Mass Shootings and the Myth of the Frontier

Mass shootings in the USA are the result of too many guns, too much white-guy resentment, and too much cowboy mythology.

I agree with anyone who advocates for stronger gun control laws in the USA. However, I think there’s an aspect of the mass shooting phenomenon that too many people ignore: the Myth of the Frontier that has defined our culture for centuries. Gun nuts and white supremacists don’t just have different political opinions, they’re dedicated to a vision of frontier machismo in which the white individual represents civilization’s moral core, and defends the nation against chaos and subversion with violence.

Regeneration Through Violence

Historian Richard Slotkin has written a trilogy of scholarly works dealing with America’s obsession with “regeneration through violence,” a national credo that defines our approach to domestic and foreign policy. America, according to this narrative, developed through applying military and industrial might against its enemies, and violence is necessary to protect the integrity of our borders, our language, our industry, and the prevailing racial and gender hierarchies.

Gunfighter Nation, the third book in the trilogy, starts with the “closing of the frontier” in 1890, when the national memory of frontier experience began to inform politics and literature. By that point, America had long since left behind its colonial beginnings and the ideal of a Jeffersonian agrarian utopia. In the wake of industrialization, the development of railroad transport and financial systems, and the horrors of the Civil War, America was facing economic problems and labor issues related to large-scale immigration from Europe and Asia. Teddy Roosevelt’s progressivism redefined democracy as the means through which a true aristocracy asserted and perpetuated its power; it also redefined progress from the old idea of the geographical expansion of the colonies to the financial and political domination of our neighbors and enemies alike. The Myth of the Frontier became the template for all our domestic and foreign dealings. Whether the problem was domestic insurrection by foreign-born socialists or Filipino uprisings after the Spanish-American War, the Myth was used to portray the problem as one of civilization on one side and savagery on the other. The contest was always a zero-sum situation that could not be negotiated, but rather had to be solved through a violence that would destroy the enemy and validate the virtue of our motives.

The Myth as National Memory

Then Slotkin examines in great detail how the Myth shaped public and foreign policy as well as books and movies throughout the twentieth century. The ascendancy of Hollywood and its creation of the Western movie genre exploited audiences’ fascination with the old frontier. Our nostalgia for an idealized era of simplistic moral dilemmas, white male supremacy, and economic bonanza for all not only made the Western movie (with its stylized violence and macho moralism) lucrative and artistically significant, but it also informed the way we approached social matters about inequality, dissent, nonconformity, and justification for violence itself. Slotkin is thorough (some would say too much so) in his examination of movie plots from The Gunslinger and Rio Grande to High Noon and The Wild Bunch, painstakingly extracting the ideological subtext of each. He also investigates how the Myth of the Frontier colored the way politicians approached matters from our involvement in the World Wars to Civil Rights and Vietnam: their narratives constantly invoked the image of the frontier, where the ends justified the (invariably violent) means.

The End of Empire

At last, Slotkin equates the end of the Western genre’s popularity, the collapse of liberal progressivism, and the way our national mythology lost relevance in the ethical and political morass of the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era. The ascendancy of Reagan Republicanism was the myth becoming mere imitation, pandering to the illusions of a populace in denial about its empire’s decline. The nation refused to develop myths that more realistically describe our history and social order, an ideology more inclusive of women and marginalized populations:

