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Monday, March 08, 2010

America's Lost Frontier

What has gone wrong with America? It's a question that many people are asking, but one approach is to look at what the present day America has lost. Its frontier. The frontier once defined America. It was the frontier that allowed English colonists to experiment with liberty. The march Westward, from the frontier settlements braving Indian raids to the Oregon trail, the Gold Rush and the Wild West, created a constant frontier for the country to rediscover what it means to be an American. The frontier kept America vital and as the frontier began to be lost, so did the spirit of America itself.

A civilization has two fundamental forces that define its nature. The Centralizing force and the Expansionistic force. The Centralizing force contracts the civilization inward into large and densely packed cities under a centralized government that is always growing larger and more complex. The Expansionistic force by contrast pushes outward into new frontiers that expand the size of the civilization and its sense of self.

The Centralizing force marks the maturity and decline of the civilization. The Expansionistic force represents its youthful vitality and energy. A civilization that can transition from the Centralizing to the Expansionistic has another shot at life. A civilization that has no more frontiers will begin to fossilize into a great centralized mass that becomes unwieldy, decadent and eventually falls.

Where the Centralizing phase is marked by rigid government control, taboo breaking and cultural sophistication, the Expansionistic phase is marked by little government control, strong taboos and an emphasis on religion over culture. The Expansionistic phase mixes together cultures, but in the Centralizing phase, the existing culture is slowly replaced through migration from colonies and less developed parts of the world, drawn to the sophistication and wealth on display there.

This does not only apply to America, it applies equally well to Europe, and to global cultures dating back thousands of years. From the fall of Rome and several Greek city states to the decline and fall of Israel in the Second Temple period, to several Chinese dynasties and even to some degree modern day Japan. A nation without frontiers, only foreign colonies, is a nation without a future. As excess wealth concentrates in a handful of urban centers, decadence and corruption become endemic. The mores and values of the culture begin to implode. Sophistication begins to center on taboo breaking. Taxes increase, the size of government grows to unwieldy levels and foreigners increasingly push out the natives. By the time the actual collapse takes place, the society has already been a shell of itself for centuries.

The important thing to understand is that these two forces help balance out a civilization. The Expansionistic force creates a check on the Centralizing force. If the Centralizing force attempts to impose too much centralization, the frontier rebels against it. That for example is how America was born. Because the Expansionistic force is to some degree a push against the Centralizing force, the energy from these counter-opposing forces keeps a civilization active and vital.

The Centralized civilization needs the frontier, because without that it instead begins to push at cultural frontiers, breaking taboos and destroying its own value system. The youth who might otherwise seek their fortune in wilder and untamed lands, instead become a disruptive social force at home. The frontier might make men and women out of them, but the static homeland and its increasingly centralized authoritarianism instead redirects their freedom seeking into political and social radicalism. Because free cultural energy will always be harnessed, a problem to which the frontier provides a solution.

Without the frontier, there is no check to the Centralizing force which begins the process of contracting the society in on itself. Government becomes both outsized and corrupt. Domestic turmoil increases as government expands. The traditions that created respect for the political and social institutions are wiped away by the cultural turmoil, which increases the probability of coups and violent takeovers. This process feeds on itself until all semblance of civility and law have been lost, submerged beneath the competing aims of struggling factions.

It is also natural, for the Centralizing force to often resent and seek to quash the Expansionistic force. The cultural differences lead the former to label the latter as ignorant backward prudes who are secretly scheming against the government, while the latter view the former as decadent authoritarians taxing them to fund their own corruption. In America, the usual label for this is Blue States vs Red States. In Israel, it's Haifa and Tel Aviv vs the Settlements. In historical Israel that same conflict inspired the story of Chanukah. In historical America, the Revolution.

