This short little book explores the largely incomplete history of today's iconic Christmas tree. As Brunner puts it, "What drove people to go off into...moreThis short little book explores the largely incomplete history of today's iconic Christmas tree. As Brunner puts it, "What drove people to go off into the forest, chop down a tree, put it in their house, and decorate it in the first place? Is it really just a pagan remnant - as conventional wisdom has it - or is the history behind it more complex? What is the symbolic message it conveys?" [p.3]
As German writer Brunner digs deep into the few records and vague accounts of the tree, it quickly becomes clear that there's no definite answer, no straight-forward path to the origins of the Christmas tree, no pivotal moment - nothing as clear-cut as, say, Coca-Cola's dressing of Santa Claus in red and white for their advertising, something we've been stuck with ever since.
Still, I had thought that, Christianity co-opting a pagan festival at the winter solstice just as they did for Easter, that the tree must go way back and have some quietly profound meaning. Let's just say, I was hoping to hear that, because it would have been so interesting. I was also remembering that British TV show where a group of people went off the grid and lived exactly as people lived in the middle ages, from the food they cooked and how, to building their own homes with the tools they would have had etc. I remember seeing the episode around Christmas time and they made a feast and brought in greenery to decorate the house, and I think there was some mention of superstitions. Brunner does delve into some of the superstitions, but often they were superstitions against having a tree in the house.
In fact, according to Brunner, the Catholic church was the last denomination to embrace the Christmas tree - for the longest time, they outright denounced it. It seems that, by and large, the Christmas tree came together in an adhoc manner, originating in certain parts of Germany, and it is a natural evolution of our deep connection to the natural world, no matter how industrial and computerised we become.
The attraction of all things green, colorful, and glittering in the cold season is elemental. Green has long been considered the color of hope, and midwinter greenery was thought to radiate and summon vitality and fertility, to keep harm at bay. The custom of celebrating the changing year with greenery was already known among the Romans, who used bay branches. In the fourth century, Saint Ephrem the Syrian reported that houses were decorated with wreaths for the festival on January 6. Medieval sources mention evergreen branches, with sharp needles, fastened to the door of the house or hung in the home. Demons, witches, lightning, and disease - they believed - were powerless in the face of this life force. [p.12]
According to Brunner's digging into historical records, the Christmas tree is quite the modern invention, one that didn't really take root until the 19th century - so it's not near as old as I'd imagined. The details of the early versions of the trees is quite fascinating, especially the mechanised trees under which nativity scenes or other decorations were placed. Later, the practice of putting presents under the trees evolved. They used to put real candles in the branches, and house fires were unsurprisingly common at that time of year. There are lots of interesting little details in this book, along with some colour plates and other reproductions of paintings in which early versions of the Christmas tree figure.
Brunner does some solid research here, and his writing - translated as it is - is smooth and clear. He doesn't have that personable, charismatic or charming quality that goes so well with popular non-fiction: he can be a bit dry at times, though perhaps you can only write as interestingly as your subject-matter. There was only one moment of humour, and the lack of historical documentation to support research into the Christmas tree was disappointing. But not Brunner's fault. He did an admirable job of picking out descriptions and other details of its origins and metamorphosis from old novels, newspapers, advertisements, public announcements and various other sources. It was me who was disappointed, that something I love so much should have had such ordinary beginnings, and could just as easily have disappeared as quietly as it had arrived.
It will only take a few hours out of your day to read about the history of the Christmas tree, but it it well worth it. If nothing else, it fills the little gap of ignorance in your head that is always there when we think about Christmas trees - and I love filling the many little holes of ignorance that exist in my knowledge, and understanding the history of things helps me understand the world I live in better. (less)
In Tropic of Chaos, American investigative journalist Christian Parenti looks into the "catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence and climate chan...moreIn Tropic of Chaos, American investigative journalist Christian Parenti looks into the "catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence and climate change" (p.5), studying the near history of regions between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer, "a belt of economically and politically battered post-colonial states girding the planet's mid-latitudes. In this band, around the tropics, climate change is beginning to hit hard. The Societies in this belt are also heavily dependent on agriculture and fishing, thus very vulnerable to shifts in weather patterns. This region was also on the front lines of the Cold War and of neoliberal economic restructuring. As a result, in this belt we find clustered most of the failed and semifailed sates of the developing world." [p.9] Parenti is connecting the dots to show not only how climate change is affecting these areas but also to predict what is coming, and how the Global North will most likely react, and what it could be doing instead.