The primary function of any mythological system is to provide a people with meaningful emotional and intellectual links to its own past. Although western pioneering was always (after 1800) a minority experience, The Frontier was able to symbolize a national past because its major themes—emigration in the quest for new and better things—had close cognates in the experiences of mobility and displacement that belonged both to foreign immigrants and to internal migrants in an industrializing and urbanizing nation. But […] the twentieth century Frontier Myth was developed in reaction against racial and cultural heterogeneity to sanction an exclusive, völkisch definition of American nationality. Although immigrants and their immediate descendants shaped developments in the new culture industry of Hollywood, the Western films they made were informed by a desire (and a commercial need) to imitate, and so to acquire for themselves, “real Americanism.” They accepted without question the idea that the Old West was an Anglo-Saxon preserve, just as they generally accepted WASP good looks as the standard for casting screen heroes. The WASP monopoly of movie heroism was compromised, to a degree, in the combat films of the Second World War—although through the 1940s and early 1950s the leading player in the ethnic platoon was most often a WASP icon like Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn, or Van Johnson. The bi-polar division of Western demography into cowboys and Indians (and occasional Mexicans) was not seriously enlarged until the emergence of the (shortlived) “civil rights” Western after 1960. Even then Black cowboys, soldiers, and homesteaders were never represented on a scale commensurate with their actual numbers in the West. Other groups have almost never been represented in Westerns, although they made up a significant population of western states and territories from 1848 onward: Germans, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Cornishmen, East and Central Europeans, South Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Their exclusion from Westerns is crippling to the genre’s project of mythologizing our actual history and to its ability to address the polyglot, multicultural, multiracial folk of the modern United States.

I highly recommend Gunfighter Nation to readers interested in a comprehensive review of the twentieth century in American culture. Slotkin is a very sober and intelligent critic whose writing never becomes sterile or academic. He subscribes to a view that places myth and ideology on the same level as the material conditions of America’s progress. To him, our mythology isn’t some silly set of illusions that we need to discard; it’s the way we make moral and political sense out of our history, and it’s crucial to the way we define and discuss our current problems and how we should best solve them.

Our Republic the Cowboy Outfit

So now America’s white, male dominance is in its death throes, and the Myth of the Frontier speaks as loudly as ever to white men who feel their power is ebbing. We need to deal with the abiding allure of a myth that makes people think that they have a moral right to kill others, particularly when they’re armed with powerful weapons whose manufacturers spend big money to circumvent realistic regulation.

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  • igotbanned999

    I always believed that a major theme of the Western genre was justice: criminals who harass and harm innocent people get their just desserts.

  • Raging Bee

    The contest was always a zero-sum situation that could not be negotiated, but rather had to be solved through a violence that would destroy the enemy and validate the virtue of our motives.

    We’re seeing that in countless alien-invasion movies too: the overwhelming majority of them have absolutely zero diplomacy and zero dealmaking, and the aliens — despite being smart enough to have large-scale interstellar travel, which is a really fucking hard and involved enterprise — show zero willingness or even ability to actually talk to humans before going directly to mass-slaughter. And in the few exceptions, many of them portray what little dealmaking there is as a foolish and pathetic attempt at appeasement that only makes things worse.

  • CindyTellsMe

    — “leading player in the ethnic platoon was most often a WASP icon like Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn, or Van Johnson.”
    Joke’s on us: all three manly men were were gay or bisexual. None of that made it into the mythology either.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    We’re also seeing that in countless examples of interactive media like video games. Violence is the first, last, and only language many video games apparently know how to speak. There are some noteworthy exceptions, sure, but by in large, a zero-sum contest solved by violence is basically at the core of the vast sum of video games.

  • Isn’t that implied by “WASP”?

  • That’s a good point. Since alien-invasion flicks have always been about barely-disguised jingoism, it’s not surprising that they swiped a lot of tropes from the old-school Westerns. Slotkin briefly discusses the racial subtext of the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Though not an alien-invasion saga per se, it was influenced by Teddy Roosevelt’s vision of the “fighting races” and in turn had an influence in how sci-fi filmmakers a half century later would portray the political and cultural motivations of extraterrestrials.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Not only do you capitalize “Myth of the Frontier”, you reify it. What concrete, falsifiable evidence do you have that MOTF was instrumental in driving Nikolas Cruz to commit mass murder?

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    But what about THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, where the cowboys go in and massacre everyone in that village?

  • Raging Bee

    This is social science we’re talking about here; you know fine well we’re not going to be able to come up with lab-testable anything. That doesn’t make the theory false or unreliable.

    This myth has been known to Americans for at least as long as I’ve been paying attention, as is its influence on our public discourse and politics. The connection to undisciplined bigoted violence may not be direct or obvious, but it’s foolish (not to mention part of the problem) to pretend there can’t be a connection.

  • Raging Bee

    I can excuse the video-games (though not necessarily the more graphic depictions of violence): they’re a very limited medium and they’re not supposed to actually tell any stories (though some are more educational and grounded in reality than others). Movies and TV shows have no such excuse.

