What is America by Ronald Wright - a Book Review

What is America by Ronald Wright

A Book Review by Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)


When anointed Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin stumbles but quite efficiently shrouds her astounding lack of knowledge in American and world history and current events with invoking such words of deep religiosity, “we are on God’s side”, Ronald Wright’s timely published book What is America slashes this purported ignorance and traces back the roots of never ending Frontier state of mind, where the everlasting motto is: “good times don’t last; get yours while you can.”

Get yours while you can by any cost. Ransacking and pillaging nation from indigenous population, branding them as savages and wild animals, and when necessary making promises and breaking them later at earliest conveniences, are the melancholic parts of this deeply moving book.

There are nine chapters in What is America. Each of them are compressed but sufficiently elucidating observations of past backed up by equally intriguing notes and references at the end of the book, all the way from the day of voyaging Columbus, De-Soto, Cortes and other historical figures to the days of 2008 chaotic election campaign, some of them got undeserving nod as hero, and some of them got erased from collective memories, mostly to expanding and crafty national myth.

Unlike many contemporary writers who wouldn’t dare to ask unpalatable questions, Ronald Wright asks, “Is America what it thinks it is? Is America what the world has long believed it to be?” To answer these two questions the author embarks on a truth finding journey to distant past because “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.”

National myth is not the phenomenon solely reserved for America. In every continents, in every epoch of time, creating and sustaining myths of nationalism, and the art of forgetting past atrocity committed in the name of a nation, borderline, creed and other artificially created divisions, are masterfully employed for keeping “informed” the agitating mass. Here Ronald Wright observes, “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 ............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.”

Loot, Labour and Land

Ronald Wright compared two past American empires, Aztec and Incas, two with differing modes of governance and postures. These empires exemplify two “main kinds of imperial system”. Aztec had the tribute or hegemonic empires, “in which client states are dominated but not integrated by an overlord”, while Incas were centralized or territorial empire, “which aim to incorporate their subjects into a greater whole, with a single economy, government, official language and religion.”

Unlike the hegemonic Aztec Empire, the Incas Empire acted like a benevolent rulers, “extending public works”, the rulers indeed lived “more grandly than their subjects – but there was no slavery, hunger or grinding poverty.” The purpose of comparing these two past empires is to compare them with contemporary America, Russia and other world powers, and various wars, cold wars, hot wars, terror wars, fabricated wars, etc., that has emerged in extending these powers’ hegemonic or territorial reach to its client states and beyond.

Like the author’s previous splendid book A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright describes the battles between Aztec and Spaniards, and invasion of Incas Empire, and the deadly small pox virus and other diseases crossed overseas, that had spread among the indigenous populations and decimated them to less than one tenth population strength they had before the European invasions. “The truth is that the Spaniards did not succeed in conquering any major state on the American mainland until after a smallpox plague had struck. When they tried, they lost.”

Ronald Wright ties the treasure of national proportions that Pizarro’s thugs had looted from Incas Empire, known as Atahualpa’s gold, and regarding Industrial Revolution Karl Marx observed as following: “An indispensable condition for the establishment of manufacturing industry was the accumulation of capital facilitated by the discovery of America and the importation of its precious metals.”

Very Well Peopled and Towned

The appealing myth has it that America was a “virgin wilderness....inhabited only by a handful of “wild men” or “savages” because of this convenient myth’s powerful delineation of a nation, empty, where even a squirrel could fly thousands of miles but still couldn’t see any trace of humanity. However, eyewitnesses whose accounts were subsequently suppressed or eroded from the voluminous texts of history show a different image. A Florentine navigator, Verrazano, in 1524 describes the eastern seaboard of contemporary American Manhattan: “Running back and forth across the water was about thirty of their boats with an infinite number of people aboard.” These Americans greeted the strangers with curiosity and laughter; indeed, they sound rather like later New Yorkers – noisy, bustling, loudly dressed, scooting about in fleets of big canoes where ferryboats now take tourists to the Statue of Liberty.”

Religion and Profit Jump Together

It is not to say that indigenous America were pacifists. That is far from truth. They had their wars, vicious ones for centuries. The only difference between the old Americans (natives) and the new Americans (Europeans) lies in “moral distinction” that is “simply that Europe invaded America, not the reverse.”

The very familiar tricks that the expansionists employ like the dehumanizing of opponents so that war’s casualties can be brushed aside without remorse are still prevalent. Ronald Wright sheds light on “the business end of the conquest machine: the new Americans assault and encroach on the old Americans until they provoke a counterattack, which is sometimes planned by the native leadership and at other times carried out by a radical splinter group. The white authorities then express outrage at what bloodthirsty “barbarians” have done to God-fearing tillers of the earth. A punitive war is then launched with overwhelming force – a war of “civilization” against “savagery”, in which the first Americans are driven further into the “wilderness” or exterminated on the spot.”

Ronald Wright correctly observes that this “trick” is not “exclusive” to America, “It is heard wherever rival peoples fight for the same turf.”

