Mass Shootings and the Myth of the Frontier

Mass Shootings and the Myth of the Frontier February 20, 2018

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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