Manifest Destiny, 300 and the Collective White American "We"

I wrote a few days ago about Manifest Destiny while talking about the new movie 300, and its role as a very potent site of white mythology, or a means by which the "exceptional" nature of whiteness and the whiteness of the United States can be explained and justified. This mythology has a number of different forms, but it is crucially dependent upon history being twisted into a gruesome, hopelessly random bricolage of historical events, figures, concepts, which only looks coherent, complete, and obvious to those who are invested in it reproducing their identities, privilege or whiteness.

In the case of 300 for instance, we can find this in the idea that the United States today is somehow the chosen/destined vessel for the historical transmission of the greatest principles of Spartan and Greek civilization. In the film the greatness, successes and fearsome overpowering positive charateristics of the Spartans become the property of the United States through the echoing of particular phrases and buzzwords, which seem to create the links of continuity from yesterday to today. The most inamous phrase which made me and my friends I saw the film with cringe, that so deadly and so painfully patriotic mantra, "freedom isn't free." As the Spartans use their reason and belief in justice and liberty to fight off annihilation from aliens who are ruled by mysticism and believe in tyranny, that phrase, spoken from that position of being besieged and embattled, which I see everyday on bumper sticker or from chain mails in my inbox, gives me the right to claim that moment as mine, the position, their positive qualities of the Spartans as my own, and furthermore gives me the right as the "victor" in and of history, to name and define those who are the "losers."

It is important to remember that the Asia and Europe, and "white" of the world of 300, and the reasons, freedom and justice are not the Asia, reason, freedom and justice of today. Yet they resonate in the minds of people today as "historical evidence" or ethnic/racial explainations as to the state of the world today. If you are like most people and have vague idea of what "the clash of civilizations" is between East and West, which is mostly propped up by the idea that because we simply are different, or because they are so violent, the behavior of the "hordes" of Asia in 300 carry alot of weight in making the clash make sense, even if its simply not true.

On Guam we can find this stupidity clearly in the way archeological and anthropological evidence about the "origins" of Chamorros are interpreted. Too often, upon finding out that Chamorros might have migrated from the area which are now called the Philippines, South East Asia, Taiwan or Indonesia, people will respond and make flash contemporary judgments about what Chamorros are today. "Oh so, you're not really Pacific Islander, you're Asian." or "Oh so you're not really Chamorro, you're Filipino."

For those who think that this is a simple, abstract and meaningless point, let's see how this plays out on a very popular website called Urban Dictionary. This online dictionary is very similar to Wikipedia, in that it is audience made, edited and supported. People "define their world" through the defining of "obscene" non-formal speech, which is still governed by rules, but seems to be outside of the realm of formal, clear and correct language, and so therefore appears to be the language which you can make truly yours. For the word Chamorro the website has more than a dozen definitions. The definitions range in content, taking different cultural, geographic and linguistic forms. The #1 definition however, makes clearly my point, I'll paste it below:

People. Indigenous to Guam and a couple of islands north of the Philipines. Kind of lacking in cultural identity. They are basically Filipinos that speak english, but are kind of Hawaii wanabes. Pretty decent folks unless addicted to ice or some other shit.

The claim that Chamorros are "actually" or "really" or "basically" Filipinos is a common one, and is supported by the mere proximity of Guam to Asia (it is often referred to as America in Asia), the appearance of many Chamorros, the large numbers of Filipinos living on Guam, the fact that Chamorros not being Polynesian are therefore inauthentic because they don't quite fit within the Hawaiian hegemony that hangs over the Pacific. It is also related, most importantly locally to the notion that the Chamorros ultimately came from somewhere else and so their political claims to being "indigenous" to Guam or having a viable contemporary claim to the island is suspect.

While one can claim that this definition is simply written by an idiot or someone who hates Chamorros or has no respect or knowledge about them, the website, because it has a sense of democracy to it, allows a feature by which people can give a definition a thumbs up or a thumbs down. While the majority of the rest of the definitions which take seriously the task of defining who or what Chamorros are received more positive votes than negative votes, this first definition when I saw it earlier today, had received by far the most votes overall, and 120 thumbs up and 63 thumbs down.

