A Short History of the New World Order

November 24, 2008 11:03 am

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


UNDER PRESSURE: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting

August 19, 2008 5:54 pm

A few years ago my 14 year-old nephew was playing in a hockey tournament. A young man with only one arm was refereeing one of their games. My nephew’s team was losing and the affair was getting rough. As his team fell behind, some parents became increasingly vocal in expressing their frustration with the officiating. In response to a called penalty, one parent yelled, “Hey ref, did you lose your eye sight when you lost your arm?” It was another example of a parent losing perspective and exercising horrible judgment. For at least some of the parents in attendance that day, the game was not about sportsmanship or giving their child an opportunity to have fun. Winning was their only priority.

According to Carl Honoré, this sort of behavior is typical and has far reaching consequences for children. In his book, Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood From the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, Honoré laments that parents and society are compromising childhood in a variety of ways. Many problems Honoré cites stem from the competitive impulse: parents are so busy preparing their children to succeed in life that children are forced to forego much of their childhood. The obvious examples are those parents who are so committed to ensuring their son or daughter is the next great athlete, that they forget that sport is a form of play meant to stimulate joy and creativity. However, the risk to childhood comes from other sources as well. Technology is so ubiquitous and can be so all consuming that for an increasing number of children and teenagers it is the only medium through which they experience the world.

Childhood pressures can begin early and innocuously. The race to raise the smartest child, for example, has been fuelled by the theory that there is a small window of opportunity to shape a child’s brain. If the right steps have not been taken by the age of three, or so goes the theory, children will invariably not reach their full potential. Marketers have seized on this idea to peddle all types of learning products designed to stimulate a child’s brainpower. Mozart’s genius, we are told, is sure to rub off on a two year old if she is presented with the opportunity to listen to his music. Although there is nothing wrong with exposing a child to Mozart’s brilliance, there is no evidence that doing so will somehow cultivate her inner genius. Indeed, when a child is perpetually stimulated, it can very well be at the expense of her own imaginative impulses. It may seem counterintuitive but occasional bouts of boredom are a necessary aspect of a child’s development. As a way of relieving boredom, a child develops a natural curiosity about the world around them.

Honoré is at his best when discussing education. We are constantly reminded that our education system must adapt to the rigors of the global economy. The fear that a country’s standard of living will be compromised by declining productivity has been the impulse behind ever more rigorous forms of standardized testing. Subjecting kids to the same tests allows educators and parents to measure their development. The appeal of standardized testing, moreover, becomes self-reinforcing. Better results by definition means children are being effectively taught and are learning more. Or does it? Many educators question the wisdom of this approach to teaching and learning. Relentless testing and competition can put too much pressure on children, so much so that it can ultimately undermine the more noble aim of education, namely to instill in kids a love of life and learning.

Under Pressure is far from perfect. Although the book is meant to be a relatively easy read, Honoré’s writing should be more polished. He also has a bad habit of referring to “studies” in support of various theories of child learning or child development without actually referencing them. In a word, he should have been more rigorous in his presentation. Nevertheless, Honoré’s plea for a more balanced approach to education and child rearing is welcome.


A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

June 24, 2008 9:00 pm

Sierra Leone is located in West Africa between Guinea to the North and Liberia to the South. A former British colony, the country established independence in 1961.Alas despite the initial adoption of a parliamentary system and universal franchise, domestic peace remains elusive. For decades the country endured attempted military coups and a prolonged civil war between government military forces and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Ostensibly the RUF’s aim was to overthrow a series of corrupt governments. In fact, they thrived on ruthlessly terrorizing unsuspecting communities. Their approachto perpetuating the civil war was to forcibly recruit young boys. The country’s military adopted the same tactic, although not in as brutal fashion as did the rebels. But once involved, kids on either side of the conflict were subject to the worst sort of brainwashing and rendered numb to what they were doing with drugs. Although the plight of child soldiers is increasingly documented, the personal stories of the young boys and girls forced to endure and perpetuate atrocities are seldom heard, especially in the form of a memoir. They are children, after all, and if they survive, are no doubt horribly traumatized. All of them have been ruthlessly denied the sort of education we take for granted. Few likely have literary ambitions. Ishmael Beah is a remarkable exception.

In A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, he tells the extraordinarily poignant story of his life as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone’s military. Beah is indeed a gifted storyteller. He writes with an elegant simplicity that is extremely effective and often disconcerting. In straightforward prose he describes to the reader a world of unimaginable brutality in which he was forcibly plunged. One moment he and a group of his young friends are walking to a dance contest and the next moment they are witnessing rebel soldiers commit the worst sort of atrocities on innocent villagers. From that moment forward this group of young boys is forced to live on the run from the RUF. They walk endlessly, often through dense forest, with no money or food. They eat what fruit they can find on trees and whatever food they might find in the many villages they pass through on their weary travels. Their shared ordeal solidifies close bonds. Yet, the lives they lead as internal refugees are intensely lonely and cause them untold mental anguish. It is a life of unbearable hardship for anyone, let alone a twelve year-oldboy. In one heartbreaking scene, Beah describes how one of his companions did not wake up one morning. His young body finally succumbed to mental and physical fatigue.

Eventually Ishmael and his friends are captured by the country’s military. They welcome the change, as they receive food and drink and for a short time live in a relatively secure community. The reprieve, however, is temporary. The military is preparing the boys for a life of war and allows the boys rest serves to revive their strength. But eventually they are given cocaine and ceaselessly reminded that it was the rebels who killed members of their families, terrorized their communities and forced them to live in hiding. They are like a cancer intent on destroying the country. They must be destroyed by whatever means necessary.

The military’s strategy proves horribly effective. Here too, with elegantly simple prose Beah describes how he became a soldier every bit as ruthless as the rebels he was fighting. He conveys how he made rebel soldiers dig their own graves before burying them alive. After being shot in the foot, Beah describes how his squad captured rebel soldiers. He shot them all in the feet. They were left to endure the excruciating pain for one full day before Beah killed them with bullets to their heads. Beah’s uncompromising style confronts the reader with a dilemma. Sympathy for his tragic plight is gradually transformed into anger as we witness the sudden erosion of his humanity.

Beah also effectively conveys the stark contrasts that characterize life in Sierra Leone. He and his friends witness and perpetuate unimaginably brutal atrocities. Yet they also experience the kindness and courage of strangers. An old man who himself is poor provides the boys with a temporary sanctuary. A nurse patiently cares for Beah during the painful process of his physical and mental rehabilitation. An uncle adopts Beah into his own family after learning of all he endured. Amidst all the pain and destruction, Beah describes the beauty of Sierra Leone’s landscape and the vital tradition of oral storytelling. As for Beah, his severely compromised humanity was, in the end, restored with the help of a community determined not to lose a generation of children to war. This is why the memoir, despite all of the pointless pain and suffering it documents, ultimately conveys a sense of hope.

Don MacLean : donaldm@magma.ca

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