God, dominion, and delusion
How heuristic shortcuts give humans excuses to justify the unjustifiable
Our mental blind spots cause pointless human suffering
I need to start this essay with a definition.
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Heuristics: Heuristics are mental shortcuts that can facilitate problem-solving and probability judgments. These strategies are generalizations, or rules-of-thumb, reduce cognitive load, and can be effective for making immediate judgments. However, they often result in irrational or inaccurate conclusions.1
Heuristics can be valuable in saving time when making life’s choices, but they can also result in disastrous personal and group outcomes. This essay is about the heuristics that led to global colonization by Europeans of a huge swath of the rest of the world. Most it is American focused because that’s where I have lived for most of my adult life and because that is where I realized how common it is for large groups of humans to inflict immense suffering on other groups of humans for reasons that are, frankly, incredibly immoral and ethically unjustifiable.
God told “us” we are the chosen people, so we can do what we want
If you're anything like me, history classes were utterly fascinating during school days. I see history now with a very different set of filters, and thus my worldview has evolved in significant ways. High school classes taught me that the USA is the greatest country ever to have existed.
Bullshit. Not even close. There is no such thing, and in the future I will argue that nation-states retard human progress.
We're about to delve into one of America's most contentious periods in a truly fascinating way. We're talking about manifest destiny—the whole idea of expanding from "sea to shining sea" that convinced 19th-century Americans it was their divine right to spread across North America. This notion didn't just alter maps; it transformed the entire nation and its history. Get ready for an exhilarating journey through manifest destiny and its profound impact on the good old US of A. Get ready to get “woke.”
Manifest destiny is a phrase that summarizes the American belief and the idea that it was the country's destiny to expand its territory from coast to coast. During the 19th century, there was a growing sense of optimism, nationalism, and pride in America, which made many Americans believe that the country had a God-given right to expand westward and spread its values and civilization across the continent.
As a Canadian immigrant who has had the privilege of living in various parts of the world, I can attest to the enduring influence of American manifest destiny. Its legacy extends far beyond US borders, shaping the global landscape and perception of the United States. It's fascinating to observe how this 19th-century ideology has continued to impact the world, notably through US foreign policies and international relations. In my experience, the belief in American exceptionalism and the idea of the American dream, both of which have roots in manifest destiny, have drawn countless immigrants, including my family, to seek opportunities in the US. Understanding manifest destiny is not only vital for understanding US history but also for comprehending the global role of the United States today.
One of the most influential advocates of U.S. manifest destiny was journalist John L. O'Sullivan, who coined the term "manifest destiny" in an 1845 article. He argued Americans had a divine mandate to bring their refined and noble civilization to the wild, untamed lands of the West.
President James K. Polk is another key figure associated with manifest destiny. During his presidency (1845-1849), the U.S. acquired vast territories in the West through the Oregon Treaty and the Mexican-American War, embodying the concept of manifest destiny in real, tangible terms.
The vision of these leaders and their unwavering belief in the divine mission of America's westward expansion has indelibly marked the course of American history, with ripple effects that can still be felt today. The legacies of manifest destiny continue to influence contemporary discussions on immigration, foreign policy, and national identity.
This ideology, under the banner of “god’s will,” justified the forced removal and oppression of indigenous populations. It fostered a mindset of cultural superiority and entitlement, leading to incidents such as the Trail of Tears and other acts of violence against Native Americans.
This doctrine also contributed to tensions that ultimately led to the Civil War. As the U.S. acquired new territories, conflict arose regarding whether these territories should be slave-states or free-states. The aggressive expansionist attitude fueled by manifest destiny played a part in deepening the divide between the North and the South.
In a global context, the idea of American exceptionalism has often been perceived as arrogant, and potentially dismissive of the value and contributions of other groups of humans. Therefore, while the false idea of manifest destiny played an integral role in American history, it is paramount to critically examine its profound and often destructive consequences.
All the land should be “ours”
One of the most significant impacts of manifest destiny was the territorial acquisition of land. The US expanded its territory by purchasing, annexing, and taking over vast territories. Among the most notable acquisitions were Louisiana in 1803, Florida in 1819, Texas in 1845, Oregon in 1846, and California in 1848. Some of these acquisitions were achieved through war, such as the Mexican-American War in 1846-1848, which led to the annexation of Texas and the acquisition of California.
