The Folly of Iron Individualism

As a conservative parent of sometimes refractory children, I read this old cartoon with mixed feelings.  Blaming the misdeeds of a “wayward child” entirely on society is dishonest and exculpatory in many cases.  Some parents are bad parents.  Some are consistently negligent, indulgent, cruel, or even debauching.  All parents sometimes fall short of the ideal.  But blaming the misdeeds of a “wayward child” entirely on the parents, as this cartoon does, is equally dishonest and exculpatory.

Brenham Banner (May 25, 1929)

Every parent learns that “society” grabs his child in much the same way that King Kong grabbed Fay Wray, and that his position is, thereafter, much like that of a pilot in one of those puny biplanes.  This cartoon was published in 1929, and it is absurd to say that parents of that time were not losing influence over their children to the schools, the movies, and the youth culture that was made possible by the automobile.  In just four years, legislators would repeal prohibition, thereby substantially weakening the position of parents who were trying teach their children temperance.

The word socialism was first used as the name of the doctrine that a man is entirely shaped by his social conditions, that he therefore bears no personal responsibility for his conduct, and that society can therefore be rearranged in such a way that all men will conduct themselves admirably.  This is a false and pernicious doctrine.

But the inversion of this doctrine that I call Iron Individualism is equally false and pernicious.  Everyone knows that a man who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas; but not everyone admits that a man must lie down somewhere, and that he is bound to be flea-bitten if dogs occupy every square inch of the ground.

Iron Individualism is popular with stupid conservatives who fail to notice that they have absorbed this false and pernicious doctrine from their environment in much the same way that an Easter egg absorbs color from a bowl of dye.  These stupid conservatives take the view that the test of a truly virtuous man is his ability to sit in a brothel with a doxy on his knee and a drink in his hand, and yet refrain from squeezing the doxy or sipping the drink.  I say the test of a truly virtuous man is whether he sees that his virtue is like a plant that requires propitious environmental conditions, and whether he therefore works to ensure that those propitious conditions are maintained.

In my experience, the doctrine of Iron Individualism is applied to parenting by people who have no children, whose children are in their infancy, or whose children have been so long grown to maturity that the parents are sinking into senility.  As many of you no doubt know, these useless fools have a great deal to say about “setting boundaries,” but, alas, almost nothing to say about how a boundary-setting parent can enforce the boundaries he has set.  The legislator and policeman of the cartoon will have something to say if he attempts to enforce his boundaries with punitive beatings.  The bespectacled teacher and minister will have something to say if he sets his boundaries anywhere other than the boundaries approved by progressive moralists.  And the auto salesman, movie mogul and roadhouse owner will build their businesses just beyond those boundaries, and they will equip those businesses with flashing signs, beckoning lights and an ample advertising budget.

And when a struggling parent fails to hold the line in these decidedly unpropitious social circumstances, the proponents of Iron Individualism will jeer that it is entirely his own fault.





19 thoughts on “The Folly of Iron Individualism

  1. Pingback: The Folly of Iron Individualism | Reaction Times

  2. Conservative commentator, Cal Thomas, was right when he wrote in ‘Mortal Combat’ and the First Amendment (Jun., 2011),

    Anyone who has tried to stop an adolescent from ignoring a parent’s wishes knows what I’m talking about. In a perfect world, children would listen to, respect and obey their parents. But this is far from a perfect world and parents could use occasional help from the state in preventing violent culture from undermining what’s in the best interest of the child, and the country. This ruling by the Supreme Court does not achieve that end.

    (See here:

    Your article is very good. While I’m quite sure it is not the correct test of an article’s (or its author’s, for that matter) value that it brings to the mind of one of its readers a multitude of quotations from articles and essays that preceded it by tens, and scores, and even hundreds of years, your article nevertheless achieved this with yours truly, as is so often the case. Obviously it brought to mind Mr. Thomas’s 2011 Mortal Combat dissenting view, which column I read, at the time, in the Opinion section of the Tulsa World newspaper. Several paragraphs prior to those closing remarks, Mr. Thomas posed the following question:

    Does anyone believe Thomas Jefferson could have foreseen a day when violent images of the worst sort ought to be protected by the First Amendment? When he wrote about freedom of the press, did “press” mean blood and gore? And if it did, should anything be banned? Should any child be told “no”?

    But as I wrote in a letter to the editor concerning the matter in question, whether Mr. Jefferson could have foreseen such a day or not is irrelevant to the question of whether he would have approved of the SCOTUS decision under investigation in any case. The simple answer to that question is that he would most assuredly NOT have approved, and this because The Court, in Mortal Combat, ruled outside its jurisdiction and authority, violating both the spirit and the letter of the so called Supremacy Clause, and its further explication in the Tenth Amendment, reserving to the States or to the People those powers not expressly granted to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to same. I further wrote that one should not speculate upon what Mr. Jefferson meant by “freedom of the press,” and how broadly the application of its protections should extend, but should rather go directly to the source himself; that Mr. Jefferson would have endorsed a decision that left the rights of the several States and the local governments inviolate on the matter, while simultaneously denying the United States (as well as The Court herself) exclusive authority in such matters. The much vaunted “Commerce Clause” definitely notwithstanding.