Narrowing the focus onto several specific countries or areas - notably East Africa, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Brazil, Mexico and the United States -Parenti shows how climate change is affecting water, food production and the human populations, clearly delineating the link between environment and violence. But it's not just about climate change and people struggling to survive: it's also about the West's - or Global North's - reaction to violence and climate change (the two, in this book, are inextricably linked) which in turn is linked to our history of neo-liberal economic policy, the Cold War, and the new methods of counter-insurgency (COIN).
Sometimes these forces have worked together simultaneously; at other times they have been quite distinct. For example, Somalia was destroyed by Cold War military interventions interventions. It became a classic proxy battleground. Though it underwent some limited economic liberalization, its use as a pawn on the chessboard of global political struggle caused its collapse. The same holds true for Afghanistan, which was, and still is, a failed state. It never underwent structural adjustment but was a proxy battleground. On the other hand, Mexico, the north of which is now experiencing a profound violent crisis, was not a frontline state during the Cold War, but it was subject to radical economic liberalization.
Climate change now joins these crises, acting as an accelerant. The Pentagon calls it a "threat multiplier." All across the planet, extreme weather and water scarcity now inflame and escalate existing social conflicts. [pp.8-9]
He begins with the question: Who killed Ekaru Loruman? Loruman was cattle herder of the Turkana, a tribe who inhabit the plains area of what we call northern Kenya. A rival tribe who live in the arid hills routinely ride down with guns and steal cattle, the Turkana's livelihood, and Loruman was killed during one such raid. The question of who killed him isn't, of course, about pointing the finger at the man who shot him, but the much bigger issue of why this is happening at all. From there, Parenti explores the region in more detail, tying it to U.S. politics and history - a similar pattern is used to delve into other countries in the "Tropic of Chaos".
This is by its very nature a hard book to summarise and an even harder one to review. All I can really do is give you my thoughts so you can consider whether this would be a good book for you to read, as well. By that I simply mean, how well written it is. I found that the level of Parenti's writing depends quite a bit on prior knowledge, and I didn't always have enough, thus it was at times a difficult read that moved a bit too fast for me. If I hadn't read books like Maude Barlow's Blue Covenant, about the global water crisis, and Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, which is a phenomenal book about neo-liberal economics ("Chicago School" economics) and shock tactics implemented in developing countries, I would have really struggled here. His writing presumes upon a reader with a very sound understanding of history, economic policy and remote regions of the world. There are a few things I would have liked to help me get the most out of this book; I wouldn't have minded if it had been an extra 50 pages long to add more flesh to the areas, to explain the economics a bit more, and to have included more detailed maps than the ones used - maps are only of countries in an area, but the chapter discusses regions, valleys, border zones etc. and I had no real idea of where these were placed in relation to each other and other countries, and I'm the kind of person who likes to study a map so I can better visualise an area. It would have been particularly helpful in discussing Kashmir and Brazil.
But I did learn a lot from this book, as well. It certainly built upon prior knowledge and understanding, and I appreciated the simple breakdown of what the science of climate change really is: our fossil fuels have
boosted atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) from around 280 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution to 390 ppm today. Analyses of ancient ice cores show 390 ppm to be the highest atmospheric concentration of CO2 during the last 10,000 years.
Atmospheric CO2 functions like the glass in a greenhouse, allowing the sun's heat in but preventing much of it from radiating back out to space. We need atmospheric CO2 - without it, Earth would be an ice-cold, lifeless rock. However, over the last 150 years we have been loading the sky with far too much CO2, and the planet is heating up. [p.5]
We've all heard about the 2°C rise in temperatures spelling catastrophe, but it's hard to take a mere 2 degrees seriously when day by day, our temperatures rise and fall and vary dramatically. To put it into perspective, if the world cooled by 2 degrees centigrade, Earth would be in another ice age. So 2 degrees is actually very extreme for the planet. That comparison really helped me get a grasp of how important two seemingly small degrees are, though I still don't really understand - and it wasn't covered here - how we'll know when that happens. I mean, will it be drastic melting of all our glaciers and ice sheets, or will meteorologists and climate change scientists be able to say, "We've now reached the point where the Earth's temperature is hotter by 2 degrees." How do they measure the Earth's temperature? These are questions for a different book, I know, but no one ever mentions it so it bugs me.
