The Frontier & Its Risks

 Daniel Henninger applies Frederick Jackson Turner to the current crisis.  In 1893 Turner argued “westering”  defined American character, especially individualism.   Henninger notes “Turner’s purpose wasn’t to idealize America but to try to understand the wellsprings of its remarkable and self-evident success.”  It tells us something today: “The current crisis is the result of a world gone madly long on real estate. Daniel Boone, the famed American frontiersman, went belly-up speculating on Kentucky land. He moved on in 1788 and paid his debts. So should we, without losing sight of the American frontier, where we discovered the rewards of risk.”  Stereotypes in drama moved west – the French fop became the English courtier became the East Coast dandy; the rough, resilient English hero became an American  revolutionary, then, finally, frontiersman.  Royall  Tyler’s  describes his “Americanization” of those traditions in his preface to The ContrastOur free-born ancestors such arts despis’d; / Genuine sincerity alone they pris’d; / Their minds, with honest emulation fir’d; / To solid good — not ornament — aspir’d.”  It lies in that brief middle period which transferred the Restoration’s comedy of manners to American soil; soon, we see our cowboys and then hardboiled dicks proud western heroes, laughing at the foppery of the East Coast.

Certainly, that same spirit enlivened the presidential campaign; in the end, it was rejected by voters – wary voters in an uncertain time.  Still, the other vote was an openness to another risk – was there ever a “riskier” candidate than Obama about whom so little was known?  And, in such times, almost half of America chose candidates with the virtues and vices Henninger quotes:

“From the conditions of frontier life,” Turner believed, “came [American] intellectual traits of profound importance . . . coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil.” These, he said, are “the traits of the frontier.”

We remain open (naive or responsible, fooldhardy or brave) & active.  When people speak of the uneasy truce between conservatives concerned with national defense, financial open markets, and a social conservatism they fail to recognize all three rest on the frontier vision.  If we value individualism, have confidence in our ability to find solutions, and apply to all a ‘restless, nervous energy,” we also know what we don’t want.  We embrace personal responsibility and remain uncomfortable with social engineering:  as an approach to defense, in heavy regulation of our markets, and in our private lives.  We retain an historical sense.  History is full of risks – some that paid off and some that didn’t.  But our history, by its nature, doesn’t restrain us.  Paying for our mistakes, we move on, hoping to make fewer the next time around.  But making mistakes, we suspect, is living.

8 thoughts on “The Frontier & Its Risks”

  1. “When, in the 1990’s he looks at the current generation of American university undergraduates, ‘those earnest young people trooping off to law and business school’, Fukuyama sees tangible corroboration of all his ideas. As they fill out their resumes and study for careers to maintain their lifestyle, they ‘seem to be much more in danger of becoming last men, rather than reviving the passions of the first man’. The pursuit of material acquisitions and safe, sanctioned ambitions, he says, appears to have worked all too well. ‘It is hard to detect great, unfulfilled longing or irrational passions lurking just beneath the surface of the average first-year law associate.”
    The Killing of History by Keith Windschuttle, (Ch. 6, ‘The Fall Of Communism And The End of History’).

  2. We’ve been breeding the individualism, along with the intellect, out of the people for a century now.

    That might have been appropriate for factory workers — neither quality fares well in a dull, drudging factory job — whatever benefit they might provide is countered by the self-destruction engendered by disappointment and depression.

    It’s most critical though, that it be revived and encouraged as a part of the American psyche — those two qualities are profoundly essential to good knowledge work, and to good service work. And if the USA wants to continue to lead the way into an IP& Services Economy, they’re going to need some people with brains to do it.

  3. I think one of the biggest splits in American society is between those who have the “frontier” attitude: willing to work in an environment with some uncertainty, to carve out their own path, and to stand or fall on the results–and the “civil service” attitude–expecting very clear rewards for very explicit credentials and tasks. (I apologize in advance to the civil servants to which this does not apply.)

    Among those “trooping off to business school,” I think a fair number do have the frontier attitude, but have been told that they have little hope without the credential.

  4. I think the frontier (and long distance sea trade) both fostered a culture of empirical meritocracy i.e. people could succeed by proving they had what it took to get the job done. In more “civilized” settings opportunities and rewards come more from ones position and status. Shielded from raw nature people succeed by manipulating other human beings and by building alliance networks.

    In the latter system, change disrupts the patronage networks they rely on so the people in the system become risk adverse.

  5. Shannon…”Shielded from raw nature people succeed by manipulating other human beings and by building alliance networks”…although both the sea and the land frontier often did require success in working with and directing other people, as with the sea captain or the head man on a cattle drive. The difference from many present-day environments in that feedback tended to be more direct & immediate (ship sinks or cattle get lost on the way to the railhead)…contrast with a business consultant who may give awful advice to a client, but the client’s failure, many years later, will probably never be pinned on him.

  6. .

    Peace demands solutions, but we never reach living solutions; we only work toward them. A fixed solution is, by definition, a dead solution. The trouble with Peace is that it tends to punish mistakes instead of rewarding brilliance.
    – ‘Children of Dune’ –

    The applicability of the above is clear: on a Frontier, you’re never at Peace, never expect Peace. It takes Civilization to have Peace. So, over time, civs become risk-averse, as their people do as a result of being under the aegis of a civilized system.

    The real trick would be to define/create a societal mechanism to counter this in a balanced manner.

  7. Well, it could be worse.

    About 775,000 people are competing for 13,566 government jobs this year

    The mass rush and fierce competition to become civil servants among the country’s young and educated is emblematic of Chinese people’s increasing job-seeking tendency, that fielding a job in the government is once again esteemed by the society.

    Some economists say the trend is also a manifestation that people consider civil servants are “iron-bowl” jobs, that won’t succumb to sudden economic upheavals like the current global economic crisis, which has hardened the bottom lines of many businesses, and led to tens of hundreds of laid-offs.

  8. The real and symbolic value of the frontier was as a place that was free of the age-old restrictions on talent and enterprise. That is of course what the American Dream is all about, whether it is on the frontier or not. The frontier was temporary, but the idea of a society where individuals can act on their spirit of creativity and enterprise is an ongoing concern and the essence of the American Experiment. Today that spirit is manifested in entrepreneurship and an openness to experimentation and innovation. That poses a huge problem for the ideology of conservatism, since one of the core tenets of conservatism is an opposition to innovation and experimentation. This is one of the reasons why attempting to import a European conservatism into America makes no sense. We would be fools to expect that an ideology whose motto is “Standing athwart history shouting stop” could lead America in adapting to 21st century realities, since that would require a mindset open and enthusiastic about innovation, experimentation, and entrepreneurship. What we need to do is update classical liberal ideals to 21st century realities and sensibilities. We need an ideology that is built on that frontier spirit of creativity and enterprise, and that ain’t conservatism. We live in a time of great opportunities; a time where we get to imagine new possibilities and create new political movements. The question we have to answer is whether we are willing to embrace the frontier-style creativity and entrepreneurship that our time requires, or whether we are going to suppress our spirit of enterprise to an errant 20th century vogue for a 19th century European conservatism.

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