Returning to white mythology, what it is fundamental about the way I am speaking about mythology is that it is ultimately a network of meanings, concepts and historical happenings which give the illusion that the beneficiary of this mythology has the right or ability to pick and choose what is their historical inheritence and what isn't. In an excellent article by Gary Younge from The Nation titled "White History 101" we find a perfect example of how this works.

When it comes to excelling at military conflict, everyone lays claim to their national identity; people will say, "We won World War II." By contrast, those who say "we" raped black slaves, massacred Indians or excluded Jews from higher education are hard to come by. You cannot, it appears, hold anyone responsible for what their ancestors did that was bad or the privileges they enjoy as a result. Whoever it was, it definitely wasn't "us."

Although Younge is referring specifically to the way national subjects protect themselves from the dangerous violent truths of how their nation was formed (they displace it onto some abstract other), it has relevance in how white mythology is formed as well.

Because of the prevalance of multi-culturalism today, in which each culture is supposedly equal and deserving of respect and recognition, ethnic groups, their practices, rituals and histories can have important public value, but always cultural value, not political value. It is common for both white and non-white people to remark that white people "have no culture." In the multicultural framework of the United States today, those racialized as white do not have "a culture" they have THE culture, the political culture, which is central and all else subordinate to.

The thing which is supposed to truly make the United States unique is not its wealth, its military might or its cultural influence, but rather its success in "perfecting" democracy and then spreading it to the rest of the world and helping "end History." Whiteness in the United States is not simply white people, but this privilege to assert oneself as the just and destined heir to that grand and exceptional origin. That privilege is the one which might exempt you from the fun particularitic games of "culture," but gives you the ability to determine what the limits of the cultural are, and where their rights to make political statements based on their histories and contemporary experiences of oppression, colonization, slavery, genocide, imperialism and mercantilism begin and end. Given that multiculturalism is a framework that says that anyone can sit at the table so long as they accept certain political and cultural divisions which ultimately work to make impossible your ability to change the basic structure of meaning in society, or which seek to extract any political potential from the things you say, the things you embody and the things you want. You can have holidays, but not your language. You can have a month of the year for your race, but no justice. You can have welfare, but not sovereignty. You can practice your culture up until the point where it makes people uncomfortable, or makes things inefficient.

We can find an example of this division from a terribly racist letter to The Marianas Variety a few months ago from racist apa'ka Dave Davis. In this letter, Davis is responding to attempts to bring issues of colonization by the United States in Guam, and the prevention of Chamorros and others on Guam the right to exercise any rights to self-determination. As the Chamorro seeks leave its exile in the cultural and transgress into the political, and change the shape of how things are understood in Guam, most notably the decolonial deadlock where the Chamorro is impossible without the benevolence of the United States, Davis asserts the greatness of the United States or the "modern world," and their ability to determine the way things should work today, through the reduction of the Chamorro to simple culture, incapable of much of anything, both in history and most importantly today:

WE note that Mr. Jose U. Garrido (a.k.a. Joe Garrido, chairman of Guam’s Decolonization Commission’s free association task force) is again clamoring to part company with the United States of America — espousing Chamorro sovereignty, as it were.

As with dogs that chase cars — if he somehow managed to catch it, what would he do with it? Revert, perhaps, to the raw fish and grass hut societal mode? That’s what the Spaniards found in Guam 500 years ago: a Stone Age society distinguished mostly by several thousand years of no significant change or progress.

In other words, a stagnant and unremarkable Neolithic culture, indistinguishable in most respects from the multitude of similar tribes throughout the Pacific and other tropical climes.It seems that most modern Chamorros aspire to something quite different: government jobs, flush toilets, SUVs and nice housing.

What animates this exchange, what makes Davis' point is that the Chamorro which Garrido is invoking, a sovereign one, is in conflict with the United States, and first, what it wants for Guam, and furthermore its implicit assertions that it is what is best for Guam and for the rest of the world. In the language I am using for this post, we can reformulate Davis' stupid tirade in these terms "how dare you assert yourself in a political way! That is whiteness, made by white-wigged and white-skinned men in 1776, that is my domain! You have crossed the line! Need I remind you that you are nothing but culture, and because you are only that, you are nothing!"

