The question ‘What is America?’ could fill a library and a lifetime.
Ronald Wright, the author of What Is America? A Short History of the New World Order (Knopf), concedes, “The question ‘What is America?’ could fill a library and a lifetime.” Since space is at a premium in this captivating study, Wright makes his points succinct and eloquent, without resorting to the glib Yank-bashing tone heard all over the media. For example, in his chapter “The Winds of Fear,” he summarizes how George W. Bush got elected: “But for Bill Clinton’s dishonourable discharge on an intern’s dress, the 2000 election might not have been close enough for George W. Bush to steal.” Wright encapsulates the frontier-exploiting mindset of the 1800s in this sentence: “‘Manifest destiny’ was on every patriotic tongue—a reissue, in broader currency, of the old Puritan (and new Mormon) belief in Americans as the Chosen People.” He indicates how this outlook has persisted on various levels through the centuries: “Today America’s poor are consoled—some say deluded—by the notion that the economic pie, however unfairly sliced, is always growing, that one day it will be their turn to win the lottery, that they are not an exploited proletariat but, as John Steinbeck put it, ‘temporarily embarrassed millionaires’.” Wright’s analysis of how our southern neighbour formed its identity reminded me of Howard Zinn’s trailblazer of the 1980s, A People’s History of the United States. One aim of Zinn’s book was to present American history from the point of view of marginalized or oppressed people who were normally excluded from mainstream histories. Wright’s book, by contrast, has a more immediate purpose: attempting to explain why we’re all in the current social and economic muddle.