Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Blessed Nation among Nations

Probably the worst thing that can happen to any organized human system is not death or dissolution. It's believing that your group and you its members are special, unique, blessed. It leads to the groupthink, xenophobia, and blindness that have caused the bulk of the miseries of human existence, and those to come. "We're better" or "God loves us more than you" or "It can't happen here" shut off the thought necessary to deal with a complex adaptive world and react constructively to the challenges it dishes out. As we lose our Constitution and historical climate, our Legacy and our future, any books that can point this nation toward a more realistic appraisal of itself before we become too deluded to function should be welcome.

There are several out there right now. For example, Charles Mann's
1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus about how there was already a country here when Columbus arrived, William Polk's The Birth of America: From Before Columbus to the Revolution about the period after Mann's book, or Alan Taylor's American Colonies about how our colonial history was not the only one going at the time are excellent starts. There wasn't some blank slate that we enlightened Anglos suddenly filled with our wisdom and wonder. Any of the recent books and bios of our (pre-)Founding period will tell you how tenuous all we became was and how those Founders were not all that sanguine about our ability to hold their gift to us as dearly as we should. Today, we, of course, are proving their fears right.

If you have to pick just two books, though, to set the context of our historical and continued place in world affairs and history, I'd recommend you go with Eric Rauchway's
Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Thomas Bender's A Nation Among Nations. Both set their tasks of showing how the US fit into (and benefited from) the events of the world around them. We have never been this independent, individualist nation isolated by oceans from the flows of human history that our basic classes have taught us. We've been very much a part of those flows from our beginning, sending ripples and receiving them from the start.

Rauchway describes how the first wave of economic globalization created not a "flat world," (as some flat heads have claimed) of level playing fields, but winners and losers (NY's and MS's, MN's and LA's in our own country), a point even "liberal" economists like DeLong and Lester Thurow continually miss to all our misfortune. We became the economic stronghold we did because of the unique flows for development and investment coming together at a time in which this rich, growing nation could prosper from the activities and attentions of other nations. And because of our foolish "shining nation on the hill" narcissism that fails to understand both the system we exist in and our place and impact in it, we have consistently reached the wrong conclusions upon which we undertook often destructive and dangerous action. No one with eyes to see can look at the disconnect between the Busheviks' rhetoric and actions in foreign affairs or here at home and not see delusion and deception (self- or otherwise).

Bender makes essentially the same point but, rather than a focus on the "first globalization" period, he focuses on the whole of our history. We started deluded by our uniqueness, our specialness, and have never recovered. His book has actually far more "huh, I never thought of that" moments than Rauchway's. (My favorite was his noting that, had Britain won the Revolutionary War (that sidelight thing to bigger goings-on in Europe), slavery's vested interests here would have made it harder for Britain to take the anti-slavery lead it later did, which in turn pressured the new US, which when it fought a civil war over the slavery issue, in turn made it difficult for Britain to side with the Confederacy despite its need for cotton, for which Britain had to find new places to colonize, which in turn shot the Confederacy down even more. Get the general idea now?) But it's Bender's placement of all our major events, usually viewed very narrowly, like our wars and depressions, in the context of overall global patterns that you'll likely find fascinating. There is so much "for the want of a nail" here that you're unlikely to see US history as straightforward and parochial again. Which was obviously his point.

I've already noted in past reviews the importance of Reinhold Niebuhr's frequent admonitions that "children of light" need constant warnings and reminders of their possible hubris and arrogance as they bask in the glow of their mirrors. The "irony of American history" is not going away. We're not and never have been this "innocent" little nation just wanting everyone to get along. That's something those of us who extol the American Legacy that's under assault need to remember as well. The Legacy is truly something unique and special in human history, the idea that giving opportunities to all people will result in a better world than allowing the few, the rich, the powerful to overrun and overrule the many, the poor, the powerless. But it's not special because of our mirrors. It's special because of the circumstances and contexts that made it arise. We ourselves have always been its greatest threat, our "children of light" as well as our everpresent, usually the majority "children of darkness," as we see again clearly in the last few decades and, especially, years. We don't always understand its fragility and need for care because we don't always understand how we got it and need to keep it. These two books will help, but it will take more.

This time, we'll need to be truly blessed.