PRAISE FOR "WHAT IS AMERICA" by Ronald Wright
A Short History of Progress
"This excellent book should be required reading at the White
House. Quill & Quire
"Wise, timely, and brilliant." The Globe and Mail
"A complex work of distilled wisdom." Times Literary Supplement
"A brilliant analysis of everything humanity has done to ruin
itself down the ages." Jan Morris, The Independent
"An elegant and learned discussion of what the rise and fall of
past civilizations predict about our own." Maclean's
FROM THE #1 BESTSELLING AUTHOR of "A Short History of Progress"
AND "Stolen Continents" ANOTHER SURPRISING, STIMULATING AND
ESSENTIAL ANALYSIS OF OUR TROUBLED AGE.
The United States is now the world's lone superpower, a new
empire whose deeds could make or break this century. The American
Way has Americanized the globe -f rom Britain to Beijing. But is
America what it thinks it is? Is America what the world has long
believed it to be? How did a small frontier society, in a mere
two centuries, become the de facto ruler of the world? Why are
America's great achievements -in democracy, prosperity and civil
rightsoften at risk from sinister forces within itself?
Ronald Wright explains how America is more truly American than we
know: a uniquely vigorous and rapacious organism arising from the
conquest that began with Columbus and begot the modern age.
Brimming with insight into history and human behaviour, and
written in Wright's muscular, witty style, What Is America? shows
how the New World created the modern world and now threatens to
Although the United States regards itself as the most advanced
country on Earth, Ronald Wright reveals how it is also deeply
archaic: a stronghold of religious extremism, militarism, and
so-called modern beliefs-in limitless growth, endless progress,
unfettered capitalism, and a universal mission - that have fallen
under suspicion elsewhere, following two World Wars and the
reckless looting of our planet.
Fresh, passionate and thoroughly documented, "What Is America?"
is indispensable for anyone who seeks to understand our times,
our neighbours and ourselves.
What then is the American, this new man?
-Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, ca. 1776'
Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?
-Jack Kerouac, 19572
THE ARGUMENT AT THE HEART Of this book - that the New World made
the modern world and now threatens to undo it - came to me from
the final chapter of my last one, "A Short History of Progress,"
which outlined the long record of collisions between Nature and
human nature. Much of What Is America? seeks to understand the
rise of the United States from small colony to world power, but I
raise the question within a larger context that has been
neglected. Modern America - and modern civilization in general -
are the culmination of a half-millennium we might call the
Columbian Age. For Europe and its offshoots, the Americas really
were Eldorado, a source of unprecedented wealth and growth. Our
political and economic culture, especially its North American
variant, has been built on a goldrush mentality of "more
The American dream of new frontiers and endless plenty has
seduced the world-even Communist China. Yet this seduction has
triumphed just as the Columbian Age shows many signs of ending,
having exhausted the Earth and aroused appetites it can no longer
feed. In short, the future isn't what it used to be.
When Stanley Kubrick made the film "2001: A Space Odyssey" forty
years ago, it did not seem far-fetched to imagine that by the
start of this millennium Americans might have a base on the moon
and be flying manned craft to Jupiter. After all, only five
decades had passed from the first aeroplane to the first space
flight. But by the real 2001 there had been no man on the moon
since 1972, elderly space shuttles were falling out of the sky,
and the defining event of that year-and perhaps of the new
century-was not a voyage to outer planets but the flying of
airliners into skyscrapers by fanatics.
The question "What is America?" could fill a library and a
lifetime. At the beginning of his Eminent Victorians, published
in 1918, the eminent modernist Lytton Strachey declared: "The
history of the Victorian age will never be written: we know too
much about it." The wise explorer of the well-papered past, he
advised, "will attack his subject in unexpected places ... he
will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses,
hitherto undivined." I have tried to follow Strachey's advice. If
history was already choked with data ninety years ago, how much
more so now.
