Greg Grandin’s Frontier Thesis and the Systems View

grandin end of the myth coverIn a terrific essay in The Nation, Yale historian Greg Grandin weaves current controversy over the New York Times’ 1619 Project into pointed restatements of his argument in The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, his 2019 book recently published in paperback.

Historians who’ve criticized the 1619 Project point to unsubstantiated claims and an over-reading of the role of slavery and anti-slavery activism in the construction of American political freedom, especially during the Revolutionary period. Grandin writes largely in support of the 1619 Project and without directly disputing the specific criticisms. Yet he also implies, in agreement with critics, that the Project’s argument is too narrow.

Slavery alone didn’t deliver the material prosperity upon which American political freedom was founded, and the concept of enslavement alone didn’t define for white Americans what freedom was. In Grandin’s view, the genocidal destruction of indigenous Americans and the dispossession of their lands through continuous western expansion prepared the ground for slavery.  With expansion and dispossession, slavery expanded; the two worked in lockstep. Both constitute “the country’s founding paradox: the promise of political freedom and the reality of racial subjugation” (138).

The procedure Grandin describes is not unfamiliar. Settlers invaded Indian land, triggering hostilities; federal troops were then sent to vindicate the settlers’ freedom to invade. “This dynamic,” he writes, “in which danger caused by the United States going over the line pulled the U.S. over the land, was repeated over and over” (66-67). It was during the Jacksonian era, however–the period of Indian Removal and the Second Middle Passage–when the expansion-slavery nexus crystalized and generated a lasting politics. Grandin calls it the Jacksonian political coalition: “minimal state, the racialization of any welfare-providing bureaucracies, the sanctity of property rights, individualism, and a definition of freedom as freedom from restraint” (106).

After its defeat in the Civil War, this politics rose again at the turn of the century, when the concept of the border was extended to Cuba, Latin America, and the Philippines. Military actions overseas allowed the sons of the rebels to be reconciled, to fight again for a racialized freedom from restraint gussied up in high political ideals. As with Indian Removal, these aggressions planted seeds of hatred, guilt, and trauma that came to harvest domestically as racist extremism, only to be vented again, in the next expeditionary adventure. The process was sustained by the dual meaning of the frontier myth: it was, on the one hand, a space of ideological revitalization, and on the other, a space where freedom from restraint could be carried out in its purest form: in a practice of racialized brutality.

Americans were inevitably forced to face limits when their adventures failed, but such periods of confrontation were typically short-lived. After the sobering disaster of Vietnam, for example, Americans again sought escape in Reagan’s restoration of “weightlessness, limitlessness, and deathlessness” as national virtues (217). Again the pattern repeated itself. “Conflicts that seemed irresolvable in the here and now,” Grandin writes in his The Nation essay, were perceived to be “resolvable in the there and then: there beyond the line of settlement.” Grandin describes this dynamic as a “great evasion.”

It’s all over now, though, he contends. The meaning of Trump’s border wall is that “expansion, in any form, can no longer satisfy the interests, reconcile [or evade] the contradictions, dilute the factions, or redirect the anger.” The myth of limitless expansion has ended, extremism has turned inward, and conflict, with no other outlet, is left to “whip around the homeland” (7-8).

There are a few kinks in the argument that I’ve yet to work out. “Make America Great Again” was designed as a general repudiation of Obama but also an explicit repudiation of Obama’s realism concerning the Unites States’ place in the world. In Grandin’s construction, the end of the myth is the end of American Exceptionalism, and if he is correct in regard to the meaning of the wall, there has been no greater anti-exceptionalist than Trump. Yet Trump continues to speak the language of limitlessness. Perhaps it’s that this language has dropped all pretense of political idealism. Entitlement and strong-arm tactics no longer require any gussying up. What we’re seeing now, across many fronts, is a resurgence of the Jackson coalition, supported by widespread denial and evasion.

Grandin describes the contradiction/evasion dynamic in numerous ways in his essay and in his book. It’s an attempt to “square the circle” (35, 237), “a devil’s bargain.” It’s a “violent cycle,” an “addictive cycle” that “simultaneously hastened and stemmed crisis” (67, 83). The dynamic worked as “both a valve and a throttle, with each conflict simultaneously venting the hatreds produced by the last while creating the conditions for the next” (98). To someone who wrote a book about Gregory Bateson’s double bind concept and the rise of the systems view, these descriptions resonated.

