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America, Bad to the Bone?

Laxer and Wright portray US as empire, hardwired for evil. Too harsh?

By Peter Seixas 16 Jan 2009 |

This is a slightly revised version of a review that first appeared in the Literary Review of Canada, vol. 16, no. 8, November, 2008, reprinted with permission.

Peter Seixas is professor and Canada Research Chair in the faculty of education, University of British Columbia. He is the editor of Theorizing Historical Consciousness (University of Toronto Press, 2004).

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Imperialist in waiting?

The Perils of Empire: America and its Imperial Predecessors
James Laxer
Viking Canada (2008)

What is America? A Short History of the New World Order
Ronald Wright
Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2008)

Historians have long recognized a conundrum involving the past and the present. In order to write about history in a way that is significant for us today, they ask questions and frame issues that arise from contemporary life.

On one level, our present-day conceptual lenses (like nation, gender, power) are what enable us to think about the past; on the other hand, in the words of L.P. Hartley, "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

If history is oversimplified, if historical characters and situations are simply flattened into earlier versions of ourselves and our problems, then history loses its power to show us anything new.

In the final months of the Bush administration, two mature left-wing Canadian thinkers, neither a historian by training but both well known for their ability to address a broad public, focus their gazes on the United States. Both express the horror and rage felt by most Canadians at "extravagant misrule," as James Laxer puts it, south of the border over the past eight years. Both are thus products of a particular moment in time.

Over a long career, Laxer has straddled academia, politics and public broadcasting, and has written a dozen books on themes of political economy and globalization, and on Canada and the United States through those themes.

Ronald Wright is the author of nine books, among them the 2004 Massey Lectures, published as A Short History of Progress and Stolen Continents: 500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas. Both have now written books that purport to use history to shed light on the present, with mixed results.

Touring empires

In 1836, American painter Thomas Cole completed his magisterial series of five landscapes entitled, "The Course of Empire," to show stages in the development and dissolution of empire. He combined allusions to Europe and North America to fashion a dire warning about the hubris of Jacksonian America: the seeds of destruction are present at the height of imperial power.

Cole wrote, "We see that nations have sprung from obscurity, risen to glory, and decayed. Their rise has in general been marked by virtue; their decadence by vice, vanity, and licentiousness. Let us beware!" American concern with the dangers associated with expansion and empire is thus nothing new, but writing about it has become a minor cottage industry since the ramifications of Bush's Iraq disaster have become widely recognized.

Laxer sets his stage with George Bush on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, landing under the banner, "Mission Accomplished." The combination of unprecedented concentration of military power and cultural influence on the one hand, with a debt crisis and the nadir of America's international reputation on the other promises a dramatic plotline. "One of the greatest challenges for people in any epoch," Laxer writes, "is to imagine vast changes to the political and societal order in which they live."

Laxer's definition of empire is broad and open: "an empire exists when one people or state conquers, subjugates, or dominates another people for an extended period of time." He notes the reluctance of American politicians to speak in terms of empire, given the obvious incompatibility between an ideology founded on popular sovereignty and respect for human rights, and the domination of one people by another.

Laxer sees two possible futures: that the U.S. will give up its founding democratic ideals and pursue a course of unbridled power or, alternatively, that it will give up its empire.

Ignatieff as empire seeker

He further defines the scholarly debate among imperialists as divided between "unilateralists" (i.e. Niall Ferguson and the neo-conservative "Project for the New American Century") and "multilateralists" (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Francis Fukuyama and Michael Ignatieff). These are two strategies, he asserts, with the same imperial ends in sight.

Two problems surface immediately. First, Laxer's sketch of the scholarly debate serves his dichotomous scheme (unilateralists vs. multilateralists), but hardly does justice to the outpouring of literature on the topic. The authors listed above comprise the entire reference list. One would think that Laxer's attempt to draw lessons from the history of empires and apply them to the United States today was a new project, not one that had been undertaken very recently by eminent American scholars like Charles Maier (Among Empires: American Ascendency and its Predecessors) or the team of Craig Calhoun, Frederick Cooper and Kevin W. Moore (Lessons of Empire: Imperial Histories and American Power) or a multitude of others. Though the book is intended for a broad audience, one does need to ask just how little intellectual context a serious writer can get away with.

