Barack Obama has been elected president of the United States. This is an extraordinarily important achievement, both for the man himself and the country as a whole. It remains to be seen, of course, how an Obama administration will address problems that are enormous in scope. America is involved in two wars – one in Iraq, the other in Afghanistan, has a staggering debt and deficit and is in the throes of a recession that shows no signs of abating. However Barack performs as president, his election as the first black man to win the presidency of the United States highlights the potential for progressive change. Obama’s message of change, hope and inclusiveness galvanized a majority of Americans like no other candidate has since John F Kennedy. Hitherto disaffected African Americans (both young and old) were finally able to exercise their enfranchisement in a way that mattered. Racism suffered a severe setback. Indeed, Obama’s victory also signals a willingness on the part of a majority of Americans to atone for some of the sins of their past.
Ronald Wright is no doubt celebrating this development. In What is America? A Short History of the New World Order, the Canadian anthropologist does not provide a definitive answer to the question posed in the book’s title. He insists, however, that if America is to ever realize its full potential it must first soberly re-assess its history. Much of the book is a history lesson meant to debunk the national myths concerning America’s founding. The most persistent myth perhaps is that Native Americans were ‘savages’ requiring European enlightenment. According to this myth, Native Americans consisted of nomadic tribes perpetually at war with themselves and barely subsisting, due to their lack of sound agricultural practices. Their political structures were primitive, if they could be said to exist at all. Europeans, by contrast, were more developed in every way that mattered, socially, politically, economically and spiritually. Their superior develop–ment is why Europeans ultimately flourished in North America, while Native American communities were decimated. This myth of superiority extended to Africans as well, which set in motion America’s long history of slavery and other forms of racism.
Like any good anthropologist, Wright uses eyewitness testimonies to help uncover a much different reality. In their diaries and in written accounts to their home governments, new world explorers often described Native Americans as living in settled agricultural communities with a rich political and spiritual life. Nevertheless, white Americans very aggressively sought to either displace or eliminate altogether the Indian presence in their country. He describes Andrew Jackson’s presidency during which he deliberately sacrificed the Cherokee Indians to quell secessionist sentiments in Georgia. White America wanted not only their land, but the infrastructure and the crops the Native Americans produced. This capacity for ruthless intervention in the pursuit of narrow forms of national interest has continued to this day. This is the type of politics and approach to the world that has been damaging not only to America, but also to much of the rest of the world.
America, has always been a country of competing visions. Throughout the book Wright draws perhaps too fine a line between those Americans who are more liberal and progressive, on the one hand, and those clinging to archaic belief systems, on the other. Nevertheless, he is correct to insist that if America is to begin to address the issues it faces it requires an administration operating with the former type of outlook. America’s issues, moreover, are increasingly global in scope, which is why Wright’s analysis gravitates towards more universal themes of technological and moral progress and the environmental crisis. He insists the idea that moral progress is cause and consequence of technological progress is a potentially fatal illusion. On the contrary, moral progress can only be achieved when the benefits of technological progress are more widely distributed and subject to more democratic forms of control. Similarly, if more severe forms of environmental catastrophe are to be averted, economic activity must also be more democratic and respect natural limits to growth.
Wright is very good at highlighting issues not only faced by Americans but that effect Canadians, as well. How do we reconcile the need for economic growth with the need for environmental sustainability? How do we manage our economy so as to prevent the sort of financial crisis in which America and much of the rest of the world finds itself? How do we ensure more of humanity benefits from our current economic system? Wright does not begin to answer such questions. But in mining America’s past for inspiration, Wright gives a nod to Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, former American presidents who understood that political and economic stability required multilateral efforts. There is every reason to hope Barack Obama does as well.
What Is America? | by Ronald Wright | KNOPF CANADA 2008