Sunday, April 12, 2009

What is America?

by Ronald Wright

Having felt on numerous occasions that the American character is something that I can't quite grasp, I felt that this book would aid in a decent attempt at comprehension.

Wright provides a quick and snappy overview of the Columbian Age - the roughly five-hundreds years since the 'discovery' of the New World, and the consequent population and industrial explosions that said discovery set off.

He charts the decline of Aboriginal (American) cultures in both North and South America, and the rapacious hunger of settlers from the original 13 Colonies and those who followed in their footsteps for land and the riches it held. Once the frontier was gone, Americans set their eyes elsewhere, first in the Philippines, and more recently, in Iraq.

America, and Americans, are rightfully portrayed as aggressive expansionist fundamentalists - not a fair portrayal to all, but he repeatedly draws a distinction between 'Backwoods America' and 'Enlightened America' (ie., the Eastern Seaboard, and one would assume, California and Seattle).

This book does a fantastic job of shedding light into the darker corners of American history, and maintains a sense of context, so that it never appears one-sided or purposefully cruel.

Part of what makes the book a joy to read are the extensive endnotes, comprising fully a third of the book's length. I've always enjoyed a good foot- or endnote, and appreciated the added layers of complexity or thought that Wright has provided.

This is an excellent book for anyone looking to understand where the world stands in these uncertain times, and hopefully can provide a framework to finally learn from the mistakes of the past (see the comparison between American techniques in the Philippines and Iraq).

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