    If time and space permitted I could cite extensively from several of Dr. Dabney’s works in support of the main points of your article. That children (even those raised in good homes by conscientious parents – parents in the plural, as in a mother and a father who take the wedding vows seriously and do not confuse their respective roles) are at least in part a product of their broader environment is, I believe, beyond serious dispute.

    I’ve told the story before within these precincts of one of my daughters who decided one day that ol’ dad’s rules were just too restrictive, and that therefore she would go her own way and live by her own rules. I warned her for a year that if she persisted in her defiance of my authority she would most assuredly be sent away to live with relatives until she came to her senses and realized the extent of her errors and the danger it was putting her entire family of origin in. Somehow in her own mind she just could not come to make herself believe that I would follow through with that threat. So, just a few days after her 17th birthday, and with no indication from her that she had any intention of obeying my rules that she didn’t like and thought too restrictive on her ‘native rights’, I told her that she needed to pack her bags; that her mother and I had made the arrangements and that she would be going away to live with relatives more permissive than we, and that she was not to have any direct contact with her family of origin during the interim between that moment and the time her head cleared up and she should come back to her better senses. Herein lies a clue as to how to enforce those boundaries that stupid conservatives (who sound more like libertarians to me, but that’s beside the point) have so much to say about, with so little practical advice as to how to enforce those boundaries, as you rightly note.

    It took our daughter three and a half years and several attempts to violate the rule of no direct contact before she finally ‘came to her milk’ and to her better senses. At which point her mother and I were overjoyed of course to receive her back into the fold, very much in line with the biblical story of the return of the prodigal son to his father’s house, broken by his own stupidity. Some of the other kids may or may not take the view of the other son in the story, but if one of them does I know nothing of it. And speaking of biblical stories and what they are intended to convey to us, I should imagine ‘stupid conservatives’ would benefit in this particular vein, as well as others, by reading and studying and internalizing its lessons on the point. Two in particular come to mind in addition to the one just mentioned. Namely, the story of “righteous Lot” and his family, and the story told throughout the entirety of the book of Job. Speaking of which latter, you can readily imagine, I’m certain, the kind of ‘pushback’ I received for taking the extreme measure of sending our dauter away and holding her feet to the fire for those three and a half long years, and at the hands of my most trusted and loyal friends and relatives, no less. They accused me on numerous occasions of having failed her; of having been solely responsible for her rebelliousness as with the depiction in the newspaper clipping above. Not at all to compare myself to righteous Job, but in that particular case I answered their accusations just as he did – nope; that isn’t the case at all; you have no idea what you are talking about. But I should probably leave off at this point before, like Lot, I “darkeneth counsel even more by words.”

    • I recall the ordeal of your defiant daughter had reached its crisis about the time I began writing here. You showed great resolution, and I was pleased when you were finally able to report satisfactory results. I have to admit that none of my children have approached the olympian levels of refractoriness of their old man at that age, so that much of this must be filed under poetic justice and granny’s revenge.

      I often face the dilemma of using a word in its true sense or the bastardized sense that will make sense to most Americans. Liberal and conservative are obvious examples. As you say, many proponents of Iron Individualism are really libertarians. My impression is that many libertarians are antisocial, by which I mean relatively oblivious to peer pressure, and that they consequently do not understand that most people are conformist who need a decent social ethos to conform to. I am in many respects non-conformist, but I am not antisocial, so I feel the decidedly unenjoyable pressure to conform. I remain nonconforming because conforming the current social ethos would be even less enjoyable.

  3. I think very similar thoughts when I read one of those “modern women are horrible sluts!!!!” essays in manosphere blogs. Every time I read one of those, my inner jukebox starts playing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and I wish I knew how to explain that modern women are, just like modern men, largely the products of a culture and a society. The question is not whether they’re sinning. They are. But then again, they were very carefully raised up to be exactly the kinds of sinners we see. I’ve only begun to understand how and why I am not a feminist and why my former feminism was stupid and I’m in my 50s! What hope does teenager have in this environment?

    I also think very similar thoughts these days every time I hear about sex education in public schools, drag queen story hour, etc. etc. The very people who are hell bent on this stuff are also the very same who scream bloody murder over parents homeschooling or sending their children to private schools. They want your child and they don’t want any backtalk about it.

    • Many seemingly radical women would seem equally conservative if they were immersed in a conservative environment where the most conservative women enjoyed the highest status and blue-haired harpies were depicted as ludicrous or evil. Most humans are not cut out to be rebels because nonconformity has severe psychological costs. It often has physical costs in the form of beatings and poverty. Thus it is very hard for most people to rise very far above the standards of their social milieu, and this is why a bad social milieu is created by, but also creates, bad people.

