40 Credits & A Mule, Part III: Manifest Destiny
When my kids were little, we used to go to Bishop’s Cafeteria to eat with my dad. He was old, and old people like cafeterias – so we went.
My son would fill his tray with everything he could fit in, including that cafeteria classic – brightly colored, cubed Jello. My daughter was much pickier, but inevitably she chose the wiggly cubes as well. The boy would snarf down his selections in minutes; the girl would take hours if we let her.
It is worth noting that she didn’t usually eat the Jello.
She liked to look at it. The table would inevitably get jostled a bit, or otherwise nudged, and the Jello would wiggle. It’s what Jello does. She loved that. And, to be fair, that’s just as valid a use for Jello as any other. (Just because something is edible doesn’t mean it serves no other function – otherwise, neither houseplants nor family pets would be around long.)
But that’s not how my son saw it.
“Sis, you gonna eat that Jello?”
“Can I have it, then?”
“It’s my Jello.”
“Are you serious?”
Of course she was serious. I had to question his bewilderment, given that this scene was played out repeatedly over the years. Still, his outrage seemed to build quite genuinely, every time…
“Come on, Sis – you’re not going to eat it!”
“It’s MY Jello.” And at this point, she’d usually give it an extra lil’ nudge - *wigglewigglewigglewigglewiggle*
He’d explain, as if perhaps I’d been on business abroad the whole time, rather than sitting there at the same table while things unfolded according to sacred family tradition. I’d express my condolences, but had to concur with Sis that the Jello at issue was, in fact, HER Jello. It didn’t help his case that he’d snarfed an entire platter of foodstuffs only moments before - including a very similar chalice of… cubed Jello.
It never went well.
As the United States began to expand west, its people encountered numerous native tribes who were – to be blunt – in the damn way. Our national sin in regards to Amerindians is not that we overcame them, it’s that we did so hypocritically. Rather than declare war, we declared eternal friendship. We killed them in peace and in the name of a faith built on martyrs, and took everything from them in the name of giving them everything we wished they wanted – civilization, religion, modernity.
To be fair, we needed the land. They had it, but… well, they weren’t really using it properly. The Plains tribes especially were the worst sort of land-wasters – hunting when hungry, gathering when gathering was useful, hanging out, carousing and eating and socializing and such…
We lacked the words to declare them hippies, but ‘utopians’ didn’t seem harsh enough. Not one single factory. Very little organized agriculture. No hospitals. No schools. Just relationships alternating with quiet reflection.
I’m overgeneralizing, of course – there were hundreds of tribes and cultures and such – but by and large, they weren’t doing proper America things with the lands they claimed as theirs. And, as with the Jello, subjected to repeated wiggling but remaining unconsumed, our frontiersmen forebears weren’t impressed by the arguments of those claiming that land ownership requires neither cultivation nor mall-building.
(And don’t even try to pretend there was no such thing as ‘owning land’. That doesn’t even make sense. That’s like saying you can’t own people – ridiculous.)
It was genuinely maddening. Let’s not overlook that. Mixed in with the greed and selfishness and prejudice and maybe even some dark damnable thoughts was palpable frustration – an almost holy outrage – that this land was being denied them by a people unwilling to do more than jiggle their Jello.
We needed that land – we deserved that land (because if having it allows us to establish worthiness, then we should have it BECAUSE we’re worthy – it makes perfect sense, if you don’t think about it too closely).
This is not just about me and mine – although it IS very much also about me and mine. We’re here as part of something bigger – something important – something holy – something democratic – something special.
Killing Indians for personal reasons wasn’t considered particularly onerous by the standards of the day. Most of the civilized world was still pretty comfortable with what today would be considered the worst sorts of racial and cultural elitism. This was beyond that, though – this was brushing aside a backwards culture and a darkened people (figuratively?) to make room for progress. Light. Democracy. The New Way.
Because we NEEDED this land for settlers. For homesteaders. For citizens. Without it, there’s no progress. Without sufficient land, the whole of-the-by-the-for-the concept clogs up – it could even fail. And if American democracy fails, the new nation fails. If it fails here, it fails everywhere. Tyranny returns, darkness wins, and monsters rule the earth.
Conflict with Mexico was not much different. Their culture was nothing like most Amerindian peoples, but neither did we particularly fathom or appreciate their social structure, economic mores, or anything else – nor they ours. Perhaps outright disdain for one another played a larger role than with the Natives, and certainly by that point the sheer momentum of Westward Expansion eclipsed whatever underlying values or beliefs had fueled it a generation prior, but whatever the immediate motivations, the same sense of unquestioned rightness oozed from the words and letters of those pinche gabachos manifesting their destiny.
It’s not logical, but it is very human to devalue how others process their world and the goals they choose to pursue. The Natives had every opportunity to make themselves productive – to get a little schooling (hell, we offered it to them FOR FREE), learn a little civilization, even to take care of themselves through the miracles of modern agriculture. The Mexicans had plenty of chances to be, um… not Mexican!
Let’s set aside for a moment that we were inflicting antithetical values and lifestyles on a diversity of proud peoples. We’ll ignore the generations of broken treaties and outright deception. I’d like to focus on the third element of the equation – the final key to mass failure by so many Amerindians.
Poor tools. Bad soil. Spoiled supplies. If there’s such a thing as a ‘level playing field’, this wasn’t it.
They were assigned a value system and lifestyle they didn’t want, with the full weight of state and federal governments forcing compliance. They were assigned the worst land on which to practice this new system, and given inadequate tools and other supplies. The stakes were incredibly high – at best, they were expected to emulate those with the right equipment, in which case they could perhaps almost survive as second-class citizens. More likely, they would fail, starve, or simply give up – this not being a game they’d wished to play anyway.
The dominant citizenry would then point to this “failure” and label them as lazy, incompetent, or otherwise flawed.
This is, in my view, one of the major travesties of American History. Except that I’m no longer just talking about 19th Century American History.
Through bold and subversive rhetoric, I’ve effectively transitioned it into an analogy for something else.
Man, I’m good.
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part I - This Land
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part II - Chosen People
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part IV - The Measure of a Man
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part V - Maybe Radio
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part VI - The More Things Change...
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part VII - Sleeping Giants