Second, if "multilateralists" seek to promote an orderly world through multi-state cooperation, and if those states do remain sovereign, then the appropriateness of the term "empire" becomes questionable at best.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Alexander Motyl has gone further, suggesting that the ubiquity of "empire" talk may be quite a specific response to the Bush administration's reckless unilateralism: "The United States and its institutions, political and cultural, certainly have an overbearing influence on the world today, but why should that influence be termed 'imperial,' as opposed to 'hegemonic' or just 'exceptionally powerful'?"

By the end of the book, Laxer himself backs away from the idea that multilateralists are just another variant of imperialist: "If a more multilateralist tendency prevails," he concludes, "the world can look forward... to a long-term shift away from empire toward an international regime in which a myriad of voices, tendencies, peoples, and ideas have their place in shaping the world." This is surely not an outcome we need to fear.

Beware of hubris

The second section of the book lays out a typology of empire: slave, mercantile, capitalist, and the post-Soviet "global" empire, with individual chapters on Egypt, Athens, China, Rome, Spain and Britain. A book that promises to mine "the lessons" of empire, however cautiously, probably needs to be based on what scholars already know about historical empires. Laxer's "Egypt" is based entirely on the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt; his "Athens" entirely on J.B. Bury's history, published in 1913. Is this good enough?

Each of the chapters in this section yields a small nugget that Laxer suggests might apply to the 21st century world. Thus, Egypt created an aura of metaphysical permanence, demonstrated in the connection between the physical monuments of the pyramids, the lives of the pharaohs, and the order of the universe. Athens suggests, "that the American Empire will either have to be short-lived or... have to pass through a period of intense political and cultural crisis and emerge as an imperial state that has banished the anti-imperial ideals on which it was originally based."

The Spanish, Laxer observes, learned few other languages and relied on financial resources of capitalists in other parts of Europe. "Like Americans in our time, the Spanish became famous for their arrogance and their narrowness of culture." For their part, the pre-World War I British "failed to see that the globalizing regime [mistaken for the human condition] was, in fact, the product of a particular power arrangement in which one imperial power dominated the globe."

These are the components of a morality tale much like Cole's series of paintings or Shelley's "Ozymandias": Beware imperial overstretch. Nothing lasts forever. They set up the final section, which surveys "four strategic challenges" faced by the United States today: the relationship with the Islamic world; China; Latin America; and petroleum supplies and "the emerging global environmental crisis." The tour of imperial history helps very little in the specifics of this analysis; Laxer's important lesson is that, given enough time, everything changes.

A final chapter fails to put the Bush policies of the last eight years into a larger context. Despite what Laxer has said about the twin approaches to empire (unilateralist vs. multilateralist), as the book draws to a conclusion, the American Empire is the Bush disaster. Approaching the present, The Perils of Empire descends into cable news discourse, with little distance or analytical clout, but rather, a somewhat breathless set of possibilities, sure to be revised in the light of the unfolding of tomorrow's events -- an election, for example, or a meltdown of global finance.

The profundity of the change that could be coming is surely the highlight of the book. Laxer's treatment of the current situation convincingly demonstrates how precarious it is, while the historical vignettes underscore the historical fact of cataclysmic disruption facing powers that have dominated the globe in what seemed like eternal power arrangements.

Born evil

Laxer's work acknowledges the change and the contradiction between the democratic promise of the Declaration of Independence and the swashbuckling imperial arrogance of the Bush administration. For Ronald Wright, America was born evil and has been evil ever since: not much has changed at all.

Wright sets his thesis at the outset:

...recent difficulties run much deeper than a stolen election and an overreaction to a terrorist assault. The political culture and identity crisis of the United States are best understood as products of the country's past ...[T]he frontier became a breeding ground for militarism and religious extremism ... The nation did not wake up one morning and find that it was suddenly imperial; it always has been so.

Wright arrives at this view by reading all of American history, from the Columbian encounter to today, through the narrow lens of the Bush-dominated present. Moreover, he provides no footnotes or references to show where his interpretation fits within 30 years of critical American historiography, making his book appear (to non-specialists) more original than it is. In 1975, when Francis Jennings upset the traditional dichotomy of "savage" vs. "civilized" in The Invasion of America, it represented a breakthrough, but this is hardly innovative today. Wright has taken the work of Jennings, along with Howard Zinn, Alfred Crosby and William Appleman Williams -- all writing in the '60s and '70s -- and worked them into a sweeping synthesis, with none of the nuance or complexity that has been built upon their early trailblazing.

