Manifest Destiny

We all know about this: the strongly persuasive early 19th century idea that the future of the new United States plainly lay in westward expansion, in occupying the whole of North America and sowing all the land, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with the historically revolutionary promise of American energy and virtues. Its destiny was to show that a great nation born of so extraordinary an idea as ours was not to be an ephemeral phenomenon soon exiting the stage of History, nor doomed to be but one more of its minor players. Its destiny, rather, was to rise inexorably, encompassing a great continent, taking its rightful place at the very forefront of the globe’s great powers – more even than that: to become a very maker of History itself.

Now, we today should bear in mind that this remarkable idea generally, and certainly its specific instruments, were hotly debated among Americans of the time. But, for all that, on marched the expansion of the irrepressible nation. The Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition set it all in motion, giving scope and logic to an irresistible force. The War of 1812 secured once and for all the nation’s independence from the U.K., and the Monroe Doctrine warned off all of Europe from further interference with the U.S.’s growing role and activity throughout the Americas. The Mexican-American War largely brought all of that to fruition, leaving little more than the process of consolidation, itself a cathartically transforming experience, which marks us to this day.

But, let us recall, manifest destiny was not solely about becoming a continental power. It was about establishing in the broad, rich land thus occupied, alongside the patently irrepressible American energy, the revolutionary virtues borne of this historically unique nation.

That’s what it was about. And for all the debate, there was no stopping it. There was no modifying it. There was, really, no controlling it. In the broadest sense, it was in fact our destiny, and it was inescapably manifest. And we did it.

But just as inevitably – and, it can be fairly argued, just as uniquely – we found ourselves pressed to wonder at what we reap from this whirlwind – indeed, to puzzle over what were the seeds we sowed with such faith, such energy. Such violence, perhaps.

And we began this national debate, early on – even as the object of debate was underway. It was then, as now, about who we are and what is our role in the world, in History. What, we ask, sets us apart – and in so asking, we express a key part of the answer.

So radical an experiment, so abrupt a departure from the normal course of human events, so exceptional a national discourse as ours inevitably uncovered – created – seemingly irreconcilable contradictions.

One of these was painfully aware to us early on. It distressingly marred our very founding documents. It provoked much of the harrowingly divisive evolution of our political structures and character.

And, in due course, it erupted into the American Civil War. This, too, was uniquely American, revolutionary. It was a terribly awe-inspiring, grotesquely innate piece of the whole – an inescapable stage in the experiment. An experiment, we should recall, we still conduct, the ramifications of which we still absorb and still struggle to understand, to bend to our purposes, to find useful to the accomplishment of our aims.

We will begin attempting that here, ourselves, in the New Year. See you then.

In the meanwhile, enjoy the Holidays!

Allow me to acknowledge the recent kind mention by Kurt Harden in his blog, Cultural Offering. In referring everyone to his site as well, I do not reciprocate his generous remarks. I merely yield to the obligation to pass along my own recommendation that you stop by there studiously, every day, as I do, to benefit from the observations of one who lives a wonderfully thoughtful life.

Astride the waters of time

On this day, let’s take another brief look at the question of the twin foundations of America’s super power status, and of its broader position in history as a great nation.

We addressed, a short while ago, the mystery of how we got from there to here, from our perilously tenuous condition at our founding to the dominant world power we see today. We like to ascribe this largely to our political institutions and our national character.

Indeed, it has been said that America has succeeded in stepping out of the river of history, having established societal and governing mechanisms that are seen nowhere else on such a scale; while the rest of the world remains mired in old systems and ancient cycles, we avoid being swept along in the relentlessly repeating currents. We have found a way to determine our own course through time.

While the argument for American exceptionalism is strong, it is yet too much to argue that this status arises solely from national virtues that we, ourselves, clearly viewed with robust skepticism when framing our founding documents and constructing our societal institutions. There is a strong argument as well that, while many of the benefits we enjoy may be more or less as described, their sources may be rather more the result of plain – if spectacular – good fortune, than of the peculiar political institutions we have devised and of the national character they helped create.

Consider this, then, from the highly recommended monograph by the geopolitical analysis organization Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor), referred to a few weeks ago:

The American geography is an impressive one. The Greater Mississippi Basin together with the Intracoastal Waterway has more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rus_geography_800est of the world combined. The American Midwest is both overlaid by this waterway and is the world’s largest contiguous piece of farmland. The U.S. Atlantic Coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined. Two vast oceans insulated the United States from Asian and European powers, deserts separate the United States from Mexico to the south, while lakes and forests separate the population centers in Canada from those in the United States. The United States has capital, food surpluses and physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin.

Accordingly, argues Stratfor,

the Americans are not important because of who they are, but because of where they live.

