American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers – 9 :The Failure of Discourse

Author: Rajiv Malhotra.

American attitudes toward the Native Americans were complex. Internal conflicts among influential Americans remained and pro-native voices definitely existed throughout this long saga.


Whites for one plan would argue against Whites for another plan concerning the plight of the Native Americans. There is an important lesson here when “area studies” disciplines about non-Western nations are being controlled by American institutions and driven by its deep culture’s worldview. 

There were many periods in which the Native Americans, represented by their White supporters, seemed to be well protected and temporarily secure. The pendulum swings back and forth many times during this 300 year encounter, but Native Americans continually slip in their share of the land, their rights, and ultimately their very survival. Along the way, there were important stories of their defense by Whites as well as betrayals and dishonesty. While the Whites always had a clear Manifest Destiny, the Native Americans did not have a comparable myth of their own destiny to take over the earth. This meant that even those Whites who supported the Native Americans did so in the context of their own (superior) place in Manifest Destiny. 

Native Americans did not control the discourse because of a lack of their own grand narrative in which to theorize about the Whites collectively (i.e., a deep cultural strategic advantage for the White Americans). They also lost control over the discourse because White institutions, intellectuals, media and writers ran the show.

Since Whites controlled all three layers—deep culture, institutions of power, and pop culture—this made Native Americans vulnerable to cultural genocide that was followed by their physical ethnic cleansing. 

It is indeed a sad ending. The Native Americans have slowly been re-positioned with great sympathy. The ideological stance and iconography about them has turned into a positive image of the “cult of the Indian,” now that he was only present in museums and ceased to be a threat. The old Frontier has been captured already and the boundaries have moved to new frontiers. Native American culture is now a trophy to adorn mainstream America. From its original positioning as grotesque and savage it is now beautiful and “American.” 

Hypocrisy as National Character 

Importantly, throughout the debates on what to do about the “savage,” there took place an intellectual game, the purpose of which was to show that a fair and equitable due process was being carried out. The best academic minds in America produced (and continue to produce) devastating negative knowledge about others while seeming to be liberal and to engage in honest academic discussions. In light of this pattern, Marimba Ani, a Black scholar of White culture, provides a provocative but cogent framework to interpret White culture, suggesting that hypocrisy is an essential element of its success. She explains European/American culture includes moral statements whose primary purpose is image projection and political benefits. This is the same competence that is found in American advertising, public relations and salesmanship: 

Within the nature of European/American culture there exists a statement of value or of “moral” behavior that has no meaning for the members of that culture. I call this the “rhetorical ethic”; . . . The European mind is a political one and for this reason constantly aware of the political effect of words and images as they are used for the purposes of manipulation. By “political” I mean to indicate an ego that consistently experiences people as others; as representatives of interests defined differently and, therefore, as conflicting with this “ego.” The individual is concerned, therefore, with the way in which his verbal expression and the image he projects can influence the behavior of those to whom he relates . . . This is what is “deeply rooted” in the American mind—the psychology of “public relations,” “salesmanship,” and political strategy. (Ani n. d.) 

According to Ani, Americans have a deep talent to project moral values in a manner that appears altruistic and thereby hides their own vested interests: 

Because they exported (“sold”) this altruistic image so successfully, they have had to project themselves as adhering to this “ideal”; similarly, the projection of themselves or their motives in this way has been essential to the successful imposition of this “ethic” on others. The basic principle . . . . is that the major contributing factor to the success of American nationalism has been its projection as disinterested internationalism. (Ani n. d.) 

Americans honestly believe that their actions are intended for others’ good. In this way, they have fallen victim to their own myth. 

Lessons from the Native American Experience 

The wars against the Native Americans were concluded in the 1890s, but deep patterns remain in the American culture which distinguish it from other Eurocentric cultures. We have examined seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century ways of dealing with the native “other,” which began with European roots in biblical and Enlightenment thinking. We have traced how both these sources were used to frame the idea of the “other” as savage or noble, dangerous or childlike, depending on which model best suited the requirements of personal greed or national expansion. We have seen how well-meaning people who spoke up for the natives were marginalized, and we have noted that the Native Americans were the losers in part because they lacked a grand unifying myth that could help them participate in the discourse that justified their destruction. In the following section, we will apply the same insights to an examination of the period of American domination on a global scale, which still continues in spite of recent setbacks. 

Civilization’s Aesthetics, Morality, and Reason 

Myths are the organizing principles shared by a people to give meaning to their collective memories and to bring coherence to their present experiences and future expectations. Myths are not necessarily false, and the functional power and effect of a myth is determined by people’s belief in it and not the extent to which it is “true.” Myths are built by selectively picking and choosing parts of the truth that fit and help empower the myth while ignoring or whitewashing parts that don’t. A myth contextualizes the motifs it borrows into a coherent picture for the intended audience. 

Biblical myths are filled with motifs that show the chaotic wilderness as Satanic, and Eden as the realm of Order. The struggle between Good and Evil is a battle between Order and Chaos. Centuries later, the Enlightenment movement in Europe removed the dependency on explicit theological references to God and Satan, but the underlying implicit premises have remained the same. Eden was replaced by the secular notion of Civilization. The Enlightenment considered Civilization to be orderly and standing in opposition to uncivilized societies that were characterized by Chaos. Cultural ambiguity and uncertainty are markers of Chaos whereas Order is characterized with normative, decisive, canonized rules and predictability.

The West, as Hegel pronounced, was uniquely endowed to lead the rest toward Civilization. Those who were not following the West on this caravan were destined to perish—the Native Americans, Hegel wrote, were thus meant to suffer genocide, just as the Africans were suited for slavery. 

A variety of stereotypes were constructed and associated with depicting these “savages” revolving around the biblical idea of chaos—such as incoherence, evil, socially irresponsibility, irrationality, and sometimes sexual promiscuity. All these attributes are power-laden images. They serve as code words that can devastate when applied, because they bring forth powerful knots of energy hidden in the collective subconscious. 

Stereotypes of civilized and savage peoples 

A key approach to evaluating other cultures was based on White Americans’ criteria of beauty and aesthetics. The “savage” others were depicted as ugly and their deities and symbols were considered grotesque. The other’s aesthetics was also seen as a barometer of his morality. God made good people beautiful, and conversely, beautiful people must be good. Ideas of aesthetics are controlled by the dominant culture of the time, and this culture likes to project itself as the image of goodness. While images of Jesus in art in the early centuries showed him to be dark- skinned, since the Italian Renaissance he acquired White phenotypes. Only in the early twentieth century was he first painted as blonde with blue eyes. Besides aesthetics and morality, the third dimension of this framework was about truth.

The “savages” lacked rationality. Civilized people—who were good in looks and morals—had Reason. The triad of beauty-goodness-truth became commonly applied in the discourse about non-White peoples . 

Once any one or two out of the triad of attributes could be asserted concerning a given “savage,” then all three evaluations automatically applied: Grotesque deities and filth in the society signified immoral people who lacked reason. Poverty implied lack of rationality because rationality results in progress; hence poverty was correlated with lack of morality, and thus the poor need to be “saved” from their immoral native culture. 

To be continued ..

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian American researcher, author, speaker, thinker and public intellectual on contemporary issues as they relate to civilization, cross-cultural encounters, spirituality, and science.  He studied Physics at St. Stephens College in Delhi and did his post-graduate education in Physics, View More

1 thought on “American Exceptionalism and the Myth of the Frontiers – 9 :The Failure of Discourse”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: