His approach was to purge the unreflective gratifications, clear the head. His humility divined this critical self-scrutiny to be arduous work without deadlines to meet: Specifically, the act of learning how to detect our own thoughts free of social conditioning. that’s nearly has hard to fathom for some of us as human inventories. We’re more anxious being offline than subjected to the zealotry of our now permanent campaigns.

Back to Emerson now — the pay-off of self-reflection was quite the windfall:

* Dividends of inner peace

* Triumphal, universalist connection of cosmic-like romance: “every heart vibrates to a reservoir of divinely ordained goodwill.”

* Did we mention self-reliance as a throw-in?

This is the note he sounds of a consciousness that regulates what comes into our hearts.

But hearts being what they are can clench themselves into thick, over-sized muscles. In the naval-gazing myopic absorptions of our day, we recoil at the stiff price on believing in ourselves at all costs:

* The little CPA in my soul tells me that the one percent are hoarders whose craven capitalism arranged for the decapitation of the middle class.

* The Paul Revere replica in my driveway is revving to defy any law that expands the rolls to make health care a civil right (and a social responsibility).

* I will deny the existence of global warming sooner than I’ll acknowledge the disappearance of the North Pole.

Can our swollen egos, bruised by the bumps of social conditioning, fit snugly inside these principles? That we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the self and its final say on these earthly arguments?

The compromises that manifest in partisanship happens on the group level. You know the groupings. You mean you weren’t invited to the shotgun wedding where the bride was given away for the unholy price of a Faustian bargain? We can’t pass a normal news cycle without the co-opting of the public interest by parties beholden to interest, or rather the self-interest of groups. Would Emerson say that corporations are people too? What is a more sincere expression of democracy than that?

I can think of one. That’s the passions harbored in the festering disaffections of tea parties and occupiers. We’re all on the authentic side of the majorities in our distrustful minds. The hypocrisies of autonomous libertarians queue on the receiving end of our reliable beltway punching bags and petty tyrannies: Big Government? Out of my tiny entitlements.

And you can have the FEMA trailer back, honest.

But it’s not about the money either. There’s another corruption summoned from the death of God — specifically the departure of the sacred from public life and the language of a higher calling that is not merely mutual but universal. Our essayist Mr. Anastas pushes back, brandishing Sarah Palin’s brew of “mavericky charisma.” The irony here is that these women and men of God use their direct channels into gated kingdoms, emerging with an endorsement, a charter franchise of “the chosen,” and new priorities and roles: now, Gods of women and men.

So many of these internal compasses point vehemently towards righteousness and away from “volumes of evidence” and “stubborn facts.” Is that Emerson talking, or the political discourse growling in the belly of our appetites for cable news?

Heart news is fair and balanced!

In guts we trust, and, gut the basis for trusting others.

When does rugged, two-fisted self-reliance decay into a defrauding of the Treasury? The pulpits of the heart are certainly authentic. But is that the stuff of the integrity envisioned by Emerson? If not, the bedrock of the American spirit may just be begging for a quake-induced fracking. What spills into our streets and leeches into our water tables would change us from the outside in.

That’s when climate change may arrive at our better selves. And we’ll take credit for a hotter sun coming up in the mornings of tomorrow.

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