Well, perhaps it’s because of both. American and world history has not proceeded through all the challenges and stresses it has faced, survived, for example, the disastrously punitive decisions of European governments after the first world war, and blossomed largely as a result of the inspired, intelligent and – for all that – generous decisions of the American government after the second world war, solely as a consequence of who was best positioned geopolitically. But, then, neither did we – from our Founding Fathers on – fail to accord due respect to the importance of our advantages in that regard.

As we proceed here in these pages, we also will do well to try to bear both of these factors in mind.

In the meanwhile, please do allow me to suggest once more that you invest some time, which will be richly rewarded, in reviewing Stratfor’s brilliantly conceived and presented analysis, in two parts, here, and here.

The Book of Mamaw

In the world of J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, “Grandfather” is “Papaw,” rhyming with “pat” and “paw”, and “Grandmother” is “Mamaw,” rhyming with “Papaw.” That’s likely not the only difference between his grandmother and yours.

At age 12 she shot and nearly killed a thief – she was in fact about to do so when stopped – and not for the last time. She had a foul mouth, a violent temper, and a dangerously irritable sense of honor. She taught her grandson how to take a punch – and how to deliver one with eye-popping effect. She embodied in her singular person the myriad dysfunctional features of the deeply ingrained culture that held him and all his fellow hillbillies so tightly in its embrace.

But she also sensed that he was the one of them who could break free and do something with his life. So, she provided a safe harbor for him from the chaos of his mother’s – her own daughter’s – destructively erratic behavior. She gave him rock-solid advice, perspective, encouragement. She indeed infused in him the culture that held him close. But she was also the guiding spirit and ever-present support for his escape. She ignited in him the hope that he could do more. She armed him with much that would prove essential to him in his young manhood, and she lit the way for him onto the beginnings of his long journey out and beyond.

And he did escape, with, in fact, remarkable success. He wisely attributes this to a number of key family members and friends, who you will grow to know and admire almost as he does. But Mamaw – her lessons, her support, her inspiration; her personification of both his heritage and his personal promise – is always there, behind everything.

But why, he still wants to know, like the survivor of a fatal trauma, did he make it, and not the others? Indeed, did he in fact escape, or did he bring the chaos with him, on yet another of its many surreptitious migrations?

This book is not the story of the author’s background, nor of his personally arduous and dramatic path to the American dream, as evocatively told as those tales are in this wonderful book. It is best seen as the framework for examining the questions he poses throughout, and the personal conclusions and cultural insights he is uniquely able to draw from them.

I’ll let you learn what those are on your own – as you do, you will find yourself wonderfully immersed in this peculiarly many-sided American story, and richly rewarded as you travel alongside the author during his simple, engrossing telling of it. I will say, though, that one of the great contributions of this book is that it directs the answers to problems – whether ours, or those of our families and our communities – to ourselves. And as problematic as that can often be, there yet is really no place like home. Welcome home, then, to this superb book, and enjoy.

Here’s hoping that all of you are enjoying this Thanksgiving weekend in the warmly embracing company of your own family and friends!

There . . . for the grace of God . . .

gateway-archTo whom, or to what, are we indebted for the remarkable status that has come to us as a nation? Some seem to resist any idea that this should have arisen from an inherent greatness in a people that has shown often and thoroughly enough that we share in some of humankind’s most fearful shortcomings. Indeed, some argue that it is not because of, but despite, our ingenious political instincts and institutions that we have achieved the greatness we enjoy. It is, they argue,  the result of where we are – not of who we are.

Do you think there might be something to that? Does American exceptionalism stem from circumstances as mechanically mundane as the grand internal waterway system and the peerlessly productive coastlines we enjoy, or from the stupendously revolutionary Declaration of Independence and the founding documents that stem from it?

After all, it can be argued that these are opposing forces – our geopolitical position and circumstances bind us together, almost despite ourselves; the principles of the Declaration of Independence have, almost inevitably, set us at each other, even as a tragic consequence of the very depth of their unifying messages. This is evidenced most notably in the debate over the meaning of “all men are created equal.” Surely, these contradictory forces of unity and division were on dismal display in the wrenchingly pivotal American Civil War. The wounds we have inflicted on ourselves in this regard are so deep and complex that we have generations yet to suffer before we see them finally close and heal.

But they will heal. Because while our geopolitical circumstances may inevitably make us a great superpower, it is our enduring dedication to finding a way to understand and express the principles of the Declaration that makes us a great – in fact, the quintessentially exceptional – nation.

For the best summary of the geopolitical argument for the inevitability of American superpower status, see Stratfor’s (Strategic Forecasting) essays here (part I) and here (Part II).

