What Is America?

By Ronald Wright

“In the beginning, all the world was America,” wrote English philosopher John Locke, who saw the New World as existing in a state of nature. Today, at the end of history, we have come full circle. The global frontier is now closed and the U.S. has Americanized the world. Or, as The 9/11 Commission Report presumptuously put it, “the American homeland is the planet.”

This is the New World Order, a term that novelist and social historian Ronald Wright employs with double meaning in his newest book – in the conventional sense of a new geopolitical system, as well as one whose guiding principles are founded in the history of the New World. And so Wright’s answer to the question “What is America?” begins not in 1776, but in 1492 with the European takeover of the Western Hemisphere, the beginning of what Wright designates the five-century Columbian Age. The bulk of the book is taken up with the “eccentric,” or secret, history of colonialism, in particular the near-extermination – as a result of accident, demographics, and deliberate policy – of the first Americans. The seeds of the American empire were sown in these early years, an aggressive blend of exploitation, militarism, and religious extremism, soothed by the balm of nationalist mythologies and self-righteous propaganda.

Wright is, clearly, not in love with the New World Order, especially as represented by the last eight years of the Bush administration. In fact, he sees a reversal in roles for the old and new worlds, with Europe providing the world’s last best hope for the future while the U.S. is stuck in dreams of its barbaric past, “an archaic, aggressive and colonial culture that has drifted a long way from the mainstream of western civilization.”

Unfortunately, readers already sympathetic to such a point of view – the obvious target audience here – will find nothing new in any of this. Wright’s black book on the American empire is a general history cobbled together out of other general histories and popular accounts. Even his examination of the contemporary scene, which feels almost tacked on, borrows heavily. The split between Backwoods and Enlightenment America, for example, is just another way of pointing to the red state/blue state divide that is now such a commonplace. The discussion also has the breezy, informal feel of a public lecture – which Wright’s previous book, A Short History of Progress, actually was.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2008.

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