So this is an eccentric book, seeking the centre by its edges. I
spend less time on the broad highways to the Founding Fathers,
slavery, the Civil War - already glutted with a thousand
books - and more on backroads to Mexico, Peru, the Pequots, the
Five Civilized Tribes, the Mormons and the Philippines. All who
delve into American history have to contend with a language of
misnomer and condescension: whites are soldiers, Indians are
warriors; whites live in towns, Indians in villages; whites have
states, Indians have tribes. As the Grand Council Fire of
American Indians told the mayor of Chicago in 1927, the school
histories "call all white victories, battles, and all Indian
victories, massacres.... White men who rise to protect their
property are called patriots - Indians who do the same are called
Then there is the term Indian itself, which some indigenous
Americans accept and others dislike. The word seems to
commemorate Columbus's mistaken idea of where he went. America
found Columbus. The unknown continents got in the way of his back
route to China, and the admiral died in 1506 still believing he
had been to islands off the coast of Asia - or, in his less
rational moments, of which there were quite a few, to the shores
of the Earthly Paradise (a venue revealed to him by its
resemblance to a woman's breast). Not for a generation did
European visitors begin to grasp the scale and complexity of the
new hemisphere stretching north and south to both polar seas. In
yet another mistake, they then named it after the unworthy
Amerigo Vespucci, described by his latest biographer as a pimp
and confidence man.
It is also true that European notions of "India" and "the Indies"
were so vague that "Indian" could mean almost anyone who wasn't
white, black or Chinese; Polynesians, for example, were also
called Indians. Most of the current alternatives are flawed,
unclear or difficult to use. "Native American" is seldom used
outside the United States and, confusingly, was also the
name of a white political movement of the nineteenth century.
"Aboriginal" has long been associated with Australia. "First
Nations" is little known outside Canada and does not work well as
an adjective. However, the word nation has rightly been used for
(and by) indigenous peoples since early colonial times - in the
senses of both ethnic group and polity.
In English, American Indians should really be called
"Americans"--as they often were until the eighteenth century. The
wholesale takeover of that word by white settlers is a meas ure
of the demographic catastrophe that gave rise to the United
States. In this book, when the context is clear, I have restored
the term American to its original meaning before the Revolution
of 1776. Thereafter I find it impossible to avoid using Indian
especially as the word is embedded in historical sources,
treaties and Acts of Congress. I apologize to readers who find
the term objectionable.
Any outsider writing about the United States does so in the
shadow of a twenty-five-year-old French aristocrat, Alexis de
Tocqueville, the self-styled "bird of passage" whose Democracy in
America has never been bettered as a broad analysis of the
American character and promise. I have also drawn on his private
travel notes and interviews, published as Journey to America,
which are less well known than Democracy, but often more
In 1831-32 Tocqueville toured the United States on a commission
from the French government to study the young nation's prison
system, a duty to which he by no means con fined himself. He
praised the modern "idea of reforming as well as of punishing the
delinquent" but added that he also saw "dungeons ... which
reminded the visitor of the barbarity of the Middle Ages." That
this observation might stand today for Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib or
a number of stateside penitentiaries is typical of the unfading
relevance of Tocqueville's work.
Though a keen observer and inspired extrapolator, Tocqueville was
no historian. I mention this now, not to dwell on his flaws but
to dispose of them. The Americans, he wrote:
"have no neighbours, and consequently they have no great wars, or
financial crises, or inroads, or conquest to dread; they ... have
nothing to fear from a scourge which is more formidable to
republics than all these evils combined, namely, military glory
... Nothing is more opposed to the well-being and the freedom of
man than vast empires."
No neighbours? Tocqueville meant, of course, no white neighbours.
By the lights of his time and class, only white men of standing
were true actors in world events. Because he did not see the
first Americans, or "Indians," as protagonists in American
history, he failed to grasp that America already was an empire -
armed, aggressive, expanding before his eyes and presided over by
a militarist, General Andrew Jackson. President Jackson was the
George W. Bush of his day, loved by the gullible, hated by the
intelligentsia and dismissed by Tocqueville himself as "a very
mediocre man." The young Frenchman was a cautious optimist, and
he hoped the presidency of the uncouth and violent general would
be an aberration. He therefore failed to look very far into
Jackson's career as an Indian killer and a practitioner of what
is now called ethnic cleansing, the Indian Removal of the 1830s.