  • XCellKen

    Unfalsifiable ? Nice RELIGION you have there

  • phatkhat

    Not justice – vengeance. There’s a difference. Lots of extrajudicial executions in westerns.

  • I concur with Raging Bee that we don’t expect the same things from video games as we do from movies & TV. However, I agree with you that the focus on violence is totally in line with the kill-or-be-killed mythos described above.

  • abear

    Social science needs to study the obvious connection between single mother raised boys and the toxic effects of feminism on vulnerable males. Is it just coincidence that all these school shootings have taken place since the rise of feminism and single mother families.
    Elliot Rodger, raised by a single mother. Ted Bundy, abused by his aunt. Look at the rates of violence in the inner cities where the majority of children are raised by single mothers. Nikolas Cruz, raised by a single mother that then abandoned him by dying.
    It is about time that we pay attention to the grievous harm that is being done to our male children by toxic femininity.

  • WingedBeast

    This is a disingenuous question. It would be like claiming Global Warming unevidenced because someone can’t diffinitively say that one specific storm wouldn’t have happened without it.

    That leaves me wondering which element of the proposed theory you dispute. Is it the violence of western genre? The influence of cultural myth on behavior?

  • Chuck Johnson

    Some of it is simpleminded justice (vengeance).
    Some of the justice is more sophisticated and productive (justice other than vengeance).

  • Chuck Johnson

    A lot of this genre consists of thinly disguised action-adventure movies.
    In the alternate universe of the alien visitors, enormous technological advances have been made, but social, psychological and moral advances are not present.

    In many cases, we are shown alien cultures which are obviously and substantially inferior to our own.
    This will then justify our military triumphs and conquests.

    It’s cowboys and Indians again, or a WWII military drama. – – – The Americans triumph in the end.

  • they’re a very limited medium and they’re not supposed to actually tell any stories

    Wut.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Global warming is a terrible example to contrast with. The greenhouse gases that cause it are identifiable as is their origin; their effect discrete, measurable, and quantifiable. The model is able to predict with high accuracy. I could go on.

    What Slotkin does is postulate a ‘Myth’ that he imagines everyone holds in their minds, then pronounces this Myth the cause of all manners of evils and woes. Slotkin’s argument pure conjecture, is unfalsifiable, and is exactly as persuasive as ontological arguments for the existence of God.

  • Bruce Gorton

    Recognise I am writing this as someone who had at a point argued something similar and gotten corrected. We all get things wrong, what is important is to learn from it. I learned a degree of caution, that is what this post is about.

    Mass shootings in the USA are the result of too many guns, too much white-guy resentment, and too much cowboy mythology.

    This is the basis of your argument.

    Blaming the western is novel, I’ll give you that, except that the genre is much older than the mass shooting phenomenon, and Australia has its own frontier mythology that does not appear to have spawned mass shootings.

    One of the major subgenres to westerns is the spaghetti western. Those films were originally in Italian, released for an Italian audience. Italy isn’t particularly noted for its mass shootings.

    Now onto the race aspect:

    Mass shootings in the US by race between 1982 and 2017, according to statista:

    https://www.statista.com/statistics/476456/mass-shootings-in-the-us-by-shooter-s-race/

    About 54% are white.

    I went with the Kaiser Foundation for the US’ racial demographics because they had them as at 2016.

    https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/distribution-by-raceethnicity/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D

    About 61% of the population is white.

    So what we see is that in terms of mass shootings, whites aren’t over-represented. The major reason you have better than even odds that your shooter is going to be white, is because you have better than even odds that an American is white.

    While the two out of three issues you raise which I am responding to here are important issues that do a lot of harm, I don’t think it can be maintained that America’s mass shootings are amongst those harms.

    I do however suspect that if one was to seriously look into it, one would find that protecting women’s rights more vigorously would reduce these shootings. It appears that most of the shooters have histories of escalation – where they in some way abuse women, or simply have very negative views of women.

    But of course to properly establish that would require doing the research, and figuring out proper interventions. This is beyond my capability, but it perhaps bears considering for anybody who is in a position to do it.

