Monday, January 29, 2007

Manifest Destiny.

Today I found myself thinking a lot about "Manifest Destiny"- a thorny concept that verges on paradox. For those of you that slept through History class, this was the notion that the United States was fated to expand its borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Ironically it was perpetuated by the Democratic supporters of Andrew Jackson, who were calling for the annexation of former territories of Mexico and the Oregon Country. Manifest Destiny was (to some) a justification that called upon Divine Providence to assert the rights of the Anglo-Saxon peoples to expand and spread "Republican Democracy" throughout the continent.

Coined by journalist John O'Sullivan in 1845, the term was embraced as a rallying call of a people intoxicated with themselves and their culture. This kind of "American Exceptionalism" was often carried to chauvinistic extremes, with political and military leaders using it to justify all sorts of injustices to indigeneous peoples. If it was God's Will, then there really wasn't any other virtuous alternative to remaking the world in the image of the United States. Yet what type of virtue can be imposed on unwilling people without hypocrisy? Conquering and/or politically dominating foreign nationals can't have anything to do with Republican Democracy. But people seemed to embrace this fuzzy notion when this nation was young, and old habits die hard.

The enlightened student of political philosophy would probably prefer to believe that Manifest Destiny is an outmoded position. However, it's stench still lingers in contemporary US foreign policy. In fact it's been a fairly constant companion ever since the land making up the lower 48 was first subsumed within the country's borders. And the idea wasn't the sole province of the Democrats for long. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, famously referred to US politics as the "last, best hope of Earth". In fact, his Gettysburg Address (arguably the most famous political speech in US history) has been interpreted as the most enduring statement of America's Manifest Destiny and mission. It's no surprise then, that having occupied all it could on the North American continent- the US cast its eyes upon foreign lands.

Interestingly, not all proponents of Manifest Destiny believed that it was only to be expressed through expansion. Even the notorious land-grabber Thomas Jefferson originally resisted the idea of growing beyond reasonable limits. In John O'Sullivan's era, the Whigs vocally objected to the stated US mission. Many believed that, rather than imposing its will on others, the United States should serve as an example of virtue- a "shining city on a hill". Few informed citizens in the United States today are naive enough to put forth the current state of federal governance as a standard bearer to the rest of the world. The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections exposed all sorts of problems in our contemporary system.

As far as the more common interpretation of Manifest Destiny is concerned, there are obviously quite a few among the rabble that still endorse the Americanization of others by force. Not only that, but there are some very prominent politicians and policy makers (within and without the official government) that are actively capitalizing on jingoistic nationalism in order to pursue policies that have proved disastrous (refer to The Project for a New American Century). Even among those that disagree with miltary strategies to expand American "influence", there are many who would seek to do the same by economic globalization - which seems to me to be a mere outgrowth and further articulation of the concept of Manifest Destiny.

Capitalism is the modern virtue that we seek to export and advance. Its achievements at home are lauded from sea-to-shining-sea. It is the unquestioningly-accepted doctrine taught in every school of economics in the country. But its utility... from a third world standpoint... is still very much to be decided. Maybe they can consult with what remains of the Native American nations on the topic(s) of American Exceptionalism/Manifest Destiny/Globalization?


Blogger Rob Park said...

Nicely explained. I'd like to add the domestic third-world citizens, myself included.

Isn't it ironic that in a figurative sense world and class allude to the same thing. The rights of third-world nations are not the same.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

What classifies someone as a "domestic" third world citizen?

1:16 PM  

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