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kottke.org posts about Rebecca Onion

The Persistent Myth of the Empty American Frontier

posted by Jason Kottke   May 14, 2019

The author and popular historian David McCullough has a new book out called The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. I don’t really know where to start with that title (heroic? ideal?) but in her Slate review, Rebecca Onion says that McCullough’s brand of Manifest Destiny-laden American history furthers “the lie that the ‘frontier’ was an empty Eden waiting for American expansion”.

This poem embodies another “pioneer attitude” — the idea that the land was prehistoric, suspended in stasis, before the arrival of white people, and needed to be properly brought into production by the kind of work only “stalwart” settlers could do. This idea, repeated over centuries, aided Manifest Destiny, even as Native settlements like the Miami town of Kekionga boasted cornfields, gardens, and cattle herds. McCullough is approvingly repeating one of the founding myths that justified stealing land from Native tribes — and it doesn’t seem like he even knows it.

Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin agrees in a NY Times book review:

And whatever praise Manasseh Cutler and his supporters might deserve, their designated Eden had an original sin: dispossession of the region’s native inhabitants — paradise lost, indeed. McCullough plays down the violence that displaced the Indians, including the actual Ohio people. He adopts settlers’ prejudiced language about “savages” and “wilderness,” words that denied Indians’ humanity and active use of their land. He also states that the Ohio Territory was “unsettled.” No, it had people in it, as he slightly admits in a paragraph on how the Indians “considered” the land to be theirs. That paragraph begins, however, with a description of the Northwest Territory as “teeming with wolves, bears, wild boars, panthers, rattlesnakes and the even more deadly copperheads,” as if the native people were comparably wild and venomous, to be hunted down, beaten back, exterminated.

The US far right’s game plan? A suppression of the majority.

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2017

Rebecca Onion recently interviewed Nancy MacLean, who has written a book about economist James McGill Buchanan, whose work MacLean believes is the origin of the ideas & strategy of the far right in America (most notably represented by the Koch brothers). As told by MacLean in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, the goal of this coalition is to switch the US to a “totally new vision of society and government, that’s different from anything that exists anywhere in the world”.

When the Supreme Court decided, in the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Tennessee-born economist James McGill Buchanan was horrified. Over the course of the next few decades, the libertarian thinker found comfortable homes at a series of research universities and spent his time articulating a new grand vision of American society, a country in which government would be close to nonexistent, and would have no obligation to provide education-or health care, or old-age support, or food, or housing-to anyone.

This radical vision has become the playbook for a network of people looking to override democracy in order to shift more money to the wealthiest few.

I suspect MacLean’s argument is much more fleshed out in her book than in the interview and criticisms are easy to find (although I don’t know how ideologically motivated they are), but what she says could explain what’s happening in our government right now. As I wrote back in December:

More than anything for me, this is the story of politics in America right now: a shrinking and increasingly extremist underdog party has punched above its weight over the past few election cycles by methodically exploiting the weaknesses in our current political system. Gerrymandering, voter suppression, the passing of voter ID laws, and spreading propaganda via conservative and social media channels has led to disproportionate Republican representation in many areas of the country which they then use to gerrymander and pass more restrictive voter ID laws.

In the interview, McLean says that Buchanan advised Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on the structure of his country’s constitution:

This document was later called a “constitution of locks and bolts,” [and was designed] to make it so that the majority couldn’t make its will felt in the political system, unless it was a huge supermajority.

That feels like where we’re heading in this country right now. Perhaps slowly and perhaps it won’t come to that, but it’s difficult to escape the conclusion these days that Republicans (or at least the ascendant far right arm of the party) want anything less than to rule the US no matter what the majority of its citizens might want.