America Exposed: Greg Grandin’s “The End of the Myth”

Of all the lies America officially tells itself, one of the strangest is that “We have never occupied conquered territory.” The story goes that since the US didn’t occupy Germany after either of the wars, nor did we take any Japanese territory, there is a nobleness to our cause.

Needless to say, that’s absolute bunkum. There is not a single region of this country that wasn’t taken from Natives. Yes, the Louisiana Purchase was from France, but of course, it wasn’t filled with Frenchmen who immediately left: it was filled with Natives who were promptly extirpated.

Of course, if any action gives immediate lie to that notion, it is the occupation and annexation of enormous amounts of Mexican territory following the brutal and phony war of 1846-1848. The occupied and stolen territory gave America its western bulk; it made destiny manifest.

“It was actually Old Mexico, you dinks” -Mexico, probably

One thing that America does very well is rapidly internalizing our myths. It doesn’t matter that the war was pushed by southern slave interests hoping to create an empire of chattel. It doesn’t matter that the secession of Texas was a reaction to Mexico outlawing slavery. While a mere 20 years later slavery was defeated, the idea that this territory was anything but given to the US by God was not even entertained.

The idea of these stories, and how they have shaped the American character, is the focus of Greg Grandin’s sweeping The End of the Myth, an electrifying read which takes you from the Cumberland Gap to Gettysburg to Martin Luther King’s radicalism to the perfidy of NAFTA, all with a unifying theme.

That theme is that of the frontier, specifically, the frontier as famously articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner. The nut of the thesis, developed by the then little-known Wisconsin academic in 1893, is that “(t)he existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.”

It’s complicated, but basically that the waves of expansion (which are neither steady nor consistent) are what drives the American spirit. People come out, fight and die, scratch out an existence, fall back, push forward, etc. The land is tamed, capital moves in, people get itchy, and go to the next frontier. Violence, horror, success, railroads, and so on.

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I should be quibbling with the pristine idealness of this depiction, but really, I’m just wondering if her and Paul Bunyan ever hooked up

Now, you can (and should!) quibble with the idea that the land was “free”; the need for violence in the form of the US Army disproves that myth instantly. But the land was, I suppose, gettable. It could be got if you knew the right people (i.e. the US Army).

Grandin doesn’t so much deflate this myth as expose it for what it has always been: a pernicious way to both foment and excuse violence and expropriation while running a constant scam against the idea of freedom itself.

To back this, Grandin paraphrases Martin Luther King, who argued that the ideal “fed into multiple reinforcing pathologies: into racism, a violent masculinity, and a moralism that celebrates the rich and punishes the poor.”

This is all true, and it plays itself off as a sort of devil’s bargain. As Grandin explains:

There is a lot to unpack in the argument that over the long course of US history, endless expansion, either over land or through markets and militarism, deflects domestic extremism. How, for example, might historical traumas and resentments, myths and symbols, be passed down the centuries from one generation to another? Did the United States objectively nned to expand in order to secure foreign resources and open markets for domestic production? Or did the country’s leaders just believe they had to expand. Whatever the answers to those questions, the United States, since its dounding, pushed outward and justified that push in moral terms, as beneficial equally for the people within and beyond the frontier.

The frontier was a constant regeneration, taking the traumas of conflict and using them to start another battle, another front. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book talks is the section on the Spanish-American war, a conflict so ginned up it made the Mexican-American war look honest.

In our accepted history, the Spanish American war is a completely different era than the Civil War. That’s just how history is often taught; separate eras split by thick black lines and different quizzes. But of course, it was barely 30 years after that conflict ended. Most of its veterans were still alive. This was also barely 20 years after Reconstruction came to an ignoble and murdered end, unleashing a wave of democratic suppression and racist terror that persisted for 100 years.

And, as Grandin explains, basically no one was more excited about the Spanish-American war, and the colonial occupations that followed, than ex-Confederates. This, for them, was a way to be welcomed fully back into the American population, to prove themselves as fighters, and to kill non-whites. The Confederate flag flew over Cuba, and the Rebel Yell was heard in the Philippines.

