Frontier Injustice | The Nation


Frontier Injustice

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The long determination to maintain ruthless suppression of the blacks, by slavery or terror, also owed much to fear--paranoid and hysterical no doubt, but nonetheless real for that. And it is sad but true that while the diminution of this fear in the white South in the twentieth century owed something to the spread of new ideas, it also owed something to the fact that, thanks to massive migration to the Northern cities--driven in part by white Southern terrorism--blacks formed a much smaller proportion of the Southern population in the 1960s than they had in the 1860s.

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Anatol Lieven
Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author...

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Above all, Americans should remember that for by far the greater part of American history, if Americans had been told by an outside dominant power that "democracy" meant acknowledging black equality and respecting Indian land, a majority would have unhesitatingly rejected democracy and opted instead for some kind of populist, racially based authoritarianism--something so unthinkable to Brands that he does not even consider it. During Jackson's presidency his enemies, John Quincy Adams among them, accused him of seeking to set up a "military monarchy" along Latin American lines, governing dictatorially though with occasional plebiscitary support from the masses.

This didn't happen, of course, and so the United States today is not Mexico or Brazil. The Yankee, or New England, element in the American tradition, with its historical commitment to the rule of law and to civil society, is not the only reason the Latin American solution did not come to pass. Jackson and his descendants have always been genuinely attached to democracy and the law, though in their own specific understanding of these terms. For most of American history, tendencies toward authoritarianism have taken a communal form, and as with Jackson they have been phrased and even thought of in terms of a defense of the American democratic system, not a revolt against it. However, this adherence to democracy has also involved a conviction that being American means adhering to a national cultural community, one defined by its values, and in the past by race, ethnicity and religion.

Like Jackson, the numerous descendants of this tradition have had a strong sense that this community is threatened by alien and savage "others." They have also had a sense that they constitute in some way the authentic American people, or folk; the backbone of the nation, possessing a form of what German nationalists called the gesunder Volkssinn ("healthy sense of belonging to the people"), embracing correct national forms of religion, social behavior and patriotism. With time, they have come to accept people first of different ethnicities, then of different races, as members of the American community--but only so long as they conform to American norms and become "part of the team."

The freedom of aliens and deviants, who do not share the folk culture, can therefore legitimately be circumscribed by authoritarian and even savage means, as long as this is to defend the community and reflects the will of the sound members of the community. In the words of Walter Russell Mead, which have deep implications for American nationalism abroad as well as at home: "Jacksonian realism is based on the very sharp distinction in popular feeling between the inside of the folk community and the dark world without."

This is the tradition that produced figures like John Ashcroft. Like Jackson's, Ashcroft's adherence to the rule of law is not hypocritical. It is merely qualified by two very large conditions: that in a crisis, written laws can be suspended for the sake of the defense of the community; and that the law in any case applies only to a limited extent to aliens, particularly those who are suspected of being enemies and of having behaved in a "barbaric" manner.

Tragically, the indiscriminate savagery of the attacks on 9/11 was all but destined to reawaken this aspect of the Jacksonian tradition in the United States. Systematically fanned by the Bush Administration, the atrocities have produced a widespread attitude toward the outside world in general and the Muslim world in particular that closely replicates that of Jackson toward the "savage" Indians and their international backers. Leaving aside issues of morality and justice, however, there are some critical differences between the two cases. Say what you like about Jackson and his Scots-Irish frontiersmen, they were superbly effective fighters. They knew their enemies. They knew the land. The contrast with their hapless descendants blundering around Iraq could hardly be more stark. Jackson would doubtless have approved of the spirit behind the Bush Administration's "war on terror." I doubt very much that he would have approved of its execution.

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