Manifest destiny also sparked a debate about America's political and social systems. Some politicians and intellectuals argued that America's democratic ideals could only be realized if the nation continued to expand. Others, however, believed that the idea of manifest destiny was an excuse for the US to take land forcefully from other countries and cultures, such as Mexico and Native American tribes, which ultimately led to the displacement and genocide of indigenous peoples.
The concept of manifest destiny played a significant role in the development of America's economy. Westward expansion opened new opportunities for trade and commerce. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the establishment of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 paved the way for the growth of a national market that contributed to the nation's economic prosperity.
The fantasy that “god” authorized the “United” States of America to expand by any means had negative consequences for society. Westward expansion led to the displacement and removal of Native American communities and the enslavement of African Americans. The legacy of manifest destiny still shapes the US today, particularly with issues of race, territory, and national identity.
In "Guns, Germs, and Steel," Professor Jared Diamond argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world, and not racial, ethnic or cultural differences. Diamond asserts that the distribution of wealth and power among societies originates from the disparities in their environments, not from human intellectual variation.
All these factors contributed. Colonizing settlers' access to advanced weaponry ("guns"), exposure to potent diseases ("germs"), and possession of metallurgical skills ("steel") were all crucial factors in their dominance over Native American tribes. Gods are the excuse for expansion and genocide, but advanced technologies are actually the agents of dominance, not imaginary deities. These technologies, combined with the settlers' relentless drive for expansion, and natives lack of disease resistance to the new germs brought by European invaders, resulted in a drastic shift in power dynamics and forever altered the landscape of the American continent.
The concept of American manifest destiny stands as a defining principle that has shaped the nation's narrative. The ideology of manifest destiny was not solely a political or economic one. It was also deeply intertwined with religious beliefs of the time.
The notion that the American expansion across the continent was not only inevitable but divinely ordained was a powerful motivator that resonated with the religious sentiments of the majority. Many settlers and proponents of Manifest destiny believed they were chosen by their god to spread their civilization and Christian faith across the continent.2 This religious undertone gave the expansionist movement a moral justification, further fueling its momentum.
"Manifest destiny was grounded in the belief that a democratic, agrarian republic would save the world."
Kristin L. Hoganson, American Empire at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
However, such a view arguably led to a neglect of indigenous cultures, beliefs, and rights, and it raises challenging questions about the interplay of religion, ethics, and politics that continue to be relevant today.
Now, you may wonder, did this concept of manifest destiny extend beyond the borders of the United States? Let's turn our attention northward to examine our neighbor, Canada, and discover that the influence of manifest destiny transcended national boundaries.
I began my life in Canada.
I was born in a place called Kitchener, Ontario, in 1971.
In the 19th century, as the United States expanded westward and southward, some saw the annexation of Canada as the logical next step in fulfilling the concept of manifest destiny. However, Canada's own destiny unfolded differently. It resisted annexation, preserving its sovereignty and forging its own unique identity. The pressures and influences from the United States left their mark on Canada's development and policies. The specter of manifest destiny cast its shadow on the shaping of Canada's western provinces and decisions to construct transcontinental railways. Understanding the concept of Manifest destiny is not only vital for comprehending American history but also for grasping the historical dynamics of North America as a whole. Thus, even in studying our neighbors to the north, manifest destiny becomes apparent. It factored into Canada's efforts to push west and north, settling the Prairie Provinces and the Arctic. The solution to the threat of American expansionism proved to be Canadian expansionism.3
Canadians slaughtered First Nations people in the name of their imaginary god because of the concept of manifest destiny. They also committed cultural genocide by forcibly rounding up children and putting them into re-education facilities where many were murdered via various methods.4
‘Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.’