Why does this matter? Because it was another expansion of the frontier. It was a way to regenerate the American myth after the Civil War and (maybe just as importantly) after Reconstruction. Grandin skillfully weaves the betrayal of Reconstruction with the dark decades of Jim Crow, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, and more.

This makes sense, when you start to look at American history as a continuous thing, and not something that actually happens in waves. The war for Mexican territory was fought to expand slavery. It was fought to create an American empire across the continent. The stories that we told about it- pablum about freedom, the brave men of the Alamo, standing up to an oppressive Mexican government who hated freedom so much that they outlawed slavery- was part of the same story we told ourselves of the Lost Cause, the noble South, the valiant Lee: stories that still exist.

And that, ultimately, is the lesson here. These stories are still being told, but there is nowhere left to go. The frontier has reverberated. Grandin takes us back again and again to the border, as it becomes militarized, filled with swaggering racists, both in real uniforms and in the jackal armament of vigilante militias. He brings us to a border suddenly filled with factories and economic refugees. He brings us to a border where people fleeing American-led violence in Central America end up. He brings us to a border whose fences, a cynical bargain made to pass NAFTA, trap people on both sides and make crossing a mortal threat.

In short, he brings us to today.

Trump and the End of the Myth

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This man is shaping US history

If you were to say one good thing about Donald Trump- and Christ, you really shouldn’t- it is that by being so openly vulgar, with such id-driven racism, and supplemented by such cowardly sycophants, he has forced us to recognize the cruelty that has always driven much of American policy.

Whether it is in Guantanamo Bay or when trying to gut health care or when locking up children in cages, performative, sincere cruelty (or, making a huge show of how sincerely cruel you are) is the Republican default position. Indifference to that cruelty has driven much of the so-called opposition, as well.

Reading Grandin, this makes sense. The frontier has always allowed us to push that cruelty outward, to find newer enemies, and to believe in regeneration. But now there is nowhere to go. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and everywhere else) are dim echoes of empire, grinding distant slogs only remembered with the faintest pantomimes of covered-heart “gratitude.” Global capitalism is seen as a dumb joke played on all of us, with the benefit that it is also destroying the present. The frontier, long-rumored to be dead, is officially gone.

That’s why Trump’s wall is the true end of the myth, as Grandin’s subtitle implies. We’ve been heading that way. It could easily be argued that violence against Mexico is just as much a part of the American character as slavery and genocide. It has been a centuries-long preoccupation (and real occupation). And now it has found its post-Polk apotheosis, at a time when everything seems to be crumbing.

Trump’s wall is the closing of the frontier, a sealing off of even a hypocritical American dream. And we have, just today, entered a new phase.

The firing/resignation/who cares of Kirstjen Neilsen is concentrating power in the hands of Trump and the wiry evil of anti-immigrant fanatic Stephen Miller. Today was a purge, as Mark Joseph Stern explained.

After firing Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen on Sunday, President Donald Trump purged the agency’s senior management on Monday. According to CBS News, Trump secured the resignation of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Cissna, DHS Undersecretary for Management Claire Grady, and DHS General Counsel John Mitnick. He also fired U.S. Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles. Trump adviser Stephen Miller, an immigration hard-liner, reportedly masterminded the DHS purge as part of an effort to crack down on immigration at the southern border.

So what does that mean? Well:

Trump didn’t want Grady; he wanted Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. It’s easy to see why. Under McAleenan’s leadership, CBP repeatedly broke the law to implement Trump’s first travel ban, earning a rebuke from DHS’ Office of Inspector General. McAleenan is a strong proponent of a border wall as well as new laws to curb asylum-seekers’ entry into the country. He infamously failed to inform Congress that a 7-year-old girl died in CBP custody when he testified before the Senate just three days after her death.

In other words, the real hardliners are taking over. I don’t know if Nielsen was a true believer or just a spineless sycophant, and she deserves a lifetime of scorn and opprobrium either way, but apparently there were lines even she wouldn’t cross. With this purge, the Trump people are looking for people who don’t believe in lines.