  • TheBookOfDavid

    Show your work. At least produce a list if black mass shooters, if you are unwilling to provide stats demonstrating that blacks are more likely to fire on a crowd.

  • WingedBeast

    The nature of the question is a great one to contrast with. The question made similar false assumptions that were nowhere near the theory presented.

    Now, are you saying that classic westerns aren’t a genre of story in American mythology? Are you saying that there is a significant population in America that’s completely unaware and unaffected by them?

    Or, are you lying to say that the theory presents the myth as the single cause, rather than an important factor in looking at how people in America understand power, guns, and morality?

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Now, are you saying that classic westerns aren’t a genre of story in American mythology? Are you saying that there is a significant population in America that’s completely unaware and unaffected by them?

    You’ve engaged in Motte-and-Bailey here, substituting a couple of anodyne statements for Slotkin’s bold and expansive claims about MOTF, which Shem describes as:

    … a national credo that defines our approach to domestic and foreign policy…..

    …the template for all our domestic and foreign dealings…..

    … colored the way politicians approached matters from our involvement in the World Wars to Civil Rights and Vietnam….

    To re-cap: Slotkin, via a ‘critical’ (neologism meaning) review of literature and film, detected a certain mythos, which, he asserts, forms an animus possessing the entire nation and every citizen in it and dictating our foreign and domestic policy. It’s unevidenced beyond Slotkin’s personal interpretations, and unfalsifiable. It’s junk History.

  • What Slotkin does

    You’re making sweeping, authoritative statements about Slotkin’s work without ever having read it. All I was doing was citing a couple of Slotkin’s ideas for a food-for-thought opinion piece, and it really doesn’t warrant your overbearing demands for some sort of hard evidence. Why we should accept that you’re an expert on Slotkin’s theses or historical analysis in general rather than simply an insufferable sea lion is anyone’s guess.

    exactly as persuasive as ontological arguments for the existence of God.

    Yeah, playing whack-the-fundie in the low hanging fruit orchards is obviously a lot more your speed than engaging with the subjects here. I’ve asked you more than once to make constructive contributions to these discussions instead of disrupting them with your insulting nitpickery, and I guess you’re just not equipped for the task.

  • WingedBeast

    His bold and expansive claims are built of parts, and I’m wondering about where, specifically, you find disagreement?

    The questions I asked were in response to specific statements of skepticism, namely that the myths in question exist and/or have impact. If that’s not the point of skepticism, why bring them up?

    You may think the claims are bold and expansive, but they’re composed of smaller parts that fit together. Our understanding of history and of how the stories of our societies work and how we fit in impact our behavior and our thinking. That much is undeniable. The western genre often glorifies violence (thought it’s hardly alone in that). That is also undeniable.

    To suggest that a cultural ethic that proposes violence as the ideal form of achieving justice has no impact on the readiness of a percentage of the population to engage that violence is laughable.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    WTF? A genre that is NOT overly used in today’s media (movie, tv, books etc) is some how tied to the recent mass shooting? FFS, the exact opposite would make more sense. Since kids DON”T watch lots of ‘Westerns’ on TV we could try and graph School shootings vs views of Westerns on netflix and MAYBE support such a theory. But there is NO evidence provided here. What I do know is that the biggest box office hits lately have NOT been westerns.

  • I don’t think Slotkin was talking only about the Western genre. Rather, he was saying that the whole way we conceptualize American society is sodden with jingoistic nostalgia for a history that never really was: a meritocracy that naturally established and perpetuated white male dominance; the march of progress defined as white settlers bringing industry and civilization into a continent of savagery and chaos; and the constant defense of that civilization through military aggression whose brutality was justified by the intractability and barbarity of our foes.

    This national myth has had a lot of influence, not only on our pop culture but also on our public and foreign policy. I’m just pointing out that there’s a lot of similarity between the self-justifying frontier mentality and the lone-gunman mythos that’s at the core of the mass-shooter attitude.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    No, you put words in my mouth — that these literary & film leitmotifs don’t exist, which I never claimed.