Returning to Younge's point, the positive aspects of the wealth of the past, are brought together to form a great white collective "We." This "we" perfected democracy, or perhaps invented or created it. This "we" saved the world in two world wars, and this "we" is leading today's War of Terror.

But mythology is also invested in finding the enemies, or finding the bodies onto which the less than stellar aspects of a nation's or a race's history can be displaced onto. The not so nice violence, racism, evil, oppression, exploitation has to go somewhere, but must not taint this whiteness, must belong to someone else. So in the film 300 as the Spartans provide the white vehicle through which Americans and Europeans today can take credit for reason, democracy, rationality, justice, liberty, and the ability to adapt, change and break with evil or corrupting traditions, the negative parts of the binary, namely the mysticism, the foolish beliefs, the inability to adapt, to change, to see the way the world really is, or make use of reason and logic is displaced onto a civilization (the east), particular bodies (black and brown/and feminized/homosexual) and regions (Asia/Africa and the Middle East). Or in the Iraq War, we have all liberated Iraq, but a few bad apples whether they be in the President's Cabinet or National Guardsmen are responsible for the torture or excessive violence and atrocities, or for poor prosecution of the war.

My reason for returning to the issue of Manifest Destiny has to do with a short but very insightful article I came across from The Nation written by Air America Radio's Laura Flanders. In just a few paragraphs it deals very effectively with the issue of American exceptionalism today. For those interested in the origins of Manifest Destiny and the mechanics of how it was created and gained hegemonic traction in the 19th century you should check out this book, Race and Manifest Destiny by Reginald Horsman.


Published on Tuesday, March 27, 2007 by The Nation
No Special Rights
Laura Flanders

Nonbinding this and that, deadline lah-di-dah, Bush/Cheney are going to ignore the mandate of the midterm elections and every pressure from Congress on Iraq, because Bush/Cheney know their opponents’ bark has no bite. And that’s because those opponents have yet to renounce the Bush/Cheney vision of US supremacy in the world. In fact, mostly, they share it.

William Pfaff writes about US Manifest Destiny in the New York Review of Books: “It is something like heresy to suggest that the US does not have a unique moral status and role to play in the history of nations,” he writes. Bush/Cheney tap into a belief that’s as old as the state itself. (Pfaff quotes Paine: “The case and circumstances of America present themselves as in the beginning of the world… We are as if we we had lived in the beginning of time.”)

Belief in US “exceptionalism” is the hop-skip-jump that led to US intervention in Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Central America–and now Iraq. It’s the “exception” that okays the breaking of global rules, from the Geneva Convention, to the conventions against torture to the chucking-out of Habeas Corpus. Like Dirty Harry, Bush knows Americans believe “good” cops can break the rules if they’re on a mission to save the world from terror, evil, tyranny.

Neo-cons came up with the chilling phrase “The New American Century,” but even their critics accept the concept. In his testimony to Congress on global warming, Al Gore referred not once but a handful of times to the US “unique” role to save the planet.

At the risk of being burnt at the stake I’d like to suggest that this month provides a special chance to review all this stuff about specialness. March 25 marked the 200th anniversary of the British Parliament’s abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (A US law took effect in 1808.)

To take a second look at the foundations of the country is to be reminded of the reality behind the rhetoric.

The New World wasn’t so new. Ask the people who lived here. Slavery wasn’t a new beginning. It was ancient. The first place to throw off slavery was Haiti in 1801, sixty-three years ahead of the United States. That makes Haiti special. Does it give Haiti a unique role in the world, to invade other countries and pursue a Project for a New Haitian Century?

We’ve got the brawn, but does that give us the right or the responsibility to rule the world? The problem isn’t this deadline or that. The problem is the ideology of supremacy. The same ideology (that some are by nature better, or more valuable than others) that undergirded slavery in the first place.

Laura Flanders is the author of BLUE GRIT: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians, forthcoming April 9, from The Penguin Press.

© Copyright 2007 The Nation


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Nathan said…
Thank you. You're one of the first voices I've run into on the 'Net or in real life to be troubled by 300 in a similar way that I was. It feels good to not be quite so alone on this point anymore.

You've also put the film in a much broader cultural context... There's a lot of food for thought here.

Keep up the good work!

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