Friday, August 27, 2010

Manifest Destiny Revivalism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

During the 19th century the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States was one of “God-ordained” expansionism. African slaves, indigenous peoples, Mexican nationals and other “non-Europeans” were deemed aliens and enemy combatants, anathema to the democratizing force of America. Using that “old time religion” to shepherd the flock on the 47th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington Glenn Beck’s “Divine Destiny” revival deftly mines this history. Beck’s decision to hold the event on the March on Washington anniversary has elicited outrage amongst civil rights organizations who accuse him and the radical right of hijacking the legacy of the civil rights movement. Reeking of sulfur, hubris and the visionary charlatanism of 1920s revivalist Aimee Semple McPherson, Beck claimed that the Divine Destiny event will provide “an inspiring look at the role faith played in the founding of America and the role it will play again in its destiny.”

Decrying the cultural primitivism and backwardness of the Muslim world, twenty first century Christian zealots seeking to preserve human rights as the province of white supremacy continue to put the lie to American exceptionalism. Over the past week the Islamphobic vitriol of demagogues like Beck, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have paid off in cold blood. The recent stabbing of a Muslim cabdriver in New York and the hate attack against a Fresno, California Islamic center (by an organization calling itself the American Nationalist Brotherhood), are the tragic but all too predictable results of the nationalist chest beating that masquerades as empathy for the victims of 9/11.

In a climate in which the militant right wants to dismantle civil rights freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution, Beck’s evocation of “divine destiny” is all of a piece. Throughout American history, recourse to the transparent word of God has always been the last refuge of scoundrels wielding the Bible and the bayonet as protections from the ungovernable horde. Thus, it is fitting that this naked evocation of the language and legacy of Manifest Destiny comes during a period when the right has launched a campaign to repeal the 1868 14th amendment, which was originally initiated to confer citizenship onto freed African slaves. As Kevin Alexander Gray writes in Counterpunch, “in the Reconstruction period, as now, racism and white supremacy loomed large in public debate. Back then, opponents of the amendment talked about ‘public morality’ being threatened by people ‘unfit for the responsibilities of American citizenship.’’ Now the self-appointed defenders of public morality have come full circle, drunk on a cocktail of xenophobia, anti-immigrant hysteria and jingoism.

Vaulting ahead of the pack, former Republican Congressman Nathan Deal, one of the staunchest critics of the 14th amendment’s provision of birthright citizenship, introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2009 into the House. The statute would deny citizenship to children born in the U.S. to undocumented women, stripping away yet another civil right that ostensibly distinguishes the U.S. from fascist governments. Deal’s legislation is a reminder of the connection between slavery and expansionism. In the 1840s, the concept of manifest destiny was used to justify the U.S.’ brutal occupation of Mexican territory. Cultural propaganda demonizing and dehumanizing indigenous Mexican populations provided American imperialism with the aura of moral righteousness. Commenting on the U.S.-Mexico War, it was no less than “radical” poet Walt Whitman who stated: "What has miserable, inefficient Mexico—with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many—what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours, to achieve that mission!"

Back in the good old days of docile slaves and vanquished savages, there were no ambiguities about who deserved to be accorded rights. God ordained the universality of European American experience, civilization and moral worth. Non-white peoples either submitted to the Enlightenment principles and values of the culturally superior West or were extinguished. States rights were citizens’ last vestige of protection from the trespasses of big government. So it is no mystery then why the ideology of 19th century expansionism and evangelical Christian revivalism has gained fresh currency amongst a “reloading” white nationalist insurgency. As the freshly inked graffiti on the vandalized Islamic Center in Fresno proclaimed, “Wake up America, the Enemy is here.”

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a senior fellow for the Institute for Humanist Studies.


norman said...

Excellent article. The sad thing is that most of the people who will take part Beck's little parade will be doing so with good intentions, totally oblivious to the historical hypocracy that the whole thing embodies.

To me it seems that all grass-roots support enjoyed by the US right-wing is contigent on a general public ignorance of history. Ignorance is its foundation, a rotten foundation that should be collapsed.

Anonymous said...

I've read your articles before and you are an intelligent, observant, and passionate writer. As with a lot of what you write I agree with quite a bit of it and this article is no exception.
I have to, however, address your use of the word and the idea of Islamaphobia. Islamaphobia is a made up term to silence criticism. It is akin to saying I am KluKlukKlanaphobic because I find this religious group's ideas and dogma so abhorrent that I speak out against it. Like Islam, no one is born a KKK member, they are either indoctrinated too, or choose to follow it's ideals. Like Islam the KKK is an idea and you cannot be phobic to an idea.

A phobia is to have an irrational fear of something. If I fear say gay people because of what they are, then I would be Homophobic because being gay is not a choice, not a system of beliefs or an idea. Islam on the other hand is a belief system, a set of ideas, a choice, which has a defined dogma, rules and beliefs, and a history of actions based on those beliefs that are accessible and can be studied and understood. There is nothing irrational about finding those beliefs to be abhorrent, and the people who commit actions based on those beliefs to be abhorrent and a cause to be feared.

Just because the people at this Beck and Pailn travesty hate and fear of Islam, and are likely racists and bigots as well, does not mean that you should allow yourself to be intellectually lazy by using a made up term like "Islamaphobia" when it clearly does not mean what you use it for.

Please don't accuse me of playing semantic games because thats not what I'm trying to do here. English is a very precise language and the idea you are going for in describing a group of peoples attitudes and prejudices is not a simple one and should not be summed up in a single word.

I feel confident that I, as a rational and liberal minded individual can fear the effects of and speak out against the hate, misogyny, and intolerance of the Islamic religion, political ideology, and acts in it's name, without being a bigot. What is the single word you would use to describe me?

shutch said...

Thanks for the comments; During his show Saturday Beck called on charlatan historian par excellence David Barton to bolster his confabulated Christian history with a fawning audience of impressionable (virtually all-white youth) in attendance. The political and social indoctrination of the next generation is another chilling aspect of this "insurgency."

deichmans said...

By that same logic, Constitutionalism is a shaky edifice because slaves were not initially afforded the same rights -- nor the same "head count" -- as men.

But the idea -- and the ideal -- evolved.  We could not be where we are today without those early (albeit imperfect) steps.

American exceptionalism does not mean we have a perfect past, but rather that we strive for a perfect future.  That is Beck's message.

shutch said...

That's why historically there have been amendments to the Constitution; to explicitly ensure equal protection under the law for those who were not propertied white middle class males. Beck's revival movement wants to dismantle those inroads and exceptionalism is a merely another iteration of the American meritocracy myth that allows unearned privilege based on race, gender, sexual orientation and ability status to become institutionalized as "transparent" rights.