We’re living in an era of a hyperactive Border Patrol who are setting up Constitution-free zones in 75% of America’s populated areas. It’s an era where ICE is given full reign to destroy people. These are the spears of the new America, and they are being molded in Trump’s lawless image.

There might be pushback (apparently, some CBP officials didn’t like Trump telling officers they didn’t have to follow the law). Trump wants us to believe that “the country is full”, which is of course laughable, except he doesn’t mean it literally. He means that we have enough brown people, and we don’t want anymore.

And that’s the heart of the wall, and the heart of the frontier, and the heart of the American myth. That this is a land destined for white people, who can do no wrong. It’s why we believe that we don’t occupy territory when the whole country is occupied. It’s why we believe that land taken from Mexico has always been American, and why were are insanely resentful that anyone could question that. It’s why we take natural migration patterns as an affront to our sacred ideals.

The wall isn’t the antithesis of the frontier, it is its howling echo. It is its fulfillment. It is the promise of white nationalism with nowhere else to go, caged and furious. It is standing athwart history and pretending it didn’t happen. It is the stupidity of Trump and the cupidity of his enablers made concrete. It is the railroad and it is Pickett’s Charge; it is Custer and Andrew Jackson; it is James Earl Ray, and it is everyone who built their life around cheap consumer goods made by broken hands in child-filled maquiladoras.

The wall is the American Dream. It’s a reality from which we need to awake.

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Ted Cruz’s “El Chapo Act” Is Peak Ted Cruz

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“Let me tell you about my acrostics”

Here at Shooting Irrelevance, we’ve long held that Ted Cruz is more clever than smart, and more of a short-term tactician than a strategist. He moves in short bursts to get his name in the spotlight, but usually ends up shooting himself in the foot. That might be slightly unfair, as he’s managed to come this far while being spectacularly and almost supernaturally unlikeable, but I think it is still pretty true.

Another long-held belief is that all of his smart things are actually dumb (which is really another aspect of his being more clever than smart), and that cleverness doesn’t always hold up. That said, this is pretty ingenious, at least on the surface. From Real Clear Politics

Sen. Ted Cruz joins ‘Fox & Friends’ to discuss his fun plan to pay for the Mexican border wall with money seized from Mexican drug lord ‘El Chapo.’ Apparently, up to $14 billion have been seized from his gang.

The Ensuring Lawful Collection of Hidden Assets to Provide Order (E.L.C.H.A.P.O.) Act would use fund confiscated from drug dealers and traffickers to pay for border security.

“So Mexico would end up paying for the wall,” host Steve Doocy commented. “That’s pure genius on your part!”

“El Chapo led the Sinaloa drug cartel,” Cruz explained. “There is a sense of justice. A sense of, this is what is right, that the people who are violating the border like crazy, we should use their ill-gotten gains to finally build the wall, and to finally ensure we have the assets to secure the border.”

A couple of thoughts on this.

