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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Eye on the News

Stefan Kanfer
The ABC’s of Self-Reliance
A core American virtue becomes a pejorative in the media.
11 November 2011

A few paragraphs separated by nearly two centuries chart a downhill slalom from liberty to dependency. First, here’s Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance”: “The education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.”

Then, on October 26, ABC News: “At a million-dollar San Francisco fundraiser today, President Obama warned his recession-battered supporters that if he loses the 2012 election it could herald a new, painful era of self-reliance in America.” Actually, what the president said was this: in the event he was not reelected, “If you lose your job you’re on your own, if you get sick, you’re on your own.” It was the ABC writers and editors who took it upon themselves to introduce “self-reliance” as a pejorative.

The term was not always viewed that way, as Emerson’s lauding of self-sufficiency in his 1841 essay shows. The ensuing decade proved the value of Emerson’s economic and moral philosophy. Some examples:

  • The explorer Captain Charles Wilkes circumnavigated the continent and claimed Antarctica for the United States.
  • The Supreme Court declared that in the case of the slave ship Amistad, Africans who had taken control of the vessel had been bound into slavery illegally.
  • The first wagon train left for California from Independence, Missouri. The journey took seven hard months.
  • Edgar Allan Poe began publishing his short stories.
  • Horace Greeley founded the first great American newspaper, the New York Tribune.
  • Samuel F. B. Morse sent out a message over the first telegraph line: “What hath God wrought?”
  • The patent for vulcanization, a process that strengthened rubber, was granted to Charles Goodyear.
  • Elias Howe invented the sewing machine.
  • The American Medical Association was founded in Philadelphia.
  • Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical-school degree.

None of these accomplishments would have been possible without the quality of individual autonomy. None of these history-makers was seeking a federal handout; none was looking for guarantees in the pursuit of unprecedented goals. In their slipstream would come a parade of individuals who owed their success to self-reliance—from Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh to John F. Kennedy, the Apollo astronauts, and those supremely independent garage-tinkerers, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. For them, as for most Americans, self-reliance was seen as a virtue, not a liability, a characteristic worth promoting, not denigrating.

In the new millennium, safety nets abound, from Social Security to unemployment insurance. But these entitlements are meant to reinforce individuality by giving U.S. citizens freedom from catastrophic financial worries. They are not meant to encourage the seeking of ever more handouts, ever more dependence on cash-strapped federal and state governments.

If the folks at ABC are ever to understand the country they fly over, they would be well advised to stop misreading speeches and get back to some basic American literature. They might start with the great Transcendentalist and abolitionist who knew all about the “wicked dollar” and how, left unchallenged, it could lead to economic and moral serfdom.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of Tough Without a Gun, a biography of Humphrey Bogart.

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