June 16, 2005
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Travis Charbeneau 3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221 email@example.com Phone: 804 358 0417 www.travischarbeneau.com
The Frontier is Here Travis Charbeneau slug "frontier" 811 words
PULL QUOTE: "Asked what he thought of Western Civilization, Gandhi famously replied 'it would be a good idea.' It still is."
Over the last 100 years, the American branch of Western Civilization has pretty much come to own and operate the worldwide civilization franchise with capitalism, technology, hard partying. It all followed our original Historic Mission to civilize the American wilderness, turning pioneers into "townsmen," or "civis," the Latin root for "civilization." That was short work.
Thomas Jefferson anticipated 100 _generations_ to settle the West. It took only 80 years. And, not only was the frontier officially closed by 1890; that same year the Trans-Mississippi West became America's most urbanized region. Clearly, we had not struggled West to live in the woods. We wanted a house in town.
But, "Now that we're here, where are we?" And who? Confirmed urbanites since 1890, we still can't shake the mythic Wild West, dime novel character invented during our brief cowboy epoch. For America, getting there was _all_ the fun.
So we kept going. In 1898 alone we civilized Hawaii and The Philippines. We "opened" China and acquired other places, officially and otherwise. This meant forsaking our homespun republican values for the glamour of Empire, but it served our need for "Manifest Destiny." Ever-greater imperial mischief followed our growing power as World and Cold War victors, right into Iraq -- all due in part to our love for the lost cowboy; and lost purpose. Today's frustrated commuter, trapped in traffic and a complex, ambiguous world, yearns for this simple frontier spirit. The very name of his gas-guzzling SUV -- "Trailblazer, Explorer, Trooper" -- rings with the thrilling certainty of Historic Mission.
Perversely, "the thrilling certainty of Historic Mission" is exactly what our terrorist foes have in spades. They reject, however selectively, the very modernity our forefathers fought so hard to achieve. Yearning for their own myths, they hate Western Civilization. But, again, in many ways, so do we.
Since 1890, countless novels and movies have raised to mythic tragedy the now- cliched "Butch and Sundance" dilemma of macho frontier sensibilities ruthlessly crushed by the soulless machinery of ever-encroaching civilization; its barbed wire and bureaucrats. We end up cheering for the outlaws; even the Indians! This neurotic and oft-pushed nostalgia button leaves Americans vulnerable to bogus crusades and phony frontiers.
Our latest crusade battles for too-cheap oil -- against the terrorism that too- cheap oil helps create. (America has kept gasoline _below_ 1955's 35 cents a gallon. Google "Consumer Price Index" for yourself and check "Inflation Calculator.") But, as a Historic Mission, "Cheap Gas" simply fails to inspire. It's not even "cheap" counting the pollution, the wars, and now the morally awkward scarcity of military volunteers while the bad guys are awash in eager Kamikazes.
Our most literal and sad "New Frontier" was JFK's hash of Cold War saber-rattle and timid social policy for the Sixties, the same decade that ended with the de facto closing of "Space ... the final frontier." Kennedy hurried us to the Moon where all we found was that stubborn "Now that we're here ..." We haven't been back since. Sci-fi movies may replace Westerns, but real space offers nothing nearly so appealing as what used to be California. Space still qualifies as the final frontier, but not the next one. That involves unfinished business right here.
Asked what he thought of Western Civilization, Gandhi famously replied, "It would be a good idea." It still is. As Gandhi recognized, we never finished our original civilizing mission. We built the cities, but still haven't "settled" them -- hardly news to anybody who's even visited one. Challenged to civilize the wilderness of American frontier, we have yet to civilize the wilderness of American ideals. It took 250 years just to get the slavery out.
Now, new "Culture Wars" rage over similarly-conflicting notions about what "civilization" truly means. Though reasonable folks may differ, surely "peace" should be topping the list. Yet, from Jericho 8,000 BCE to Jericho 2005, civilization's 10,000 years haven't produced very much "civilization." We're not only still killing each other, but we won't get another thousand, let alone 10,000 years to stop.
Past civilizations crumbled happily from their fatal flaws, but no flaw is so fatal as the thermonuclear device. We may yet "restore" genuine wilderness. Tiny wagon trains of radioactive cockroach families will be creaking Westward along some post-atomic Santa Fe Trail, marveling at the ruins left by the monkey people.
We still confront a wilderness of poverty, tyranny and superstition behind civilized facades of glass and steel. Even as the planet's small remaining natural wilderness hides in nature preserves under wildlife management, civilization remains a fearful jungle where, as ever, from the streets to the suites, the strong continue to prey on the weak.
The "permanent frontier" is the civilized world America now bestrides like the proverbial colossus, delicate parts dangerously exposed. Never mind the cowboy. We've got all the Historic Mission we can handle completing the unfinished work of 1890.