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The American Frontier, Empire, and Minding the Future

One of the most important yet least appreciated topics in American history (outside of academia) is that of the “frontier.” Long the purview of historians of the American West, it has reached a level of conversation that no serious historian of American culture and power (i.e., politics) can afford to ignore.  There is a large body of literature on this topic; and in the space that I have, I can only hope to synthesize it in a way that is understandable and, perhaps more importantly, debatable.  It is not my aim to recap the history of this idea.  Rather, what I want to briefly do is discuss the idea of the frontier as a site of identity and change, and as a point at which the conquest of the “foreign” became openly discussed as the embodiment of “progress.”  Although I am limited by space and personal perspective, perhaps there will be enough substance to spark a debate about what we mean when we use words such as “frontier,” “empire,” “nature” (or “wilderness”), and finally, “progress.”

I should first clarify my use of “empire” and “imperialism.” The expression of that image in terms of popular thinking—the systematic and persistent encroachment of the substance of empire into the mind—has a long and complicated history.  It is at once old and new.  Old because philosophy and the study of politics necessarily take into consideration notions of power and notions about the division between the kind of knowledge that is held by the few and the kind that is held by the many.  New in that it was not until the 1950s that American historians began to explicitly discuss the ways in which public opinion both received and shaped ideas about identity, self and “other,” during the early years of American imperialism (the late nineteenth century).  We can probably take it for granted that those in power care about what we, the people, think.  We live in a democracy, after all, and the people deserve to be heard.  Conventional wisdom tells us so, and there is always something true in conventional wisdom.  Indeed, I argue that office holders and other powerful figures care so much about what the people think that they have long prescribed a succession of programs aimed at perpetuating particular kinds of consciousness that subvert unified challenges to governmental authority.  This model is not confined to the United States but now has such a wide reach that we are likely to forget, and soon, that it has a history—that it resulted from a process, from successive stages of development.  And that model and such forgetfulness comprise another part of the imperialism that concerns me.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  The point for now is twofold: 1) America is the quintessentially modern political and cultural model and 2) the thrust of the argument that legitimated conquest in and by America since its inception came largely out of the idea of “the frontier.”  I’ll try and make it clear how these two threads relate.

The First Point

To the first point, I will briefly mention three ideas.  Admittedly, when analyzed as discrete ideas, they may appear contradictory, even a paradoxical combination.  But I believe they hold together historically, and their contradictions confirm my premise that the modern democratic mind is a captive mind that lacks the full benefit of participation in our collective history.  When I say that America is quintessentially modern, I mean that it has the greatest foothold in modernity because, first, it has the oldest functioning written plan of national government in the world.  That isn’t patriotic rhetoric, but simply a fact.  The U.S. Constitution—accompanied, incidentally, by its more populist precursor, the Declaration of Independence—has done more than any other document to shape the modern notion of the free society.  Numerous societies have emulated it since the eighteenth century.  Lawmakers and heads of state have justified it as a system that boasts flexibility, endurance, and tolerance for dissent by its provisions for amendment and by its record of enabling a long series of uneventful–often perfectly bland–transitions of power.  Yet, as such, the Founding documents (note the capital “F”), though revolutionary in their time, have become stalwarts of the modern world; they are the bastions of conservative theory and practice against which all political action is now tested.  The implications of this are myriad, to be modest about it.  Mostly, for me, they have something to say about how we read the past–about how we have learned to read the past.  Yet history is never cut off from the present, and the present moment–perhaps more than any other during the past half century–lends itself to interpretation in light of this approach to political history.  For it says that American politics is full of architects who were self-consciously engaged in the idea of modernity, in the project of expansion, and in the view from the future.

