31: Richard Drinnon’s Facing West

In Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, Richard Drinnon uses an old American Studies analytical tool called “myth and symbol” to get at the ideological and mythological justifications behind westward expansion from the colonial era to the present day.  The idea behind myth and symbol is that cultural productions, like novels, paintings, political essays, advertisements, etc., may not represent the real world as it is, but they do a really good job of representing the world as the artist and his or her intended audience see it.  Especially if the cultural production is intended for a mass audience (so that it represents the world view of a lot of people), the myth and symbol school holds that the worldview it espouses can be used to explain the behavior, culture, and mindset of a group of people.  Old school American Studies scholars applied this method to dime novels, paintings, and so on get at the “American mind;” Drinnon applies it to the writings of folks ranging from John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Frederick Jackson Turner to John Dunn Hunter, Dean Worcester, and Alden T. Vaughn, and he uses it to pull out the connection between racism (“indian-hating”) and empire.

His main finding is that throughout American history, Anglo expansionists set up a binary between themselves, who they considered rational, ascetic, civilized, and not bound by geography, and anyone in their way, who they characterized as sensuous, embodied, wild, “indwellers of the very animal world the newcomers so arrogantly sought to rise above.”  (Drinnon prefers the binary between ascetic and sensuous.) Confrontations between these two groups follow three major patterns of action: repression, racism, and cultural chauvenism.  These patterns are present in the writings of 5 major groupings of texts: the New England Puritans (city on a hill), the founding fathers (especially in the link between the Enlightenment and nationalism), philanthropists (who thought of themselves as bearers of civilization in an empty wilderness), civilizers (who turn frontier hatred of Indians into theories of nationalism and ethnocentrism), and wars in Vietnam and the Philippines, each read through the eyes of a single man.

Drinnon clearly portrays the one-sided racism in these texts, and he’s good at tracing the shifting character of domestic racism, Indian-hating, and imperialism, geographically as well as culturally.  He also makes a compelling case for linking America’s internal history of racist empire-building to imperialism beyond the contiguous US.  But since he was writing in the late 1990s, it’s strange that this book doesn’t take voices from the other side into account; he also doesn’t have many dissenting voices from within the dominant culture.  A more nuanced picture of both sides of the equation would give this book some depth.

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