21 January 2008


Criticism of government seems to be a deeply ingrained attitude in the American psyche. Think of Western movies out of Hollywood in which the sheriff is not doing the job of ridding the town of scofflaws. The lone hero rides in and supplants the ineffectual government of the fainthearted sheriff. Feelings of powerlessness by the western townspeople in the face of lawlessness are reflected in current feelings of individual powerlessness. This could be part of the reason why we Americans enjoy, even perhaps have some need, to criticize government, because we do feel powerless in the face of large corporate and governmental interests, and because we are an individualistic people, and because we are free to criticize government in various ways. Thus, we might feel more powerful when we do.

This reminds me of Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis, first propounded in 1893, in which the American Frontier, as it moved gradually westward across the continent, was the font for American institutions and American character. Out of the Frontier was created American individualism, distrust of authority, and dependence on ad hoc organization. The Frontier Thesis has fallen out of favor, but does it not prefigure the frame story of many Hollywood films? The western townspeople distrust the sheriff (always for good reason in the movies), the Lone Hero is the ad hoc organization to take care of the problem, and individualism as the highest value suffuses the hero's persona.

It is my thesis that a salient segment of the deep structure of American culture was formed in the space--both literally and figuratively--between tamed urbanized-civilized places, on the one hand, and on the other the untamed Wilderness. If the Frontier Thesis is more myth than reality, I contend this does not entirely override my thesis, because a myth is a social creation that "never happened, but is always true." This means that the myth itself, as a mental construct in the minds of millions of people through many generations, has the power to substantiate and reify. Humans create myths; myths, in turn, inform minds.

I remember 30 years ago, while working as a strip coal-mining Inspector for the Kentucky Dept. of Natural Resources, in Appalachia, one day we were out looking at some mining operation when I made fun of the Civilian Conservation Corps, set up in the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s. The older, wiser Inspector drew me up short and pointed out that the work accomplished by the CCC was of the highest quality, sometimes carried out under difficult conditions; and that some of the very stone bridges we were traveling over were built by the CCC, and looked as if they could last forever. Take a look at some National Parks: they have many CCC-constructed facilities that are still functioning yeomanly 70 years later.

I learned to be careful about the knee-jerk criticism of government which seemed to be a part of my nature. It was so automatic and government is such an easy, non-responding target. Perhaps Turner's Frontier Thesis has been operating within my own psyche. If so, then it is time to close the Mental Frontier and operate on a different set of assumptions and values and myths.

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