Toequeville's neglect of the past can also be put down to his
youth: like the new republic itself, he fixed his gaze on the
future. For him, America had begun with its independence from
Britain, barely fifty years before his visit. His interest in the
formative colonial period went no deeper than skimming a few
"histories" written by early Puritan settlers in New England and
later books based on those accounts, which were also the reading
of Americans he talked to. Like other extreme Protestants in
Ulster and South Africa, the Puritans viewed their colonial
migration through the lens of the Old Testament, seeing
themselves as a chosen people in a Promised Land. Tocqueville
took those writings at face value, unaware they were religious
and racial propaganda obscuring the truth about native societies
and native-white relations.
He therefore missed the importance of the frontier - a westering
zone of warfare and cultural exchange since the 1600s in shaping
the settler nation. That insight would await the great American
historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who saw that the frontier,
which "strips off the garments of civilization," is the key to
understanding American cultural patterns that have drifted away
from the European mainstream. "The wilderness masters the
colonist," Turner announced in a lecture at the Chicago World's
Fair in 1893, "Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn
and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes
the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion."
Although Tocqueville missed Turner's insight, he did wonder how
white America seemed to be having her cake and eating it too:
conquering her hinterland yet doing so with her reputation
unbesmirched. The Spanish conquerors of Mexico and Peru, he noted
tartly, had failed to exterminate the indigenous race or even
fully quash its rights, yet the Americans had "accomplished this
twofold purpose ... without violating a single great principle of
morality in the eyes of the world."
Then as now, such sleight of hand was done by invoking lofty
hopes and ideals to hide unsightly truths. America is the country
of the future, shriven from the past, including its own:
a land paved with good intentions. As Lewis Lapham wrote
sardonically in a recent Harper's essay called "Terror Alerts":
"We're the good guys, released from the prison of history and
therefore free to imagine that our era will never pass."
THE NEW WORLD ORDER
The American Empire ... bids fair, by the blessing of God, to be
the most glorious of any upon Record.
- William Henry Drayton, 1776
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. -
Thomas Jefferson, 1784
I never apologize for the United States of America. I don't care
what the facts are. - George H. Bush, 19883
WE ARE ALL AMERICANS NOW!" the front page of Le Monde cried in
sympathy in September tool, after airliners became missiles over
New York and Washington. Besides solidarity and outrage, the
headline held a broader truth, intended or not, that has been
slowly dawning for the past one hundred years: through military
might, big business, popular culture, covert operations and above
all through social example and the shining promise of modernity,
the United States has Americanized the world.
This process was just beginning when President Woodrow Wilson
idealistically called for "a new world order" after the
First World War. At that time the phrase had nothing to do with
empire. Quite the reverse. Wilson was promoting his plan for a
League of Nations, an international body that would safeguard
each country's sovereignty and settle disputes by arbitration.
More than 10 million had died in four years of slaughter set off
by a terrorist attack, the shooting of the heir to the throne of
Austria-Hungary by a Serbian extremist. Or rather, the war had
begun with the reaction to that attack-the invasion of a small
country that had not sponsored the terrorism by an empire
thirsting for revenge.
The United States never did join the League of Nations: not
enough of Wilson's countrymen shared his ideals. And it would
take another great war before Europe learned the lessons of its
past. The phrase "new world order" was not much heard again until
the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, leaving one nation
mightier than all the others. An ironic reversal of Wilson's
internationalism came in 2002, when President George W. Bush did
all he could to sabotage the founding of the International
Criminal Court (ICC). Bush feared that American nationals might
be brought to book overseas - a realistic worry, given that his
administration was breaking international law on the treatment of
war prisoners. In March 2o08, with only months left in office, he
vetoed a Congressional bill that would have stopped American
interrogators from torturing their suspects.
The United States is now the world's lone superpower - a
successor to Britain, Spain and ancient Rome - an empire whose
deeds could make or break this century. Both within and beyond
America, people are asking themselves what sort of imperium this
might be. Will the new Rome, like the old, see its democracy
wither as its power grows? Will it be ruled by a Senate, a Caesar
or a Nero? Will its dominion be benign and inclusive, offering
benefits as well as duties to its subjects, as in Rome and
Britain at their best? Or will it be a rapacious overlordship, a
robber empire extorting tribute and obedience, like the unloved
reign of the Aztecs or the client-state networks of both Cold War
superpowers at their worst?
