Kontemporari

Bush In Space: America's Final Frontier

Farish A. Noor

Listening to American President George Bush talk about his dream of Sending a team of astronauts to Mars and building a manned space station on the moon by 2025, one is reminded of the essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” by the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner delivered his essay before the members of the American Historical Association at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.

In the essay, which for some curious reason seems to have been forgotten by many scholars and observers of American politics these days, Turner looked at the role played by the frontier in the development of America and the construction of the popular American imaginary. He argued that the frontier, both as a metaphor as well as a very real limit to the uninhibited ambitions of the American people, had played a pivotal role in the development of the American psyche.
As he put it: “the frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanisation.” The frontier was always the thing that pushed the American colonisers and settlers further westwards, driving them relentlessly onwards till they reached the Pacific coast and their power and presence encompassed the entire continent. And it was along this frontier – that was forever being pushed ever outwards – that American power and identity was most pronounced.

Even after the Western frontier had been conquered, the idea of the frontier did not disappear from the American mindset: there had to be other frontiers to be overcome, new vistas to open, new spaces to penetrate and dominate. In time the American political elite evolved the notion that Latin America too was part of their sphere of influence, and that they should see their southern counterparts less as equals and more as wards that should come under their paternalistic guidance and protection.

Today, in the age of globalisation that has rendered geographical and temporal boundaries irrelevant, the American frontier is the world itself: America seeks to impose its stamp on the rest of the world on its own terms, convinced as it is that the world is already encompassed within its shores. (It is interesting to note, for instance, that when the Americans play what they call “football” in their country, they refer to it as the “world series” – despite the fact that the rest of the world is not there and they are really simply playing among themselves.) America”s unending and
infinite frontier now extends to outer space and inner space as well: American scientists are everywhere, seeking to unravel the secrets of the oceans and outer space, as well as the microcosmic secrets of atoms and microbes. It would appear as if there was no limit to America”s power and its penetrating gaze, as it re-orders the world according to its own culturally specific viewpoint. In every single hotel I have stayed in during all my travels across the world, America”s myopic vision has been presented to me courtesy of CNN.

This self-referential narrative and the collective myth of manifest destiny has become consolidated and hegemonised even more in the wake of 11 September and America”s re-assertion of its power and influence abroad.

Convinced of its innate moral superiority and the righteousness of its cause, the USA now seeks to model the world anew according to its singular vision. From the reconstruction of Iraq (where, as a BBC report recently showed, poor Iraqi mothers are reduced to taking their daughters to Hotels to serve as prostitutes to Westerners in order to earn money to feed themselves) to the recently held Americas Summit, the American government sees itself as the inheritor and custodian of world history and the future of humanity.

Yet, it is precisely in this singular vision that America is in danger of committing the gravest error. Its failure to understand and appreciate that there are other world views and belief systems exposes it to the risk of further isolating itself from the rest of the world and humanity at large.

When President Bush spoke of his grand vision of sending a team of astronauts to Mars, hardly anyone bothered to ask who those astronauts would be and whose interests they represent. America”s triumphs no longer elicit the support and congratulations of other peoples and nations, for today”s America is not the same America of the 1960s that sent a man to the moon:
That was another America that was at least circumspect and cautious about its own universalist claims.

President Bush certainly pleased the scientists and engineers of NASA when he announced that the budget for space exploration will be increased manifold. The man is clearly bent on leaving office after leaving a legacy behind him, and wants to be known as a president with vision and foresight.

But before we get caught up by the euphoria of the Bush vision team, we should not forget that this was the same administration that has taken the country to war on the flimsiest of excuses: till today the American government cannot convince the world that its invasion of Iraq was justified on the grounds that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction. And let us not forget that this was the same country that refused to go along with the Kyoto accords on environmental protection as well. Where then lie the limits to the “compassionate conservatism” of Mr. Bush junior? America today may think of itself as the inheritor of world history and the final arbiter on the destiny of the human race, but the rest of the human race happens to think otherwise. No matter how lofty his ideals may be, President Bush has yet to show that the American vision is sensitive and open to the worldviews of others.

It is for these reasons that we need to re-read President Bush”s visionary speech via the lens of Frederick Jackson Turner”s essay of 1893: Turner had noted that the frontier was not merely an ideologically loaded metaphor, but also an instrumental construct that served as “a military training
school” which hardened the will and sharpened the ambitions of the Americans themselves, so that they may push further outwards to conquer and dominate, to bring their brand of “civilisation” to the “primitive” and “barbaric” peoples beyond. Has America”s civilising mission mellowed at all over the years? One only has to look at the tattered remnants of Iraq and Afghanistan for the answer: American “civilisation” has been brought there by the force of arms and the exercise of violence, and this is the ominous herald of the future to come.

End

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Dr. Farish A. Noor (Badrol Hisham Ahmad-Noor)
Centre for Modern Orient Studies,
33 Kirchweg, 14129 Berlin, Germany

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