Demographic: picture of the people
Migration: change, related to mutate
We moderns take for granted the freedom to move about, visit exotic places, sell our houses, join a different church, take a job that requires moving to another city, study abroad or even become “ex-patriots.”
But consider that (with the exception of certain nomadic tribes) most people throughout history in most places, including Europe, spent their entire lives in the same place, and that place was very likely where their great-great-grandparents had also lived. People were connected with place in ways we can barely imagine. They were indigenous (“sprung or born from the land”). Enter America.
The idea of America was born in the age of exploration and colonialism. People began to move long distances for conquest or opportunity. Others – the black others – moved because they were forced to. Chapter Seven of my book goes into great detail to describe this idea of America and the new mythic narrative that Europeans evolved. Here I want to give some of the background to our sacred value of mobility and how it has had its own impact on the madness of Trump.
Although empires always fabricate ideologies to rationalize conquest, only Americans, from the very start – even before they called themselves Americans – justified invasion, enslavement and genocide with stories of idealism, good intentions and, eventually, “Manifest Destiny.” Only in America could an 18th century minister encourage his flock: “There are 3,000 miles of wilderness behind these Indians…We must free our land of strangers, even if each mile is a marsh of blood.”
This magical notion has been the bedrock foundation of our foreign policy – or at least of our beliefs about it – since Day One. The myth of American Innocence equated mobility with progress; we improve by moving. Indeed, many believed that history itself was heliotropic, moving constantly westward. From 1492 until the official closing of the frontier in 1890, white people saw (or convinced themselves that they saw) thousands of miles of empty land for the taking. Cheap western land served as a safety valve for the discontented, so abject poverty (among whites) was, for a while, relatively uncommon. To an extent unimaginable in Europe, Americans became landowners, and land meant freedom.
There were many painful lessons to be learned, but white men easily forgot those lessons, because they always had the privilege of continually existing in a “new” America. America The Beautiful (1895) sings:
O beautiful for Pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
Always moving towards something better, Americans tended to look condescendingly upon those who stayed home. For the upwardly mobile, to be is to be stuck. De Tocqueville observed,
A man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on… he soon afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere… he will travel fifteen hundred miles to shake off his happiness.
Mobility (symbolized eventually by the automobile) expresses an enduring and deeper aspect of the myth: starting over. One could always pull up stakes, move on, try something new or join a different church.
One needed to constantly expand and grow geographically, economically, socially and spiritually. This led to wildly divergent yet philosophically similar ideals, from infinitely expanding consumer economies to “New Age” spirituality. But always it means movement: in 2005, only six percent of the million inhabitants of Las Vegas – the ultimate place of the New Start – had been born there.
“New Start” implies a familiar archetype. Tribal initiation takes boys out of their community before returning them with their sense of purpose revitalized. We could think of it as points in time rooted within space (the ancestral land). America inverted this ancient relationship – a person could simply leave home to acquire a new identity. Our toxic mimic of initiation became points in space rooted in time.
As early as 1600 America symbolized the New Start for all of Europe, humanity reborn into innocence. By 1865, newspaper editor Horace Greeley could write, “Go west, young man,” and everyone understood that personal improvement went along with the nation’s manifest destiny.
This version of the myth remains nearly as strong today, but so does its shadow, the astonishing unwillingness on the part of “native” whites to welcome newer immigrants and to blame them for all evils. One source of the “white anger” we’ve been hearing so much about is disappointment that the promise of America – like an empty fortune cookie, as Tim Wise says – has turned out to be a con job.
Part of the con is that Americans became, like no one before them ever had, individuals. For the most part, they moved west not as clans or tribes or with shared religious values, but as isolated individuals. Historian Greil Marcus writes,
To be an American is to feel the promise as a birthright, and to feel alone and haunted when the promise fails. No failure in America, whether of love or money, is ever simple; it is always a kind of betrayal.
More than any people in history, we suffer from a queasy rootlessness at the foundation of our identity. Its source is the bedrock of unexpressed grief for the incomprehensibly massive suffering that Europeans have inflicted on this continent.
Now, all these years later, the Electoral College and its irrelevance to modern democracy is connected directly to this notion of mobility. I know this has been a depressing time and a sobering essay, so please allow me a small joke. After long deliberation, I’ve been able to condense my entire book down to two sentences: It sucks here. I’m moving west.
The myth offered people from as far back east as Europe the idea that freedom, defined most often as the opportunity for ambitious persons to move forward in space as well as in spirit, to get ahead, to make a killing. Consider that people have pondered and acted upon these questions for the entire span of American history, right up to the present. From covered wagons to Silicon Valley, California in particular is filled with such people and their descendants.
This is not a one-dimensional (or uni-directional) story. The nation had always seen migrations from the east coast to progressively further westward and rural areas, with cities growing up in the Midwest. But our sense of ourselves – our identity – had remained rural in character, and so did our mythology, which has been populated with many colorful characters who come from the outlying areas, enter the Big City, tweak the noses of the urban big-wigs and return home laden with cash. Dionysus cons Apollo, with the help of Hermes. And when, in countless Western movies, when one of those fast-talking, fancy-dressing city slickers ventures out to the frontier, he usually gets what’s coming to him.
This of course is not a purely American motif; it goes back to the European traditions of the Holy Fool and the legend of Parsifal and back further to ancient trickster myths. But the archetype of the Con Man is purely American.
Americans (white, rural Americans) in particular have always hated the perceived corruption of the Big City and its corollary Big Government, despite always receiving more in subsidies than they give in taxes. And if you doubt the potency of this mythic narrative, let me remind you that every single Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon, and almost all of the Democrats, have portrayed themselves (despite their Ivy League credentials and Wall Street connections) as “outsiders” reluctantly taking up the crusade of cleaning up the mess in urban (read: non-white) Washington. Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” is merely the latest version of a very old story.
We’ll go deeper into this notion of mobility in the next installment. Read Part Ten here.