The chapters on Afghanistan and the relationship between Pakistan and India were illuminating, and explains much of why the region is so unstable - and who gains from it and why. The chapter about India's drought, neo-liberal economic policies, and the cotton trade really jumped out at me, because it just seems so ... indicative.
Starting in 1991 the Indian government began a process of economic liberalization. Efficiency became the watchword; the state cut power subsidies to farmers. With that, running pumps for wells and irrigation became more expensive. To cope, farmers started taking loans from local banks or usurious moneylenders. The neoliberal withdrawal of developmentalist policies meant that local irrigation systems fell into dilapidation. [...] By the late 1990s, many farmers had run out of options - they were too far in arrears to borrow more, too broke to produce crops. For thousands, the only escape from this debt trap came in the form of suicide - often by swallowing pesticides. [p.143]
Another cause of debt is seed purchase. The zenith of this trap is Monsanto's genetically modified Bt cotton. [...] A government-owned company [...] provided financing and guidance, and yields did increase, essentially during the 1960s. These yields, however, were a function of greater capital investment. Farmers required more capital to buy fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation piping, and machinery. Thus, debts rose along with output.
Soon cotton became one of the main crops. Now the issue was no longer food scarcity but instead victory and profit on the international commodity markets. Very problematically, cotton also needs large amounts of water. Within a decade yields began to drop as the soil was stripped of its nutrients and poisoned by pesticides. The only solution for many farmers was to double down: borrow more and invest more, use more technology, take on more debt.
[...] With the rise of capital-intensive cotton farming in Telangana over the last thirty years, two strange contradictions have arisen. First, the primary cash crop, cotton, continues to decline in value; yet, farmers continue to plant more of it. Why do the farmers not shift to other crops? Second, while the region's overall growth in agricultural output has been robust ... the incomes and consumption of most farmers have declined precipitously, and this manifests as farmers' suicides and support for the Naxals [rebel group fighting the gov't]. The question now becomes: Why do farmers go into debt so as to plant a crop (cotton) for which the price is falling? [pp.142-6]
The answer is surprisingly simple, and all the more scary for it: the moneylenders, who for all intents and purposes own the farmers, demand that the farmers plant cotton because in a bad year, farmers can't eat cotton, they must sell it. The money from the sale goes to the moneylenders, which is why farmers have no capital. The farmers have no choice but to plant cotton, which also means they can't escape debt because cotton doesn't bring in enough money.
And on top of that, even the poorest, least educated peasant farmers in Afghanistan and India fully understand that the soil is being severely depleted of all nutrients by this kind of farming, yet they have no choice. The lesson is really that, while it seems like the things happening half a world away have really got nothing to do with us, sitting comfortably in our sturdy homes with our TVs and computers and flushing toilets, on our clean streets in our (comparably) well-managed cities, what the Indian cotton farmers and the Afghan opium and wheat farmers, as well as the Mexicans trying to cross the border into the U.S. and the Kenyan tribesmen guarding their cattle, it ALL has to do with us. "Globilisation" is really just a new word for colonialism, or so it seems to me, and if you're going to have "free trade" and "global markets" etc., you have to take some responsibility. But no one cares, as long as they make their extra several million dollars' profit which they hoard in an off-shore account, or in the stock market or perhaps a hedge fund which doesn't actually produce anything.
Other illuminating parts of the book include the Mexico-U.S. border and what's really going on there - I read that chapter just days before watching one of those Republican presidential debates (the South Carolina one) and when they got talking about the border and rounding up the illegal aliens, having the extra knowledge and understanding really changed the way I heard their words - from general rabid frothing-at-the-mouth to the larger point Parenti is trying to make - with a dash of desperation, or so it sounds to me. This is the part about counter-insurgency (COIN) and violent adaptation to climate change. Countries like the U.S. are gearing up for climate change, but not in the way you might hope. Instead, they're preparing to create a fortress where the climate refugees (which is what the increased in Mexicans and South Americans at their border really are) are kept out and the true-blue Americans are safe within. They're preparing to simply man the gates, not mitigate climate change but simply make everyone else pay the price for their giant "gas-guzzling SUVs", as I hear people call them.
