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What Is America?

A Short History of the New World Order

by (author) Ronald Wright

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2009
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  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2009
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From the award-winning, #1 bestselling author of A Short History of Progress comes another surprising, frightening and essential book.

The USA is now the world’s lone superpower, whose deeds could make or break this century. For better and worse, America has Americanized the world. How did a marginal frontier society, in a mere two centuries, become the de facto ruler of the world? Why do America’s great achievements in democracy, prosperity and civil rights now seem threatened by forces within itself?

Brimming with insight into history and human behaviour, and written in Wright’s captivating style, What Is America? shows how this came to pass; how the United States, which regards itself as the most modern country on earth, is also deeply archaic, a stronghold not only of religious fundamentalism but of “modern” beliefs in limitless progress and a universal mission that have fallen under suspicion elsewhere in the west, a rethinking driven by two World Wars and the reckless looting of our planet.

A fresh, passionate look at the past and future of the world’s most powerful nation, What Is America? will reframe the debate about our neighbour and ourselves.

About the author

RONALD WRIGHT is an award-winning historian, essayist, and the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction published in sixteen languages and more than forty countries. His 2004 CBC Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, was a #1 national bestseller, won the Libris Award for Nonfiction Book of the Year, and was the basis for the Martin Scorsese–produced documentary Surviving Progress. His other bestselling nonfiction books include the BC Book Prize–winning history What Is America?; Stolen Continents, which won the Gordon Montador Award; and Among the Maya. His first novel, A Scientific Romance, won the 1997 David Higham Prize for Fiction and was a Globe and Mail, Sunday Times, and New York Times book of the year. Wright contributes criticism to the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other publications. He lives in British Columbia.

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  • Short-listed, BC Book Prize’s Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize

Excerpt: What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order (by (author) Ronald Wright)

Author’s Foreword

What then is the American, this new man?
–Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, ca. 17761

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 tomorrow." 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."3 The wise explorer of the well­papered 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 murderers."4

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).5 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.6

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 measure 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 twenty­five­year­old French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, the self­styled "bird of passage" whose Democracy in America has never been bettered as a broad analysis of the American character and promise.7 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 revealing.8

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 confined 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."9 That this observation might stand today for Guantánamo, 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 well­being and the freedom of man than vast empires.”10

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.11 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.12

Tocqueville’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.13 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.14 Tocqueville took those writings at face value, unaware they were religious and racial propaganda obscuring the truth about native societies and native­white relations.15

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.16 "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."17

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."18

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.”19

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, 17761

"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
–Thomas Jefferson, 17842

"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 2001, 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.4 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 2008, with only months left in office, he vetoed a Congressional bill that would have stopped American interrogators from torturing their suspects.5

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.6 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, 2001.7 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 re­examination 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 British­American 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.8 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.

Editorial Reviews

The Walrus
“A broad synthesis buoyed by its compact, fluid prose, this account is also noteworthy for its extensive footnotes, which document but also invite readers to delve deeper.”

“Provocative, well-argued and raises important questions.”
The Globe and Mail
“A devastating and brilliant critique.”
Winnipeg Free Press
“Eloquently impertinent and persuasive”
Toronto Star
“Wright’s contribution feels like a voice added to a gathering zeitgeist, an accounting of past mistakes and transgressions that allows room for the possibility of better days ahead.”
The Gazette

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