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Self-Government and Modernity

Self-Government and Modernity

by William H. Benson

January 29, 2015

     Historians rank Frederick Jackson Turner one of the most noted of all American historians. In 1893, in Chicago at the American Historical Association, he delivered a paper he entitled The Significance of the Frontier in American History, and in it, he argued that the frontier shaped the American character.

     Turner insisted that on the frontier pioneers dropped their European characteristics and values, and picked up a respect for democracy, an intolerance of social hierarchy, a distrust of authority, and a dependency upon local political organizations. Not all, but many historians then and since Turner’s day have agreed with his thesis that the frontier fostered self-government.

     Turner’s critics point out that the frontier disappeared in 1890, three years before Turner delivered his paper, and so they wonder, “how does self-government occur today, in the absence of a frontier?”

     In The New York Times Sunday edition, two weeks ago, a writer named Sam Quinones published a column he entitled, How Mexicans Became Americans. In it, Sam described the process he observed in South Gate, California (pop. 96,000), a suburb southeast of Los Angeles. “In the late 1970s,” he wrote, “the factories started leaving, and so did the white people. By 1990, towns like South Gate that had been 90 percent white were more than 90 percent Latino.”

     These recent immigrants to South Gate came “straight from the ranchos, the small villages on Mexico’s frontiers, far from the center of government,” where “they had shunned politics,” lived a “tradition of non-engagement,” and were expected to defer to the all-powerful “cacique,” the village’s political boss. Because they had no experience in self-government, at first they were swayed by flimsy propaganda, by promises of giveaways, and by the crooked and greedy who almost bankrupted the city.

     Once the immigrants acquired citizenship and the right to vote, Sam wrote, “the voters woke up,” and felt “ashamed they’d been duped.” They voted the crooks out of office, sent some to prison, and realized that it was their responsibility to monitor and participate in their municipal government.

     South Gate’s citizens now consider the city their home. Here they have jobs, send their children to school, and plan for a future. Then, because of the recent violence in northern Mexico, many Mexican-Americans hesitate to return to their villages. Jorge Morales, a South Gate city councilman, said, “My parents always talked about going back to Mexico. Now it’s a place they’ll visit, but this is home.”

     In 1979, Eugen Weber, a history professor at UCLA, published his book, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, and in it, he described a similar process, whereby the peasants who lived in small villages all over France were forced to confront modernity.

     Late in the nineteenth-century, France’s countryside was a place “where many did not speak French or know the metric system, where pistoles and écus were better known than francs, where roads were few and markets distant, and where a subsistence economy” existed for generations.

     “Significant portions of rural France continued to live in a world of their own,” Weber wrote, “until near the end of the nineteenth-century.” So, how was the peasant transformed into a Frenchman?

     Weber believed it resulted from at least two things: better roads and better schools. He entitled his twelfth chapter, “Road, Roads, and Still More Roads.” With an abundance of useful roads that criss-crossed France, the time required for a peasant to cart his fruits, grains, and vegetables to Paris or Nice or Lyon dwindled. This development opened up new and more promising markets and higher prices.

     Weber entitled his eighteenth chapter, “Civilizing in Earnest: Schools and Schooling.” In the villages’ schools, teachers revealed to the peasants’ children the world that existed beyond the village’s borders and fields. The brightest students escaped the fields’ mind-numbing drudgery, and so the abundance of roads and exceptional schools transformed France’s peasants into Frenchmen.

     Not everyone is attracted to modernity or self-government though. The terrorists in Paris who killed seventeen people earlier this month displayed an utter disregard for advanced and civilized thought. The two brothers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, murdered twelve people in Paris at the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and Amédy Coulibaly murdered four Jewish shoppers and a policewoman at a kosher supermarket.

     Because “Muslim immigrants to France were never required to adopt Western values of tolerance, free speech, and secularism,” they can turn to an extreme set of beliefs that directs them to terrorism.  Both modernity and self-government expect people to act reasonable, without resorting to violence, and to believe that the vote and the market are more powerful than all the world’s guns and bullets.


     On the American frontier, in South Gate, and in rural France, the modern self-governing model won the day, despite mistakes along the way. Today many—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—hope that modernity and self-government will also convince the vulnerable young men and women, those attracted to extreme beliefs, to lay aside the guns and participate in local governments and markets.