It's not all doom-and-gloom, but Tropic of Chaos isn't about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it's about the effects of climate change on the poorest regions, on countries struggling to bring themselves out of debt and who are faced with increasingly unpredictable weather patterns as well as dominating neo-liberal economic policy - even when they've broken ties with the World Bank and IMF, the after-effects of such policies resound for decades. Tiny land-locked Bolivia was like a ray of sunshine in the book, proving that a good balance of sound economic policy, government regulation and forward-thinking mitigation can create a healthy, prosperous country that's doing its bit. Parenti's call for the United States government to lead the way in mitigation efforts seems to echo in an empty chamber as on the page, and will certainly be laughed at if a Republican becomes president, judging by how dismissive the candidates were of "global warming" and their rather bizarre notion that government should not, well, govern (this idea confuses me: what's the point of government, then? To simply collect taxes and spend it all on the military? That doesn't sound like a democracy at all).
If you're interested in the 20th-21st century history of countries like Somalia, India, Afghanistan, Brazil, Mexico, and how climate change, counter-insurgency and violence are connected, Parenti has done a thorough job in researching this correlation. He has been to all these areas, spoken with the locals including gang members, and has a firm understanding of global politics and economic theory. I would have liked for the latter to be better explained, because once you understand economic theory, not only does the world make more sense, but you can interpret what's happening and what our leaders etc. are actually saying and doing, in a more critical way. To that end, I recommend you read this after reading books like the ones I mentioned above, or perhaps even Parenti's earlier books, though I haven't read them so I don't know if they'd be good background for this or not.
Overall, Tropic of Chaos was a frightening study of convergence in the modern world, from which I learnt a lot in terms of small details and specific issues but was also left with more questions - and an undiminished thirst to learn more. (less)
I got this book after hearing a brief mention of it on CBC radio one day; I missed the actual segment but the title made me curious enough to look the...moreI got this book after hearing a brief mention of it on CBC radio one day; I missed the actual segment but the title made me curious enough to look the book up when I was next in the bookshop ... which happened to be that same day. I don't read a lot of non-fiction - I have plenty but they're still mostly unread - simply because they generally take a lot more concentration than I usually have available, and I've had real baby brain lately. This one is what's commonly referred to as "pop science", meaning that it's written in a more accessible and engaging style than a traditional science book, and it's short at only 209 pages of actual text, so I knew I'd find it a quick and easy read. And it was.
Kirshenbaum is a research scientist at the University of Texas and a science journalist, so her skills lie in collecting and analysing research, not in any particular field related to this subject matter. It puts her in a similar position to the reader: coming at the topic with no background knowledge (in terms of the science and history of kissing), but with her journalistic and research experience she not only has good contacts but the skills to weed out the most pertinent information, and knows how to verify it. That said, she admits that there's little research out there on kissing, and this book is really just the beginning of something that should have larger scope.
Really, it's a shame to think that few people have bothered to look into kissing, when it's such an important and, in various ways, universal act. Kirshenbaum looks into the history of kissing, data for which is limited because at certain times in history it's been a bit of a taboo subject (and in many places still is), and at how other animals share a similar kind of exchange, from certain types of apes to birds. There is "kissing-like behaviours" that include regurgitating food, that is shared across species and is still practiced in some human societies today, and a look at how lip-to-lip kissing is abhorrent in some cultures and intrinsic in others.
One of things I love learning about is where expressions and traditions come from, so I found this incredibly interesting: back in medieval times (the "dark ages"), when people were still commonly illiterate, a contract was signed with a big X and then the person would kiss the X to seal the deal. Thus we have the saying "sealed with a kiss". It is also why, at a wedding ceremony, we have the line "you may now kiss the bride" (or not, depending on your ceremony, but generally when the celebrant announces you husband and wife, you kiss); weddings were another business transaction between two men, the groom and the bride's father, and the "deal" was likewise sealed with a kiss. (Pretty much every tradition associated with our western wedding style has a root cause - like the bride's bouquet; she originally carried it because people didn't bathe more than about once a year and everyone ponged.)
