Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What is America? A Short History of the New World Order – Ronald Wright

As an English teacher, I was always frustrated by my students' poor grounding in history, as historical allusions, etc. meant nothing to them if they didn't have the context. The context that history provides is also essential for interpreting the world that we live in today. Author Ronald Wright provides that crucial tool in his latest book.

Like his last non-fiction work, A Short History of Progress, author Ronald Wright has crafted an eminently readable and concise work that deserves to be read both widely and deeply. In his latest analysis, What is America? A Short History of the New World Order, Wright looks at the history of America, from its earliest days as the domain of the aboriginal, to its current position as probably the most reviled country in the world.

Beginning with a short history of the Spanish subjugation of Mesoamerica (Mexico and the adjoining Maya region of Central America) and Greater Peru which powerfully sets the theme of conquest, the author quickly moves to the time of the English settling of what ultimately became the United States. Much of the history of the genocide and betrayal of the aboriginals living in what, for many, will seem a surprising amount of structure, government and civilization, is well-known to students of that period, but the information serves to provide the context for defining the American character as it has revealed itself over the past two hundred years.

Once the frontiers of America were closed, the U.S government looked abroad to expand its influence and will until we have the situation the world confronts today – a country that subscribes to the notions of exceptionalism and manifest destiny, beliefs that have made it guilty of a hubris worthy of Greek tragedy. Perhaps the best way to view the book is as an examination of a pattern of behaviour that, while hardly unique to the United States, has resulted in a sorry tale of lost potential.

While those who subscribe to the American mythology of benevolence betrayed will be deeply offended by this work, those who are able to rise above blind patriotic fervour will see the truth and validity of Wright’s observation which, as always, are backed by solid research and historical data.

He ends the book on a positive note by looking at one model of co-operation that suggests human beings can rise above their selfish and violent history to work together toward common goals. That model is the European Union which, as the author readily admits, is far from perfect but seems to be succeeding where past structures have failed. One needs only consider their progressive legislation on climate control or medical care for it citizenry to appreciate the accuracy of his observations.

In closing, it seems that all of the goodwill and excitement generated worldwide over the election of Barack Obama suggests that there is still a tremendous hunger in countless countries for the Unite States to succeed as a nation among nations; without question it still has much to contribute, and its tremendous power to influence the direction of world affairs, for both good and evil, is undeniable. But some important questions remain to be answered: Can the United States rise above its national character forged in history, and begin to realize its true potential? Will its citizens, even under inspirational political leadership, be willing to do the hard work and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve that potential?

Only time will answer those questions. I wish them well.

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