Dangerous Freedom: what happens to all of us if each of us is only in it for ourselves?

Rebecca Solnit’s recent essay in Harper’s makes a strong argument about the dangers of isolationism and the seductive myth of the American cowboy. In contemporary right-wing ideology, as evidenced by Trumpism, Brexit, and scarily long list of other examples in the US and abroad, the prevailing attitude is “yourself for yourself on your own.” There are no connections between things or people; we whirl alone in the universe.

This isolationist universe is frightening; it’s scary to be alone in the world, which is why of course we must spend all our energy ensuring that no one who is not already like us enters into our whirling sphere. We should also probably arm ourselves against potential intruders, because in this universe of extreme individualism, no one will help us if we are threatened. And, as Solnit remarks, “one’s right to send out bullets trumps the right of others not to receive them.” (We can only assume that she uses “trumps” here deliberately.)

Isolationism, which its proponents like to call “individualism,” gets presented as freedom. Free from pesky things like admitting that actions have consequences (both personal and global), free from responsibility to anyone’s needs other than your own, even free from anything resembling the truth. (Trump, for instance, has more “pants on fire” statements than the 21 other candidates combined.)

In the United States, this sort of freedom generally gets represented in men: think about the cowboy riding the plains alone, the loner vigilante, the hardboiled detective, the genius outsider. The narrative around these men tells a story of someone who is misunderstood by society and demonstrates the soul of American when he “lights out for the territories,” ala Huckleberry Finn. “Society,” in this narrative, almost always rests in the body of a woman: the wife, lover, mother, or in Huck’s case, Aunt Polly.

Women=society, men=American individualism. Women threaten male power and thus need to be brought to heel: their potentially emasculating behavior needs to be constrained or escaped altogether. You’d think by 2015, we’d have outgrown this narrative but instead we are surrounded, everywhere, by men behaving badly, their imperiled masculinity driving them to Brexit, Trumpsit, or all too frequently, killsit.

Here, for instance, is David Brooks writing about the crisis in leadership on both the right and the left, at home and abroad: “something fundamental is shifting in our politics. The insiders can’t see it. Outsiders get thrown up amid the tumult but they are too marginal, eccentric and inexperienced to lead effectively.” He says that “without much enthusiasm, many voters seem to be flocking to tough, no-nonsense women who at least seem sensible…” His comment is not a compliment; these are the women who apparently have the corner on the buzzkill vote.

What we really need, according to Brooks, is a Pope Francis-type figure, who will “come up from the bottom” and can “make the case for an open dynamic world, with free-flowing goods, ideas, capital and people.” Until this figure emerges “we could be in for a set of serial leadership crises,” says Brooks. His logic implies that it’s going to be a man-of-the-people (how could a pope-type figure be anything other than male?), whose dynamism will save us from those sensible women in their pantsuits and low-heeled shoes.

Brooks doesn’t make claims for isolationism but his arguments feed into what sometimes looks like a global animus against female power — or any woman who dares to aspire to power. Hilary Clinton’s numbers plummet when she seeks a new job and then creep back up once she has the job: she gets punished for wanting more than she has and then, with its typical short-term memory, the voting public accepts the new status quo. One of Hilary’s most “likeable” moments came when she became a meme: the image of her wearing big black sunglasses and checking her Blackberry became Hilary the badass, the cool cat, the solitary power broker.

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It’s a picture that fits the American myth of the solitary hero, which is, in turn, the image that Bernie Sanders continues to cling to. Sanders’ individualism doesn’t blame the downtrodden for being trodden upon the way that Trump’s ideology does, but it is nonetheless a perspective that resists seeing the world as interconnected, inextricably so.

Solnit’s essay overlooks a key aspect of individualism taken to the extreme: that sort of freedom is seductive: who wouldn’t want to float outside the sticky webs of responsibility and obligation? Toni Morrison, in her first novel The Bluest Eye, demonstrates the dangerous seductive power of utter freedom in the figure of Cholly Breedlove, who is

“dangerously free. … Abandoned in a junk heap by his mother, rejected for a crap game by his father, there was nothing more to lose. He was alone with his own perceptions and appetites, and they alone interested him.”

Morrison says that “it was in this godlike state” that Cholly met his future wife. It is indeed godlike to move through the world without any attention to anyone’s needs other than your own, but it is also utterly untenable: caught in a moment of unexpected desire, Cholly rapes his eleven-year old daughter.

What happens to freedom unyoked from responsibility? Is that where we’re headed, towards a world that Ayn Rand would approve of, or the robber barons of the early 20th century, who thought that the misery of paupers and immigrants was entirely of their own making?

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Janis tells us that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose: is that really the way we want to define freedom? Do whatever the fuck you want because really, there isn’t anything else left?

Cowboys actually rode with an entire crew; they weren’t alone and in fact, queer cowboys were not at all unusual, which means that far from being a straight guy riding the prairie alone, this iconic image of American individualism could just as easily been a gay man traveling with his lover across the Western grasslands.

The queer cowboy, the dangerous freedom of Cholly Breedlove, the absurd promises made to the Brexiters — these examples and more tell us that what we see is not always the real picture.

Don’t believe the pictures being painted by Trump and his UK counterparts; we cannot go it alone, not now (and probably not at any point in the past, either). It’s not the time for solitary cowboys riding off into the sunset. We need all the queer cowboys we can get, working together to ensure the safety of the flock.

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