  1. If El Chapo was rich from selling drugs to America, it is because we, as a nation, were voraciously hoovering down his drugs while shoveling him money in exchange for drugs. If we weren’t getting them from El Chapo, it would be someone else.
  2. Arguably (or really inarguably), El Chapo’s biggest victims were Mexicans. The scope of suffering inflicted by the drug gangs is enormous and terrifying. Tens of thousands killed, corruption and murder made institutional. That’s not even counting the disappeared women of Juarez. Even if that wasn’t directly connected to the drug trade, it is part of a society ripped apart by violence.
  3. And again, this was done by Mexicans, to Mexicans, but it was done because America loves drugs. The suffering of Mexico is in so, so many ways an outcome of being neighbors with a rich drug-addicted country.
  4. So maybe we’re not the real victims, and maybe that $14 billion doesn’t belong to us.
  5. And even if it does, it certainly shouldn’t be used to build a wall that is steeped in racism and will do nothing to stop the drug trade (because where there is a market, which America is, drugs will find a way) and will continue to make life harder for el Chapo’s real victims.
  6. So it’s perfect. Like with wall-caused floodings, it is a perfect representation of our imperialistic indifference toward Mexico and our refusal to see them as real people. “Our bottomless appetite for drugs ravaged your country? Well, we’ll take the gains and use them to wall you off. Maybe that’ll teach you a lesson, Mexico.”
  7. That said, it is pretty smart, on one level. Idiots like Doocey love it (and a quick trip around Twitter showed me that people inclined to like the wall were going nuts over it). It is on the surface very satisfying, and even seemingly airtight. People for whom the only objection to the wall was its cost could be persuaded.  Especially if you accept that El Chapo’s money somehow belongs to us.
  8. But, as the arguments above said, I don’t think it does, and more to the point, having a smart way to pay for a dumb idea is still dumb. The objection to the wall wasn’t primarily cost, it was that the wall was an astronomical cost for a terrible and stupid objective. Ted Cruz’s smart plan is still in favor of something incredibly terrible.
  9. Also, it’s just stupid. You know his staffers were high-fiving when they made that acrostic. But it isn’t “Ensuring Lawful Collection”; that’s already ensured. And “Provide Order” is just creepy. And since when do we name bills after bad guys? I don’t think the end of Prohibition was marked by the “Concerning Alcohol: Perhaps nOw aNd thEn Act”
  10. In short, Ted Cruz is more clever than smart.

Honestly, I’m not totally sure Ted Cruz’s game here. I can’t imagine him waiting til 2024 to run for President. There’s no doubt he was rooting for Hillary (only Jason Chaffetz was screwed over more by her loss*), but he was going to run either way. I assumed he was running in 2020 against Hillary or against the fake conservative Donald Trump who hijacked the party.

He’s been a very vocal defender of Trump, supporting and even outflanking his racist cruelty, but I assume he is doing that so he has bona-fides to run against him. “I supported the President but now he betrayed us.” The problem is that no one will believe that, since he famously didn’t endorse Trump at the convention, and because his naked ambition and backstabbery has always been palpable. Again, more clever than smart.

But hot damn, do I look forward to that race!

*Ok, Hillary as well. And literally everyone who isn’t a rich white man. But beside them.

Floodplain Treaty Shows Ridiculousness of Trump’s Mexican Border Wall (and borders in general)

 

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As you can clearly see, the wall doesn’t spring forth from the seeded earth. 

 

There are few things more inherently unnatural than a border. We know this on a human level: they are weird and arbitrary lines drawn on a map. We understand this culturally, especially when we look at the Middle East or Africa, at colonial maps that were drawn without concern for how it would impact the people living there, and we are dealing with their legacies. Borders are the result of wars and appropriations and treaties and traditions, and not inherent things unto themselves. They only have meaning because we decide they should.

But step back, and they are even more unnatural. They idea of borders is absurdly recent in human history, which makes it impossibly new on the planet. Borders, geologically, don’t mean anything. Even if a border is drawn to correspond with part of nature, like along a river, well…rivers shift. (Sometimes very quickly!) The land isn’t really interested in political distinctions that only appear on some pencil-neck’s globe.

We’re reminded of this by an NPR story on how the idiotic and immoral border wall proposal by Trump might be stopped by an obscure 50-yr treaty.

Texas-based NPR reporter John Burnett says Antonio Rascón, chief Mexican engineer on the International Boundary and Water Commission, came to NPR with the story.

The commission is both in Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, and is normally a quiet job about diplomacy and allocation of water, Burnett says. But Rascón told Burnett he was gravely concerned about what a concrete wall would do to the river, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Mexico has been growing more and more alarmed as they see plans for Trump’s wall progress,” Burnett says. “In the west desert on the Arizona-Mexico border we have proven examples that border security fencing has clogged with debris and has caused very serious flooding in places. … These walls, when they get clogged with debris, act like a dam.”

A 1970 treaty signed by both countries says neither side can put an obstruction in the floodplain, unless both countries sign off.