Duncan Campbell Scott, 1920
The intergenerational trauma inflicted by colonizers was justified by dehumanizing the people who stood in the way. No one kept count of how many indigenous humans were killed by Canadian-European invaders, but it is known that at least 150,000 native children were forcibly taken from their parents between 1883 and 1997 to be “re-educated” outside their families. Records show that between 25 and 70% of the children taken from their homes died in their new environments. Children were often forced to dig graves for other children.5
The past shapes the present. What was excused before must be reckoned with now if the species is to evolve. I was born in Canada, and I am ashamed of what my forebears did.
Native genocide was not limited to Canada. It impacted the entire continent of North America (and many other locales). From a Native American perspective, manifest destiny was synonymous with loss, displacement, and cultural genocide. Native American tribes who had lived and thrived on the continent for thousands of years were subjected to forced removals and brutalities to make way for the settler's westward expansion.
"Manifest destiny was on the march, and it was unfortunate for the Indian that he barred the way."
Robert M. Utley, The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890
This dark chapter in history, known as the Trail of Tears, saw many Native American tribes such as the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Seminole driven from their ancestral homes, enduring immense hardship and suffering. These tribes were not passive victims but actively resisted the encroachment, yet were often outmatched by the military might of the US government. Today, Native Americans continue to grapple with the profound and lasting impacts of manifest destiny on their communities, their cultural heritage, and their connection to the land.
From Canada to Bangladesh.
My evangelical Christian missionary parents moved the family to Bangladesh when I was six months old.
Bangladesh was never in the sights of the Americans “god-given right” to expand anywhere we damn well please crowd (as far as I know). The British did, however, stake a claim that ripples into the present. In 1947, the British partitioned what is now called Bangladesh.6 That act, which was part of the mental heuristics of manifest destiny, directly resulted in the 1971 revolt and civil war that birthed the country I moved to the year I was born. That civil war was still active during my family’s time in that place, and I was told stories of huddling together in our hotel room while people shot and grenaded each other on the street just outside.
When people claim god has given them authority, it ripples. British colonialism in the last 500 years has shaped political and social outcomes across much of the world, including the area currently called Bangladesh.
Then came Haiti
As my parents’ journey to spread their religious beliefs progressed and led me to Haiti, the influence of manifest destiny once again became apparent. Haiti, a nation with a rich history of revolution and the struggle for independence from colonizing slavers, has experienced the echoes of manifest destiny, albeit indirectly. Situated in the Western Hemisphere and sharing the Caribbean with American territories, Haiti has been negatively impacted by the cultural, political, and economic forces set in motion by the United States.
Haiti declared its independence from France on January 1st, 1804. From 1791 to 1804, the slaves of Haiti, then known as the French colony Saint-Domingue, fought off their French slave owners. France fought to hold on to Haiti, as it was their wealthiest colony, exporting sugar, indigo, and coffee. In 1804, under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, they succeeded in throwing off their colonial power. The Haitian Revolution marked a significant event in history. Haiti became the first modern state to abolish slavery, the first state in the world to be formed from a successful revolt of the lower classes (in this case slaves), and the second republic in the Western Hemisphere, only twenty-eight years behind the United States.
Despite this landmark event, the United States did little to respond to the Haitian Revolution. In fact, its silence is very telling: it was frightened because the Haitian Revolution threatened its economic interests. Southern plantation owners, fearful of revolts from their own slaves, worked to prevent their slaves from learning of the Haitian Revolution. They also pressured the United States government to refuse to recognize Haitian independence, which it did until 1862, after Southern states seceded from the Union.
The American influence on Haiti, stemming from manifest destiny, can be observed in various ways. The United States' policies and actions, driven by the certainty of divine blessings, have profoundly shaped Haiti's economic and political landscape. From early 20th-century military interventions to support for specific political regimes, the ripple effect of manifest destiny has unpredictably shaped the course of Haitian history.
Despite manifest destiny's impacts, the spirit of resistance and self-determination in Haiti's history serves as a powerful reminder that nations and individuals are not mere recipients of external influences, but active architects of their own destinies. Meanwhile, Americans recently elected an incompetent buffoon who called Haiti a “shithole country,” completely ignorant of the reality that many of Haiti’s problems are the legacy of US political meddling that was often justified in the name of manifest destiny. Had Haiti been geographically connected by land to Florida, it would have been absorbed by the US in the name of flawed heuristics and in the name of an imaginary deity.