    Given they exist, your assertion is they have a significant influence on domestic and foreign policy (and Slotkin identifies a wide range of specific areas and events.) Yet there is no way to test whether these myths/cultural ethics assume the particular, universal form Slotkin attributes to them (and his thesis grows extremely tenuous wrt WWII). Nor is there any way to confirm, much less quantify, the ‘impact’ they allegedly have.

    You doggedly refuse to provide evidence, instead merely repeat your assertion.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    You’re making sweeping assumptions about what I’ve read or haven’t, as well as my background in History. Slotkin’s tendentious, folklorist musings may have a certain appeal in certain circles, but are not representative of sound historical methodology.

    Far from “nit-picking”, I made a substantive, fundamental challenge to Slotkin’s thesis: that it is unfalsifiable and without evidence. So far, neither you nor wingedbeast have answered that challenge, preferring instead to insult my intelligence.

    If your blog is a safe space where only fawning agreement is permitted, then just say so.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    This national myth has had a lot of influence, not only on our pop culture but also on our public and foreign policy.

    What does is even mean to call something a “national myth”? What characteristics does it possess? How is it identified and measured?

    Again, that this myth has significantly influenced policy is a mere assertion.

  • I made a substantive, fundamental challenge to Slotkin’s thesis: that it is unfalsifiable and without evidence.

    Sea lioning (also spelled sealioning and sea-lioning) is a type of Internet trolling which consists of bad-faith requests for evidence, or repeated questions, the purpose of which is not clarification or elucidation, but rather an attempt to derail a discussion or to wear down the patience of one’s opponent.

    If your blog is a safe space where only fawning agreement is permitted, then just say so.

    :rolleyes:

    There are plenty of people here discussing the topic, and I don’t see any “fawning agreement” anywhere. I’ve already explained to you several times that I want people to engage with the topics under discussion, not demand some sort of “evidence” over and over and over and over when the subject at hand isn’t an evidential matter.

    I want you to quit being an asshole, if that’s even possible.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    “the subject at hand isn’t an evidential matter.”
    What is it then? Are you hooked on a feeling?

    You’ve been getting quite a bit of flak … sorry, ‘sealioning’ … about your refusal to provide evidence for your assertions, or your habit of never directly answering a question. It seems to irritate more than a little.

  • WingedBeast

    I’m trying to find the specific point where you disagree.

    So, when you said that he proposed that a myth exists inside heads as though that was unbelievable, that wasn’t the point where you disagreed.

    You disagree that myths influence human behavior?

    If so, there’s some evidence that’s kind of on your side, showing that media (such as video games and movies, a genre of mythology easily fitting in) doesn’t influence what you do so much as what you think is common. But, that does have an influence on your behavior, including how you vote and, yes, whether or not someone might think that public displays of violence is an appropriate means of achieving what you want.

    So, it would be important not to overstate the impact, such as claiming that the myth, alone, caused the shooting in Florida. But, the evidence would go to suggest that cultures and subcultures (such as white nationalism and white supremacy of which the KKK would be an example and the shooter had contact with) that go the extra step to internalize such narratives would be more likely to produce mass shooters.

  • Cake

    Maybe he’s talking about Table Tennis or Pong?

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Setting aside for the moment the question of the definition of “a myth”, I grant that such things exist, are inside our heads, and can act as a lens through which we perceive the world.

    Slotkin says he’s identified a Myth of the Frontier™, has described in great detail, and has ascribed immense power and influence to it. How do we test the accuracy of his description of this myth? We can’t — it’s inside people’s heads. What predictive power does his model have? None — it’s tautological. And when it fails, with WWII for example, Slotkin stretches it to the breaking point. How do we measure the amount of influence of public policy he claims? No measure — as Shem protests, Slotkin’s is a “non-evidential” (sic) claim.

    Further, if these internalized myths exist, they are far more ancient than the Frontier days when Slotkin alleges their inception. Indeed, their origins would lie far back in our evolutionary past. Taking a different (Hobbesian) perspective, one might view the gunslinger culture as no more than the breakdown of the social contract and reversion to the war of all against all.

