Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Ronald Wright:
What Is America? [2008]

      Our group really liked this book and gave it an average rating of 8.1 on a scale of 0 to 10. That’s very high for us since we tend to be tough graders!

      A major theme of the book is to describe the fate of the Native Americans (or American Indians) after the arrival of Europeans with their all-too-common genocidal desires to eliminate the natives and take all the land and wealth for themselves. The book relates how most Native Americans were not the rootless savage nomads as portrayed by the colonial society—and still today!—as part of the supposed “justification” for stealing their land and murdering them, but rather were mostly farmers living a settled life in civilized villages. Moreover Wright shows how the easy military victories of the Europeans over the natives were due primarily to the horrendous spread of European diseases (especially smallpox) among the native populations who had no acquired immunity to them. Sometimes the Europeans even spread these diseases among the natives on purpose!

      The book also brings out some of the other sordid history of the European settlement of America, such as the prominence of slavery in the process. And it talks a lot about the role of fundamentalist and otherwise doctrinaire religion in promoting many of these evils.

      Besides the considerable exposures of historical facts that are often kept hidden or at least very much downplayed to this very day, Wright also makes some interesting observations about the importance of the “discovery” and conquest of the New World for the development of European power and control over the world as a whole. And it strongly stresses the importance of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” as a shaper of the American character.

      Everybody in our group already knew a fair amount about these sorts of things, but we all found the wealth of additional information in this book to be such as to powerfully impress us.

      Kirby said he “Liked the book so much!” and that he learned something on virtually every single page. “This is the kind of history book that everybody should be required to read,” he added. John “absolutely and totally agreed with Kirby” about how good the book was. He said he really liked the stuff about Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, and “Loved the book!” Both Kirby and John gave the book our highest rating: 10.

      Rosie, however, said that she had a totally different impression of the book. She agreed that the first part of the book was “beautifully done”, but thought the last part was somewhat tiresome and just a Democrat condemning Republicans and the usual sort of way. While she agrees with the political stance that Wright put forward, she didn’t enjoy that part of the book. On balance she rated the book at 7.

      Rich said he liked the book a lot, and enjoyed reading it. He said that “There was a lot of little details I didn’t know before.” He even liked the last 30-40 pages which Rosie didn’t care for.

      Thomas had earlier read Howard Zinn’s excellent work, A People’s History of the United States, so he was braced for a certain amount of unpleasant history about how the New World was settled. “I knew I was going to be profoundly depressed ... depressed for humanity. It was a hard book to read.” Thomas was also somewhat taken aback by the comments of some of the rest of us that we “enjoyed” reading the book. (We enjoyed the interesting book, but we didn’t enjoy the horrors it described!) Thomas did think that the book may have been somewhat too negative about American history, and didn’t give sufficient emphasis to the Enlightenment ideas of Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders. But he said he learned a lot, and considered it to be a very good book.

      Scott had a view of the book somewhat like Rosie’s, only “more so”! He felt that it was really “two” books, the first two-thirds focusing on the horrendous treatment of the Native Americans by the European colonists and their descendants, and the final third just a commonplace and tiresome Democratic Party platform speech against the Republicans. The difference, though, is that unlike Rosie, Scott thinks the Democrats are hardly any different than the Republicans when it comes to all the major issues, such as warmongering and foreign aggression.

      Another of the major themes of Wright’s book is the imperialist nature of the U.S., from its expansion across the North American continent and its grabbing of half of Mexico, to its more modern imperialist adventures in Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and more recently in Iraq. But Scott says that the curious thing is that while American imperialism today is at least as virulent and genocidal as it ever was, Wright eases way off in his description and criticism of U.S. imperialism the closer we get to the present day! He even touts the generosity of the Democrats in “granting” the Philippines their independence after World War II, though in reality they only did so because they knew they couldn’t hang on to the country in the form of an old-style colony and that they stood a better chance of controlling and exploiting the Philippines in the form of a neo-colony (where the U.S. sets up and controls things through client regimes).

      But despite the imperialist semi-apologetics at the end of the book Scott still gives the book a 7, because it is important for Americans to learn their own history about how they conquered and stole the land only because they and their diseases killed off most of the former inhabitants. There are other useful books on the topic, including Zinn’s history of the U.S. and Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen. But Scott thinks that on this specific topic Ronald Wright does the best job of all.

      Ron says Wright’s book is one that “everyone should read and learn the other side from what they ‘learned’ in school”. Kevin challenged him to give it to Ron’s son to read, and Ron says that at the appropriate time he will do just that! Kevin himself found lots of interesting things in the book. He mentioned the importance of New World domestic farm crops, especially corn and potatoes, and how these crops then became a critical factor in creating a sufficient abundance of food in the Old World that a lot of labor could be freed up from farming and allow the Industrial Revolution to occur. Kevin pointed out that this important fact never occurred to him before (and I don’t think it ever occured to any of the rest of us either!).

      But while Kevin liked the contents of the book a lot, he only gave a rating of 6 because of one factor that really annoyed the rest of us as well: A great amount of interesting information was relegated to the footnotes in the back of the book rather than being incorporated into the text as it should have been. Once the reader discovers that there is valuable material in the footnotes he feels compelled to constantly flip back and forth between the text and the notes, and this is indeed annoying as hell!

      Despite that problem, our group rated the book very highly, and strongly recommends it to others.

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