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Frontier Psychology
April 30, 2003 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Frontier Psychology - Does Frontier Psychology drive America in a direction that the rest of the world cannot comprehend? Roughly defined as "the effort on the part of Americans to come to grips with untamed elements of nature and, by taming them, to reorganize their society" We see it everywhere, even in Buffy. Europe appears to value stability over mobility and change, in opposition to America. Prof. Richard Slotkin has written extensively about these concepts. An interiew with audio clips is here. (Real)
Are America's recent domestic and international policy decisions attempts to tame "untamed elements" around it?
posted by Argyle (23 comments total)

 
Argyle, the answer to your first question is: Yes. It's hard to manufacture a coherent sense of identity and propriety when your heritage is based on outright theft and consequent genocide, as ours is.

More importantly, though, frontier psychology is perhaps best explained by a Frontier Psychiatrist, no?
posted by soyjoy at 11:00 AM on April 30, 2003


"the effort on the part of Americans to come to grips with untamed elements of nature and, by taming them, to reorganize their society"

Perfectly manicured, chemically-maintained lawns must be a sympton of this psychology...
posted by Shane at 11:06 AM on April 30, 2003


soyjoy,

Here's the funny thing about your post. My brother just sent me a mix CD with that song on it. As I listened, I wondered what the phase meant.

So the it went CD -> Google -> minimal research -> MeFi
posted by Argyle at 11:13 AM on April 30, 2003


I have for some time now wondered why no one has mentioned what ought to have been the fountainhead, the paradigm for the Europe versus America differences: Henry James (earlier, Hawthorne in The Marble Fawn). Many of the James novels use plots that contrast those values that are identified with Europe and these are contrasted with those things believed to be very American, a contrast between the Old World and the New. If you are unfamiliar with this motif, do some searching on the Net.
posted by Postroad at 11:16 AM on April 30, 2003


soyjoy:

Can you identify any human culture that does not have a legacy of theft and genocide? I'd be interested to hear of one.
posted by Irontom at 12:14 PM on April 30, 2003


Nice equivocation, Irontom. I didn't say "has a legacy of" I said "heritage is based upon." Because most of the world's cultures sorted out their thefts (rarely "genocide," since they were usually not that racially different and did more intermarrying than wholesale slaughter - but we'll ignore that point for now) over millennia, their heritage is based on many different things, and the usurper's attitude has been tempered in their psychology by many different factors.

The US, on the other hand, was still engaged in this particular theft-and-genocide racket in the last century (we'll assume for the sake of argument that it stopped at that point), and so it's no surprise that our national character is still infantile, still unbelievably arrogant about what the world owes us. More manifest destiny, please!
posted by soyjoy at 12:31 PM on April 30, 2003


I do not believe that US is moving faster (on average) than the rest of the world. Indeed, it was (and is) one step ahead Europe for more than 100 years. However, it took several hundred years for the first industrial revolution to make its way in the western world - now changes are happening at lighting speed in the developing world.

I'll use Frontier here in a very general sense; an economics / business equivalent would be 'emerging markets'. It might seem that the analogy is far-stretched, but think about it: new products, new technologies, growth possibilities, changes is life styles, etc. It does not matter if we talk about Internet in US, farming equipment in Africa, robot-pets in Japan or democratic changes in Eastern Europe.

Most of the theoretical models for "classical systems" are based on a large number of firms / clients / users / transactions (in certain cases we even assume competitive markets). Examples: auto, real estate, and stock markets in US. Other characteristics: a lot of data is available and the system is somehow stable, i.e. volatility is relatively low.

A Frontier system is characterized by the lack of data availability (new product, new ...) and relatively high volatility as people are trying to figure out how to take advantage of the new opportunities.

The big problem: we do not have a model for the Frontier! In most cases we do not even have reliable data! The models that we use in US and Europe fail big time when applied to Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe. Indeed, we can characterize the Frontier qualitatively (as the article does), sometimes blaming everything on culture, but we do not have an empirical based mathematical model.

And back to psychology: traditional systems are based on cooperation, repeated interactions (think 'tradition' in Europe, think regular maritime shipping operations); Frontier systems are 'one shot game', as one does not always have to "play nice" since there is always another opportunity (think exploration).
posted by MzB at 12:48 PM on April 30, 2003


rarely "genocide," since they were usually not that racially different and did more intermarrying than wholesale slaughter

The Crusades. The Spanish Inquisition. The "Flowery" wars of pre-columbus South America. The Xenophobic persecutions of non-ethnic Chinese in pre-Westernized China. The British invention of the concentration camps. etc, etc.

sorted out their thefts

Oh? They sorted out their thefts? The British gave back Northern Ireland and paid reparations to India, then? The Japanese apologized for all those countries they overran and all the comfort women they took and paid financial reparations? Wow, must've missed a few headlines.

