That frontier mythology now threatens the world
TheStar.com – Books – That frontier mythology now threatens the world: America’s New World Order is not just under global siege, its values are now downright dangerous to our survival, fears Richard Wright
August 24, 2008. Geoff Pevere
What Is America? A Short History of the New World Order
by Ronald Wright, Knopf Canada, 368 pages, $29.95
There may be no other country in the world in which myth and history are as intimately entwined as the United States of America.
As history buff and novelist Ronald Wright (Stolen Continents; A Short History of Progress) points out in his eloquently impertinent and persuasive book What Is America?, it’s a dance of co-dependency that dates back to 1492. Without the self-serving embellishments of myth – especially that which pertains to the endlessly exploitable horizon of the frontier — American history stands to lose the rudder of progress that sustains its “manifest destiny” as the anointed leader of the free world.
But freedom’s a cunning little word, isn’t it? If evoked with due persuasiveness, it can conceal a multitude of sin and hypocrisy. It is this history of persuasion, held against 500-plus years of events, actions and policies that contradict freedom’s good name, that What Is America? deconstructs with such provocative rhetorical passion.
It would be one thing if this were an angry book – there are as many angry books out there as there are reasons to be angry – but it’s something more than that: an angry book with an excellent case.
“All who delve into American history must contend with a language of misnomer and condescension,” Wright states in his author’s foreword. “Whites are soldiers, Indians are warriors; whites live in towns, Indians in villages; whites have states, Indians have tribes.” This is the language of myth, an idiom of seductive euphemism that serves the purpose of reassuring a dominant culture that it is on the right side of history.
Right from the suggestion that the “New World” was “discovered” by Columbus, America has been cast as vast, God-given opportunity, a bounteous geographical buffet, created for the feasting of those hungry and adventurous enough to gorge on the spoils.
But America was no more discovered than it was new. As he did in previous books, Wright enlists documents and eyewitness accounts dating back to the Europeans’ first contact with the original Americans (whose semantic demotion to “Indians” is “a measure of the demographic catastrophe that gave rise to the United States”). He quickly demonstrates how the continent was actually fully “settled” – by various civilizations stretching from one tip of the Americas to the other – long before the first European ships first laid anchor.
This created a public relations problem of epic proportions: How does one portray the wholesale takeover of one populated continent by force as an act of righteous destiny? How does one render a systematic history of invasion, plunder, imperial aggression and – to use Wright’s term – ethnic cleansing, as the fulfillment of God’s intentions?
Well, what you must do is infuse history with myth, thereby setting in motion the process of “spin” that marks yet another thread linking the contemporary idea of the “New World Order” with one that began more than five centuries ago.
In Wright’s view, America was invaded, occupied and taken over. But that invasion required both justification and self-delusion to function as a nobler purpose and inevitable action. This is where the notion of “frontier” found its enduring and fundamental calling.
“In the mythology created by romantic novels and Hollywood westerns,” Wright states, “the frontier is a virgin wilderness tamed by heroic pioneers. The real frontier was a rolling three-century war zone, from 1607 to 1890, in which the continent violently changed hands.”
The taming of the geographical frontier only marked the beginning of another one: “Isolated and unschooled, the frontier became a breeding ground for militarism and religious extremism – the two aspects of American culture that outsiders, and many Americans, find most alarming today, especially when they converge in government policy as they did under Ronald Reagan and again, more strongly, under George W. Bush.”
Yes, that’s the line we’re drawing here: a history of European and subsequently American imperial impulse, justified by a half-millennium of historical makeover that connects Christopher Columbus to George W. Bush. If that seems strident or simplistic – as mapped out by What Is America?, it is neither – it is also a line that runs parallel to the thread that justifies the actions of the present with the mythology of the past.
The difference, of course, is the difference between the purposes of history and the function of mythology. If the knowledge of the past is essential to the illumination of the present, myth is knowledge’s opposite. History cautions us to proceed into the future carefully, our rear-view mirrors firmly in place. Myth insists we follow our dreams – even if it leads over the brink.
Wright’s book will not likely find sympathetic readers among those who see it as America’s mission – if not its very self-definition – to dream big. But that kind of dreaming needs to end if the world is to open its eyes to what it has become, how it became that way, and where it might be headed.
Wright flat out declares that the United States’s version of a world order threatens Earth’s very survival, “eating into Nature’s capital instead of living on her interest, wrecking the very ecosystems on which we depend.”
In the European Union, Wright sees hope: a group of nations that have collectively awakened to the necessity of a clear vision linking present, past and future. “America,” concludes Wright, “which helped set the Europeans on their new path half a century ago, must now examine its own record – the facts, not the myths – and free itself from the potent yet potentially fatal mix of forces that created its nation, its empire, and the modern world.”