Ronald Wright is gaining a rep for writing "short" histories, but that doesn’t mean he takes shortcuts. In fact, the erudite B.C. author has become a master of brevity and breadth.
A Short History of Progress (2004) was just over 200 pages long, but the penetrating book-length essay (which originated as a CBC Massey Lecture) went back 10,000 years to chart the breathtaking — and often reckless — evolution of technology. Wright’s latest work, What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order, begins in 1492 — the year of Christopher Columbus’s arrival. The author sees that as the moment that forged the American character. Over the course of a brisk 225 pages, Wright argues that capitalist hubris and a sense of divine right explain much of America’s history, from the extermination of the continent’s indigenous peoples to Mormonism to the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Based in B.C., the British-born author will be appearing at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 28 and Nov. 1. He spoke to CBCNews.ca about U.S. militarism, how to atone for past wrongs and the origins of America’s consumer mentality.
Q: In What Is America?, you attempt to answer the book’s central question by starting in 1492. By going that far back, were you reacting to the quick and pat answers given by politicians in recent years to justify America’s actions?
A: Well, yes. We modern human beings seem to have an extraordinarily short memory span and seem to get ourselves into trouble — we make mistakes that we should remember that we keep doing. I think it’s very important to understand the very strange times that we live in, and I trace those times back to the time of Columbus, 500 years ago, which set off a great boom in human population and the economy and technology, which has been our experience in the West for the last 500 years, but is now running out of fuel, out of room. I think we need to recognize that we’re at this very dangerous and difficult historical crossroads, rather than dealing with things on a short-term basis, as they arise.
Q: At one point you write that Americans see "the world [as] less a home than a treasury to ransack." Isn’t that a rather simplistic assessment? It makes it sound like it’s been their mission to despoil nature.
A: I don’t think it’s simplistic. I think that not only the Americans, but the Europeans, had this extraordinary, historical, one-off bonanza, which was the discovery of a new world fully stocked with infrastructure, precious metals, roads, mines, food crops, tilled fields — everything — and then have the people who owned it die away, so they could take it over lock, stock and barrel. That created the great European empires, and the offshoots of those empires — the main being the United States, Canada being another – that imperial experience of Europe. And all of those countries descended from that have this colonial attitude of quick and easy expansion, of the world being open to their exploitation, and this being their due because of their superior technology and so forth. Whereas in fact, it was a parasitic process; it took 300 years to get from one side of the [continent] to the other, wresting it away from the people who were there to begin with.
America is the only country that grew up with a huge land base and the Industrial Revolution simultaneously. It developed this idea that there will always be this new frontier — either literally, in the form of resources, or metaphorically, a technological frontier, over which they will triumph. I think it is a form of hubris.
Q: You write at length about the slave trade and the genocide of America’s indigenous people, both of which were driven by a mixture of greed, religious paranoia and simple racism. How do you think that history should be addressed? At this point, is an apology enough?
A: "Apology" is actually a pretty cheap coin. It has some symbolic importance, like apologizing to descendants of Japanese who were interned and dispossessed [during the Second World War], and that is recent enough that compensation for the survivors makes sense, because not only were [their ancestors] dispossessed, but it probably wasn’t given back after the reason for the dispossession in the war. That can and should be addressed. Apologizing for slavery in the States, or for that matter in Britain, or taking this country from the aboriginals — that can have a symbolic importance, but that shouldn’t really divert us from action. What matters is to improve the lives of these people today and to arrive at political solutions to festering historical wounds. In that sense, you’re not just making an apology to something that happened in the past, but you’re dealing with the contemporary, present-day legacy of those mistakes or crimes from the past, and that is something that should be done and can be done.
Q: Countries will often pick fights with other nations in order to unite their own people. Do you see that as a recurring motif in American history?
A: Most definitely, and I think a lot of Americans would admit that. One American friend said to me, while I was writing the book, "You’ve got to remember, one reason we need an outside enemy is because we remember our Civil War, and we don’t want to go back to fighting each other." That is the one aspect of American history that Americans take seriously. It’s the one thing from the past that’s gotten lodged in their DNA. They don’t want to do it again. One way to not do it again is to unite some very incompatible and entrenched, polarized groups — essentially, the Puritans versus the Enlightened — to unite against a common enemy.