After the flawed presidential election of 2000, the new Bush
regime took the United States further to the political right than
any other major western country since 1945, a shift that
began before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Washington's reaction to that tragedy - trampling its own
Constitution and the Geneva Conventions in an unjust "war on
terror" - has squandered solidarity at home and goodwill abroad,
provoking a re-examination of the nation's essence: Is America
what it thinks it is? Is America what the world has long believed
it to be?
I hold that the recent difficulties run much deeper than a stolen
election and an overreaction to a terrorist assault. The
political culture and identity crisis of the United States are
best understood as products of the country's past - the real
past, not the imaginary one of national myth. The United States
did not grow in a vacuum by the power of its ideals: it is not so
much a new Europe across the Atlantic as a unique organism
engendered by history's "Big Bang" - the collision of worlds that
began in 1492. The new world order did not begin in 1919 with the
League of Nations, nor in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union.
It flows from Europe's takeover of the entire New World, or
Western Hemisphere: the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru,
which triggered five centuries of European expansion, and the
British-American conquest of what is now the United States. So
the America of my title has two meanings: the great republic most
of the world simply calls "America" and the American landmass as
a whole. My question "What is America?" applies to both. The
answers have long roots, reaching far beyond the familiar tale -
the rise of one nation to predominance.
The year 1492 wasn't very long ago. If you're past fifty, as I
am, you've seen for yourself at least a tenth of the time since
Columbus sailed. We are all still living with the consequences,
good and bad. Our world descends from the American "surprise"
that stopped Columbus on his way to Asia. Within a few decades of
that momentous contact, the wealth, crops and land of half a
planet - a half that had been developing in isolation for at
least fifteen thousand years - were suddenly laid open to the
whole. The seed that would become the United States was planted
then. The new order is indeed a New World order, and modern
America more truly American than we know.
As the historian Frederick Jackson Turner first recognized in
1893, the United States was forged "in the crucible of the
frontier." In the mythology created by romantic novels and
Hollywood westerns, the frontier is a virgin wilderness tamed by
heroic pioneers. The real frontier was a rolling three-century
war zone, from 1607 to 1890, in which the continent violently
changed hands. As white migrants both displaced and absorbed the
original Americans, a new culture came into being: a rapacious
hybrid dependent on expansion - part European, part indigenous,
yet neither. Elements of the old European civilization withered
or got left behind; other elements grew rank in new ways.
Isolated and unschooled, the frontier became a breeding ground
for militarism and religious extremism - the two aspects of
American culture that outsiders, and many Americans, find most
alarming today, especially when they converge in government
policy as they did under Ronald Reagan and again, more strongly,
under George W Bush.
Even before the Indian wars ended in 1890 at Wounded Knee, the
United States had begun projecting its power across the Pacific
and into Latin America. The nation did not wake up one morning
and find that it was suddenly imperial; it always has been so.
Its founding president, George Washington, was right when he
called the United States "a rising empire" back in 1783. Nearly
two centuries later, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed: "Our
frontiers today are on every continent [stretching] ten thousand
miles across the Pacific, and three and four thousand miles
across the Atlantic, and thousands of miles to the south." When
American Marines sing "From the halls of Montezuma To the shores
of Tripoli," they are not boasting idly but recalling their
conquest of Mexico in 1847 and a war with Libya as early as 1801.
The new republic was also a bold and worthy experiment, an
attempt to remake western civilization along utopian ideals of
freedom, democracy and opportunity - "the world's best hope" as
Thomas Jefferson, its third president, famously said. But the
practice of those ideals relied on a unique historical
circumstance: the opening up of a new territory, with new ineans,
in which to try them. Seen from inside by free citizens, the
young United States was indeed a thriving democracy in a land of
plenty; seen from below by slaves, it was a cruel tyranny; and
seen from outside by free Indians, it was a ruthlessly expanding
empire. All these stories are true, but if we know only one
without the others, what we know is not history but myth. And
such myths are dangerous.
Today's world, some argue, changes so quickly that the past is no
longer much help to us. But I agree with the Australian historian
Inga Clendinnen, who writes in a recent essay, "It is precisely
because change is so swift that we need history." From the
personal to the international level, humans understand one
another by watching behaviour through time. History is the best
guide we have for threading our way through the frenetic video
game of current events. As the game speeds up, with runaway
technological and social change, the great risk is that both the
old and the young become isolated, in different ways, by the
parochialism of the present: one generation gets marooned, the
next swept along without a ship's log or a rudder.