For a contradiction to become a double bind, for a double bind to become pathological, the silencing of information is necessary. Certain things must not be recognized or said. Certain realities must be evaded. The result is that common-sense efforts to solve the problems at hand serve rather to reinforce the problematic conditions. Grandin’s summing up of what he sees as US History’s central dynamic has the sound of a double bind: “Expansion became the answer to every question, the solution to all problems, especially those caused by expansion” (30).

Even more resonant was how the pattern Grandin describes mirrors that described by the postgrowth/degrowth movements I’ve written about several times here and elsewhere. Growth’s imperative transcends both planned and free-market economics. It transcends both Keynesian and supply-side methods of stimulation. According to the growth paradigm, without constant growth, goods will become scarce, and society will become ungovernable on principles of equity and justice. The health of the body politic is viable only as the body metabolic accelerates.

As with Grandin’s expansion dynamic, the venting of social ills is part of the growth equation. As growth undermines social and ecological foundation, growth becomes the answer to every question, the solution to all problems, especially those caused by growth. Whether territorial or metabolic, the relations described here are not linear but recursive. These are loops that reinforce themselves.

In other instances, Grandin’s reasoning displays the influence of the ecological imagination, an imagination steeped in, if not synonymous with, the systems view. In one passage Grandin is discussing the cultural meaning of borders, emphasizing how they are imposed upon space by power. Borders, he writes,

represent the absurdity of human efforts to force the concrete to conform to the abstract … But they also announce the panic of power, something that overcomes a political state similar to the way dread comes over an individual with the realization that their psyche isn’t theirs to control alone, that it is formed in reaction to others.

Bateson described this “panic” as akin to the feeling that you have when the car you’re driving gives way to the ice on the road, and the technologies of brakes, steering, and gas pedal suddenly fail to cohere. The point is that Grandin’s passage is premised on a certain framing of the human condition: because we exist inside the living world and are dependent upon it, intentions and results do not necessarily align, and we suffer, psychologically and socially, as a result. The logic of the passage relies, too, on qualitative resemblances. Individual systems are “like” social systems, the former nested within the latter but operating in formally similar ways.

In another passage, Grandin contemplates his theme: the historical centrality of expansion. “What kind of republic was the United States of America,” he asks,

that its national border didn’t just move occasionally, in response to episodic war or diplomacy, but constitutively as a quality of its being? What, exactly, lay on the other side of that moving border? And what happens to a nation when that line stops moving? These questions didn’t haunt the United States. They animated it, giving life to its history as an exceptional nation. (31)

Explicit in these sentences is that ideas give life to history. Implicit in them is the notion that ideas and matter are knitted together.

Describing the subjective experience of subduing and removing tribal people–in this case, the “recalcitrant” Seminoles in Florida–Grandin quotes from an anonymous artillery officer writing in a Charleston newspaper in 1838:

He and his fellow soldiers had driven [the Seminoles] “into the swamps and unwholesome places of their country,” where they clung “with the last efforts of despair to their beloved homes.” He reminded readers that “equilibrium” is a moral as well as a physical concept and that “retribution will inevitably follow dereliction.” (60)  

A moral as well as a physical concept. These words flash on the essence of the ecological imagination. It isn’t merely that “everything is connected to everything else,” in Barry Commoner’s iconic phrase. It’s also that everything immaterial is connected to everything material, that the moral is connected to the physical, and that our prevailing imaginaries, our politics and our sciences, are blind to or reject those relations. This evasion is necessary for all justifications for limitless expansion, whether metabolic or territorial.

In both his book and essay, Grandin gives a prominent role to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Vietnam speech of April 1967. It was a speech few wanted King to make, a speech for which he was widely condemned, but one he insisted on making anyway—the opposite of evasion. In this speech, King saw the US involvement in Vietnam as a consequence and instance of the nation’s inability to conquer its “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

It may be said that liberals and the left have still not recovered from that speech, or anyway from what its times represented: the enervation and fragmentation of the politics that had contained the old Jackson coalition. The Roosevelt coalition, the Liberal Consensus–call it what you will–had been more rational, more humane, more democratic, more inclusive. But it had neither broken with the founding idea that, as Grandin puts it, “expansion was necessary to achieve social progress” (205), nor had it ceased to function according to the double-binding contradictions of that idea.

A new ecological coalition, if one is possible for a society with habits so deeply sunk, will need to be based on that insight.

A version of this essay appears at the Society for US Intellectual History blog