I also loved the chapters on the science of kissing, and the different gender approaches to kissing and its importance. Kirshenbaum was originally resistant to the notion that the different sexes would put a different value on kissing, but her research proved otherwise - and when you read about it, certain things will click for you. There is also the biology of a kiss, and what's happening with our bodies - the hormones that are being released, the instinctual drive to kiss that are related to certain gender-specific drives. Aside from being fascinating reading, it made a lot of sense. The insight into what hormones are released when we kiss, and why and what their purpose is, is also enlightening.
The scientific research into kissing is still, sadly, at its early stages, so there are some hypotheses that have yet to be conclusively proven. I hope that people in various fields, from science to history to anthropology, continue to study this incredibly intimate act. What's nice is that this book isn't going to ruin the romance of a kiss for you, or make you second-guess yourself or what your body's doing when you kiss. So much of it clicks with your sub-conscious anyway, that it's like you knew it all already, you just needed to hear someone say it.
That said, I wish there'd been a bit more substance to the book, a bit more detail in some areas, but it's still a good starting point on the topic, and great to have the information collected into one handy little book. (less)
There is a kind of history that gets overlooked, that doesn't get taught in schools or universities aside from a fourth-year optional course that no o...moreThere is a kind of history that gets overlooked, that doesn't get taught in schools or universities aside from a fourth-year optional course that no one bothers to take. It's a history that is fundamental to understanding our world, both past and present and where the hell we're going. It's a history that touches everyone, regardless of class, gender, race or age, but that slips out the back door before anyone thinks to call it to account, put it on trial and expose its heinous crimes. I'm talking about economic history, the history of economics, and the power economics plays in everything that happens in the world.
One of my biggest problems with the current trend in economic theory - what is called neo-liberal or neo-conservative economics, Chicago School economics, Reaganonomics, free-trade economics; whatever you want to call it - is that it's missing something pretty damn big: the human element. They talk about this economic theory not only as if it were the only way to do things, or the best way, but as if it is autonomous of people - governments, business people, workers, farmers, the homeless. That because of this absence of a human element, it is Good, and Right, and acts in Our Best Interests.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be impossible for economics to behave independent of any human interference, or action, governmental or otherwise. Impossible, and undesirable. Those that benefit most are the same old villains: the greedy top 2% of the population, that holds more than 50% of "global household wealth". Trickle-down economics is complete bullshit, and always was. What the real result is, though, is an economic theory that is wholly unaccountable for what it reaps.
There are many things I love about this book. Klein puts the human element back into Chicago School economics, detailing with exhaustive research the impact of the policies of this economic theory on the many peoples of the world it has been forced onto (forced is the right word; more on that later). Giving the "ordinary" people of the world a voice is incredibly important, and is like shining a light on the free market's blood-stained hands.
It also exposes the real motivations behind the pretty speeches, the mercenary nature of this kind of economics, and the strings attached to the hands of the men (and few women) manipulating events and making the most money from it. Yes, it always comes down to money, for these people. What a predictable cliché they are! But dangerous too.
What began as a book on the invasion of Iraq and what Klein at first thought was a recent "fundamental change in the way the drive to 'liberate' markets was advancing around the world" (p.10) became, as she dug deeper, something much bigger. She realised that Chicago School economics, and its figurehead Milton Friedman, has been experimenting with many countries over the last three decades, and that the theory is even older.
The theory is one of "radical free-market 'reforms'", of using natural and man-made crises - shocks - to stun a population into a stupor while a government forces these "reforms" onto the country. This is one of the ironies of Chicago School economics, which Klein highlights: Friedman touted it as going hand-in-hand with democracy and freedom, when the exact opposite is true. The kind of economic reforms he advised leaders to put in place were the kind that instantly robbed people of jobs, freedom of speech and movement, even their lives. Their early experiments in South America - Chile, under Pinochet, and also Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil - involved by necessity a dictatorship, or corrupting or manipulating a democratically-elected, often socialist government, and using further "shocks" - torture, imprisonment, disappearances etc. - to stop the people from revolting.