Second, as a tree rooted in the Enlightenment, America represents a continual, habitual branching out.  It symbolizes the modern spirit of “progress” manifested in the growth and betterment of society, in finding faster, more efficient ways of transforming the environment into comfort and profit for some and into the believable prospect of comfort and profit for everyone else.  The pioneer, the businessman, the image provided by Horatio Alger of the pauper who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and made his fortune, all attest to the mythology of progress and American doggedness in the face of adversity.  The cliché of American ingenuity apparently owes much also to the increased presence of Yanks in other lands.  The image, for example, of World War II tank battalions comes to mind: When German tanks broke down, German soldiers reportedly sat idly and waited for the mechanics to show up; but American soldiers popped the hood and tinkered with the engines until help arrived.  It is safe to say that the American character, if such a thing exists, includes the idea that we are better at adapting to our environments than most, and that we take pride in outmaneuvering the other, and sometimes merely outlasting them, in whatever it is they do.

Progress thus also has to do with knowledge, with increasing intelligence.  But ultimately only a particular kind of intelligence is legitimate; only the kind of knowledge that is verifiable or falsifiable can be acceptable in a modern democracy.  In this sense, America represents the institution of science as the means toward the broadest possible understanding of nature for the few (experts and their clients), while again it stands believably as a beacon whose light the people borrow to make their own discoveries.  So there is the idea that progress, particularly the idea of territorial growth and expansion, somehow corresponds to a better kind of knowledge of the world—a better worldview—for everyone.

Modernity is also about perpetual renewal or the rebirth of identity. This is the third element of American modern-ness.  When we think about rebirth in America, we think usually of what is best about the old.  So consider the Athenses and Romes of small-town America; consider Phoenix; consider the classical architecture associated with civic institutions; expressions of a ‘born-again’ version of Christianity; the accepted practice of changing locations during one’s lifetime—numerous times for many—in order to “start again” or “reinvent” oneself.  In forging identity, we pull from the existing storehouse of ideas (namely mythology and history) and from our immediate environments to build, to profit, to understand ourselves, or at least to present to others newer versions of ourselves.  These related notions of progress and renewal are thus embedded in American history and in the American psyche, if such a thing can be said to exist.  And they also play out against the imperial impulse, the science of conquest, in the idea of the frontier.  So, on to the second point.

The Second Point

In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his most famous work, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (the Frontier Thesis), at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  In 1890, the federal census bureau had declared that the western frontier was no more—that the era of manifest destiny, the process of pushing westward and settling the wilderness, had been fulfilled.  Turner sought to explain what he and other intellectuals saw as the unique character of the American—as distinct from the largely urban European identity that had produced viable socialist organizations and even revolutionary activity during the previous half century (the Socialist Party of America had not yet taken off).  Turner looked back to America’s formative encounters with the wilderness:  an unwieldy nature and the “savagery” of American Indians, of the experience of conquering the land, and in the process of pushing the frontier steadily westward, continually renewing the identity of the American citizen.  The ever-present frontier thus for Turner defined the American experience.

With the disappearance of the frontier came increased anxiety about America’s future.  Concerned about the nation’s loss of masculine vitality, self-sufficiency, and ruggedness forged at the frontier, historian and future President Teddy Roosevelt, for example, added his voice to an anxious community of thinkers by appealing to notions of “manliness” and the “strenuous life.”  By the end of the ‘90s, the United States had wrested Cuba free from Spain and had set out to quell savagery in another territory, the Philippines.  The U.S. had embarked in earnest on territorial acquisitions and international power brokerage outside of North America.

Critics of the frontier thesis have come from a number of angles.  Many have offered alternative explanations for the development of American culture; some have called attention to Turner’s omission of women, African Americans, and Hispanics and the equation of American Indians with savagery.  But over time, what seems to have been lost is a larger project in which Turner appeared to involve himself.  For all his omissions, Turner tried to explain something important about the human condition, with America as the last of the old frontiers—the last vestige of the New World or of “the West”:

[T]he larger part of what has been distinctive and valuable in America’s contribution to the history of the human spirit has been due to this nation’s peculiar experience in extending its type of frontier into new regions; and in creating peaceful societies with new ideals in the successive vast and differing geographic provinces which together make up the United States. Directly or indirectly these experiences shaped the life of the Eastern as well as the Western States, and even reacted upon the Old World and influenced the direction of its thought and its progress. [Preface to 1920 edition]

