We have all heard their stories. Paul Bunyan, Jesse James and, for this day and age, Captain Jack Sparrow are heroes that America has come to know and love despite their character flaws. What makes these people so attractive to the imagination? What makes their stories so enthralling? The romanticism and drama certainly account for some of that. However, I believe that the most appealing aspect of these characters is that we can relate to the things they strive for, the ideals and their values. The reason that people generally like these characters is that they do not seek fame, glory and honor.
They are not King Arthur’s knights who search for some obscure holy cup. They are embroiled in their adventures not because of lofty ideals but because it involves something that they desire and the have a devil-may-care attitude towards what other people think. This allows people to relate to them because it is the American way to go after something that you want. These characters, though they may be fictional, embody the individualism and materialism that has made America what it is today. Individualism, in my understanding, is a person’s conviction to place his own beliefs and principles above those of society.
This does not mean that the person does the opposite of whatever society dictates, nor does it mean total disregard for norms and mores. It means that when his beliefs are put to question against those of the majority he will stand firmly by his principle. A concrete example of this would be Malcolm X. People told him to simmer down and back of the talk about the “white devil”, his own people told him to take it easy with what he said. Did he let that affect him? No, he just kept speaking his mind and venting his anger until he felt that certain changes were made.
While it is true that his actions got him assassinated, he has become a symbol of crusading justice for African-Americans in their struggle for true equality. He did not lie down and cower like some were apt to do. Although he knew he was making a lot of people uncomfortable with his words, he kept on talking because that’s what he believed was the right thing for him to do. Whether you agree with his views or not, it is beyond argument that Malcolm X was a true individualist because of his disregard for social norms and the status quo in favor of his personal beliefs. American history is filled with men like Malcolm X.
Of course, they didn’t hold the same views as he did but when it came down to choosing between personal belief and social approval, they did not hesitate to standby what the believed in, whether it was the free states, the abolition of slavery or good old fashioned democracy. In fact, America was founded on the very idea of individualism. Before there was a United States of America, most countries were governed by monarchs. That didn’t sit too well with the founding fathers and they decided that they were an individual nation, separate from the British. Today, the United States is hailed as the last superpower in the world.
As such, it is the duty of the American nation, and its citizens, to lead the way for individual and innovative thought. Americans have long prided themselves for their uniqueness and diversity, and continuing the tradition of individualism (I am aware of the apparent paradoxical nature of the phrase) started by our forefathers is the reason for the American pride. Materialism, on the other hand, is the attachment of great value on material or physical objects, even those things that are abstract concepts but have a significant impact on the physical world, such as achievements or titles.
Taken to the extreme, this would mean disregarding the other aspects of this life (spiritual and emotional) in favor of the physical, or at the very least considering the other aspects as inferior. Materialism is often seen as a negative trait by most people. However, materialism is not all bad. The valuing of worldly things is often an underrated value, even though it is a widely practiced one. Since this is a physical world, we cannot underestimate the value of physical things. It is as dangerous as overestimation. It is not as easy to cite an example of moderate materialism among well-known Americans as it was for individualism.
This is because most Americans belong to one polar extreme or the other, whether it is by choice or circumstance. However, as a whole, America is an example in itself. It is no secret that we buy oil from other countries, all the while stockpiling the oil we drill from Alaska for future use. Other countries might hold the view that this is a bad thing, some Americans might even agree, but we are only serving the interests of our people. I have no doubt that, if given the same opportunity, other countries will do the same thing.
In the words of the streets, “We take care of our own. ” Indeed, we have to, before we are in the position to take care of others. I believe that individualism and materialism are not only are great part of the American life, but they are essential to the foundation of the country! However, materialism may need to be kept at a moderate level for most of us. We are a nation of free-thinkers. We are a nation of responsible people, at least for the most part. Along with ingenuity and love for freedom, these two values may be what best describes American history and modern America.
Our heritage might be too rich to simplify in a few simple terms but America, all fifty stars and the white and blue of her, would not be what its is today if our forefathers had not exhibited the mettle to be pioneers and think of themselves and their freedom before anything else. We wouldn’t have risen to the pinnacle of world power if we were complacent and fell in with the masses. We wouldn’t have stayed in power if we did not continue to cherish the individualism and materialism that made this country what it is. It is the American way.