History’s Sinkhole | The Nation


History’s Sinkhole

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“We aren’t here to catch Mexicans,” Shapira says of his own experience patrolling the border with the Minutemen. Rather, he writes that the MCDC’s volunteers—nearly all of them war veterans—are looking for a “particular form of associational life; they are looking for male spaces, spaces where they can carry guns and be soldiers at war, spaces where the way they have learned to be in the world through previous life experiences makes sense,” where they can “attain a sense of self-worth.” The Minutemen’s striving for “belonging,” he believes, places them not at the margin but in the mainstream of American political culture. Their actions “resonate with a liberal democratic politics,” and the camaraderie they create at the border achieves what “our whole liberal democratic political tradition” wants citizens to be: “engaged, active, and concerned.”

Waiting for José
The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America.
By Harel Shapira.
Buy this book

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin is the author of Empire's Workshop, Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and the...

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It would be easy to quibble with Shapira for reducing liberalism to political action—vigilante justice, no less—and rooting citizenship in the rituals of masculinity and war. But there is something unwittingly contrarian about his book: for all its empathy with the paramilitarist xenophobia of the Minutemen, its findings can also be used to criticize American liberalism by excavating its settler-colonial foundation.

Frederick Jackson Turner is the most famous in a long line of observers who have argued that America’s exceptional political culture was formed in its borderlands. “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.” That was how he began his 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Louis Hartz, in The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955, downplayed the importance of the frontier as such but did emphasize the supposed social emptiness of the American continent, especially the fact that liberalism had no serious ideological contender, neither aristocracy nor socialism, and therefore was never forced to evolve into a more mature, self-aware politics. Twenty years later, the political theorist Michael Paul Rogin combined Turner and Hartz and folded in the obvious: American liberalism might not have had feudalism to fight against, but it did have Native Americans and Mexicans. A century of race war across the continent, Rogin argued in Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian, allowed white men to psychically reproduce the ideal of a disciplined, property-holding and natural-rights-bearing self, even as capitalism was eroding the social foundation of that ideal, destroying traditional sources of power like the patriarchal family and creating, through wage labor and debt, new, insidiously abstract forms of bondage. Rogin died shortly after 9/11, but he would have recognized Shapira’s description of men who defined their freedom against Mexican slavishness and who tried to overcome their “isolation” and “alienation” through the fantasy of a never-ending war. He might even have called it liberalism. 

Shapira is a sociologist, but there is little in the way of sociology in Waiting for José. Other sociologists, including Michael Kimmel and Abby Ferber, and journalists such as Joel Dyer, have argued that the rise of the militia right in the 1990s is directly traceable to federal policies put into place after the collapse of Keynesianism in the 1970s. Brutally high interest rates led to the offshoring of US manufacturing and made credit too expensive for the average farmer; agricultural legislation favored industrialized, low-priced food production, leading to the destruction of upward of a million family farms; and trade, labor and immigration policies ensured that there was no bottom limit on how low wages could fall. The destruction wrought by NAFTA on rural Mexico in the 1990s, then, was actually the second stage of a unified assault first launched on American farms and factories a decade earlier. A remark of Dwight Eisenhower’s from his first inaugural address—“whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America”—has turned out to be double-edged. 

Shapira, though, avoids making larger specific arguments regarding politics, economics and the rise of border vigilantism. He keeps his analysis gauzy and close to the heart: the men he writes about are saddened by a “loss of community,” made vulnerable by a “forfeiture of deep relationships.” Such small-bore analysis makes one yearn for some conceptual Lebensraum, to return to the Hegelian sweep of Turner and his interpreters and ask: What is the significance of the frontier to America today? 

* * *

Turner said that the actual frontier had closed in the late nineteenth century, after a census reported that there was no part of the nation’s territory left unsettled. But he—and others who followed—thought that the frontier survived as a state of mind. In the mythology of Manifest Destiny, to move through the vast, pure space of the West was to skip the present and force the future. To face west was to face the Promised Land, an Edenic realm where the American as the new Adam could imagine himself free from nature’s limits and history’s ambiguities. The idea of the frontier, wrote the historian William Appleman Williams in 1974, was “exhilarating in a psychological and philosophical sense” because it could be “projected to infinity.” “There was no thought of drawing back,” wrote Woodrow Wilson, then a Princeton historian, in his version of the frontier thesis (Turner’s more prominent essay was published the same year).

Turner and others identified the frontier as the seedbed of what came to be known as American Exceptionalism. “The picture is a very singular one!” said Wilson—of roughened men “living to begin something new every day.” More recently, though, the frontier, as represented by the US-Mexican border, has become history’s sinkhole, the place where the past chokes on itself. For the vigilantes Shapira studies, the place is a site of enervating comparison with the past, one front of many in an exhausting global war. Vigilantes travel to the border to relive ancient memories of far-away battles, to recapture the fellowship they once enjoyed in Southeast Asia, Iraq or Afghanistan. As they rehearse how Vietnam could have been won, they raise the Gadsden flag and imagine themselves as the rear guard of the Mexican-American War of 1846–48, holding the line against an enemy they believe is intent on retaking land they lost at the end of that conflict, which includes California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. “You know, people across that border are probably still sitting around campfires talking about how they lost the war to us,” one volunteer tells Shapira, acknowledging that whites “took this land by conquest.” History’s ambiguities are very much alive, flickering around the political unconscious of the border vigilantes like the shadows cast by campfires in the desert night. The word most often used to describe Mexico’s supposed bid at restoration, reconquista, was originally used by Spaniards to describe their crusade, starting in 722 and ending in 1492 (a long war if ever there was one), to retake the Iberian peninsula from Arab and Berber Muslim colonists—which equates, if the analogy is extended, the Minutemen to Muslim usurpers. 

Shapira, who tells readers he was born in Israel, was kicked out the first time he arrived at the Minutemen’s camp in southern Arizona, accused of being a member of the ACLU. But after cutting his hair and putting on his father’s IDF-issued pants, Shapira returned. This time he was in. “He’s from Israel,” was how one Minuteman would introduce him to another. Volunteers repeatedly brought up Israeli politics, including clashes in the occupied territories, and sought out Shapira’s opinion on the “Israeli fence” the MCDC was taking upon itself to build. Cowboys of old carried Colts, Winchesters and Springfields, but the Minutemen proudly passed their Austrian Glocks—the same kind of sidearm the IDF apparently uses—to Shapira for inspection. “You know there is no group of people I have more respect for than the Israelis,” said a patroller named Earl upon meeting Shapira. “This is our Gaza.” 

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