Every country on the planet has engaged in "theft-and-genocide", and it's part of all their national heritages. Stop thinking America's unusual in this respect.
posted by unreason at 12:50 PM on April 30, 2003


it's no surprise that our national character is still infantile, still unbelievably arrogant about what the world owes us. More manifest destiny, please!

By that logic the Poles must have a national character that's *truly* "infantile." Unless they've given back Danzig when I wasn't looking. (nb: which is to say that I disagree with the logic)

I think that if you want to play this game, the big differences between Europe and America have more to do with immigrants moving into un- or lightly-populated regions, where you were to some extent hacking your farmstead from the forest or the plains, than it has to do with conquest. Everybody plays the conquest game, so it can't be a causal factor here.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:54 PM on April 30, 2003


I love this game of moral relativism, folks, and yeah, duh, we have no monopoly on historical conquest or venality.

But the fact is that there are several unique (Australia notwithstanding) factors in the establishment of "The Americas," all of which contribute to our "frontier" psychology. One is the conquest of a "savage" people who have never encountered a civilization on the order of that of the conquerors. Two is the massive amounts of virtually untapped natural resources available to fuel rapid growth of the conquerors' society. Three is the importation of previously unknown biological organisms, from horses to smallpox, allowing a massive advantage for the conquerors. Four is the geography, a seemingly limitless continent to push the natives around on, masking the reality of wholesale genocide until the conquerors reach the western edge and decide they need the entire place for themselves. Five is the symbiotic partnership of government authorities with a single industry (ever play "cowboys and indians"?) to effect that genocide. And sixth is our (U.S.'s) cognitive dissonance in having done all this, then setting up a system of government that is truly noteworthy and influential, and pretending that the latter negates the former, and indeed, is the only thing impacting the national character.

God Bless America! We're number One!
posted by soyjoy at 1:30 PM on April 30, 2003


correction: for "having done all this, then" please read "having done all this while." I was speaking syllogistically, but it came across sounding chronological.
posted by soyjoy at 1:37 PM on April 30, 2003


SoyJoy:
1. One is the conquest of a "savage" people who have never encountered a civilization on the order of that of the conquerors
The Europeans in Africa, and the Chinese conquests of the Uigar and other minorities also were this kind of situation.

2. Two is the massive amounts of virtually untapped natural resources available to fuel rapid growth of the conquerors' society
Again, see Africa. Lots o' resources. Still are, in fact.

3. Three is the importation of previously unknown biological organisms, from horses to smallpox, allowing a massive advantage for the conquerors.
An unusual biological situation, but other conquerors faced similarly lopsided situations, like when in one of their expansionist battles they fought spear-wielders with early Gatling guns. The results were about like you'd expect.

4. Four is the geography, a seemingly limitless continent
See Australia, Africa.

5. Five is the symbiotic partnership of government authorities with a single industry.
The British East India Company. The various European industrial companies. The French Multinationals in Africa up to the 60's and 70's.

6. sixth is our (U.S.'s) cognitive dissonance
You think we're the only one's in denial? Try asking the French about their role in assisting the Holocaust, or the Japanese about their own quest for biological and atomic weaponry.

Nope, nothing unique there. Feel free to keep trying though!
posted by unreason at 1:48 PM on April 30, 2003


unreason, you seem to be missing a central point: Nations carrying out expansionist activities and attempting to colonize other places are commonplace. Our entire country, on the other hand, is built on top of the spoils of a single massive conquest, forming the bulk of our national history. Citing individual incidents of other countries (many from recent history, when the cultures involved were already thousands of years old) carrying out activities that match only some of the criteria for each point, doesn't knock down what I've said about the uniqueness of our situation. Nice presentation, though.
posted by soyjoy at 2:06 PM on April 30, 2003


*steers back on topic*

So do people agree on the premise that the recent US/Europe disputes over solving 'the Iraq issue' have roots in fundamental aspects of our societies rather than purely politics du jour?
posted by Argyle at 2:12 PM on April 30, 2003


There's no uniqueness. You think Australia was empty when the settlers got there? Or Canada? What about the white settlers in South Africa? For that matter, if you go far back enough, Britain was the result of the Normans invading a Saxon nation. Not to mention how the Protestant Northern Irish got where they are today. We are hardly unique in being a country founded on a large scale land grab by force. That doesn't make the act any more palatable, but it somewhat undercuts the idea that this colonization is what makes us as a nation unique.
posted by unreason at 2:13 PM on April 30, 2003


So do people agree on the premise that the recent US/Europe disputes over solving 'the Iraq issue' have roots in fundamental aspects of our societies rather than purely politics du jour?

