The United States has long been portrayed as history’s great blank slate, a place where optimism and enterprise have made the past irrelevant. But according to a bold new book by acclaimed Canadian historian and novelist Ronald Wright, the U.S. is not the West’s most modern country but among its most antiquated, and one that is perilously at odds with the contemporary world.
To make this argument, What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order—the follow-up to Wright’s 2004 bestseller A Short History of Progress—begins at the beginning.
“Two hundred years ago,” Wright explains to the Georgia Straight by phone from his Salt Spring Island home, “the United States was nothing at all, just a little European enclave on the eastern side of a continent that was pretty much unknown. And in a very short time, it’s gone to being the world’s greatest military and economic power. That’s something very unusual—it needs to be explained. So it seems to me that the fruitful way of looking at it is to see this as the consequence of what I call history’s big bang, which begins the Columbian age.”
In brisk, gripping chapters, What Is America? (Knopf Canada, $29.95) traces the enormous economic loop that began forming at the moment of European contact with the peoples of the New World. Stumbling upon the huge, resource-rich continents was, in Wright’s term, the unexpected “jackpot” for 16th-century Europe, then teetering on the brink of famine and bankruptcy.
Suddenly, tons of gold and silver, pried loose by brutal Spanish conquistadors, flowed into economies based on these otherwise rare metals. Even more importantly, hardy and nutritious American crops—potato, sweet potato, maize, and cassava—were transferred across the Atlantic.
“That’s when the world population boom takes off,” Wright tells the Straight. “Old World agriculture had kind of reached a limit.”¦But when these new crops suddenly appeared, many of them would grow in places where they didn’t necessarily compete with the ones that were already there. Suddenly, the food supply burgeoned, and that led to two very important things that helped create the United States.
"One was a surplus in the population of Europe, especially Britain, and the other was a surplus in the population of West Africa. So you had white settlers pouring into this northern continent”¦and a labour source in the form of slaves brought from Africa.”
The third major factor was, of course, the simultaneous collapse of native populations, decimated mainly by smallpox and other Old World diseases. To this day, Wright notes, many North Americans find comfort in the racist notion that these deaths, numbering in the millions, were a form of collateral damage as purportedly nomadic cultures were replaced by a settled, technologically advanced one.
The idea persists, as the author points out to the Straight, “that the American Indian wasn’t really using the place properly. Therefore, it’s sad that he’s had to sort of fade away, but it would have happened—it was inevitable, it was progress. We still believe that.”
But as the book shows in episode after episode starting with the earliest colonies and following the drive westward, white settlers often simply appropriated farmland that had been worked for centuries by highly developed nations, now removed by disease, deception, or violence.
The result was what Wright refers to as a kind of perfect storm. A vast, fertile land was cleared of its original inhabitants with relative ease, its riches siphoned off to create the previously impossible nexus of population, food, and capital needed to kick-start the Industrial Revolution. And the products of that revolution—most notably railways and Gatling guns—were then used to force expansion through to the Pacific.
Wright’s purpose in the book, however, is not merely to set the record straight by exposing the Hollywood-fuelled “cowboys and Indians” story that papers over the assault on North America’s native peoples. He also wants to show how the main themes of this frontier myth—raw individualism and perpetual growth—resound today in the market-obsessed social model that the U.S. exports to the rest of the world under the banner of globalization. It is, Wright says, a model built for a long-lost era.
“Ultimately, the reason I go back 500 years to explain the United States is that American culture is a deeply colonial culture,” he tells the Straight. “These are all colonial attitudes, of endless expansion, oppression of the weak defined and justified in different ways, and that the world is limitless, so it doesn’t matter if there are people starving now—soon they’ll be rich and everything will be fine.”¦When those ideas were first formulated, the world’s population was only a quarter of what it is now, the economy was only about a 50th of what it is now, and of course there was room for a great deal of economic expansion without worrying about running out of stuff or polluting the environment.”¦That’s what I mean when I say that a lot of the driving ideas in this so-called modern country, America—and that America has sold to the rest of the world—are actually very old-fashioned ideas. They’re archaic—they’re out of step with the modern world. And that’s what’s so dangerous about them.”
As What Is America? suggests, the fact that these ideas survive shows how deeply we’re committed to searching out our own jackpot in the global market. But as long as we ignore the costs of ruthless expansion described in Wright’s book—the forced labour, the shattered cultures, the countless lives cut short—we allow ourselves to neglect the human price of our own ever-growing appetites. The frontier is closed. We’ve run out of room for history’s mistakes.