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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order

Reviewed: August 11, 2010
By: Ronald Wright
Publisher: Vintage Canada
376 pages, $19.95

In the Wizard of Oz, there’s a wonderful scene in which the flimflamming Wizard of the title is caught by Dorothy and her friends while attempting to scam them with a giant floating head. The curtain hiding the puppet master slips and the frantic Wizard has his puppet say, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

It’s pretty clear to clever Dorothy that she’s uncovered a con artist at work.

With this book, Ronald Wright seems to be saying the same thing about American history.

One of the first things to note about this short history is that it really is quite short. Only the first 234 pages are the actual book. The rest is footnotes (pages 235-335), bibliography and index (pages 336 - 376). Additionally, this is one of those books that actually made me wish the footnotes were at the bottoms of the pages (a la Peter C. Newman), as some of them were very interesting. Once I’d discovered this I kept a bookmark inserted in the footnotes section and peeked from time to time.

Perhaps the next thing to note is that the book is not only about the United States. Wright’s definition of America is larger than that, and he gets nearly halfway through the book before the United States of America comes into clear focus.

The early portions of the book concern the way in which Europeans or, more accurately, European germs, cleared the path for the settlers which were to come. Wright summarizes arguments that have been made in the past regarding the misapprehensions about native American culture which have abounded since the European invasion began with the Spanish.

Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel) has examined in some detail the thesis that the conquest of the Americas was accomplished largely by the unplanned impact of urban European diseases on cultures which had no developed immunity to them.

Wright points out that the Spanish were defeated in their first attempts at military conquest and were only successful later when a large percentage of the indigenous population had been wiped out by disease and the complex social systems of these groups had fallen apart as a result.

When he shifts his focus to North America he points out how dependent on the Americans (he uses this term for the original inhabitants through most of the first part of the book) the first European settlers were and how little resemblance there is between the first recorded interactions between the two groups and those which followed.

Where several of the men who helped to frame what became the constitution of the United States were quite clear in their admiration of the political structures of the Iroquois Confederacy, later documents demonized the natives and downplayed their culture and accomplishments.

Demonization is the peculiar rhetorical weapon of choice for a people whose history is saturated in what Wright analyzes as a religious mania not far removed from the sort of thing that causes people to fly planes into buildings. When you combine that sort of drive with the profit motive of unfettered capitalism you get the kind of empire that the USA, when it is at its worst, strives to make of itself. In order to do that, Wright suggests rather strongly that the USA needs to have an enemy, needs to be on the side of the angels against an evil empire, and that when it does not have one, its national psychology is to make one up, as with Iraq.

No surprise then, that Wright moves right along to the current War on Terror, a war being waged against a abstract concept rather than against an actual entity, a war as apparently as fruitless as the War on Drugs.

“The so-called War on Terror,” he writes, “ will breed only more terror and more war. The neglect of the world’s poor will lead to chaos. The rape of the environment will take our civilization to catastrophe. Our only hope, as great Americans such as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt understood, is to build a world order is which everyone has a say and shares the rewards. A full belly and a fair hearing won’t stop a fanatic, but they will greatly reduce the number who become fanatics.”

You see, for all that he is critical of the USA and of the way in which its leaders have obscured its real history behind a national myth of progress and moral superiority, Wright still thinks that America’s better nature is the best hope for a better world. He ends the book by hoping that the Obama presidency can undo some of the harm that eight years of Bush II did to the country and to the world. But he is not sure about that, and a year after he wrote the new afterword to the paperback edition of this 2008 book, he is probably even less certain.

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