America Finds Itself at the End of Its Myth
January 14, 2021
In “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America” (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) Greg Grandin lays out how, “America finds itself at the end of its myth,”. In examining closely, the gritty details of American expansion and the ideas and myths that it spawned we are given some useful language to talk about this present moment.
The basic idea is that the American identity was built on the idea of perpetual expansion. “The frontier” came to mean freedom to do whatever you wanted whenever you wanted to serve the cause of expanding a Caucasian democracy. To do this required violence perpetrated by white American men, without a hint of remorse as they committed atrocities that were as horrible then as we might see them being now. “Manifest Destiny” was realized when the continent was conquered, and the Native People destroyed or pushed to the brink. The imperialism which followed expanded the country’s borders – pushed back the frontier to this global sphere. We would spread influence to keep away and/or control the things deemed undesirable. When the way to keep out undesirables; People, ideas, worldviews, etc., changed to building a wall something shifted. America turned in on itself. Sure, we’ve fought internally before – many times in fact, in the streets, on reservations, on slavery plantations and famously in an epic Civil War – but this time it’s different. This time the Capitol was breached, and elected officials were trapped inside barricaded offices afraid for their lives.
The unprecedented unprecedented.
Let’s linger in the moment a bit, shall we?
I have long held some deeply complicated views of my relationship to the United States of America. I know the pledge of allegiance, but I also was not allowed to say it growing up. We were told and believed wholeheartedly that we should not pledge allegiance to anything but God. I still abide by this principle. In college football, when I used to play linebacker at the University of Rhode Island I refused to put my hand over my heart when we stood pregame for the national anthem. That decision cost me valuable playing time. When American athletes stand up at the Olympics, I swell with pride but when American bombs and guns kill and maim innocents all over the globe, I am embarrassed that my tax dollars, representative of hard work and effort, is going towards a military machine that can neither protect us from a microscopic virus nor can it seem to protect the heart of it – the Capitol.
Unless of course this is all just the beginning. One of the prayers I am making lately is asking Allah for some space for all of us to take a breather – to get a break. It seems like the barrage of tests has been staggering. But if you follow the evidence from the very start and all throughout, President Trump has thrived in generating chaos and stirring up doubt. Was this a premeditated effort that was designed to create some larger future momentum? Are we actually in a civil war?
I have a friend who was a trump voter. She said that I had a victim mentality and believed in a bogeyman of white supremacy. We have talked politics long before this political moment and only now does it seem like we are speaking in totally different terms. For months since the demonstrations in the summer in response to the continued barrage of black death at the hands of police officers in various locations around the country she called the protestors and rioters a lawless mob that did not deserve to be listened to. She went quiet this week as there was a coordinated attack on statehouses and into the inner sanctum of the United States Capitol. How can you defend the chaos and disorder that this creates? What could she say?
Meanwhile beyond all the fanfare the current administration pushes forward on plans to sell leases to land in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. We have been so blinded by the bluster and the malcontent, by the Qanon Shaman and his tattoos, and the twitter response of a wannabe despot that we have allowed the wishes of a dying extractive way of life, one last heist, one more hit of the heroin of oil into the mainline of the American mainstream – 75MM people all in an uproar while the oil companies plan how they will carve out a wild place home to many plants, animals, and medicines. This would be an affront to all of us and all of Creation.
Maybe that was the plan all along.
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an urban strategist whose work focuses on deepening democracy and improving public engagement. He is also an Interfaith America Racial Equity Media Fellow.