"Like liberty itself, Manifest Destiny was not to be constrained by municipal rules and regulations."
Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation
The bottom line is that Haiti suffers because of America’s history of the doctrine of manifest destiny.7
Back to the USA
In the early 80s, my family fled Haiti to relocate to central Florida because of political instability and personal danger. The country was in crisis, and we had the means to flee, so we did. Most Haitians had no such option.
Do not move to central Florida if you value sanity, rationality, or human progress. Florida is a bastion for modern day variants on 19th century American priorities. It is also likely to be uninhabitable soon (climate change).
Our family settled in and I began to attend junior high school. The culture shock was immense. I still don’t think I have recovered. Back to the essay’s point.
Robert A. Heinlein, the science fiction author, offered a different perspective on manifest destiny. He posited this concept was not just confined to the territorial expansion of the United States on Earth, but extended to the uncharted frontiers of space. In his works, he often depicted humanity as a species driven by an inherent desire to explore, conquer, and proliferate, thus giving a futuristic dimension to manifest destiny. Heinlein's view serves as a metaphorical extension of the concept, envisioning humanity's destiny to manifest not just across lands, but across galaxies.
If we do not evolve beyond human exceptionalism, I believe that it is unlikely we will ever explore space or move out into the universe. Sometimes, I think that might be a good thing. So far, however, my optimism always wins and I decide to keep writing about what’s possible if we demand better for ourselves. It cannot happen without educating people about bad heuristics and then all of us figuring out ways to replace those heuristics with better ones.
"Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal."
Robert A. Heinlein, Assignment in Eternity
Manifest destiny and colonization are interwoven concepts, each influencing the other. The notion of manifest destiny fueled the drive for colonization, underpinning the belief that it was the divine duty of the American people to spread their civilization across new territories. This belief system justified the expansion and colonization of territories, often disregarding the rights and cultures of the indigenous inhabitants.
The colonization of new lands, driven by this doctrine, shaped the demographic, political, and cultural landscape of the United States. It influenced policies and attitudes towards indigenous people and shaped the nation's trajectory towards becoming a global power. The pursuit of manifest destiny and colonization led to the displacement and suffering of many indigenous communities, a dark chapter in the history of American expansion.
Manifest destiny and American exceptionalism (and all exceptionalism by human groups) are deeply intertwined, each concept fueling and validating the other. American exceptionalism, the belief that America is different and superior to other nations, provided a moral and ideological basis for the manifest destiny doctrine. This belief in exceptionalism painted America as a beacon of freedom, democracy, and progress, destined to spread its unique ideals across uncharted territories. Further, the idea that “god” wants “us” to push others aside by whatever means necessary spawned generations of murderers who slept well at night, incorrectly secure in the knowledge that their wrongs were morally justified.
Reminder: do not, under any circumstances, move to central Florida. If you enjoy living in a sweaty armpit surrounded by ignorant conservatives, ignore the preceding advice. Central Florida is for you.
Wrapping up, looking ahead
As we look towards the future, group exceptionalism in all forms has to be discarded. All nations will either work collaboratively in addressing global challenges, from climate change to poverty, or they will perish as tribes. If human equity can be applied consciously and ethically, this could mean not domination, but cooperation and leadership on the global stage. The same could hold true for future space exploration and possible colonization efforts as well. The guiding principle should always be respect for all life forms, adherence to peace, and a commitment to the shared growth of all humanity.
Manifest destiny is a complex and controversial concept that has played a significant role in the shaping of US history. While it inspired Americans to expand their territory and pursue economic prosperity, it also led to conflict, displacement, and genocide. The legacy of manifest destiny still impacts the US (and the world) today, and it is essential to recognize and understand its impact on society and culture to create a more just and equitable future.
The ideas associated with manifest destiny played a role in shaping the globe's current dynamics. Many other historical, political, and social factors also significantly impact global power dynamics and cultural outcomes. The United States is at the top of this pyramid of bad heuristics (that won’t last). Let’s evolve together by casting aside mental gymnastics that allow us to blindly inflict horrors upon each other. Teach someone you care about the past to make the future brighter for all of us.