Editor’s Note: our Book Blog feature combines a shareable quote from, and a short review of, an important left wing or left-leaning work of nonfiction I’ve read and would like to share or expound on.
A little while ago, I published a lengthy piece about how corporate media coverage of the so-called “migrant crisis at the U.S. border” uniformly conformed to the dictates of the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model; regardless of the ideological bent of the outlet publishing that coverage. Towards the end of that essay, I discussed the difference between describing how America created the crises driving migration, and what is actually happening on the ground in relation to those crises; before recommending readers who wanted to know more, check out “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the mind of America” by Greg Grandin.
As longtime readers of this blog may remember, I’ve always been a big fan of Grandin’s work; in particular his scholarship on U.S. imperialism in Latin America is absolutely first rate. Given these factors, today I’d like to return to that portion of the discussion by offering a quote from (see above,) and a brief review of “The End of the Myth” here on Can’t You Read.
Frankly, for a guy whose writing is so accessible, Greg Grandin remains an extraordinarily complex thinker whose historical analysis explores a sometimes overwhelming number of “variations on a theme” in the larger scope of his primary thesis. Given the sad state of the term intellectual in our society, I won’t burden professor Grandin with the title, but as scholars go this guy genuinely fulfills his obligation to present the facts, and challenge established assumptions vigorously where warranted.
In that vein, the author opens The End of the Myth with a fundamentally sound, but deceptively simple thesis; that America has always resolved the staggering contradictions between its stated ideals, and its horrifying practices by projecting its identity, and even its very conception of the term “freedom” through the lens of an endless expansion across a wholly mythical, and ultimately metaphysical, frontier. Indeed, as Grandin notes quite early on in The End of the Myth, the contradiction between the colonial enterprise that eventually became America, and escaping the crushing poverty and violence of the old world was resolved by a genocidal project to claim the frontier before early-American settlers even had a word for the frontier. The story outpaced reality, right from the beginning.
Tracing the line of history from the foundation of the colonies, through the American Civil War, and into the modern era of Pig Empire dominated globalized trade, Grandin demonstrates that at each phase American society resolved the deferred promise of freedom inherent in its foundational mythos, by projecting the violence and conflict inherent to its settler-colonial, hyper-capitalist nature, outward and against a constantly-shifting “other.” From Manifest Destiny, to the Monroe Doctrine and on through our modern War on Terror, the solution to America’s problems has always been found in the destruction of an external enemy, and the expansion of the mythical “frontier.”
Where Grandin’s work really starts to get interesting however, is when he meticulously dissects the internal conflicts a settler colonial project of genocide and slavery created; conflicts that a romanticized vision of endless frontier expansion both rationalized, and reinforced. It is in this analysis that the author exposes the myth of freedom for those who can claim it on an endless frontier, as the skeleton key for understanding the increasingly critical flaws in Pig Empire society. After all, all wars, even an endless war based on the myth of infinite growth, have casualties, and the unrelenting legacy of violence, dehumanization, and ruthless exploitation of the eternal other have fundamentally altered American society in ways no idealized frontier could ever heal. In a wholly disturbing way then, the very existence of marginalized nonwhites inside “the nation” becomes a taunting reminder of a faltering white supremacist legacy the Pig Empire has never made any attempts to reconcile with, let alone end.
These consequences are the dark, unspoken truths of both American history and America’s present; and they are rarely if ever exposed to the public eye. In doing so, Grandin lays bare the roots of American imperialism, white supremacy, colonial exploitation, and even U.S. dominated “borderless capitalism” in the modern era. Like a cancerous tumor, the myth of the American frontier has fueled the endless growth of a Pig Empire capitalist class that threatens to unleash fascist violence to maintain control now that the frontier thesis has run into the hard walls of both history, and reality. By exposing the catastrophic fallout of worshipping frontier mythology in America’s past, Grandin does much to reveal how “the land of the free” has never really stopped being “the home of the slave.”
Importantly however the author does not remain entirely in the past. Grandin also draws stark attention to the fact that although the myth of the frontier has lost its power to obscure America’s horrifying contradictions, it has done nothing to satiate the greed and arrogance of the primary beneficiaries of those contradictions in modern life:
“The fantasies of the super-rich, no less than their capital, have free range. They imagine themselves sea-steaders, setting out to create floating villages beyond government control, or they fund life-extension research hoping to escape death or to upload their consciousness into the cloud. Mars, says one, will very soon be humanity’s “new frontier.” A hedge-fund billionaire backer of Trump who believes “human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make” and that people on public assistance have “negative value,” a man so anti-social he doesn’t look people in the eye and whistles when others try to talk with him, gets to play volunteer sheriff in an old New Mexico mining town and is thereby allowed to carry a gun in all fifty states. Never before has a ruling class been as free - so completely emancipated from the people it rules - as ours.”
Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth.
Of course, given that The End of the Myth was published in 2019, a certain percentage of the book is focused on specifically what Trump, Trumpism, and Trump’s promise to build a border wall mean for modern American politics. Even this seemingly contemporary discussion however, offers timeless insights on both the past and future of an America that continues to embrace nativist ideas and ideology. Although Grandin never uses the term, he subtly notes that in many ways Trumpism itself represents an explicit ideological rejection of endless growth along an infinite frontier, and even offers a horrifying “solution” to our present day climate crisis - white nationalist infused eco-fascism.
Look, you probably don’t need me to convince you a Pulitzer-prize winning book by a celebrated American historian is “a good read.” What I’d like to add here however is that Grandin’s book isn’t just a guide to understanding American nativism, immigration policy, and right wing fantasies of migrant invasions; this book is a guide to understanding both American political thought, and rising Pig Empire fascism - which in a lot of ways, are very much the same thing.
I don’t know if this is the best American history book ever published, but frankly I suspect it’s in the running. Even though I don’t agree with everything Grandin says in The End of the Myth, I’d still ultimately give it an enthusiastic five star rating. More importantly, I would strongly suggest this work as a must-read volume for folks looking to understand why the Pig Empire works the way it does.
Infinite Frontier (The Nation review)
America can no longer run from its past (Guardian review)
A Monument to Disenchantment (Jacobin review)
Slavery, and American Racism, Were Born in Genocide
- nina illingworth
Independent writer, critic and analyst with a left focus. Please help me fight corporate censorship by sharing my articles with your friends online!
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