The myth of the Wild West

The dangerous delusion of world conquest.

    Peace talks between the Indians and pioneers, 19th century engraving [Getty]
    Peace talks between the Indians and pioneers, 19th century engraving [Getty]

    In mid April, I visited Phoenix, Arizona, to deliver a plenary keynote at a conference on "People's Peace", organised by the Center for Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University. While in Phoenix I visited the Heard Museum, whose mission is "to educate visitors and promote greater public understanding of the arts, heritage and life ways of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, with an emphasis on American Indian tribes and other cultures of the Southwest".   

    This is a particularly poignant and powerful museum curated intelligently with care and confidence. Perhaps the most haunting part of the museum is located on the second floor, where its curators have gathered the horrid stories of native Americans being forced into boarding schools in order to strip them of their own native languages and cultures (and thus their sense of dignity) and indoctrinate them into becoming "white". 

    Native American tribes struggle for US recognition

    On one prominently projected picture we read a statement by Captain Richard H Pratt made in 1879: "Transfer the savage born infant to the surrounding of civilisation and he will grow to possess a civilised language and habit." 

    Shorn of dignity

    Next to these wall to wall evidence of white settler colonisers of native lands and cultures, there is a small glassed cubical inside which we see a barber's chair around which are shaved hair, reminiscent of the moment when these indigenous Americans were shorn of their dignity to become visually palatable to their white supremacist conquerors.

    In the space of a small museum, the horrors and nightmares of an entire people, an entire continent, scream for recognition. 

    The trauma of "civilising" native Americans - "civility" is of course the racialised identity of the European colonial settlers - is very much reminiscent of the treatment of Palestinians in Palestine by the European Zionist settlers, where the very identity of Palestinians is distorted by calling them "Israeli Arabs".

    The myth of the 'Wild West' and its contingent geography of 'New Frontiers' have given birth to the symptomatic syndrome of conquest and catastrophe definitive to the role of the United States and its regional satellites exploring the farthest frontiers...


    The self-identification of the Israeli settler colony as a "villa in a jungle" by such Israeli warlords as Ehud Barak is perhaps the most potent metaphor of the way their colonisation of Palestine is violently racialised.

    The case of "redskin" Native Americans and the "brown skin" Palestinians are instantly reminiscent of the "blue skin" local tribe of Na'vi, a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora, which was the subject of James Cameron's movie, Avatar. These factual and fictive colour-coded relation of colonial power come together as the most potent examples of Michel Foucault's theorisation of "discipline and punish", in his seminal study of the rise of prisons, hospitals, schools, factories and army barracks as the varied modalities of governmentality through which relations of power are regulated and institutionalised. 

    In his prototypical Eurocentric fixations, Foucault, of course, thought disciplinarily only in his European abstraction and almost entirely disregarded the wider global (colonised) world in which this governmentality found a much more naked brutality. It was left to Edward Said to extend Foucault's groundbreaking insight into the relation of knowledge and power far beyond his immediate European context. 

    Eurocentric fixations

    My visit to Phoenix and the Heard Museum coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995) and reminiscent of the terror of white supremacist perpetrated by a wild band of survivalists entirely beholden to the myth of the "Wild West", integral to the significance of "the frontier" in American history the way Frederick Jackson Turner theorised it in 1893. 

    That fiction has become definitive to American imperialism always reaching for new frontiers, from the cyberspace to outerspace, by way of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and of course Palestine. 

    The myth of the "Wild West" and its contingent geography of "New Frontiers" have given birth to the symptomatic syndrome of conquest and catastrophe definitive to the role of the US and its regional satellites exploring the farthest frontiers of terrestrial and extraterrestrial domains. As it maps the earth in ruins and eyes the heavens with greed, this myth is never satisfied with what it has and stomachs an insatiable urge to conquer.

    American Indians hunting a bison in the prairie [Getty]

    The synergetic machinery of conquest definitive to the very idea of the US taps on the myth of the "Wild West". It roams the earth conquering native Americans from one end of the continent to the next. When it runs out of new territories to conquer either flies up to the heavens for new frontiers, or else sails to the oceans around the globe, dividing the earth to militarised zones of command and control. 

    Today, the Middle East is the extension of that "Wild West" - as were Latin America, Vietnam, and Korea before it - linking the fate of annihilated Native Americans to the terrorised inhabitants of Iraq, Afghanistan, and above all Palestine.

    From the myth of "the West" for Europeans to that of the "Wild West" for North Americans, the world at large is at the mercy of dangerous delusions that lead one people to think and place themselves above and against the fate of our humanity at large. 

    Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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