To understandwhat forces shaped the United States and how the
lone superpower may now play on the world stage, we must follow
its record of expansion - for three centuries across its
continent and for another century beyond. And we must begin with
a clear sight of its American origins: of what awaited the
European invaders in the Western Hemisphere. Any account that
begins at the usual departure - the white-settler revolt against
Britain in 1776---is starting halfway through the story.
Much of the first half is also the history of the English, my own
nationality, who, like most human beings, have shown themselves
capable of almost anything. Just as English school children don't
hear much about their ancestors' colonial outrages in Ireland or
how the Mutiny in India was avenged by binding rebels to cannon
and blowing them apart, so American youngsters are not taught
about the conquest and "removal" of the original Americans or the
events that made Benjamin Franklin denounce his compatriots as
"Christian white savages." To sleep well in their beds, nations,
like individuals, rely on the art of forgetting.
It is said that indigenous Americans can live with themelves only
by remembering the past, and white Americans only by forgetting
it. The United States may not have commit more crimes than most
other imperial nations, but it forgets them more quickly and more
thoroughly. From the earliest days, the country has been built on
the belief that it is an exception to history and an example to
the world. Each failure of its deals is therefore seen as an
anomaly, not a pattern.
When the realities of power do intrude on the national
consciousness, Americans undergo a "loss of innocence." This
seems to happen about once a generation - as in the Mexican
War, the Civil War, the Philippine War, the World Wars, Korea,
Vietnam and now Afghanistan and Iraq. At least six of these nine
were started mainly by Americans. Innocence grows back in
defiance of truth like a self-restoring hymen, only to be lost
again and again, with surprise and consoling resolutions of
reform. Innocence is saved by ignorance, by not caring what the
facts are - and therefore not learning from them. The elder
George Bush made the remark quoted at the head of this chapter
after a U.S. warship shot down an Iranian Airbus (said to have
been mistaken for an F-14 fighter) in 1988, killing all 290 on
board. It is hard to imagine a leading citizen of any other
leading nation making such a remark in such circumstances - if he
did, receiving so little public censure. Only four months later,
Mr.Bush was elected president. That his words do not wreck, or
even hinder, his political career raises questions about American
culture that the country and the world must address.
The United States regards itself, and has long been regarded, as
the most "modern" country on Earth. Yet it is also archaic, a
redoubt of Victorian beliefs in endless growth, untamed
capitalism, unabashed nationalism and a universal mission. Such
ideas may have been truly modern a century ago, but they have
since fallen under suspicion elsewhere in the west, a rethinking
driven by two world wars.
The United States is also home to a deep religious archaism,
descended from the early Puritans and eerily similar to the
belief system of today's Islamic terrorists. (After the September
11 attacks, the televangelist Jerry Falwell, a key matchmaker of
Christian extremism with the Republican right since Ronald
Reagan's day, said that America's tolerance for atheists, gays,
civil-rights workers and the like had angered God and "helped
this happen." One in two Americans rejects the evidence for
evolution; the rest of Christendom gave up fighting Darwin a
century ago. From biblical literalism flows a distrust of science
and learning, and even of mere intellect in politicians. Half the
nation tends to vote on the basis of narrowly defined religious
views and moral "values" - an electorate easily gulled by folksy
demagogues fronting for powerful interests.
In his latest book, called "The Assault on Reason," former
vice-president Al Gore, who lost the 2000 general election
(though not the popular vote) to the younger George Bush, cas-
tigates the "persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as
the basis of policy." The facts do matter. "Reason," Gore
underlines, "is the true sovereign in the American system. Our
selfgovernment is based on the ability of individual citizens to
use reason in holding their elected representatives ...
accountable. When reason itself comes under assault, American
democracy is put at risk."
Not only democracy but the future; not only America but the
world. Historical amnesia may be a balm for patriots, but it can
have no place in the twenty-first century's increasingly
precarious world order.
A relatively short book, with a HUGE "Notes for" (just about a
book in itself) is "What Is America" - a fine book by Ronald
Wright, that I recommend everyone to read, especially the people
of the USA.
To be continued