What Is America?

Ronald Wright, What Is America?: a short history of the new world order (Text Publishing 2008)

20130730-230738.jpgThis is a book that promises great things and, in the first half at least, delivers. Here, from page 13, is what I read as the promise:

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.

Only one of the three stories features strongly here, the story of ruthless empire. And at times it’s very hard to read, not because it’s poorly written – on the contrary, the writing is clear, passionate, engaging – but because the story is so hideous. The murderous double talk of George Walker Bush, Dick Cheney and their comrades in arms (and even at times, I say this in sorrow, of Barack Obama when he talks of Afghanistan) has a long pedigree. We have been lied to about who lived in North America before the first Puritans arrived there – systematically lied to, and evidence contradicting the lies systematically destroyed. We white Australians have finally recognised that though Aboriginal Australians may not have done much of what our predecessors recognised as farming the land, they still lived here and had natural rights that were trampled. North America in the fifteenth century was dotted with farms, towns, and an established civilisation. Smallpox and to a lesser extent technological superiority enabled the invaders to take over a land that had been prepared for them, and they did it with a nauseating confidence that this is what God intended, then lied about who had lived there before them.

It felt to me that the book kind of lost its way towards the end, turning into an all too familiar analysis of the crimes and sins of successive US administrations from Nixon to Bush the younger. The end comes much sooner than you expect, as more than a third of the book is taken up by notes and a bibliography. I wonder if Ronald Wright had to finish it sooner than he would have liked, hearing at his back a probable Obama win at the polls coming ever nearer.  Whatever its shortcomings, it’s a richly informative background to the Bush era, and to the challenges faced by Obama.

Ronald Wright is Canadian. Though he quotes a number of Australians, he doesn’t draw a parallel with the Australian history of dispossession and genocide, but it’s hard not to observe the difference that a couple of centuries made: as far as I’m aware no one seriously tried to claim that the Australian atrocities were done at the direct instruction of God. And it seems that the practice currently prevalent in Australia of acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, however token it may be, is a long way from making an appearance in the US.

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