Meanwhile, big international corporations would sweep in and buy up all the newly privatised industries, then dismantle them, fire everyone, and run off with the profits. Opening up a country for privatisation, in these cases, never benefits the country itself. This seems so glaringly obvious it's amazing that so many dictators and other leaders bought into it. Sometimes they had no choice. Often held to ransom by the IMF and World Bank, or even by "aid" money in the aftermath of these crises, these shocks, they bowed down to pressure and did what they were told.
The Shock Doctrine traces the path of the use of Shock Therapy from humans to countries and their economies, from Chile to South Africa, from Russia to Sri Lanka, from America to Iraq. The need to create "clean slates" on which to build "model countries" and "model economies" was never more determinedly tried than in Iraq. Klein successfully shows how Washington's drive to wipe the country of its history, to break it down and then slap this new economy onto it, had in turn helped create the violence, the fundamentalism that wasn't there before - or not widely supported by its population.
After the invasion, when Saddam was dethroned, the Iraqi people were indeed filled with new hope. They almost immediately began putting together their own local elections, democratically - for the first time in a long time - electing their own representatives. The man in charge of the country at the time, Paul Bremer, who was hurriedly writing new laws to open the country up to private investment from America, quickly put an end to these demonstrations of people's democracy. Hypocrites all.
The book does end with some hopeful signs of recovery. South America, a place that has always had a highly politicised population, has come out of its collective shock and is slowly rebuilding, putting their countries back together again, picking up what was so bloodily interrupted all those years ago but this time with shock absorbers in place so that it cannot happen again. I have always highly admired the various people of South America, who - if they had not suffered what they did - would now be one of the most prosperous places in the world. By turning their backs on globalisation and free-market ideology, on disaster capitalism and all the muck that comes with it, they are once again on the path to something quite beautiful: a more ideal third way, a more harmonious structure that is as far from totalitarian communism (think China and the USSR, North Korea and Romania) as it is from disaster capitalism. They are the ones to watch.
The Shock Doctine is not an easy book to read - the prose is inherently readable and approachable, but the subject matter is intense, often depressing, incredibly sad and disheartening at times, and fills you with rage. It has answered many of the questions that have puzzled me for so long, that no one else has bothered to properly explain - like why did Israel suddenly attack Lebanon, and why are they being such bastards with the Palestinians? What the hell happened to South Africa when Apartheid was supposed to end? Why is Iraq such a mess? and many more.
Because the economic theory "began" in America, and was so readily absorbed in that country, a lot of the book focuses on that country and certain people from it - but it is also a victim of its own policies, and I learnt a great deal about the hollow government Bush Jr. and Rumsfeld created, which contracted out (at the cost of billions and billions of taxpayer dollars) so much of its responsibilities that when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it could do nothing. It had no money, no resources, no manpower, no skills. Tragic.
Klein doesn't go into why America, the institution, is so ripe a place for this kind of economic theory, but I believe the book goes well with Ronald Wright's What is America? I would have liked to hear more of what impact other countries, like the UK, had in Iraq, but they got barely a mention. According to the point of the chapter, though, they weren't important.
I've seen elements of this economic theory play out in my own home country, without the use of shock treatment: John Howard implemented all sorts of disastrous and unpopular policies, from cutting funding to Austudy (now Youth Allowance), universities and public schools (my old primary school couldn't even afford a librarian and had to lock up its library for most of the week); he privatised Telecom (many Australians bought shares - it's ironic, because before privatisation they already owned it) and put through a new Minimum Wage law for 15 - 18 year olds, so that MacDonalds could fire its adult workers and hire cheap teenagers for the same job; as well as a law that enabled companies to fire employees and rehire them on contracts, meaning they had no job security (no unions either), no benefits or holiday or sick pay, and were essentially paid less. So sometimes it does happen without shock therapy - and Klein points this out too, though the cases are more rare and the policies are tamed down by the people - but Howard also had a dangerous majority and happily labelled anyone who disagreed with him (including the thousands of protesters) as hooligans and "un-Australian" - his biggest insult.
