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Archive for August, 2011

Review: What is America?

I read What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order (2008) right on the heels of Stolen Continents, and Wright draws on ideas already mentioned in his previous works (especially A Short History of Progress) to examine the historic roots of the American Empire. In this case, I’m afraid Wright will be dismissed as taking part in some good ol’ “America-bashing”—he is Canadian, after all—but Wright’s exploration of American myth and ideology extends far beyond the confines of the United States. Wright is mostly concerned with the construction of the Columbian World, and the rise of a Western culture wherein the United States has become the primary superpower after the collapse of the European colonial empires. In that manner, his study goes beyond left and right wing politics to instead chart the ideas of the Enlightenment as they relate to the settlement of the New World. Wright can at time be harsh, but that is because history is harsh:

The new republic was also 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 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 but myth. And such myths are dangerous. (13)

Far too often have we sacrificed history in pursuit of myth. The primary myths of modernity have become American ones.  Like his previous works, Wright intends to examine dominant myths, trace them through history, and ultimately dismantle them. I believe Wright sees this as history’s function in today’s world; as such, he is at odds with many historians who continue to structure their analyses around certain ideologies: Marxism, geographic determinism, and the like.

 

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The Duel

In which swords are drawn but blood is most certainly not spilled.

EDIT: I also present, exclusive to this blog, a recut version.  Now in technicolour!

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Review: Stolen Continents

The settlement of the Americas still brings up images of brave conquistadors or tough-as-nails frontiersmen taming a savage wilderness. Our history, as told through the popular narratives propagated by the Canadian education system, seems one of white colonists from England, France, and Spain bringing civilization to a New World. The national history of Canada begins with Jacques Cartier, that of the United States, with Christopher Columbus, that of central and South America, with Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro. We have built a myth of an empty land to justify the presence of our settler states; we are made aware that that people dwelt in “the New World”, but that their histories aren’t worthy of attention. We hold up as heroes the same men who so gleefully displaced and exterminated local populations, and trace our cultural routes across the sea. History, it seems, belongs to Europe, and settlers brought history to the Americas.

The settler myths providing the foundations for westward expansion have outlived their usefulness–the west was won a long time ago. And yet we still reproduce them, and still leave the original Americans out of western historical narratives. Like popular conceptions of Africa, native Americans are often painted as a people without history, or (in the case of the Aztecs and the Inca) peoples for whom their own history has ended, replaced by another.

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Michael Chabon has long championed the adventure story, though it seemed to take an inordinate amount of time for him to get around to writing one.  Gentleman of the Road is a tribute to the 19th-century historical potboiler, but with a different focus: instead of white European heroes with flowing blonde hair, this is instead subtitled “being an adventurous tale of Jews with Swords”.  Our heroes here are a Frankish and an African Jew, who travel through the Jewish Khaganate of the Khazars (I should note that the Khazars were not ethnically Semitic, Khazar ways are just as alien to our heroes as their own contrasting looks and personalities).  You can trace an obvious influence from Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships in the chosen sense of humour.

However, I’m here to make a note on style, not to write a review of a book I read over a year ago.

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