Now, it goes on to explain, we have been putting obstructions there (the fence), much to Mexico’s dismay and protest, but they haven’t really protested much. But if an enormous wall that will be partially underground goes up? A wall that will block the natural flow of water and almost certainly cause flooding on the Mexican side?

It’s almost too perfect. We’ve been using water as a weapon against Mexico for 150 years, whether it has been diverting most of the Colorado and sending them the polluted and salinated trickles, or just dumping pollution in southbound rivers. (And while there has been progress made, that’s in jeopardy now.)  What bigger “Screw you” could there be than to enact a racist, cruel, and dehumanizing border wall that has the added impact of causing flooding? It’s the height of bigoted indifference.

It also shows just how arbitrary and stupid the border actually is. I’m not advocating for “open borders” or anything,  but they are deeply unnatural. The floodplain will exist regardless of what lines we draw or how we pave it over. Water will flow where it flows, and people will imitate that water, crossing and erasing these lines. A wall is nothing more than a vanity-piece for a racist bloated manchild. To even entertain it is to show how fake these divisions on which he’s based his Presidency really are.

Trump in Mexico: “We Didn’t Talk About The Insane Parts”

 

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I’m honestly not sure who is more demeaned by a “Trump pinata” 

 

So, Trump’s Mexican visit was basically what you’d expect from mutual bluff-calling between a couple of dopes: awkward, pointless, and irrelevant. I’m sure there will be some pundits saying that “Trump appearing to be a statesman could convince voters!”, doing that thing we’re they are the ones convincing people of the appearance but pretending it occurs naturally. Politico already is! But still: I think it’ll be a blip on the campaign, and his attempt at coherence on immigration tonight is far more important. Because, contra the high-level discussions, it isn’t about “hardening” or “softening”; it’s about having a policy at all. He has never had one beside a few grand gestures.

That’s the only thing that should be talked about vis a vis his Mexico excursion (except maybe his bizarre and again wildly intemperate and unpresidential desire to mix it up with Vicente Fox just this morning). Because there have been only three things about which Trump has been even slightly consistent on.

  1. Mass deportations (though maybe not)
  2. A big beautiful wall (spoken like a moron)
  3. Mexico paying for wall (which is ludicrous)

So, today?

Mr. Trump said the two did not discuss the issue of forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall — one of the signature promises of his campaign.

Mr. Trump said the subject of a border wall came up, but not who would pay for such a massive construction project.

They talked about issues, except for one of his signature promises, probably because both sides realize it is completely fucking insane. That’s the only important thing: Trump can’t even talk with foreign leaders about any of his beliefs because they are completely divorced from reality and easily among the stupidest things a major political figure has ever said. This isn’t what anyone should call “Presidential”.

Trump in Mexico and Rubio on the Ineffability of Life: Campaign Quick Hits

 

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Outreach! 

 

Trump in Mexico

I’ve always thought that one of the worst aspects of being the leader of a country that wasn’t America was having to meet with every mouth-breathing midwest governor who was once called “Presidential material” by David Broder. They’d want to burnish their foreign policy cred, so they’d travel to the Czech Republic for a meet-and-greet where they’d discuss the “bilateral cooperation and trade opportunities between Oshkosh and the good people of Czechistan”, mouth fumbling over “bilateral”, clearly the first time they’d ever pronounced it. But the foreign leader couldn’t say no, because what happens if Scott Walker wins, you know?

It has to be even worse with Donald Trump, whom every single person outside the US (except for Nigel Farage and Hungarian neo-nazis) knows will be an absolute disaster, and a repulsive one at that. What do you say when you meet him? Well, that’s what will be on the mind of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto today when he meets with Trump, who accepted at the last minute a long-standing invitation.

On the one hand, this could be a disaster for Trump. It’s pretty clear he has never really studied the issues of trade or immigration, his two main topics regarding Mexico, and obviously has no clue about any other topics of concern the two countries might share (indeed, he is probably ignorant to the idea that there could be topics other than “stealing our jobs” and “sending rapists”). And the country is pretty hostile to him.  There is a good chance this turns out poorly.

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