Frontier No More

February 8, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Posted in US History,, war and violence | 6 Comments

The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. By Greg Grandin. 384 pp. Metropolitan Books. 2019.  $18.00.

Back in January, some members of my women’s community, the Grail, watched two episodes of PBS’s Frontline. Titled “America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump,” the investigation traces how the collapse of Obama’s promise of unity led to the Trump campaign and administration unleashing rage and polarization in the country. Like many Frontline productions, the documentary is well-made and informative.

Throughout the four-hour program, however, I kept thinking about how the focus on Obama and Trump left out a great deal of the history that led up to the current “great divide.” I was thinking about this because I was at the same time reading Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.

Grandin is an historian at NYU here in New York, and the author of several prize-winning books. In The End of Myth, he explores how the myth of the frontier—of an endless, expanding American territory, and then, endless economic riches, underpins the whole of US history.

Even before the Revolution, according to Grandin, the prospect of moving ever westward, and then globally, to expand an individual’s fortune, functioned as a safety valve for the class struggles of an increasingly industrialized world. A primary cause of the Revolution was King George III’s order that the British colonies extend no farther than the Appalachian range. The king had given the land west of the Appalachians to the indigenous tribes that had fought with the British in the French and Indian War ((1754 to 1763). George Washington sent men to appropriate this land, long before the British tea tax.

But the strongly racist dimensions of the American belief in unlimited borders became clearer during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who drove Indigenous people west on the Trail of Tears and used language that makes Trump sound moderate. At one point, he bragged about collecting Indian skulls as trophies.

The Mexican-American War (1846-48) was fought during the same period that the working classes in Europe were rising up against the ruling classes in the liberal revolutions. But for the United States, any such class dissatisfaction was projected out onto the Mexicans, who were vilified in language that would sound very familiar today. We eventually stole more than half the territory of Mexico and extended the endless frontier to the Pacific coast. In the early 1890s, the Harvard historian Frederic Jackson Turner wrote about the wonderful “myth of the American frontier” without any mention of the racist undercurrents of that myth.

But it was the Spanish American War of 1898 that established the template for the new economic frontier of the 20th century. The ten-week war, won by US naval strength, gave the US permanent control over Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and shorter-term control over Cuba. This was the next phase of American imperial expansion.

Equally to the point, the Spanish-American War provided a safety valve for the hostilities between North and South generated by the Civil War. Former Union and Confederate soldiers fought side by side and former Confederate generals led some of the attacks. Subsequently, the Confederate flag began to be carried in parades in the US, a sign of American unity. For Grandin, this appropriation of land in the Caribbean and the Pacific led to the globalization of the American frontier, leading to US domination of global markets after World War II..

By the end of the century, this class-and-race-charged US penetration of the global economic frontier had also come to an end, leading to the 2008-2009 recession and the rise of Donald Trump. And this is perhaps the heart of Grandin’s analysis: Trump’s invocation of the border, and renewed demonization of the same brown-skinned people exploited by Washington and Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt is symbolized by the border, and the wall there that Trump demands. This border, Grandin explains, is the reversal of the endless frontier that served as a safety valve for American conflicts throughout history.

So the divisions generated by attacks on and resistance to the Obama presidency, followed by the rise of DJT, are an important chapter in the history of American division, but they are by no means the only, or the first chapter. To understand the entire story, try reading Grandin’s splendid documentation of the evolution of the myth of the frontier into the metaphorical shrine that is the current US border wall.


This review appeared in the February 2020 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.

Storming the Wall

May 11, 2019 at 10:47 am | Posted in Capitalism, Climate Change, Environment, guns, US History, | 1 Comment

You may be beginning to think that all I do is review books, and you would be close to right. Here’s my review of Todd Miller’s book Storming the Wall, which appeared in April in the US Grail‘s monthly publication, Gumbo.

Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, by Todd Miller. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017. Paperback. 240 pp. $11.86. (First chapter available on-line.)

Given the US government shutdown several months ago over money for a wall along the US Mexican border, and Donald Trump’s increased demand for such a wall in his next budget, we might be tempted to conclude that building one such wall is a very big deal.

The truth is, as Todd Miller explains in Storming the Wall, the US government, and governments around the world, have been building many walls, and spending stupendous amounts of money for border enforcement and protection, for some time now. When he came into office, Trump had at his disposal 60,000 Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) agents, making it the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country at the time, and the 2017 border and immigration enforcement budget was $20 billion. And this doesn’t take into account the collaborative arrangements between local law enforcement agencies with ICE and CPB that deputize local police officers as immigration agents all over the country. In addition, since 2003, the US has added over 650 miles of walls and barriers along the US Mexico divide and has poured billions into advanced technology to enforce the border. And the US is by no means the only wall builder and border enforcer: there are now at least 70 border walls around the globe.