The Shock Doctrine is important, profound, educational and eye-opening. I would say that you might need to be in the right frame of mind for it - if you whole-heartedly disagree with the importance of government regulations and services, with nationalised education, health care and industry, if you think that free-market economics is inherently "good" for the middle class and poor people, that America is doing a "good" thing in Iraq, if Friedman is your idol and you have stocks in Halliburton or Lockheed Martin or CH2M Hill, you are not going to like this book. Regardless of where you stand, it is confronting.
But if you've ever felt the slightest unease over certain reforms and policies, if the word "progress" and "growth" don't necessarily equate "good" and "inherently right" in your gut, and if you care about the people no matter their country or skin colour, who have slipped further and further into poverty - this is the book for you. You might never look at the world the same way again, and that's a good thing. You might never blindly believe what you hear, and that too is a great thing. You might pause a moment to think "what's really going on here that CNN is smugly glossing over?" and that is a fantastic thing. (less)
In this brilliant, insightful, revealing study British-born novelist, historian and essayist Ronald Wright (who participated in the 2004 CBC Massey Le...moreIn this brilliant, insightful, revealing study British-born novelist, historian and essayist Ronald Wright (who participated in the 2004 CBC Massey Lectures series with A Short History of Progress) explains "how America is more truly American than we know: a uniquely vigorous and rapacious organism arising from the conquest that began with Columbus and begot the modern age ... Although the United States regards itself as the most advanced country on Earth, Ronald Wright reveals how it is also deeply archaic: a stronghold of religious extremism, militarism, and so-called modern beliefs - in limitless growth, endless progress, unfettered capitalism, and a universal mission - that have fallen under suspicion elsewhere, following two World Wars and the reckless looting of our planet." (from the blurb)
I don't want you to think, first of all, that this is an America-bashing book. It's not. What it is is a comprehensive history not just of the formation of modern America (as in, Columbus and afterwards) but of what came before Columbus, as well as the horrendous acts of the Spanish Empire on South America and southern United States; the effect of religions, nations (cultures and attitudes) and the importance of the frontier experience on the creation of the new American people (as separate from the British); the true state of affairs regarding the first Americans (natives, Indians, indigenous peoples - whichever word you want to use); and draws very important connections between history and the current situation.
Wright gives an incredibly readable, accessible and informative overview of American history, both political, religious and cultural, and what this means for everyone else. It is so readable and so well written and researched that almost every second sentence is quotable.
The premise of the book is a response to how America, since 2000 and 2001 in particular, has "squandered solidarity at home and goodwill abroad, provoking a re-examination of the nation's essence: Is America what it thinks it is? Is America what the world has long believed it to be?" (p11) Wright continues: "I hold that the 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 - the real past, not the imaginary one of national myth."
The new republic was ... a bold and worthy experiment, an attempt to remake western civilization along utopian ideals of freedom, democracy and opportunity - "the world's best hope" as Thomas Jefferson, its third president, famously said. But the practice of those ideals relied on a unique historical circumstance: the opening up of a new territory, with new means, in which to try them. Seen from inside by free citizens, the young United States was indeed a thriving democracy in a land of plenty; seen from below by slaves, it was a cruel tyranny; and seen from outside by free Indians, it was a ruthlessly expanding empire. All these stories are true, but if we know only one without the others, what we know is not history by myth. And such myths are dangerous. (p13)
There is so much precedent in US history (there is everywhere - but the book is about the US), and in world affairs, and Wright adeptly draws in the present while discussing the past, to highlight those connections. Wright discusses treaties and ideologies, the creation and transformation of religions, manifest destiny and the Industrial Revolution, slavery and civil war, the military-industrial complex and imperialism. In all of it, you can see the past working in the present and the present a fateful result of the past.
One of the most shocking, for me, revelations concerns the original Americans: the Iroquois and Cherokee and Creek and Mohawks and so on. I have never studied American history, and have only touched on the creation of British-America through studying European history, so my pitiful knowledge comes mainly from the very myths put out by the US entertainment industry and general propaganda. I had no idea that the first Americans (as Wright says they should be called - I'm adding the adjective "first" in order to distinguish them from the new), had built villages and towns and temples, and had a democratic system of government (which Benjamin Franklin tried to have adopted by white America), as well as an extensive agricultural knowledge and farming ability, complete with elaborate irrigation systems that the white invaders merely took over.