In present day America, the gradual loss of the frontier, ended any real check on the Centralizing force. But it is incidentally telling that recent populist Republican Presidents like Roland Reagan and George W. Bush attempted to associate themselves with the cowboy culture and the frontier. And Sarah Palin, currently embodying the political spirit of Red State resistance comes from Alaska, the closest thing America still has to a frontier.

This goes all the way back to the start of the Republican party with Abraham Lincoln, billed as the quintessential frontier candidate, who ironically proved to be a centralizing figure instead. But as the Republican party has increasingly become the voice of opposition to the Centralizing force, at least on paper, its candidates and base of support have tended away from the centers of centralization. For the last 50 years, with the exception of the accidental Presidency of Gerald Ford, Republican Presidents have been West Coasters. And every Republican President in the last 78 years was either born or elected from California or Texas.

During that same period, with the exceptions of Bill Clinton and the accidental presidencies of Harry Truman and LBJ, Democratic Presidents have tended to be associated with centralized urban elites. Barack Obama is not the exception to the rule. He picks up on a pattern set by FDR and JFK. Both FDR and JFK attempted to use government centralization as a metaphor for the frontier. JFK did it literally with "The New Frontier". Of course there was no actual new frontier. What JFK meant was that government solutions were the New Frontier of mankind. This same rhetoric was exploited by Obama in his own run, with the addition of marketing his own rise to power as an act of taboo breaking that was appealing to a younger audience.

The Centralizing force is rooted in urban environments because it finds its own natural logic there. 10,000 people living in 1 mile need much more extensive government and can enjoy far fewer freedoms, than 100 people living in 1 mile. Population density breeds centralization. In turns centralization provides a network of services that increases population density. These services require a constant growth in personnel, which helps promote migration and population density. This is an example of how the Centralizing force acts to increase its own concentration, much as a black hole sucks matter inside it.

In the heavy urban environments where the Centralizing forces are based, interdependency seems perfectly natural. By contrast the Expansionistic force promotes independence and individualism, attitudes more typical of the frontier.

In a healthy civilization, the Centralizing force gives the Expansionistic force something to push against... and the Expansionistic force gives the Centralizing force new frontiers to manage and the imagination fuel to dream bigger dreams, instead of wallowing in its own cultural decadence. This Push and Pull process helped make America great, but the loss of a frontier has made the Centralizing force dominant in American government and culture.

And so the Centralizing force is creating a massive pile of government that cannot even afford to fund itself. The free cultural energy is being used to smash taboos, eliminating traditional values, while radicalizing politics. The pitched battle of Red States and Blue States is still weighed in many ways toward the Red States, because Americans are still more Main Street than Broadway, but given enough cultural influence and immigration that will change. As it has already changed dramatically over the last century.

America needs a new frontier. Not Kennedy's New Frontier of social justice, but a frontier where the Expansionistic force can redefine America again. Such frontiers are possible, some require technology, others imagination. But like most living things, America must grow or die. And while the Centralizing force offers a congealing cancerous growth in the middle, it is the Expansionistic force that America needs to revitalize itself once again.

17 comments:

yamit33 said...

You forgot the role of mostly European immigration that largely fueled American westward expansion.

Todays immigrants legal and illegal tend to be centered in Urban areas, creating enormous pressures for government expansion.

The immigrants of old came with similar cultural and religious values. Including a work ethic that matched American needs and challenges.

The immigrants of toady for the most part are of a different nature and are mostly self serving materialistic predators. They come to take but not to work and build.

Tolerant societies always on the cusp of social experimentation, always fail even though they are as a rule excellent economic performers.

Intolerant societies are more conservative and accept social and ideological changes usually after others have shown those reforms and changes beneficial and workable. They also tend to be poorer economic performers, but provide a safe and comfortable environment for their citizens.

The line between tolerance and weakness is too fine for a state to dance.

If Americas choices are between Tolerance(permissiveness) and intolerance. Or life and death as a nation my gut tells me they will choose Tolerance and death.

Mikec said...

I suspect that another outcome of centralization is the two tier system of the elite (those who have influence) and the rest (those who do not).

