|The frontier as depicted by Currier and Ives (click to enlarge)|
Working, as I do, a blue-collar occupation surrounded by White people in the most segregated workplace I've ever seen, I’ve become immersed in the language of White American conservatism. I’ve seen who and what the political Right considers important, not only in my co-workers’ love for loudly blasted talk radio, but also in which talking points they repeat to one another. And I’ve noticed a change, from a frontier myth to a fortress myth.
This begins with the literal. The fetishization of The Wall has become a point so obsessively repeated, I think it wouldn’t go too far to call it liturgy. Chanting “Build That Wall” has the same group identity value as “I believe in God the Father almighty.” Where once American identity involved carrying our values (and race) into the mysterious distance, American-ness has become something we must physically defend against others coming to us.
This marks an important departure from American history. Where our White European ancestors had to live inside walled cities, fearing bandits and barbarians and invading armies, Americans took pride in living on the land they worked. American expansionism often needed temporary stockades when the Army took the leading edge, but once the land was securely in White hands, Americans boasted we didn’t need to live behind walls.
Before anybody interrupts, let me quickly say I’m aware that the “frontier” didn’t objectively exist. First, White armies needed to actively chase Indians (and, frequently, the runaway slaves they harbored) off ancestral land. Then, less obviously, the first poor White settlers needed chased off the land they’d reclaimed, so rich whites could profit off it (see Nancy Isenberg). Americans realistically revere the abstract frontier, not the actual lived experience.
Nevertheless, the concept of “going forth into the wilderness and building a civilization” looms large in American mythology. Nation-building wasn’t just a moral good, but a religious calling executed with religious zeal, sometimes literally, as spreading Christianity was synonymous with spreading America. From the first time John Winthrop called Massachusetts a “shining city on a hill,” America defined itself first by action.
|The frontier as depicted in current American politics.|
But even beyond the literal fortress mentality, walling America off at the southern frontier, Americans have increasingly accepted a more metaphorical fortress mentality. Our current administration has withdrawn us from the Paris Climate Accords, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the North American Free Trade Agreement. It’s instituted protectionist economic policies unseen since the Gilded Age. It even threatens to withdraw from NATO, an unprecedented move.
Like a medieval village under attack from marauders or the Mongol Horde, America has pulled its resources inside the wall, pitched its tent, and decided to endure the outside world privately. While our candidates continue to wear cowboy hats and sing country music, our actions reflect the idea of the lonely skald strumming his lute to distract the villagers while we outlast the faceless attackers beyond the wall. We have surrendered our doer heritage.
Let me repeat, I’m aware how loaded and explosive America’s frontier mythology is. I know it’s been abused by power-hungry demagogues to mislead crowds about where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. In order to repurpose American frontier myths for the Twenty-First Century, America’s visionaries will need new ways of seeing the outside world, ways that don’t involve conquest, expropriation, and ever-expanding Whiteness.
But surely, if seeding Whiteness throughout the world is poor policy, so is ensconcing Whiteness behind a literal wall and disengaging from the larger world. American policy has apparently fallen into a binary equation: we must conquer, or be conquered. Since our most recent conquests, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, quickly turned into massive national embarrassments, our elected officials have shifted into a defensive posture and hunkered down.
I dare not advocate some return to a rosy-eyed view of America’s past. We already know America’s past had some pretty awful components, and misplaced nostalgia is creating problems in our explosive present. But if we want America to have a future, and I believe some of our values are important enough to preserve, then we need a better mythology than the fortress. Because we can’t live long under constant attack.