Re-Valuing: A Way Through Illusions


Abstract: The values of thrift and self-reliance are deeply etched into the history and memory of America’s pioneers. Today we see them returning with a vengeance in the groundswell called the Tea Party, and reshaping the political landscape. Yet in this dramatic process, much is not as it seems. Not appearances or rhetoric but values trace the significant currents of history.

A handful of representatives who benefited from the first impact of the groundswell on primaries are passed off in the press as the Tea Party itself. The Tea Party influence is relentlessly confused with fiscal conservatism, ignoring the part of Americans for Tax Reform, and The Club for Growth, both Washington lobbies.[1] A frightening gap has opened between the values of the electorate and the images and icons of political rhetoric.

Thrift quietly informed a bipartisan effort to root out numerous duplications and inefficiencies in federal funding, for savings in hundreds of billions, but this is now forgotten for tilting at the large icons of partisan policy, taxes and benefits. Ongoing stimulus to solar energy, in which China is the industrial leader, and biotech, long cultivated by Europe’s distillers and British pharmaceuticals, hardly reaches home-grown inventiveness and initiative in the US.

The image of a bunch of horsefolk riding posse into Washington is true enough to what unfolds there, and places Washington back in the Wild West of the movies, saturated with the spirit of vengeance. Thrift and self-reliance worked for the pioneers, and built homesteads and mills, but also gave us box-guitars and Cajun spice mix. They work now for consumers cutting back on credit spend and conventional health-care, but that provokes a clawback of interest from rising bond rates, and more bluster from big medicine and its allies, while Washington looks the other way.

So we are reminded of Old Media clutching their aging film libraries, and brutally exposed in their rough-cut and extra-legal policing of our behavior. Yet all of this belongs to rhetoric and imagery, while the real historical movement of these times is scarcely noticed. It is hard to grasp for some reasons that are worth probing a little.

Where did the old frontier go? With the Gold Rush to California? So what about California as a frontier, and all that Orange County meant as a refuge for black republicans beyond the old frontier of the Civil War?[2] And the youth now leaving California for the mid-west and even Florida, where they mingle with Cuban exiles, stirring the half-forgotten embers of the Spanish-American War?

Early in this great reversal of the human tide, a remarkable modernization of the pioneer culture gave us the Whole Earth Catalog. It was home-grown and futurist, green before the fashion, and captured the history behind Ayn Rand’s image of a bunch of entrepreneurs set to emerge from the fastness of the Rockies to save the nation. Indeed, the Catalog became a pioneer of Internet publication, and with its offspring seeded awareness of both intermediate technology, technology in the process of development, like the Internet itself; and the vision of appropriate technology, adapted to local resources, skills and needs.

On into the Internet era, the journal Edge became the icon of the new genius of the land, and something like the ultimate authority in the tracery of web-page links that came to mean so much in the quest for high placings in search-engine results, with all they could bring in recognition, fame and fortune. Also a complacently New York institution, and sadly tangled in metaphysical cob-webs reaching all the way to China and Old Europe, for an effect so distinctively Gothic it passed the initiative back to Chicago and Detroit, where Albert Khan’s architecture now achieves immortality with Walter Gropius’ icons of modernism. Oh, its just Great Depression 2.0 then?

And all this while you thought the Wild West was tamed? That was the Injun so-called, or so it seemed before Indie film, but what about the land? The Mississippi has been tamed, just, sort-of, but you saw what the twisters just did, and now the fires, and the drought? All this while we really needed those futuristic Buckminster Fuller domes as seriously tornado-proof structures, but nothing of the kind was built. Back of Gothic, some Norman barrel -vaulting could have helped, from the last great wave of globalism and warming, but that very idea clashes dreadfully with the rhetoric of progress, and now complacency toying at the edge of the possible.

Values remain elusive, for they live between the hard constraints of Nature and our perceptions and pretensions.  Values are not images or icons, but they can work for you, and they do take strain in the trials of life, and mark what endures. In the way of life, one can recover endurance through re-valuating one’s process, and in this way an historic mass of Americans have steeled themselves for hard times.

[1] Budget stalemate: Why America won’t raise taxes, Christian Science Monitor USA Politics, 11 April 2011.
[2] Desert Fathers: The Religious Right’s real pioneers came not from the South but Southern California. By Ed Kilgore, Washington Monthly ⁠Mar/Apr 2011.


2 comments to Re-Valuing: A Way Through Illusions

  • Orwin O'Dowd

    In fairness to all, the middle classes have been following the old Manchester rule, which is to spend your way out of a recession, through the whole series of crises since the 1980s. That’s not the way of the homestead or the frontier, rather the immemorial way of the merchant class, who could find themselves holding too much cash and wanting to spend it on improving the water-supply, or the roads and ports.

    It doesn’t help much to notice in this only merchants as shop-keepers: to grasp the full economic dynamic one must admit also investment and the infrastructure of transport and communication. In these terms Obama’s associations and profile make much better sense: he got his break through investment circles in Chicago, and wants to follow through in

    With that said, to fund his jobs bill with a punitive tax is selling government to the rich, which is the way of oligarchy. The US has been investing heavily offshore and doing well by it, but the profits remain offshore due to problems in the tax code. Meanwhile, the Midwest is up and running again, and Wall Street is looking cheap enough to do the pension funds some good.

    The problems lie deeper and require more thorough reform. Many jobs in banking have been lost for good to advanced information technology, and more comprehensive regulation creates new opportunities for the same kinds of skill. Its the health-care sector that looks bloated by international standards, but going soft on pollution can only make that worse.

    Here surely are the symptoms of the kind of malaise Gordon suggests: aggressive consumerism pushing consumption without quality, hence poor diets and high health overheads. Quality eluding America was the theme of Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, posed as the irony of a nation finding its roots while still denying their worth.

    I notice Californians rediscovering Mexican and Caribbean foods, and the larger pattern breaks with Robert Redford’s Sundance festival. But it took South Africans another generation to start piecing together the whole value equation in local food, which at last puts a damper on inflation.

  • Gordon Anderson

    Thrift and self-reliance were important virtues on the American frontier, as they are on any frontier. One problem is that the United States is no longer a frontier, at least an agricultural frontier. The original pioneers who emigrated to the United States held these values, while people who were psychologically dependent on others remained in Europe. This “natural selection” process sent the strongest and most self-reliant of those looking for a better life to the United States.

    However, the children of those immigrants do not always rise to the same level of self-reliance and independence necessary to free themselves from their parents. And, eventually the land frontier ran out and it became difficult for people without capital to easily create a self-reliant life, especially now after many manual labor jobs have been outsourced. This aging process in the United States has left it more like Europe with a larger percentage of the population advocating dependence.

    I think Orwin has identified the faultlines between the Tea Party and the rest of the political system. The old line Republicans tend to represent the wealthy employers who are happy to hire dependent laborers and eliminate competition from new entrepreneurs. The Democrats represent the dependent laborers and those who have been given welfare in exchange for votes. These two parties have cooperated “across the aisle” to tax and eliminate the middle class that promoted the virtues of self-reliance and thrift. The Tea Party, while being a reaction to both of the parties as they existed, has developed a strategy to try to reform the Republican party so that it is not controlled by large industries, as the Republican Party platform is at least not controlled by labor unions and those that appear opposed to self-reliance and thrift, and consider it a vice more than a virtue.

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