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Volume XVI: Summer 2007 Swaggering Savagery and the New Frontier [1] Barry Stephenson Wilfrid Laurier University In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization. —Frederick Jackson Turner [2] The war against this enemy is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation. —George W. Bush [3] The mythology of a nation is the intelligible mask of that enigma called the “national character.” —Richard Slotkin [4] Abstract The “war on terror” launched by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 is disturbing for many reasons, not least of which is the brutality with which this war has been carried out. A second feature of the American response to 9/11 to draw fire both at home and abroad is the “cowboy” swagger of President Bush and the Bush administration. A third point of criticism argues that 9/11 offered the Bush administration the perfect excuse to test the doctrine of “preemptive war” as a tool in the extension of American control of territory rich in oil reserves. These three features of the war on terror—its brutality, the cowboyism of the White House, and a context of American empire—are interrelated phenomena, and they are the product, at least in part, of the frontier myth that informs American popular culture and civil religion. The rhetoric, visual, and performative culture of the Bush Administration vis-à-vis the contemporary war of terror has too many resemblances to earlier “wars on savagery” to ignore. There is a new frontier to be conquered, and the Bush administration overtly mythologizes, ritualizes, frames, and sells this new “war” with reference to an earlier one, namely, the Indian wars.
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[1] In 1630, John Winthrop, standing on the deck of the Arbella anchored off the coast of Massachusetts, delivered his famous “city on a hill” sermon. Puritan culture bequeathed to the emerging nation a theologically and biblically inspired vision: the New World was to be a New Israel. The Puritan Saints, as God’s chosen people, would bring light to the “wilderness.” The language changed over the years and centuries, but the fundamental vision did not. The “light unto the world motif” has long been used to bridge religious and political spheres in American public discourse. The country has persistently been imagined as a “Redeemer Nation,” while simultaneously pursuing policies of territorial expansion. [5] [2] In the wake of the horrors of 9/11, as the Bush administration made ready for and then invaded Iraq, the old Puritan themes of providential mission emerged, and the President’s “God-talk” became the object of a good deal of critical scrutiny. What journalist Jim Wallis claimed in Sojourners— that after 9/11 President Bush, “the self- help Methodist … became a messianic Calvinist prompting America’s mission to ‘rid the world of evil’”
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This note was uploaded on 12/08/2008 for the course ENGL 441 taught by Professor Gustafson during the Fall '08 term at USC.

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