What is America?

A couple of times each week I head down to our local coffee shop and discuss politics, economics and our community with my friend Graham Watt. I’ve posted several of Graham’s articles on this blog, the latest being O Canada, so obviously I respect his opinions. For my birthday, Graham gave me a copy of Ronald Wright’s What is America?, and appended the sub-title, and why?

What is America? should be added as a text book to any course on the history of the Americas. Of course, it reads better than most text books because it is not designed to be one. Even with a degree in History and at least one US history course, I learned, re-learned, and un-learned as I read this excellent book. It would also make a fine addition to my virtual Global Civics program.

The book reminded me of Howard Zinn’s A people’s History of American Empire but with a much earlier start. Also, Wright makes sure that Canadians don’t get too smug, considering our own genocidal tendencies. What I found most interesting was the thread of history that Wright covers. First, the Americas had great cities and political systems north of the Rio Grande before the arrival of Europeans. They only became nomadic tribes after the invasions.  Early indigenous Americans were wiped out mostly by disease (±90%), used consciously as a weapon by all Europeans.

Also, the founding principles of the US constitution owe more to the Iroquois Confederacy than any European traditions. Furthermore, the conquest of the Americas was funded by its own wealth — crops (e.g. potatoes) and gold & silver — which fueled the European industrial revolution. Europe would not have been able to sustain the industrial revolution without these imports on a massive scale.

Wright also takes to task the cultural amnesia prevalent throughout American history:

“America could not bear to take a hard look at itself, especially the inconvenient truths of slavery, dispossession and genocide. Religion and profit, ‘jumping together,’ had little time for introspection. The slaveholder, the frontiersman and the fundamentalist all hated the historian — and anti-intellectualism has been a strong force ever since.”

One Response to “What is America?”

  1. Virginia Yonkers

    Interestingly enough, when I lived in Costa Rica, I could not refer to myslef as an American as many throughout Latin America also consider themselves “American”.

    I found it interesting the comment about the basis of the US system being based on the Iroquis Nation’s system. In New York state, we have always included the study of the Iroquois nation within the primary and middle school curriculum (at least for the last 50 years). But this was not a point that was (or even is currently) addressed in Social Studies classes (I asked my kids). While the Iroquois are recognized as important forces in New York state history, government structure is not one area in which they have been given credit.


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