About one hundred years from American Revolution of 1776, “one of its potent seeds was planted......The settlers wanted the land without the Indians. Britain, taking the wider view of a world power, hoped to enlist indigenous peoples as allies for its empire, especially against the French at Quebec and Montreal. The Puritan’s divorce from London had suddenly become less distant and more acrimonious, contributing not only to the Revolution but to modern Americans’ mistrust of their own central government.”

Ronald Wright gives detailed description of Cherokees, their forceful and violent expulsion, stating, “Whether or not Jackson’s Removal policy was genocidal by intent – as some scholars believe – it certainly was in execution. About one-fourth of the Cherokee Nation would die when the Removal was carried out by United States and Georgian forces in 1838. By that time, a similar number of Choctaws, Creeks and others had already died when removed, Jackson and his supporters well knew the true effects of their final solution. During the Creeks’ Removal in 1836, the sky above their death march had been filled with vultures.”

Two years were given to Cherokees to get out of their lands and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the prominent American writer, young man then, wrote to President Van Buren, “A crime is projected that confounds our understanding by its magnitude, a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country, for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or .... our country anymore? .....The name of this nation, hitherto the sweet omen of religion and liberty, will stink to the world.”

Ronald Wright writes, “In June 1838 the U.S. Army began rounding up the Cherokees and confining them in what may fairly be described as concentration camps. The stockades were not designed for extermination, but they might as well have been. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, died within from hunger, overcrowding and disease. Thousands more died that winter on the Trail of Tears.”

An elderly native man named Black Hoof who had seen a “century of frontier fighting for himself, foresaw that the process would never stop: ‘Wherever we may go, your people, the American Farmers, will follow; and we will be forced to be removed again and again and finally arrive at the Pacific ocean and then be compelled to jump off.’” Like Ralph Waldo Emerson and other reputable writers of that era Ronald Wright “understood, the Indian Removal was a test of their new country’s character. With the betrayal of the Cherokee nation, the United States betrayed itself. Sinister elements present in British America since the earliest colonies had surfaced in the republic and taken charge.”’

Manifest Destiny

Ronald Wright brilliantly portrays the conquest of Mexico, its significance in America’s growing power ensnared in the lands far beyond its initial boundary. The provocation and starting of Mexican war by President Polk was condemned by Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams, the past and then future American Presidents, as Lincoln termed it as “the sheerest deception”, and Adams “charged Polk with unscrupulous suppression of facts and said that Congress’s control of the right to declare war was ‘utterly insufficient .... as a check upon the will of the President.”

A few Polk’s supporters wanted to conquer entire Mexico, however, “Polk’s strategy was to conquer the whole but keep only the northern half. The rest could be left independent, sovereign in name yet subservient to American interests and investment: the same kind of relationship the Aztecs had once forced on their unhappy neighbours. Mexico became the first client-state under American hegemony.” The euphoria of “Manifest Destiny” swept American shore, “the phrase shone a beam of divine approval on anything America might seize or do in the Aladdin’s cave of the New World. In his 1935 book Manifest Destiny, the distinguished historian Albert Weinberg called it a monstrous alchemy turning ‘democratic nationalism into a doctrine of imperialism.’”

On the home front, slavery had already caused rifts between the “Backwoods America” and the “Enlightened America”, though only a few years before the full blown American Civil War, “the Supreme Court had handed down the infamous Dred Scott decisions, ruling that slaves were property, not persons, and thus unprotected by the freedoms of the Constitution even in free states.”

Ronald Wright analyzes the Civil War, noting that President Abraham Lincoln “expected a quick victory” because “the slaveholding states had only 8 million free citizens to the North’s 19 million.” Why the war lasted longer than anticipated? Because “the South put up a much tougher fight for its way of life than the North had expected. One reason was patriotism: the South was well on its way to becoming a separate nationality. Another was fear: the South dreaded a black uprising, a great settling of scores for what everyone knew, deep down, was wrong.”

Even after the Civil War was over, and North won, Frederick Douglas, a former slave himself, eloquently said that “the work of the abolition war would never done until the black men of the South, and the black men of the North, shall have been admitted, fully and completely, into the body politic of America.” For the first dozen years reconstruction after war, “the North came down hard on the South, and Douglass’s dream – later Martin Luther King’s and Barack Obama’s – seemed almost within reach. But the work of rebuilding America was hindered by the corruption of carpetbaggers and war profiteers who bedevilled Lincoln’s successors.” And “by the late 1870s, it was clear that the price for national reconciliation would be paid by African Americans. Washington turned a blind eye as segregation and Jim Crow laws overturned the new racial order, keeping the South a white man’s country for another hundred years.”

Hawaii, the Caribbean and Philippine

American expansion took it across the ocean, to Hawaii and then Philippine. Like the native Americans, the indigenous population “was struck hard by imported disease, worsened by alcohol, prostitution and cultural breakdown.” Ronald Wright satirically states that “Hawaii became ‘globalized’, a pawn in what then called World Market.” No violent war had to be imposed, the natives were “steadily decreasing in numbers and gradually losing their hold upon the fair land of their fathers. Within a century they have dwindled from four hundred thousand....to a little more than a tenth of that number of landless, hopeless victims to the greed and vices of civilization.” The above words were stated by the last king of Hawaii David Kalakaua. Few years after Kalakaua’s death, a coup d’etat by the American settlers removed Hawaiian ruler’s sister Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 from power, Hawaii was quietly annexed.