I think we can agree on that, which is unfortunate, as I think it makes dispute more likely in the future. The question is, why the difference? My own theory is that it has to do with the kinds of people who traditionally settled in this country. This country often in its early days tended to get people who didn't really fit in in their old countries. Remember, back then moving to America was a dangerous and usually irrevocable step. You wouldn't take that unless you either had a lot to gain by going, or a lot to lose by staying. So we got a lot of people that didn't like being told what to do. We got weird religious groups like the Puritans. Sometimes, we got criminals. These people, I think, because they chaffed under the systems of Europe, deliberately tried to create an entirely different culture. And, in fact, they succeeded! Which is why, I think, the cultures of Europe and America are so different.
posted by unreason at 2:22 PM on April 30, 2003


Soyjoy,

Everything you said about America could equally be applied to Russian expansion into Siberia, especially the "uncivilized" natives and abundent natural resources. But our two nations have turned out extremely differenty.

Additionally, the population of plains/western Native Americans were so numerically small that to the vast bulk of the European population expanding into the US, they were truly settling unoccupied, unused land. This means that the common cultural heritage derived from these experiences is far more focused on finding, settling, and developing the (relatively) uninhabited rather than the wholesale slaughter of an indigenous population. Your highly-biased view of American history would make it seem that the central events of the 19th century were the "Indian Wars" and the slaughter of innocents. They weren't. A very small percentage of the US population were engaged in these activities.

But you and Howard Zinn should go out for coffee sometime.
posted by pjgulliver at 2:29 PM on April 30, 2003


Unreason, great point!
posted by pjgulliver at 2:30 PM on April 30, 2003


You think Australia was empty when the settlers got there? Or Canada?

For the record, I said '... several unique (Australia notwithstanding) factors in the establishment of "The Americas"'. Since you're not even bothering to read what I'm writing, so I won't continue, except to wearily point out that it's "colonizing" when you're in one country oppressing another. Once the squatters form their own new country, it's a whole different ballgame.

pjg, ditto with your Russian analogy.

G'night all.
posted by soyjoy at 2:33 PM on April 30, 2003


This is interesting, Argyle, thanks. This also makes me wonder if frontier psychology is just imperialism in denial?

"America is the empire that dare not speak its name," Niall Ferguson, the Oxford professor who wrote "Empire," told a crowd at the Council on Foreign Relations here on Monday. He believes that America is so invested in its "creation myth," breaking away from a wicked empire, that Americans will always be self-deceiving — and even self-defeating — imperialists.

"The great thing about the American empire is that so many Americans disbelieve in its existence," he said. "Ever since the annexation of Texas and invasion of the Philippines, the U.S. has systematically pursued an imperial policy.

"It's simply a suspension of disbelief by Americans. They think they're so different that when they have bases in foreign territories, it's not an empire. When they invade sovereign territory, it's not an empire."

posted by homunculus at 3:07 PM on April 30, 2003


A problem with this conversation, I think, is that it's impossible to be impartial. Most of us are influenced either by the American or European perspective. Each side sees the other's view as bad or silly or Imperialistic. It seems difficult to judge one another without being trapped by our own cultural bias.
posted by unreason at 3:24 PM on April 30, 2003


Here's the funny thing about your post. My brother just sent me a mix CD with that song on it.

Would the be "Frontier Psychiatry"?
posted by iamck at 6:31 PM on April 30, 2003


Thanks for that link, homunculus.

Richard Slotkin is out-and-out incredible. I had the privilege of hearing the first half of American Lit filtered through his race lens last year, and while I can't vouch for his writing (been meaning to pick up Abe for a while now), I really recommend him as a speaker if you get the chance.

Though now that I think about it, the part of the course I remember most vividly is his delight in thinly-veiled sexual content. Lord, that man just went to town with Moby Dick...
posted by hippugeek at 8:06 PM on April 30, 2003


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