The 'haves' can then divide the loot (proceeds of corrupt taxation of the 'have nots') amongst themselves, spinning the laws and customs to line the pockets of their ilk in a never ending merry-go-round of quid pro quo spending, knowing that what goes around comes back around - a bit like a revolving door.

So we get 'Obamacare' and 'cap and trade' which are both designed to put public money into private (elite) hands....

redsneakz said...

This is almost saying that a healthy civilization defines itself by that which it isn't. Colonies do not make for a healthy society - viz. early 20th century Europe, so I'm not disagreeing with you by any means on that point. I'm just asking whether there always needs to be an acher, an other, to be conquered.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

There doesn't need to be an other to be conquered, there does need to be a direction to move away from civilization and toward a new frontier.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Mikec

yes that's the natural outcome of centralization, an official or unofficial court, accompanied by feudalism

DP111 said...

SK wrote Such frontiers are possible, some require technology, others imagination. But like most living things, America must grow or die.

Thats a challenge. If it requires technology, and the frontier America seeks is a physical one, then the possibilities are

1. Outer space and planetary settlement.

2. The Deep sea frontier.

OTH if we wish to still be on planet earth and on the surface, then America could try carving out an Empire. Greeks did it, Romans did it, and we British did it. Why not America?

The ME would be a good place.

1. The region has lots of oil

2. It is currently populated by a bunch of people who are in dire need of civilising or
being replaced, as the north American Indians were.

The ME is also a good place to start the development of technology that can be very useful in hot planets.

Overall, this would be a good idea. The total defeat of the Arab world, and its defining ideology. It will bring peace to the planet as well.

Lemon said...

The US and Britain should have carved up the world into empires long ago and saved everyone a lot of trouble.

Robert W. Franson said...

I like your final illustration being the starry sky over the ocean. I'm one of those who's always believed that the High Frontier in space is humanity's next and obvious direction.

It is not only saddening but dangerous that other nations are moving ahead where America led for so long.

Anonymous said...

I agree with DP111

yamit33 said...

DP111 said...

2. It is currently populated by a bunch of people who are in dire need of civilising or
being replaced, as the north American Indians were.

GENOCIDE!!! That's one method of civilizing. Never confuse technology with civilization. Values in the end are what defines us or at least should.


If you are a representative of what you call civilization, I side with those whom you wish to civilize.

You and all the empire builders in history have a lot in common.

Hitler and Stalin would have called you brother.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

I would say that the Arab Muslim ruled Middle East is not so much in need of civilizing, as in removing the power of the Arab Muslims over the entire region

But that is certainly not genocide. And specious comparisons to Hitler are both incorrect and inappropriate.

However I was not speaking of colonialism, which is a different thing than colonization. Colonization allows for a people to expand their horizons. Colonialism attempts to civilize another people, which usually ends with the colonialists either mixing in and degenerating, or departing.

One cannot reinvigorate a people in that way,

yamit33 said...

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

would say that the Arab Muslim ruled Middle East is not so much in need of civilizing, as in removing the power of the Arab Muslims over the entire region

But that is certainly not genocide. And specious comparisons to Hitler are both incorrect and inappropriate.


I was referring actually to the statement I quote below from DP111 re:

2. "It is currently populated by a bunch of people who are in dire need of civilising or
being replaced, as the north American Indians were".

Excuse me the Europeans came to another land , took it from the aboriginal inhabitants, and proceeded to use every method that was know to them in the elimination of that population.

Any knowledgeable reader here I am sure would concur with my description of Americans murder and subjugation of the Indian as genocide even though the concept did not exist in the 17-19th centuries.

The fact remains that the wholesale slaughter and murder of whole peoples and nations is by our modern definitions genocide .

Therefore I see nothing specious in calling a spade a spade.