      I don’t think people are infinitely plastic. This is evident in what Christians call repentance, which is really a delayed revulsion against sin. Repentance is often hard to explain, which is why Christians give it a supernatural explanation. It is not alway brought on by negative consequences of the sinful behavior in the form of physical disease or social shame. Sometimes it is a disgust that just appears one day and makes a person feel profound revulsion for the person they have become.

      You are quite right that cultural revolutionaries betray their intentions by an inordinate desire to take charge of other people’s children. A doomed and deluded society places its children in the hands of people who aim to destroy it.

  4. I say the test of a truly virtuous man is whether he sees that his virtue is like a plant that requires propitious environmental conditions, and whether he therefore works to ensure that those propitious conditions are maintained.

    So you are in favor of the confessional state then?

    • Provided that it is a virtuous confessional state, and that it tolerates discreet dissent. A vicious confessional state would obviously be hell, and toleration of discrete dissent is to the advantage of confessors and dissenters. An intolerant confessional unwilling participants into the confession, and the unwilling participants do more damage to the confession than the confession does good to the unwilling participants.

      • It’s not even a thing to argue about anymore. The political system based on tolerance and neutrality has turned out to be itself committed to many disputable philosophical, historical, and scientific points, and to be intolerant of dissent. All there is to argue about is which creed.

        Well, I suppose as a secondary issue there’s JMSmith’s point about how the creed is enforced. I would agree that while any confessional state is going to restrict public dissent, it would be wrong to demand positive affirmation, except from a small number holding ideologically sensitive posts. (I think it’s reasonable to insist that a priest be willing to publicly affirm the Nicene creed, for instance.) Another thing is that the creed should be explicitly laid out. Everyone should be able to know what is and is not acceptable, and they shouldn’t have to worry about sudden shifts in the boundary between the two categories.

      • I’m beginning to think that we need to define “party members” in the sense that phrase had for Nazis and Communists. I hate “the party,” but I like social clarity. Let party members enjoy special privileges and wear honorific insignia, but let the rest of slouch about at a lower level of ideological compliance.

        In the interest of clarity, I am also beginning to believe that the official race of every American should be stamped on driver’s licenses and registered in a public database. Perhaps we could model this system on the Indian tribes, where the tribe gets to decide who it includes as a member.

      • This had not occurred to me before, but I suppose it was a sign of the limits of totalitarianism in those one-party states. It was not expected that everyone would be a party member.

        I’d be happy with official race assignments as well. I’ve even warmed up to the idea of explicit quotas. They’re much better (and more effective for the stated purpose) than lowering standards or demanding diversity fanaticism statements. And, as I’m always saying, it would be nice to have an official list of forbidden beliefs, for clarity’s sake.

  5. I was reminded of the sayings “no man is an island” and “it takes a village to raise a child”. We aren’t meant to raise our children in isolation and the village will have a hand in raising your child whether you mean for it or not. It seems that a parent is more often hoping to inculcate discernment of when the village’s teachings should be viewed as wise or folly.

    • Everyone sees this, and consequently worries about their children’s friends and works to live in a “good neighborhood.” I don’t think a “village” can raise a child. Its influence is too ambient. But a bad “village” can certainly undermine the work of a good parent. The sociologist Julius Wilson argued that moving underclass families into middle class neighborhoods would teach those families (or at least their children) middle class values. I think the influence more often goes in the opposite direction. The example of the middle-class children doesn’t make the underclass children see the folly of truancy, but the example of the underclass children does make the middle-class children wonder why they have to go to school. It is extremely hard to hold your children to standards that are higher than, or even just different than, the standards of the parents of your children’s friends.

      • I think the influence more often goes in the opposite direction. The example of the middle-class children doesn’t make the underclass children see the folly of truancy, but the example of the underclass children does make the middle-class children wonder why they have to go to school.</blockquote.

        Bingo. And if that were as far as the negative influence of the underclass children upon their upper-class peers went (as a rule, of course, always admitting of the exception to it), then I might be more inclined to go along with the notion that the benefits outweigh the costs overall. Might. As I explained a few days back elsewhere (see here: this has always been one of the big arguments against homeschooling and/or private and charter schools – that by depriving the public schools of the good kids who are home schooled or attend private schools, we're also depriving the bad kids in public schools the opportunity to pick up good manners and habits, good morals and so on, from the better kids who attend the better schools. Whereas I have always taken the opposite position, knowing as I do that the bad kids are more likely to negatively influence the good than the other way around.

      • Humans are always on the lookout for good reasons to behave worse, since worse behavior is easier. That’s why it is so much easier to talk a good student out of doing his homework than it is to talk a poor student into doing his homework. When discipline is optional, discipline disappears. Another aspect to this is that a “good kid” is actually a relatively good kid, and so aims only to stay in the upper quartile of his reference group. If you put him with juvenile delinquents, he will stay in the upper quartile because that is his identity. But he will deteriorate badly when compared to his old self.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.