The Discomfort of Thought

Dear Cato,

Thank you for your clear exposition on the American frontier as the defining myth in the USA. I suspect we may well agree on a couple of further current myths; one perpetrated on your side of the pond that says you should “Make America Great Again” is, I suggest, almost a mirror image of the other over here in the United Kingdom that we should “Take Back Control”.

You will forgive me if I leave you to an analysis of the MAGA soundbite and focus myself instead on some of the intellectually lazy and questionable apothegms currently doing the rounds in the three ring circus that represents electioneering activity here in the UK.
Of course, one cannot separate debate about Brexit from the general menu of competing promises offered by the main political parties, hence any argument on any topic seems inevitably to return to the dreaded `B` word !

But to the myth itself. Taking Back Control, or it`s single word equivalent – and conveniently vague cousin – `Sovereignty`. This was always only a thin veil draped inadequately over the blowsy realities of globalisation and inter dependence. Sovereignty might carry faint echoes of the Empire on which “the sun never sets” and stir some kind of drumbeat patriotism among those disaffected sections of our population who are only to ready to lay blame for the country`s ills at the feet of “Johnny Foreigner” but that was then. The far more distasteful contemporary manifestation of that bigoted viewpoint is far less nuanced, not to say overtly racist. Hence the fake news posters put out by the Brexit party before the 2016 referendum showing queues of mostly non-white refugees crossing the Croatia/Slovenia border in 2015 but purporting to represent the unrestricted influx of immigrants from the EU into the UK.

The Tories over here are not immune to using the race card either with promises that Health Service waiting lists will be miraculously cured if only those pesky immigrants can be prevented from taking up `our` medical resources. Of course, the inconvenient fact that the NHS would collapse if all `immigrants` currently working in it and for it were to leave seems to have escaped such critics.

Of course, this is the besetting problem of fake news on all sides. It has completely debased the hard currency of factual information and that, my friend, is the real danger. `Taking Back Control` is perhaps the ultimate shibboleth. As far as the man in the street is concerned, the reality should be that Parliament still makes its own laws, pursues justice through its own courts, grows curly cucumbers, whether or not approved by Brussels, and otherwise exists on a daily basis in pretty much complete ignorance of the EU and its machinations. However, if we are told untruths often enough, as the 2016 Presidential Election and the Brexit referendum has shown us, then those who would shape political discourse for their own ends will succeed in reaffirming the views of those who are only too happy to be confirmed in their particular – and jaundiced – point of view.

Remember that quote from JFK ? Here it is in its entirety and I do believe it says it all.

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”

Wish us luck on December 12th. Until the next time,



Across the Pond

My Dear Plato:
Allow me to begin by informing our readers of my actual age; would that I were 76, but alas the truth is that I’m actually 79. I trust that this disclosure will not negatively determine how my thoughts are received. Senility may indeed be closing in, but as of now it remains but a possibility as I journey towards the inevitable.

I confess great pleasure at your gracious invitation to be a part of this experiment in mutual understanding between our two great nations: we whose common language and historical roots should make us culturally quite similar, though of course nothing could be further from the truth. We who in a former time were described by you folks as “over payed, over sexed, and over here” have long since developed into an altogether different sort of creature: a “new man” as it were: an American, with all of the vices and virtues adhering thereto, and which are daily displayed through global media for all the world to see and ponder.

One must ask the obvious question: what were the causes of this transformation, and why do they continue to exert such influence even though the original realities from which they sprang no longer exist? In seeking an answer, my dear Plato, it is well for us to remember that oft-repeated observation that, whereas for those of the “Old World” it is “Time” (or “History” if you prefer) which is the primary myth of social identity, here in the “New” it is the concept of “Space” which is the determining factor.

Until the treaty which brought the Revolutionary War (or War of Rebellion if you prefer) to a close, the thirteen original colonies were confined to a rather narrow strip along the Atlantic Coast and west to the Allegheny Mountains. But with Adam’s threat of further conflict if demands were not met, Britain reluctantly conceded the land to the northwest commonly referred to as “Ohio” all the way to the Mississippi River.

This land had originally been set aside for Native Americans by your good King George the Third, but even prior to the Revolution, George Washington and a number of other Founding Fathers had already laid claim to vast acreage of this “unsettled territory;” unsettled that is, by good white yeoman of Anglo-Saxon stock; and thus the concept of “frontier” came into being; a progressive movement westward across the continent which would not end until the close of the nineteenth century.

This mythic movement was a determining factor in how Americans view themselves and the world around them. On the more positive side, the frontier offered new beginnings for those in the grip of failure and frustration, thus instilling a sense of optimism and the idea that here, unlike the Old World, the individual could progress far beyond the limitations of background if determined to do so. What one did became the measure of a man rather than the social class into which one was born. Self-reliance, risk taking, and hard work: these were the virtues which the frontier instilled in the American psyche, and which even today inform how we like to think of ourselves.

But there were negative ramifications to the frontier as well, the primary one being that frontier land was already occupied by those whose culture was quite different from that of the so-called “Pioneers.” Further, it was assumed that the differences were such as to preclude any genuine and lasting co-existence. Thus there were only two options: assimilation on the part of Native Americans into the predominant White culture, or removal by force into more remote land to the West.

The former, though adopted by some tribes, was never truly given a chance as President Jackson’s policy towards the Cherokees made clear. The latter led to unending conflict which cleared ever-new land for settlement and culminated in the establishment of reservations into which the surviving native population was forced to enter. They remain to this day. To so relate to others, the “others” must not only be thought of as different, but also as “less,” and therefore fear induced racism became a fundamental aspect of the frontier, a racism aimed not only at Native Americans, but which also included Mexicans in the Southwest, and Blacks whose owners sought out new land upon which to work their slaves.

Racism, of course, is not unique to America, but its presence is ubiquitous in forming attitudes towards any whose “otherness” is determined to be a threat, be they from Africa, Asia, South America, or wherever. Other negative ramifications of the frontier include such matters as a propensity towards violence which views the military as the primary mover in international relations, a focus on gun ownership which your fair land (along with most others) finds to be totally incomprehensible, and a distrust of authority which in any manner may impinge upon “rights,” especially if that impingement comes from the Federal Government.

I believe it to be not too simplistic, my dear Plato, to say that the frontier was the determining reality in American self-understanding. But the myth of the frontier is just that: a myth. It no longer exists, though a number of efforts have been made to re-define it in other ways such as the “frontier” of global business, or the “frontier”of science and space, or even in the naming of a truck model as a “Frontier.”

But none of these efforts are sufficient to inform national identity, and thus the present crisis in this country concerning who we are, what are our values, and where should we go in the future. The frontier in terms of land has been gone for over a hundred years, yet it has not been replaced by any other formative myth. And so we flounder as can be clearly seen in our present political and cultural divisions which do not bode well for our Republic. As for the future, the “jury is still out,” as they say. I hope that when they return, the verdict will be a positive one.
With fondest regards to you and our readers,