by Lawrence Davidson, To the Point Analyses, 25 December 2012
Part I — America’s Frontier Mentality
Here is part of an Associated Press announcement appearing in U.S. papers on 20 December 2012: “Declaring the time for action overdue, President Obama promised on Wednesday [19 December] to send Congress broad proposals in January for tightening gun laws and curbing violence after last week’s schoolhouse massacre in Connecticut.”
The issue of violence goes far beyond the Newtown Connecticut incident, of course, and its ubiquity, on the streets as well as in the schools, is what has moved Obama to finally act. One can speculate about why violence in the United States, here represented by assaults using guns, is so widespread. Certainly, there is a cultural aspect to it.
Back in 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner wrote a famous essay about the “closing of the American frontier.” He commented that having been a frontier society since the first settlers arrived from Europe, a frontier mentality became a seminal aspect of the American character. Though Turner tied this culturally embedded mentality to the impulse for both personal liberty and national territorial expansion, there is another aspect of the frontier that may well be its most lasting contribution to U.S, culture.
Historically what is life on a frontier like? It is usually unsettled, without the secure rule of law. In the case of the United State, the frontier was a semi-militarized place with an enemy just over the horizon, violence common, and guns for just about every settler. Out of this environment grew the perverse ideal of power and freedom embodied in the “rugged individual” who uses force (coming literally out of the barrel of a gun) to tame an “uncivilized” world and thereby obtain what he needs and protect what he has. That heritage might partly explain why, out of a population (as of 2011) of 311,591,91, there are an estimated 270,000,000 firearms in the hands of the civilian population.
Gun culture was an integral part of the frontier culture and is still, for many Americans, symbolic of their personal liberty. But in the end the gun is only a device through which to wield power and it is power that Americans aspire to above all. It is their “manifest destiny.” Too many Americans see themselves as exceptional: blessed by God, expert practitioners of free enterprise, and the people who really know what freedom and rights are all about. And, in the process of using power to demonstrate this exceptional status, both as individuals and as a nation, they consistently make a bloody mess….
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