America, I believe, has always needed an enemy: it starts off as the Indians, then it becomes the Mexicans, then it’s the Communists, and just when the Communists stop playing the game, it’s the Muslims. Just the other day, someone told John McCain at one of his rallies that she couldn’t vote for Barack Obama because he’s an Arab. First off, it’s not true, but even if it was true, there’s nothing actually wrong with being an Arab — there are terrorists in every culture. And McCain should have said that.
Q: Many Americans have regarded themselves as having a manifest destiny to lead the world. Can you think of any periods in history where the U.S. has acted more modestly on the international stage?
A: In the first half of the 20th century, the United States played a more positive role in world affairs. Not only did they intervene decisively in the two world wars — senseless wars that they had not started — but they tried to build international structures to stifle the seeds of future wars. Woodrow Wilson with the League of Nations in 1919 and F.D.R. [Franklin D. Roosevelt] — his legacy was the creation of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And we should remember that those institutions had a different mandate than what they later became — they became the instruments of monetarism in the Reagan era.
Q: But as you point out in the book, the United States never actually joined the League of Nations, and has become somewhat antagonistic toward the UN.
A: Woodrow Wilson could not get the two-thirds majority in Congress to get his country on side [for the League of Nations]. The United States joined the United Nations, but only by having greater control of the United Nations — having the headquarters in New York and so forth. The United Nations’ mandate was perverted quite early with the Korean emergency — the Korean War, the forerunner of Vietnam.
The United Nations has been problematic from the start, and then as the British empire and other European empires were dismantled after the Second World War and the UN grew to the roughly 200 members it has now, the United States lost interest in the UN, because it could no longer dominate it so easily. The United States is chronically behind on paying its [UN] dues, for example. The drive to war [in Iraq] without a UN resolution — that might seem like a small thing, but it was, in actual fact, the killing of the entire post-Second World War order.
Q: What do you think the U.S. should have done in response to 9/11?
A: Well, it’s easy to have hindsight. I can tell you what I thought at the time seemed to be a reasonable thing to do. It seemed reasonable to me to have some sort of police action in Afghanistan under UN auspices. What was done was rather different from that. Having gone into Afghanistan, if the U.S. and its allies had stuck to Afghanistan and not gone off on this sideshow of the Iraq war, which has nothing to do with 9/11, they might have been successful in instituting a more modern kind of state in Afghanistan with a democratic tradition and reinforcing civic values. That opportunity was thrown away. What the United States did after 9/11 was not really driven by the events of 9/11 at all. It was driven by a militarist agenda that the people in the Bush regime had made no secret about having years before that, ever since the 1990s.
Q: What does the U.S. gain from being constantly engaged militarily?
A: I don’t think it’s gaining very much at the moment. I think it’s reached that moment of imperial overreach, which many other empires reached. The British got there with the Boer War — that was really the end for them. The Romans had similar experiences, where they were pouring far too much of their resources into wars and maintaining a military machine and not getting very much in return. The Americans have such a huge military budget that their own society is crumbling, their infrastructure is crumbling. All of these resources are being put into a very bloated and ineffective military — most of it is going to fancy weapons that they’ll never be able to use. It’s not serving them well.
It’s difficult, though, for any politician — even for what passes for the left in America — to say that we have to cut back on the military, because for so many Americans, the only source of employment, of education, of health care and of advancement is the military. Either you join the military, or the many subsidized heavy industries that supply the military — everything from airplanes to thousand-dollar screwdrivers.
Q: With its emphasis on co-operation and inclusiveness, the European Union is seen as a counterweight to the U.S. But many commentators, particularly on the right, criticize the reluctance of EU members to use force when it might be called for. What do you think?
A: The Europeans are timid, they are cautious, and they have every reason to be. They tried to kill each other twice in the 20th century. They know what that means. The problem is that the United States, having sustained so little war damage on its own turf, doesn’t know what war means, and is trigger-happy and more than happy to bomb other countries. And then [the U.S.] is outraged when something happens on its territory, and thinks that justifies it invading people all over the place and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people. So no, I think the Europeans are right to be timid. They know the lessons of war.
What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order is in stores now. Ronald Wright reads at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto on Oct. 28 and Nov. 1.
Andre Mayer writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca