18 February 2012

Manifest Destiny is Unsustainable

Manifest Destiny is the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined, if not sanctioned by supreme power, to expand across the continent.

Historian and author William E. Weeks (cf. Building the Continental Empire) characterized Manifest Destiny with three themes:
  • Virtue - the virtue of the American people and their institutions;
  • Mission - the mission to spread these institutions, thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the U.S.; and
  • Destiny - the destiny under God to do this work.

Manifest Destiny Revisited

Virtue, Mission, and Destiny are heady themes. It is easy to imagine 19th century Americans full of hubris and hell-bent on pursuing their God-given destiny.

John Gast painted Columbia, an American pseudo-goddess in a flowing white frock, as a personification of the United States levitating above the frontier.

In Gast's 1872 representation of westward expansion called American Progress, we observe Columbia holding a school book and stringing telegraph wire, while Native Americans flee in terror.

Most Americans have a different vision of American progress than that depicted in Gast's allegorical painting.

Nevertheless true American progress is repeatedly retarded by those clinging to the fallacy of American Exceptionalism.

Contemporary Commentary

Conceptual designer Mark Reigelman and architect Jenny Chapman conceived the temporary installation Manifest Destiny! viewable at 447 Bush Street, San Francisco through October 2012.

Manifest Destiny! is a rustic cabin temporarily appended to the side of a downtown San Francisco building. The 19th-century style cabin was made from reclaimed 100 year old barn board from Ohio. The cabin recalls depictions of San Francisco's early settlements.

Reigelman and Chapman confront the notion of establishing a home front in the unclaimed and forbidding interstices of a contemporary city. The idealized homeyness of the cabin contrasts the contemporary streetscape.

The innocence of the cabin, and its precarious perch, is both tribute to the romantic spirit of Western expansion and critique of the arrogance of the westward expansion myth. A cursory review of American history reveals the genocide of native people and the pillage of natural resources.

Virtue, Mission, and Destiny are indeed heady themes. Parasitic and dangerous themes. Dangerous for a myopically headstrong point of view dripping with an unwarranted sense of American Exceptionalism. Parasitic because American-centric thinking has cost untolled lives, good-will and resources.

The Manifest Destiny! installation reminds us of the buffoonish folly of American Exceptionalism. It also reminds us of the growing urgency to understand our ecological interdependence and to appreciate our ordinariness.

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