I’m still reading Lauret Edith Savoy’s Traces, while Jennie reads a book of Jewish history. In the background is the “militant occupation” in Oregon. Oddly, there is a good deal of overlap among the three.
Both books explore Manifest Destiny, the special relationship between a country or people, and the Creator, a relationship that encourages the chosen people to subjugate, displace, enslave, or destroy other peoples in repeated acts of nation building.
Pre-Rabinic Jewish history is rife with genocidal acts against neighboring states and tribes, territorial expansion carried out in the name of nation building, and largely endorsed, if not demanded, by God. Campaigns of ruthless territorial were common, as was the practice of enslaving the survivors. There was also a rich prophetic tradition, largely ignored, that challenged the ideology of expansion.
Savoy literally walks the history of the thirteen original states, then extends her explorations westward, following the colonial expansion. She stops to show us the unmarked graves of plantation slaves in South Carolina and Massachusetts, and wonders whether some of those buried on a South Carolina plantation might have been her relatives. She carefully puts flesh on history, those enslaved bodies belonging to Africans, Caribs, and Native Americans, and reminds us the early slave trade was mostly between the then colonies and the Caribbean islands. Native Americans who survived massacres might be enslaved locally or shipped to the Caribbean, along with other commodities. Local, “peaceful” tribes were encouraged to acquire prisoners from other tribes, who could then be sold to the colonists for desired market products.
Slavery, whether life-long, or indentured, drove the colonial economy, both providing a valuable trade commodity, and the cheap person power needed to produce large-scale agriculture. At the same time, slaves were expendable, often being literally worked to death, then replaced. Both slavery, and the genocide of Native peoples, was justified by the meme of Manifest Destiny. Yet, early on, ideas of grandeur were held in check by relatively rigid barriers to westward expansion that were enforced by the Crown. Many historians have argued that the subsequent Revolutionary War was driven more by the colonists’ desire to be freed from British limitations on westward expansion, than by taxes.
Savoy notes the century following the Revolutionary War featured the ruthless destruction of Native people and, in the Southwest, the Spanish. As she explores the Arizona/Mexico border region, she muses about the fate of the people who lived there during expansion, and wonders whether the theft of their lands, and their general disenfranchisement, might have been driven by the colonists’ fear of mixed-blood people. Along the way she meets Border Control agents who are openly derogatory towards people who try to cross the border. (We now know those attempting to cross are predominately Indigenous and young.)
As I read, I wonder about the marriage of fundamentalist religions and Manifest Destiny as it now plays out, both in domestic and international politics. There are great dangers in evoking God as a central force in policies that are driven by the idea of Manifest Destiny, with its concomitant fear, greed, and withholding of empathy. Yet, the idea of a God-given responsibility to nation build seems terribly difficult to successfully challenge. Even now, European-American “Militias” intimidate Native, and other, people with impunity, and political parties actively endorse their candidate’s courting of the Ku klux Klan and other openly racist militias, while espousing the continued expansion of national influence on a planetary scope.
There is, within the rhetoric of the Militias and politicians, a continued appeal to the logic of Manifest Destiny, an appeal that finds much support in some quarters of our population. The idea of Manifest Destiny remains current, in part, because it obscures the violence and genocide that enabled it. It is worth remembering that much of that violence has been carried out by self-proclaimed citizen militias, often with the complicity of local and national governments. I wonder what would have happened had the “armed occupation” of the Federal property in Oregon been carried out by Native people or persons of color.
As I ponder all of this, I worry that without understand the genocide at the heart of much of world history, and nation building, we will not find our way to that promised, holy land of peace and freedom. I think, too, about the historical tradition of prophesy, and wonder whether time is running out.