In a previous post (On Radicalism, “Civil Disobedience”, and the “Anti-Lockdown” Protesters), I mentioned my old history professor, William Appleman Williams. Williams was a member of “antifa” (that is, a decorated executive officer in the US Pacific fleet during WWII). I believe he also marched with MLK and was targeted by Senator Joe McCarthy’s “House Committee on Un-American Activities.” He was also an early critic of the War in Vietnam. In my earlier post I mentioned a book he wrote called “The Great Evasion” (Quadrangle, 1964).
In that long essay, he gave an incisive analysis of American history. My old copy resurfaced lately from one of my untidy piles of books. I thought I would re-read it, and try to summarize his argument, but I found the first two pages so arresting I thought I would just make a few quotes with minimal commentary. He is a much better writer than I will ever be.
Williams describes the current American dilemma in his opening lines:
“America’s great evasion lies in its manipulation of nature to avoid a confrontation with the human condition and with the challenge of building a true community.”
He goes on to discuss how the influential historian Frederick Jackson Turner described the frontier as a “a gate of escape from the bondage of the past.” Others used the term “safety valve.” It is an odd expression, unless you view the proximity of neighbors as an explosive danger. Williams argues that we used the frontier to evade “the demands of living closely and responsibly and creatively with other human beings.” In the frontier “nature offered, and Americans seized, a way of becoming a world unto themselves.” Williams also notes that the frontier represented a “cast of mind as well as a stretch of open territory.”
The frontier allowed us to indulge all our worst instincts. After the epidemics we brought with us (measles, small pox, etc.) decimated the native population, they were easy to steal from. It was easier to steal new land than to take proper care of what you already had. We ruthlessly exploited the land itself: we slaughtered the buffalo by the millions, replaced them with cattle, over-grazed the land, created dustbowls and strip mines, and went on to fish out the salmon and so on. At the same time, we learned to view groups of people that we deemed “others” as fair game for exploitation as well. Whether they were the natives that came before us, the slaves we brought with us, or the various groups of immigrants who came after, they were all fair game. And this attitude included women as well. You need only to look at who had the right to vote in the early American republic—privileged white men with property. That was it.
In all this, the idea of real community was lost: the people around you were no longer really viewed as neighbors or fellow citizens, but merely a market to be exploited. At the bottom of this swamp was capitalism itself and the huge inequality in how it distributes wealth and power. The rich always get richer and the poor always get poorer because of a fairly simple fact—unregulated capitalism tends towards monopoly, which constantly concentrates wealth in the hands of an ever-decreasing number of the super-rich.
Perhaps the worst thing about this was that it created and elevated a certain mind set. Our ruthless behavior created a huge amount of wealth and power and, to make ourselves feel justified, we attributed this to a superior “American Character.”
This is what Williams means by Americans “becoming a world unto themselves,” an attitude exemplified by the term so many people celebrate as “American Exceptionalism.” It is in fact, an inflated ethnocentrism that leads to the notion that we are “a chosen people.”
Although Williams goes on at this point to take a deep dive into the challenges raised by Marxism and the ways in which we have evaded addressing them, his main historical interest, was in American foreign policy. He takes his basic analysis of the frontier mentality and applies it to studies of how it was translated into a foreign policy filled with foreign wars, interventions, and regime change. It was no mere coincidence that when the open frontier ended in the 1890’s we immediately began (with the Spanish-American War) to acquire an overseas empire.
I think Williams, in just a page, has identified most of the problems that beset our country today: climate and the environment, race relations, wealth and power inequality, a misguided foreign policy, and our failure to build truly sustainable communities. If you want to follow William’s analysis, you can read his book yourself. It will be rewarding. I would, however, like to take a quite different tack and discuss very briefly what it might take to actually come to terms with how to at least begin to create true community.
I rarely dip into scripture, but I will make an exception here. I am sure that most people are familiar with the biblical story of the “loaves and fishes.” In this story, Christ feeds a multitude with a few loaves of bread and a few fish. It is a miracle. Everyone gets all they can eat and there is still food on the table when they are done! No explanation is given. It is “supernatural” –pure MAGIC!
Unfortunately, we are not a people who really believe in magic anymore. It is hard to do magic if people don’t believe in it. There is, however, a magic of a different kind that is still within everyone’s reach. The Islamic tradition has a story which recounts a similar “miracle” and, in regard to what America has to do to finally create a real sense of community, it is worth retelling.
The story goes like this: Two tribes are at war and both want it to end. They call in a third party to negotiate. This is the prophet Mohamed, who has a reputation for being just and fair and wise—like a King Solomon. Mohammed has arrived with some followers and everyone is sitting in a circle. Arabic traditions of hospitality require the sharing of food, but they are all on very slim rations. In fact, there is only a bag of dates—not nearly enough to go around. So, they pass the bag around and as each person in turn realizes how few dates there are, he knows there will not be nearly enough to go around. So, each person pretends to take a date and eat it. When the bag has made the circle it still has as many dates as when it started.
What I really love about this story is that there is nothing supernatural involved, but there is still a kind of magic. And it is the kind of magic we are all capable of doing. It involves thinking about your neighbors and their needs, making some small sacrifices, and above all, just using good manners. In the end everyone goes away satisfied, the tribes are at peace, and everyone feel good about themselves because they contributed by making a sacrifice for others. No one really got anything to eat, but they all went away satisfied. A lesson in the idea that ‘less is more.’ That is something most of the world’s great prophets believed…
When I look around today and hear and see all the people who won’t simply wear a small mask, or keep their distance for the good of others, I really could weep. I lived overseas a long time, and for all of America’s faults, people still saw in the US something to be admired—maybe even emulated. I very much doubt that many people anywhere look at what is going on with our country and feel any of that anymore. Perhaps even more tragically, we are doing worse at coping with the pandemic than almost every other country in the world—and yet we still think our ways are best.
Let me go back to Williams’ critique of our “great evasion.” There is a song by “The Eagles” called “the Last Resort” It encapsulates the American frontier experience and towards the end, there are these telling lines:
“There is no new frontier
We have got to learn to make it here…”
We are at a point where climate change, the pandemic, racism, selfishness and political division are forcing our heads down and making us take a long look (and smell) at the mess we have made. We can only hope we can learn something from it.