At the heart of this intensification of border militarization and refugee exclusion is the climate crisis. Some experts go so far as to predict that there will be a billion climate refugees by the year 2050.  And even now, many of the refugees pouring across borders are at bottom climate refugees, since the violence in the countries they are fleeing is often provoked by environmental crisis—the 2006 to 2010 drought in Syria, for example, is a major cause of the conflict  there, though it is rarely mentioned as such, while the rise of Boko Haram is directly linked to water scarcity in Nigeria. Yet the international community is so ill prepared for this growing crisis that climate refugees have absolutely no human rights status in international law, as, for example, war refugees do.

In Storming the Wall, Miller does an excellent job of laying out the parameters of the growing militarization of borders around the world in light of the climate crisis. But his argument is by no means limited to facts and figures. Rather, he empowers his argument with stories of families torn apart by border militarism. One of the most galvanizing is that of the assassination of an environmental protestor in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. But, Miller warns us, we as citizens of powerful northern nations ought not to assume that we are immune from such climate refugee exclusion: authorities set up checkpoints along the California border to keep out US citizens fleeing the US Dustbowl crisis in the 1930s because they were assumed to be lazy vagrants, unable to support themselves. Remind you of anything?

Ultimately, Miller forces readers to face up to the fact that governments—particularly the US government under Trump as well as his predecessors—have chosen to “adapt” to the impacts of climate change through militarized counter-terrorism actions rather than by taking steps to reverse climate change. Trump’s removal of the US from the Paris climate accord even as he demands more border security is only one example of this form of “adaptation.”

Storming the Wall is a not entirely without hope, however. Miller concludes it with a chapter documenting the ways in which grassroots groups around the world are coming together and demanding change— “storming the walls” that governments are putting up instead of taking the strong measures needed to reverse the climate catastrophe. From that point of view, we can say that the young people on strike with Greta Thunberg around the world and in the Sunrise Movement are “storming the wall.” We need to get out there and join them.


The Gun is Our God

April 20, 2018 at 12:28 pm | Posted in colonization,, guns, US History,, war and violence | 3 Comments
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The following is a review that appears in the current issue of Kerux, the newsletter of Pax Christi Metro New York, the New York chapter of the international Catholic peace association.


Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. City Lights Books, 2018. 208 pp. $16.95.

To say that we have been hearing a lot lately about guns in the US, and about the Second Amendment to the Constitution, is to vastly understate the case. And the activism of the Parkland shooting survivors might even cause us to feel hopeful about US gun policy. Indeed, former SCOTUS Justice John Paul Stephens has recently called for the repeal of the Second Amendment!!

In Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz provides timely–and stunning–context for this conversation. Drawing on her expertise in the history of indigenous peoples and American history overall, Dunbar-Ortiz shows that the current gun crisis is actually about the identity of our country from its very roots. Changing it thus requires a good deal more than the repeal of the Second Amendment.

To begin with, Dunbar-Ortiz traces our “gun culture” back well beyond the writing of the US Constitution, to the “covenant ideology” of the earliest Puritan settlers. These settlers believed that since God had bequeathed the land to them, the massacring (with guns) of the indigenous people on that land was justified. Catholics might be tempted to a certain self-righteousness here since the author links these actions to the settlers’ Calvinist exceptionalist theology.  As the book proceeds, however, it becomes clear that a huge percentage of all white Americans eventually buy into this gun-powered exceptionalism. Dunbar-Ortiz also explains that the American Revolution was fought, in large part, because the British government had forbidden the settlers to cross the Appalachians to seize even more indigenous land, with the much-hated “Stamp Tax” used, in fact, to fund the British protection of those lands from settler appropriation.

The militias cited in the Second Amendment actually existed long before the Revolution, with male settlers forced to form a civilian militia to destroy indigenous villages and people during “King Philip’s War” in New England, 1675-78. In the South, these mandatory militias took the form of slave patrols to control enslaved Africans and kill those who resisted.  In each case, white male citizens were not merely entitled to own guns but were required to do so by law to protect and extend the profit-driven ownership of land and “chattel.” After the Civil War, slave patrol members—who had served in the Confederate Army in many cases–morphed into heroic cowboys like Daniel Boone and Jesse James. Romanticized in American fiction and later on television, these “cowboys“ had, in real life continued the historic American brutality against “the Indians” and slaves.

Absorbing as all this may be for those committed to peace-making, the final chapters of Loaded, in which Dunbar-Ortiz moves historic US gun culture into the present, prove to be even more galvanizing. For although the militias that murdered indigenous people and kept African-Americans enslaved were always supported, to some extent, by the military, the centrality of the military to that gun culture becomes ever more apparent throughout the twentieth century. From the US invasion and occupation of the Philippines, to Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, to JFK’s invocation of the (new) “frontier,” to US troops describing Vietnam as “Indian Territory,” metaphors of Indian defeat and extermination have underpinned American militarism. Is it any surprise, then, that even as we face this national crisis of gun violence, seven out of world’s ten largest gun-manufacturers are US corporations, and that since the war in Vietnam the US has disseminated over a billion guns world-wide?

Repealing the Second Amendment is of course, a good idea, as is passing the gun-control laws demanded by our young people. But since, in America, as Dunbar-Ortiz argues compellingly, “the Gun is God,” we need a whole lot more than that to change things. We need conversion.















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