The result is a series of startling leaps backward from today to two, three or four hundred years ago, accompanied by sweeping (but evocative) moral judgments. Thus, the Spanish were "uncouth and violent strangers"; the British immigrants behaved "with all the desperation, superstition and showy violence of early post-medieval Europe." The materialist analysis of the first substantive chapter, "Loot, Labour and Land," degenerates quickly into character assassinations of the bad Europeans.

Ahistorical history writing

This is curiously ahistorical history. In Wright's interpretation, European explorers and settlers started out as murderers and rapists, Native Americans as impotent resisters and victims; and that is pretty much how things ended up. The chapter on colonial America provides almost nothing on the colonial economy (notwithstanding the previous chapter's promise of a materialist analysis). The American Revolution passes by in a blink, within the space of a couple of pages.

Noted historians such as Joyce Appleby, Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood might as well have put elsewhere the energies they devoted to untangling the complex of ideologies that surrounded the upheavals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The chapter entitled "White Savages" has no reference to the writings of historians Richard White or Gary Nash (among many others), whose crucial contributions led to the re-thinking of relations among "red, white and black" (as Nash's earliest work framed it), none of whom was merely a passive victim in their struggles.

Indeed, despite a superficially impressive 18-page bibliography in Wright's book, most of the historical writing dates from the 1970s and '80s, with more recent references dominated by the work of journalists and pundits.

Working backwards

In Wright's reading backwards from the present, history appears to offer "foretastes" of the future. McKinley wanted the Philippines "just as George W. Bush wanted Iraq," while his secretary of war, Elihu Root, presages Donald Rumsfeld. Wright's most brazen mining of the present comes, however, through reading back from the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 and their "red" and "blue" states. All U.S. history is thus a war "between the sophisticated internationalism of the seaboard and the parochial extremism of the inland 'backwoods.'" By 1812 "the United States was splitting into the two cultures that still contend within it: educated, establishment Easterners and illiterate, isolated, hard men of the hinterland..."

This simplistic projection of the election of 2000 works very poorly in explaining the gathering storm over slavery that led to the Civil War: where would log-cabin-born Abraham Lincoln fit in such a scheme? The red/blue dichotomy offers little help, either, in understanding pivotal battles over Reconstruction, the accomplishments of progressive women in the early 20th century, workers' activism in Depression-era conflicts or the Civil Rights movement more recently.

In the penultimate chapter on the Cold War, Wright recapitulates the ironically unchanging dynamic in the soul of America: a widespread fear without end, of "…heathen Indians in the seventeenth century or an 'axis of evil' in the twenty first." And so, "isolated, unschooled, messianic in their thinking... the frontier folk came to see themselves as victims... During the Cold War, they became, as it were, Afrikaners with atomic weapons."

History at its best aims to show how things developed, with the future in some sense up for grabs at each moment in time, subject to the decisions, wise or foolish, of those in power, the resistance or capitulation of those who are not, the interplay of unintended consequences, and above all, the possibility, reality, indeed the inevitability of change, which Laxer makes so central in The Perils of Empire. Wright's narrative starts from the fixed and over-determined present, from which it reaches back, to find essences and foreshadows. Such a method can never yield a satisfactory historical explanation, since it is clear from the beginning that the outcome has already been set.

Fetch us a better frame

Public intellectuals are always faced with the question: how much can the public handle?

Books like The Perils of Empire and What is America? offer big interpretive frames that might help to shape the public perception of the past. At their best, they could provide a conduit that helps to mobilize recent scholarship to shift the terms of debate about American power, continentally and globally, by providing links between recent academic history and public discussion of policy issues.

Moreover, a Canadian perspective on the United States could offer something distinctive, not only at home, but to an American readership as well. But what should the public demand in the way of scholarly rigour and disciplinary integrity? Laxer and Wright have set the bar disappointingly low. When the lens of the present is too narrowly focused, our perspective on the past is distorted rather than clarified, our horizons constricted rather than broadened. Present-ist history copes poorly with the passage of time and the inevitable change it brings.

With the impending inauguration of Barack Obama, Wright's answer to the question of "what is America?" can be tossed into the remainder bins -- with a huge sigh of relief.

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