For an appreciation of why we are willfully, earnestly, determinedly a great nation, look to the Declaration, look to yourselves, your communities, and to the immigrants who struggle mightily to follow and join us in this effort. They may come for the superpowerdom – but they stay for the exceptionalism, the greatness of the nation to which they assimilate. They take up its standards, as citizens they work as do we to help us heal and grow, and they join us in our revolutionary effort to deepen our sovereignty, to continue to move forward.

If the geopolitical characteristics of the land we built our nation in were wondrously fortuitous, and inexorably led to our greatness as a world power, we would do well nevertheless to acknowledge that there was nothing present here that fatefully presaged our creation in it of a great – a historically exceptional – nation.

We did that. We still do.

 

Who do we think we are?

constitutionSovereignty resides in the people.

On that extraordinarily revolutionary – but not, as it turns out, especially straightforward – premise we have built a great nation. There are those, though, that identify the greatness of the nation in its Anglo-Saxon and Judeo-Christian heritages, and who are concerned that this greatness is weakened as the demographics of the country reduce the influence of those heritages. Others argue that we can safely put our faith in the totality of the people, who are attracted to and activated by this premise, who are now of the citizenry, possessed of and expressing this fundamental sovereignty.

But can we really do that? Is not that premise – together with the legal, national, cultural institutions built upon it – itself the product of that decidedly unique and rare Anglo-Saxon/Judeo-Christian heritage? Can the philosophies and structures spawned by it be borne, be maintained, by people from decidedly different lineages?

After all, the “people” envisioned by the Founding Fathers are individuals who have their own various aims in life, and who hold themselves specifically empowered to and responsible for attaining them. But there are vast stretches of the globe populated by cultures with ancient traditions of viewing the “people” as collectives in service to an unquestioned patriarchic authority. The individuals in societies like this see themselves less as discrete entities charting their own paths through life than as interconnected elements of a whole in which they are fully bound, with respect to virtually every aspect of their lives.

Can people from cultures which view individuality as fundamentally meaningful only in its connection with a family, clan, or larger community participate in furthering the American experiment alongside those who see individuality as intrinsically meaningful in and of itself?

Think of it this way: people from (and, generally, living traditionally in the homelands of) collectivist cultures often implicitly, unconsciously perceive themselves as involuntary emanations of the group. People from individualistic cultures tend to think of the group as a voluntary creation of wholly independent individuals who conceive of and choose to build the group. It is in this latter sense, it is worth noting, that the “people” were envisioned in our founding documents.

The question quickly becomes, then, given such differences at the starting point, should we aim for assimilation, or for European-style “diversity” (and it should be frankly acknowledged how much that latter phenomenon tends to express itself as ghettoization)? Can we rely on the continuation of our historical experience of assimilation triumphing over the generations in immigrant populations at great distances from their origins? With that latter point in mind, does the proximity of our Hispanic immigrants to their lands of origin refute, extend, or have no unique effect on this process? Does anything suggested by such questions offer any challenges to our culture that it hasn’t confronted and dealt with before?

And, as long as we’re on that subject, what, actually, does assimilation mean? We clearly don’t live in the culture that obtained at our founding. But we nevertheless retain our sense of uniqueness, exceptionalism, and, largely, of our responsibility for our own destiny – that is, of our sovereignty. What, about our society, has changed, then? And how has it done so while maintaining the vital, core element of the American identity? Is it the natural evolution of our ideas and culture? Is it the introduction to and enrichment of it by the ideas and approaches to life of immigrant populations from other cultures? How is it that we – however else we change – retain this fundamental aspect of our national character: that the individual is the sovereign?

It is often said that democracy is no way to run a railroad. It is messy and inefficient, it is argued. But the alternative is one or another degree of despotism. And we aren’t having that, are we? Similarly, we have argued over the generations who the “people” are that have the sovereignty and enjoy the right and responsibility of exercising it. White, male, property owners – or all of us? Natural inheritors of the cultural and historical tradition that gave rise to the revolutionary concepts upon which our nation is built – or assimilators of those concepts who inevitably enrich while internalizing them?

There is an old Marine Corps admonishment about military bearing and presence. If someone accused you of being a Marine, it challenges ironically, would you be found guilty? If you travel around the world you will see people of wondrously diverse national and ethnic origins. But I’ve noticed something in my own travels: for all the lack of national or ethnic cues, you can nevertheless, with surprising but satisfying frequency and accuracy, identify the Americans. It’s an ineffable element of their carriage, their attitude, their approach to everything – it’s in the quietly implicit awareness that they are – innately and with an unstated intimacy with the fact – sovereign.

If it can be so easy to be sure of our profound Americanness overseas, we ought to be confident of it at home, as well.