At least the Hebrews had a Biblical mandate to eliminate the 7 Canaanite Nations , which they never succeeded in accomplishing and the white Europeans who had no Biblical mandate.

They came they saw, they conquered mostly out of arrogance and avarice. They had the numbers and the technological superiority to succeed. So they did wholesale.

Knish while I agree to some extent with your general postulate when it comes to defining exactly what your new vision or frontier needed to sustain American civilization, you fail IMO to reach definable conclusions as to what those new frontiers should be.

I have made a study of the American Indian over the past two years and If you would like to have an in depth discussion on that subject I would love to participate.

Specious argument?

I would compare Arabic culture more favorably than western culture in many spheres for instance, hospitality, family loyalty and obedience to their parents and extended family heads. The willingness to support and defend those family groupings. Respect for the elderly and criminal behavior mostly dealt with according to precepts of Tanach etc.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

There was no genocide. The European colonists played a role in the Indian wars against their own, such as the Iroquois Confederation which destroyed and conquered numerous native peoples. It's no different than the Norman Conquest.

Unlike the Spanish, the American colonists generally tried to co-exist with the Indian population, until the Iroquois Confederation chose to side with the British, and engage in terrorism against American settlers.

In the 19th century there were some ugly events that took place, but there was a larger context to them that's often overlooked, and American courts often took the Indian side.

yamit33 said...

Unlike the Spanish, the American colonists generally tried to co-exist with the Indian population, until the Iroquois Confederation chose to side with the British, and engage in terrorism against American settlers.



and: "American courts often took the Indian side".


Can you cite your sources for these statements?

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Did we see the wholesale enslavement of Indian populations by American colonists that we saw under the Spanish?

In the Cherokee Trail of Tears for example, the Supreme Court took the Indian side. Jackson illegally violated the law and wrongly exploited congressional authority to force them out.

This entire discussion is a tangent, but you might want to read up on how many tribes in the area of the colonies were assimilated or the destroyed by the Iroquois Confederacy, who behaved much as the European powers were accused of behaving.

Keli Ata said...

Most of this is over my head but the writing is so crisp and beautiful. Well done, Daniel:)

How you manage to do this everyday amazes me!

DP111 said...

Yammit33 erote
GENOCIDE!!! That's one method of civilizing. Never confuse technology with civilization. Values in the end are what defines us or at least should.

If you are a representative of what you call civilization, I side with those whom you wish to civilize.

You and all the empire builders in history have a lot in common.

Hitler and Stalin would have called you brother.

-------------------------------

Hitler and Stalin are dead, and their legacy with them.

Mohammed though still lives on, and his legacy has left a trail of genocide like no other tyrant before or after. Virtually all Muslim countries in the ME were forcibly converted to Islam at the point of a sword. None of the culture of Zoroastrians remain in Iran. Zoroastrians are probably a smaller minority then even the Jews.
Islam is not yet finished with this planet, and we are likely to see a lot of blood shed because of it. Like here

At least 500 women and children in Nigeria, were massacred last week, by Muslims.

From the Anglican Diocese of Jos

http://www.anglicandioceseofjos.org/dogo.html

This post by SK was a light-hearted one, and I responded to it in a quasi-lighthearted tone.

But as you have injected a serious note, with accusation of 'Hilter' and 'Stalin' coming in the invective, then

Considering the havoc that Islam has created in the ME making Hitler and Stalin look like beginners, why should it not be a matter of consideration to remove this ideology in a manner that it does no further harm? Note that your support for an in ideology that has been far more destructive then Hitler or Stalin, has not reduced me to name calling.

As for empires and empire building, the Islamic empire not just colonised the lands of non-Muslims but removed their cultures as well. The last vestiges of the Buddhist kingdom, the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, were blasted from the mountainside.

Not all empires are bad. Some are better then others, and some may be a definite improvement on the present situation. An American empire, though highly unlikely, as it is not in the mindset of Americans to be empire builders, would not be such a bad idea in many parts of the world.

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