Saturday, November 15, 2008

US and Them (Sydney Morning Herald, Nov 08)

Ronald Wright, What is America?
Text; $34.95; 368pp
Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World
Allen Lane; $34.95; 292pp

Every book has a snagging-point, some detail to which the mind returns and which seems to define the book as a whole. For me, reading Ronald Wright’s What is America?, this point came on page 122, in the form of a genocidal aside from a nineteenth-century Vermont lawyer: ‘Indians’ bones must enrich the soil before the plough of civilised man can open it.’ Ring a bell? If so it’s possible you are thinking of a quote from a rather more enlightened pen. ‘The tree of liberty’, wrote Thomas Jefferson, ‘must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.’

Neither Jefferson nor the tree of liberty makes much of an appearance in What is America? Indeed, Wright’s aim is precisely to puncture the (as he sees it) all-too sanguine view of US origins and moral purpose taken by its institutions. Jefferson did not, needless to say, advocate genocide against native Americans. But he did recommend ensnaring them in debt as an effective means of acquiring their land. And it is that side – the underside – of US history that Wright is at pains to emphasise.

To begin in 1776 is thus to begin half way through the story. The key date is 1492, when Columbus set sail from Palos de Frontera. Indeed, Wright talks of ‘the Columbian Age’, by which he means the era that originated with the Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru and that may only now be coming to an end. To cut a very long story short, the loot from these conquests allowed the Spanish to pursue their military ambitions elsewhere. However, its military ambitions beggared it, with the result that much of the wealth moved north, oiling the wheels of the industrial revolution and drifting back across the Atlantic as the British colonised the American north. As Wright puts it: ‘Having grown at compound interest in the Old World … the stolen wealth of Mexico and Peru had now returned to the New.’

Meanwhile, the early settlers in America had been busy wiping out the natives through a combination of disease and conquest. (In this sense at least, the ‘land of the free’ and the home of the Brave were opposing idylls.) In England, the Puritans had been pacified by Anglicanism. In America, by contrast, Puritanical zeal and an imperial ethos had ‘jumped together’ into a vision of divinely sanctioned expansion. It is, Wright asserts, this expansionist vision that has informed US actions ever since.

‘[T]his is an eccentric book,’ writes the author in his introduction. If by ‘eccentric’ he means ‘one-sided, and consequently flawed’ he’s bang on the money. To seek ‘the centre by its edges’ is one thing; to make a show of completely ignoring the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution is another. For Wright, the US is in thrall to its origins as a hotbed of religious bigotry. No doubt he’s got the beginnings of a point. But by leaving out the explicit separation of church and state in the Constitution, he is leaving out the very thing that prevents the lunatics taking over the asylum.

In The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria takes a more benign view of the US’s rise to dominance, though the editor of Newsweek International is no Pollyanna when it comes to its prospects. Indeed, his principal goal in this book is to chart what he calls ‘the rise of the rest’ (of India and China in particular) and to urge upon his adopted country the need to prepare itself for the future. The world is unipolar no longer. For the first time ever, Zakaria argues, we are witnessing genuinely global growth.

What will the ‘rise of the rest’ entail? The tendency has been to believe, or to hope, that free trade and democracy co-evolve. China has dealt a blow to this view, though Zakaria urges us not to panic. For now, it suits the Communist Party to forge ahead with economic reform without the pandering and inevitable delays that characterise advanced democracies. In the long term, however, political despotism may prove incompatible with economic stability. If so, it is to be sorely hoped that the Government of the People’s Republic of China opts for the latter and not the former.

For Zakaria, it is the political prospects of the US that are of immediate concern, and here his book proves extremely prescient. It is fashionable contrarianism, Zakaria suggests, to sneer at calls for bipartisanship. In reality, however, the US system is not designed for partisan politics, a point underlined by the recent chaos surrounding the Wall Street bailout package. And a hugely important point it is too, since US fortunes will depend on an ability to respond to events imaginatively and quickly. For now, says Zakaria, a ‘can-do’ country is saddled with a ‘do-nothing’ politics.

US stocks are down, no question. But historians and commentators who paint the US as a nation of Moose-shooters and Mayflower screwballs are only painting half a picture. Zakaria offers a degree of optimism, but his optimism is tinged with caution. Both the optimism and the caution are welcome. For my part, I think that Jefferson was right and that the US is still ‘the world’s best hope’, though it’s possible I’m simply hoping for the best.

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