    As to the mass shooter connection: I don’t see the evidence that white supremacy groups internalize a mythos or narrative that then motivates individuals to commit mass shootings. If anything it’s the other way around: certain traits of potential mass shooters lead them to gravitate to such groups. Same with violent video games: evidence shows that individuals who are already violent by temperament are attracted to the games, not that the games make non-violent people violent.

    If every one of us is ‘infected’ with this Myth of the Frontier, and the MotF spurs mass murder, then why do almost none of us act on it? The common denominators among mass killers are: mental instability; single mothers/absent fathers, especially abusive or neglectful ones; anti-social behavior and outcast or misfit status. All leading to resentment, low self-worth, and a sense of impotency. These psychological / behavioral elements alone are sufficient to create a potential mass murderer without the need for a putative, invisible Myth. The final ingredient is unfettered access to rapid-fire weaponry. Though knives and a BMW will do in a pinch.

  • WingedBeast

    “What predictive power does his model have? None”

    Actually, it does have some predictive power. If this hypothesis holds true, you can look at cultures and subcultures, the relative strength and weight they give varous myths, and predict that said cultures wherein more weight is given to myths that lionize violence as a means of justice will have people acting with violence more often and/or with greater degree. The classic version of the old-west genre of stories is such a myth.

    This isn’t limited to things like mass-shootings, by the way. So, your later question “If every one of us is ‘infected’ with this Myth of the Frontier, and the MotF spurs mass murder, then why do almost none of us act on it?” is mistaken. People act on it in any number of ways, from the mass-shootings to individual acts of violence to supporting methods of responses to violence that, themselves, rely upon not just violence, but a fantasy version thereof wherein the nigh-magical is required (such as a reliable means of knowing who is or is not a “good guy with a gun “).

    “Further, if these internalized myths exist, they are far more ancient than the Frontier days when Slotkin alleges their inception.”

    No, I see nothing in the article that suggests an origin point. Merely that states the classic old-west genre of story to be one iteration. Nothing about that requires that this be the origin of violence-as-justice-means ethic.

    “I don’t see the evidence that white supremacy groups internalize a mythos or narrative that then motivates individuals to commit mass shootings. If anything it’s the other way around: certain traits of potential mass shooters lead them to gravitate to such groups. ”

    This puts us in a far more reasonable argument than at the start. You’re arguing that corelation isn’t causation. That the narratives are more inviting to people who want to engage in violence.

    But, I also want to point something out. The claim being made is not that the myth in question motivates violence (of which mass shootings would be one example). I think part of the issue, here, is that you’re making this a bigger claim than it is. Internalizing such narratives as the classic Wild West narrative, in which violence is presented as the ideal means of achieving justice, presents violence as acceptable and even ideal or preferred.

    “The final ingredient is unfettered access to rapid-fire weaponry. Though knives and a BMW will do in a pinch.”

    Agreed, with the note that a car or a knife has a far lower success rate in terms of causing death.

  • Anthrotheist

    How can you hear reactions to mass shootings such as, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”, or “what we need isn’t more gun control, it’s more good people armed with guns”, without imagining the classic western setting where everyone has a gun on at least one of their hips? Most of the movies that were mentioned as reviewed (and in particular High Noon) is all about a good guy using a gun to defend people against a bad guy who has a gun. If I recall the plot of High Noon correctly, one of the things Gary Cooper’s character does is recruit townspeople to take up weapons to fight the incoming gang: in other words, the plot depends upon the idea that putting guns in people’s hands is the only way for them to be safe.

    The people who perpetrate mass shootings can only do what they do because of the continued abundance and lack of restrictions on guns, and the continued resistance to regulations on guns depends upon the ideology apparent in Hollywood Westerns. Even in war movies, the characters are often portrayed to some degree as soldiers following orders; the war is painted as righteous and the soldiers’ heroic sacrifices as a necessary but painful struggle. Only in Westerns (and the modern offshoot of Westerns, the genre of action heroes like Die Hard) is the lone, unregulated, heavily armed, and (often supernaturally) competent character depicted as both righteous and heroic.

    The modern version of the Western ‘myth’ is that the mass shooter is the bad guy threatening the town, and the people fighting against gun control are the self-appointed marshals that are the town’s only hope.