The march of new hegemonic empire continued, first to Caribbean Islands like Cuba, Guam, etc., and then to Philippine, to “educate”, “civilize” and to “uplift” the “savages” of that faraway land. And dressing up greed “as a sacred duty” for “humane” war of “civilization” seems eerily so contemporary as if Donald Rumsfeld had transported back into time to 19th century from 21st century saying “The war in the Philippines has been conducted by the American army with scrupulous regard for the rules of civilized warfare....with self-restraint and with humanity never surpassed”, like his infamous usage of “humanity” – “ to describe his bombing of Iraq”.

Ronald Wright quoted the early 20th century historian Tyler Dennett whose words were written remembering Philippine war but can easily be invoked for current war in Iraq: “The policy was adopted in great ignorance of the actual facts.......and in a blissful and exalted assumption that any race ought to regard conquest by the American people as a superlative blessing.”

Monetarism, Faith and Fallacy

Sharp contrasts were made between “Backwoods America” and “Enlightened America”. Backwoods America was defined as “descended from the frontier” and Enlightenment America “descended from the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.” The animosity between these polar opposite groups were so acrimonious that Barry Goldwater who ran as Republican Presidential candidate in 1964 said, “This country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.”

Here is a vivid description of Backwoods America: “Backwoods America clings to its fundamentalism and its firearms because they are touchstones of the pioneering myth, of an autonomy that has slipped from the small man’s grasp. During the cold war, many such Americans felt newly empowered by righteous might against the godless Soviet Union.” Joseph McCarthy was the epitome of this far right conservative America in his “communist witch-hunt” of 50s. “Backwoods America not only fears outsiders but has always needed them to define themselves, to make the parochial central, to sustain an archaic worldview rooted in a biblical apocalypse it both dreads and desires.”

Here Ronald Wright recognized Backwoods America’s changing bogeyman from generation to generation, “it is not accident that the “wild” Indian of the West is attacked soon after the rebel South is vanquished; that the communist bogeyman appears soon after the last Indian is confined on a reservation; that the Muslim fanatic is inflated to the level of a worldview conspiracy soon after the Red Menace gives up and starts dining at the Moscow McDonald’s. Evangelicals have substituted Islam for the Soviet Union........The Muslims have become the modern-day equivalent of the Evil Empire.”

The striking similarities between Backwoods America and Al Qaeda’s fundamentalisms, where both “cater to a fundamentalist mindset not vastly different” from each other. Like the Taliban and extremist Mullahs in the Muslim nations, “a significant part of the United States still belongs to an archaic, aggressive and colonial culture that has drifted a long way from the mainstream of western civilization.”

About religious violence Ronald Wright has lots to say like the following snippet: “the acid test for determining when a religious community has become a peril to itself and others is when it starts killing people on God’s orders......When religious violence occurs on such a scale, there is usually a substantial dose of earthly politics behind the spiritual imperative. One thread that runs through all these cases, from the First Crusade to the World Trade Center, is a conviction of supreme moral and metaphysical right or a facsimile thereof, bearing in mind that fanaticism is often overcompensation for doubt.”

Monetarism and Globalization’s fallacy are given deserved spotlight in What is America. “Monetarism’s great fallacy is to assume that the world is infinite and growth can therefore be endless. It takes no account of human and environmental costs or of long term limits. Deregulation is just what it says it is: a free for all to grab the most in the shortest time. Globalization is a feeding frenzy. It’s ‘efficiency’ is measured only in the short term and by criteria that ignore depletion, pollution, waste disposal, social harmony and public health. The supposed ‘rights’ of capital trump those of sovereignty, ecology, labour and future generations.”

Hope may be a virtue

Reading Ronald Wrights’ What is America may seem to be abysmally pessimistic in its outlook of our growingly intolerant world, especially the rising Backwoods America toppling all the Keynesian economic measures and safeguards, one by one, that were in place after the second world war, and the neoconservative’s continuous hold on hawkish foreign policies. But the author also shows ample examples where democracies and economic system have started thriving and in many respect overtaking American financial pulses. There indeed is still hope, and hope “can win elections – but hoping for the best instead of learning from the past has often led American astray.”

One luminous example of hope that America surely can follow is the footsteps of the European Union as “for some sixty years now, Europe has grown away from tribalism, fanaticism and militarism, and towards a new commonwealth built not on the threat of war but on its memory......More than a trading alliance but not quite a federation, this evolving supranational organism now has more people and a bigger economy than the United States.” And the writer has solemn recommendation for America the beautiful, “America, which helped set the Europeans on their new path half a century ago, must now examine its own record – the facts, not the myths – and free itself from the potent yet potentially fatal mix of forces that created its nation, its empire, and the modern world.”

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