March 27, 2012

Guest Post: Does the Frontier explain our political incivility?

CIL left a very thoughtful comment on the previous post, and I thought it was worth reposting for a wider reading.  My first title was, "This is all the fault of Frederick Jackson Turner" but thought that was a bit much.


You have raised similar issues on this blog, but the question I have is why? Why has the level of political civility apparently declined? Why is there such an attack on women's rights, people of color, etc. as we have seen in places like Arizona?

I wonder if it is not two issues. First, and I think you have disagreed with me about this before, I think that the United States is more of a conservative-leaning nation. That when pressed, the nation has not pushed social reform issues further than it could have because of inherent conservative tendencies. I think of Gordon Wood's discussion of the Constitution, Eric Foner's work on Recontruction, historians who assess the impact of the Progressive movement and the Great Depression.

Second, I wonder how the frontier mythology on which the nation is contracted is partly at play here as well. In other words, I trace much of the current retrenchment, xenophobia and the like to 9/11. Turner argued that the "consolidating agent" on the frontier was the fear of Indian attack. So, in this way, 9/11 resembles the colonists' and nation's response to things like the Pequot War or Pearl Harbor. Rather than bringing out the best in people, there is a backlash - sending Pequots into slavery in the Caribbean, interning Japanese American citizens, endorsing torture. 

For those who may not know, Gordon Wood is one of the preeminent scholars of the American Revolution, and he argued, among other things, that the constitution represented a fundamentally conservative retrenchment against the excesses of direct democracy and the rather flippant ideas of the Declaration of Independence.  For Wood, some of the freedoms that Americans realize after 1787 are almost accidental--in that the founders really didn't intend for those terms and ideas to apply to the "common man."

FJ Turner wrote a very influential article called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," that redefined American history at the time.  He argued that the frontier, or availability of "free land" defined America and encouraged the creation of American ideas like individualism, egalitarianism, and even our form of democracy.   And, as CIL notes, the identification of the Indian as "other" is critical to that American development.



Streak said...

Let me jump in here first. I actually think you make a very interesting point connecting the conservative qualities of the founders through the Progressives and Depression. I still wonder about the inherent "conservative" part of that, but absolutely see your point.

On Turner, this reminds me of Susan Faludi's book "The Terror Dream" where she argues that 9-11 worked similarly to King Philip's war. She even connects the "captivity narrative" to the Jessica Lynch story. But her argument seemed to imply that the rage might fade. What you are suggesting is that the backlash continues and has actually picked up steam. This most recent attack on women is the most puzzling and perplexing part for me. I just didn't see that coming.

leighton said...

Absent some collective madness where evil becomes good and words take on their opposite meaning (e.g. "pro-life" consistently meaning "anti-life" as we see with contemporary Republicans), my best guess is that the high-profile conservatives attacking women are harkening back not to the frontier days where there was a united front against a manufactured, unnecessary opponent, but to the ideal of the aristocracy in the form of white male businessmen or plantation owners. In that fantasy, everyone who wasn't a wealthy household head knew their place. Disaffected people go along with this for the same reason poor whites sided with the plantation owners who stole their livelihood instead of black slaves who were their economic (if not legal) equals: deep in our hindbrain, we measure ourselves not by what we have, but but how much more (or less) we have than someone else nearby. One of the easiest things to do for people who want to engage in class warfare is to point to a group of people who is oppressed, or manufacture a group who ought to be oppressed (people who don't know their place), and use that distraction to take away even more from everyone.

So under this model, there are actually two groups participating in the attack on women: the leaders, who want more money/power/status for themselves, and the followers, who want to feel better about their situation, not by improving it, but by making things worse for someone else. It's a nasty dynamic that exploits basic flaws in how our brains work.