In fact, Wright quotes from many documents that show quite clearly that the invaders preferred to simply remove the Indians and take over their homes and farms, wherever they possibly could, rather than strike out on their own. Also, that the early settlers were all starving and stealing from the Indians, because they didn't know how to grow the food native to the area: potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava. The Indians gave them food, taught them how to grow it and bless the land in the ceremony of Thanksgiving (since converted into blessing God), and helped them in many other ways. Over several centuries, every treaty that the whites made with the Indians, the whites broke.
Two groups of ancient peoples stand out: the Iroquois Five Nations, or the Iroquois Confederacy; and the Five Civilized Tribes. The Iroquois Five Nations used a democratic system of government which the whites loosely adopted, as well as the eagle for their emblem - which the whites took too. "The Five (later Six) Nations Confederacy may well have been the oldest and most structured democracy in North America. ... In later years its workings would make a deep impression on Marx, Engels and Victorian feminists." (p98) Benjamin Franklin "promoted the Iroquois model at the Albany Congress of 1754 ... [but:] the scheme was thrown out by their assemblies and the British government." (p99)
The Five Civilized Tribes played the white's game better than they could: in their territory, the Cherokees had better literacy and education than amongst the white communities, their own newspaper, investments in industry and livestock, and a thriving, prosperous population. They were recognised, in the 1770s, as having "the refinements of true civilization, which cannot, in the least degree be attributed to the good examples of the white people" (p113) and "the Indians' genial character, orderly towns, lack of domestic violence and strict laws against alcohol" were also noted. Wright adds: "The leap to civilization was therefore not nearly as fundamental a change as most whites imagined: it was more like adding a new storey in European style to an existing structure." But Georgia wanted the land, and despite a Supreme Court verdict that it was against the constitution to evict the Cherokees from their land, President Jackson went ahead with his Indian Removal plan anyway.
The deep irony - that the whites came with civilisation and were better people with a higher moral ground - is never clearer than in the complete sham that was the rhetoric of the day - and continues to be used. It was a political shift to change the Indians from settled people with government, religion and agriculture into nomadic savages (the word "savage" comes from the Latin word for "woodland dweller", now bastardised - similar to how "barbarian" simply means "foreigner" - it's all in the context), and is directly linked to the expansionist etc. mentality that persists to this day. Also highlighted is how often the early white Americans talked about "selfishness", as a good thing, but something the Indians lacked.
That's just a small portion of what Wright covers in this book regarding the first Americans. Wright also discusses economics, and the change from Keynes' economics, which helped the world recover after the Great Wars (and which most countries still employ today) to Milton Friedman's model, which the US adopted after the Vietnam war, of letting the stock market run the world. "Predictably, the slashing of regulation brought fraud, speculation and crisis." (p203)
Also interesting is Wright's persistence in using the word "terrorism" to describe past events, such as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which "started" the First World War (an infamous overreaction that he likens to the "war on terror") - it's interesting how words are, by necessity or propaganda, re-appropriated by governments, the media, historians etc. for various reasons: here, with "terrorism", Wright is determined to show that this isn't a new thing, that the US has its own fair share of terrorism and terrorists, that it's not restricted to hardline fundamentalists from countries suffering from decades of US interference. (I also found it fascinating how Wright shows that America must always have someone to fight, that they have never gone without conflict. I never noticed before but look at a timeline: it's right in front of you!) This word wasn't used, before, in describing historical events, but now, in the search for context and perspective, it needs to be. Just shows that we are living in history.
It does answer the question "What is America?" It offers some hard truths to swallow, and some refreshing insight into the cloud of myth, and all in just 226 pages (just under half the book consists of notes, an extensive bibliography and the index). Published just prior to the outcome of the Democratic leadership race, it's highly current and relevant, as well as sympathetic and - important in this day and age - calm. There's a lot that isn't covered, of course, and plenty that Wright assumes some former knowledge of. This isn't a history text, though it does deal with history. It's a must-read for everyone, Americans included, especially as we try to understand the world we live in and where the hell it's going. (less)