Monday, December 8, 2008

Thinking about Manifest Destiny

The last four plays I've seen have got me thinking about the concept of Manifest Destiny. Remember that? You might have learned about it in grade school, or high school history classes.
Or just from... you know... watching America at work, in general.

From the US History Encyclopedia:

In 1845 John L. O'Sullivan coined the term "manifest destiny" in reference to a growing conviction that the United States was preordained by God to expand throughout North America and exercise hegemony over its neighbors. In the United States Magazine and Democratic Review (July–August 1845, p. 5) he argued for "the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." Around the time of O'Sullivan's writing, the United States saw an extraordinary territorial growth of 1.2 million square miles, an enlargement of more than 60 percent. Most of this growth occurred at the expense of the newly independent Mexico and the Native American nations. The expansion happened at such an accelerated pace that people like O'Sullivan thought that even larger expansions were inevitable, necessary, and desirable—hence the origin of the concept of manifest destiny.

Manifest destiny was obviously a defense of what is now called Imperialism. It was a complex set of beliefs that incorporated a variety of ideas about race, religion, culture, and economic necessity. Some people, like the land speculators that settled in Florida, Texas, and Native American lands, wanted more land to get rich. Some fled poverty in Europe and eastern metropolitan centers. Some assumed that without spreading out to fresh lands the nation would languish. Some sought to perpetuate the institution of slavery by expanding it to new territories. Some believed that expansion into "uncivilized" regions would spread progress and democracy. It was convenient for all to think that they had the divine right to acquire and dominate because they had the proper economic system and the most developed culture and belonged to the most advanced race.

So... I saw a reading of my friend Stephanie Alison Walker's wonderful new play-in-progress about the current economic crisis as it pertains to home ownership. Then I saw Vince Melocchi's play Lions over at Pacific Resident Theater in Venice, which is about working class folks losing their jobs (and everything) in Detroit. Then I saw the sixth annual presentation of A Mulholland Christmas Carol at Sacred Fools (which puts water baron William Mulholland in the play of Scrooge in the old story). Then I went over to my own play, Song of Extinction, where we were holding a Mini Green Expo to accentuate the ecological concerns in my play. The War Plays Project that I began earlier this year seems to fit in as well.

All of us, every one, seemed to be grappling with the consequences of the doctrine and practice of Manifest Destiny -- ecological and economic. Acting as if we own the world and everything in it has caused us to become destroyers of that world, as opposed to the caretakers of it. We have been all about desire and a sense of entitlement, as opposed to stepping carefully through this garden-like world of ours, with the understanding that it's the only one we've got.

If we don't do better, we won't have anything left at all.

1 comment:

NoHoJax said...

Beautifully stated, and I agree 100%.