What is most important about the frontier here is its relation to the mind, the fact that the process of renewal requires a psychological confrontation with that which is not known. Progress dictates that one make comprehensible that which is foreign, that one hew out of the wilderness a place in which one can survive and be somewhat secure.  Survival—but more importantly, growth and expansion—becomes the desired result of man’s confrontation with nature.  Hence, such confrontation, transformation, and expansion become reliable ways of knowing and behaving in the world.  They become part of the science of living in modernity, shedding individual and subjective experience for that which has been observed to replicate survival for society, nation, race, etc.

A Third Point

But I will suggest another dimension to the description of progress and frontier.  Perhaps we ought to look at progress today, in the twenty-first century, as the idea of moving toward that which we have yet to encounter, rather than as fashioning either ourselves or the world in an image that presupposes what is desirable.  In this formulation, people would approach the idea of frontier as a site for seeking the universally unknown rather than as one which ensures conquest, either of the other or of oneself by one’s thinking about the process.

This is to say that the frontier did not close, as the federal government declared in 1890, but rather, in Turner’s words, that it extended “into new regions.”  It left the continent that once was a colony and colonized those we saw as inferior, savage, and in need of our brand of “civilization.” By the middle of the twentieth century, the United States had developed a unique combination of carrot and stick in approaching the foreign, in eradicating undesirable ideas, in remaking the world in its image.  Of course, “carrot and stick” is a euphemism for the reality, which was that the United States divided its policy roughly between foreign aid and terrorism.  In any case, by this point, the frontier had entered many new phases at once.  And the negotiation of the foreign, at least in terms of defining American-ness, was no longer the job of rugged individualist pioneers, but of technocrats, scientists, lawyers, and generals.  And such negotiation required a degree of coordination, of simultaneity, that did not allow much room for improvisation or waiting to see what the Indians would do, or hoping the fish would bite today.

Hence this new conception of frontier itself needed renewal, by reference to the old.  We see this in a variety of sources, perhaps most notably John F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the  1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.  Facing west at his microphone, Kennedy recalled the old West of the pioneers and their determination to bring civilization to the very edge of the Pacific.  And now, “the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not.  Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered [province] of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”  He went on:

. . . I believe the times require imagination and courage and perseverance.  I am asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier.  My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age. . . to all who respond to the Scriptural call: “Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed.”

One can imagine that in Kennedy’s mind, the specter of nuclear missiles and the prospect of Cold War ideologies going horribly awry stood near the front.  Economic collapse would follow a devastating military exchange, whether staged on American soil or elsewhere.  The American tradition of peaceful power transitions would come to an end.  Such was the frontier no one wanted to confront.

Yet there were other concerns, which underlay the fear of nuclear blight.  In one sense, we have not rid ourselves of them since the Cold War.  But in another, they have always existed in history.  For example, how could it be that we might destroy other humans in a disagreement over how best to live in the world?  If we forego the idea that perpetual war is a necessary instrument of progress, we may have choices about how to define progress.  Here, the unknown that watches us from its wilderness—let’s call it the future—cannot in itself be said to represent change.  Rather, the human approach to that frontier may well decide what kind of mind survives in the new New World.  We might then say that the renunciation of war and conquest as the ultimate means of confronting difference, because it would give up the definition of progress as renewal of the old and hence familiar, could produce a genuinely progressive understanding of progress.  It could, in other words, produce an engagement with the radically new in such a way that would obviate conquest.  Instead of asking of the future, What is it, or How can we make it function as something familiar, we might ask what we ourselves are and where we got our definitions.  The future is here, whether we seek it or not.  Indeed, we are always at the edge of the moment that has not yet arrived, always at the threshold of a wilderness whose purposes or laws are exceedingly difficult to predict.  But perhaps if we let go of the anthropocentric location of natural laws long enough to experience the whole of nature just beyond the threshold of the future, we might not be surprised by what finds us in our natural habitat.

copyright 2010, Travis Seay

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