What is America?

A Short History of the New World Order. By Ronald Wright (Toronto: Vintage, 2008).

By Ron Shirtliff (reviewer)

Wright opens the foreword of What is America? with, “The argument at the heart of this book—that the New World made the modern world and now threatens to undo it…”, and he ends the Afterword with “It behooves us all not merely to salute but to engage with the return of Enlightenment America, and to help it endure—not least for our own good.”

The genius of Ronald Wright is his ability to give insight into a question that is on the minds of many who worry about the future of the world. He does this in a mere 234 pages of very readable history (plus 142 pages of notes). The question is, “What Is America?” Can the US be mankind’s hope for the future, or is it the force that will lead us to our self destruction? What are we to expect from the dominance of the sole superpower and the New World Order it has created?

As Wright sees it, Christopher Columbus unwittingly launched a new age which five hundred years later is reaching its logical and rather frightening conclusion. We have reached the end of an era; we are at a turning point. Who will lead us to seize the new day and forge a new sustainable lifestyle? Will we be dragged to our doom by our expectations of unlimited growth that were created by the “unlimited” expansion in the “new world”? The most glorious expression of that expansionist culture is found in the United States of America. Can we expect America, which has achieved so much in past centuries, to be the model for the world in this new century?

European discovery of the Americas unleased a deluge of change, not just for the unprepared and vulnerable locals, but also for Europe. What Wright calls the Columbian era was 500 years of expansion, triggered first by the influx of gold and silver to Europe. And probably more important, though less obvious, was the introduction of new food crops from the Americas—most significantly, corn and potatoes. These productive crops made possible a great expansion of the food available in Europe, and as a result, a significant growth of population. The increase in a better-fed population made possible a surplus of labor, which helped make the industrial revolution possible. This in turn powered the devolopment of the “new world.”

The “new world” also provided a great new territory for the physical and cultural expansion of aspects of European civilization. It was a massive new theatre in which to develop variations of an older culture. And this development took place in what was frequently a generous and unspoiled environment with a seemingly endless frontier for growth. At the end of five hundred years the USA stands out as the most significant product of this age of expansion, a powerful example of all that could go right and much that could go wrong. America is the model of development that sets an example for much of the modern world, but it also carries its inherent assumption of an ongoing expansion that, if adopted by everyone else, now threatens the very viability of the limited resources of the planet. Wright’s history attempts to reveal how this American model developed over those years and to assess, as far as one can, the future consequences for mankind.

The credit and debit columns of the history of America are both impressive: crucial engagement in two world wars with the idealism of Wilson launching the League of Nations (but never accepted by Congress), and the reconstruction of much of Europe after the Second World War. On the debit side, ruthless ethnic cleansing of resident native peoples, annexation of half of Mexico, the attack on the Philippines, to list a sampling. And more recently, wars launched in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The chain of 700 military bases around the world today exist to enforce American interests.

On the credit side, the US is a vigorous democracy, one that has elected some of the noblest as well as some of the worst leaders. America is full of contradictions: a very rich nation, devoted to capitalism, yet without health care for millions of its citizens. It is a nation of profligate consumers, the envy of most people on this planet who have watched an American movie. That enthusiasm, alas, is seriously stressing the resources of our global ecosystem and if unchecked will destroy civilization as we know it. It is a nation that trumpets the virtues of freedom and incarcerates one person in 130, about seven times higher than Europe or Canada. It is a nation in which five out of ten citizens think the Creation myth in the Bible is literally true.

Wright explains these contradictions through a review of the history and development of the US. In the present, as in the past, two forces contend for control within America. One carries the Enlightenment of Eighteenth century Europe into the new nation. The founders of the nation carefully crafted a constitution to embed the values of equality, freedom, the rule of law, reason and justice. Many citizens still commit themselves to the defence of those values.

In contrast, the other force, the faith-based, fundamentalist strain of Puritanism, reinforced by the limitations and ruthlessness of centuries of frontier life, resulted in a large portion of the population that is anti-intellectual, anti-government, anti-cosmopolitan, crudely materialistic, determinedly ignorant of history, xenophobic, and jingoistic. Their reality is based, not on reason, but on a self-serving myth of their own making, which directs their lives. Wright sums up this worldview in the words of the older Bush, when in 1988 a US warship downed an Iranian airliner killing 290 passengers, “I never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.” A few months later he was elected president by the constituency he represented so well. As Wright sees it, about half the American population, in determined ignorance of the values of the founding fathers, don’t care what the facts are.

In democratic America these two contradictory forces are nearly equally matched against each other, with one side gaining ascendency for a time only to lose in turn to the other. Because they are so fundamentally different, there is little middle ground where these forces can find common cause for long. After eight years under George W. Bush, and with the addition of an economic collapse which blossomed out of the policies he espoused, the spread between the vote for Obama and the McCain-Palin team was only six percent. Thus the US state stumbles on, at times a beacon of the best of Western civilization, at other times a force which threatens to selfishly undo the control of those forces which ravaged mankind in the two World Wars. In recent years as a nation under Bush, America seemed determined unilaterally to undo international agreements to control violence, nuclear proliferation, and climate. Wilson and Roosevelt would surely be grieving.

In an afterword, subsequent to the rise of Obama, Wright acknowledges again the vigor of American democracy, but he worries that the balance of forces within America limit the ability of the US state to act consistently in the rational best interests of mankind. The enlightened citizens are regularly checkmated by fellow citizens who make up about half the population.

If this makes it impossible for America to lead, yet there is hope. Wright points to Europe, which in less than a century—with some American help—has grown from a tangle of warring countries into a large, cohesive, forward-thinking entity. Europe’s people enjoy a standard of living equal to America’s, yet they consume only half as much energy per person as the US and Canada. It is in the European Union that he hopes for the leadership that may make it possible for us to break out of the worst habits of the expansionist Columbian age into one of equality, justice, peace, and sustainable prosperity.

Wright’s convincing analysis dashes some hopes of American state leadership, but he never gives up on the dream that Enlightenment America dreamed. Let us hope that a transplanted American Enlightenment dream leads to the post-Columbian world.

Reviewed by Ron Shirtliff of Toronto, an associate editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2010

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2010, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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