Thursday, August 05, 2004

The closing of the frontier

Another casualty of Sept. 11, it seems to me, is the once-powerful metaphor of the American frontier. Officially closed since about 1890, the frontier remained a compelling image for American progressivism. Remember the "New Frontier" that JFK outlined in a Los Angeles coliseum:

For I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, the prisoners of their own price tags. Their motto was not "every man for himself"--but "all for the common cause." They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within.

. . .

. . . I tell you the New Frontier is here, whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric--and those who prefer that course should not cast their votes for me, regardless of party.

But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision. I am asking each of you to be pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age--to all who respond to the Scriptural call: "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed."

With Caroline Kennedy's help, at a Democratic National Convention that took place again in Los Angeles, Al Gore revived the call to the New Frontier.

The metaphor of the frontier was conspicuously absent from the speeches in Boston. So much a part of the American psyche for so long, it seems to have vanished altogether with the institution of "homeland security." And that is not so surprising, for as a great historian of the American West, Walter Prescott Webb, pointed out many years ago, countries (he was thinking of European countries) that have to worry about the security of their borders do not put a lot of imaginative investment into the frontier: it is a danger zone.

In October 1951, in an article publichsed in Harper's Magazine, which was expanded into The Great Frontier, Webb asked us give it up:

I should like to make it clear that mankind is really searching for a new frontier which we once had and did not prize, and the longer we had it, the less we valued it; but now that we have lost it, we have a great pain in the heart, and we are always trying to get it back again. It seems to me that historians and all thoughtful persons are bound by their obligation to say that there is no new frontier in sight comparable in magnitude or importance to the one that is lost. They should point out the diversity and heterogeneity, not to say the absurdity, of so-called new frontiers. They are all fallacies, these new frontiers, and they are pernicious in proportion to their plausibility and respectability. The scientists themselves should join in disabusing the public as to what science can be expected to do. It can do much, but, to paraphrase Isaiah Bowman, it is not likely soon to find a new world or to make the one we have much bigger than it is. If the frontier is gone, we should have the courage and honesty to recognize the fact, cease to cry for what we have lost, and devote our energy to finding the solutions to the problems now facing a frontierless society. And when the age we now call modern is modern no longer, and requires a new name, we may properly call it the Age of the Frontier, and leave it to its place in history.

With the Space Age before him, John Kennedy was not ready for this advice. Neither were the rest of us. The frontier, like Gatsby's green light, offered nothing less than the American Dream, the boundless promise of the American Century. Perhaps now we would be wise to listen to what is being said here. Ahead of his time, Webb is saying simply that we live on a planet with finite resources, that we need to find creative ways to live within limits.

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