Undogmatic about America: How to write about the place without arrogance or cliches

Undogmatic about America: How to write about the place without arrogance or cliches

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 17, March, 2020

A review of: Bruno Maçães, History has Begun, London: Hurst & Co, 2020

BOOKS FROM European authors which seek to lecture, condemn or ridicule America are legion. In the epoch of Donald Trump it is now almost unheard of for an analyst to try and offer a dispassionate, wry or thoughtful essay on the American experience. Too many are blinded not just by prejudice but by their own narrow specialisms and by their entrapment in various academic or policy silos.

Bruno Maçães is a refreshing exception. He is an endlessly curious academic who spent months on the road researching his much discussed recent book, The Dawn of Eurasia. He is familiar with the rhythm of life in Shanghai, Istanbul and Jaipur. He is one of those adventurous and observant Portuguese who periodically have opened our minds to un-explored or little understood parts of the world.

He lacks ideological baggage and embeded assumptions and he displays an eagerness to pass on what he has learned in an intellectually rigorous but still accessible way. Trained as a philosopher, a cornerstone of his outlook is the need for major world players, not only the USA, to adopt a balanced approach in their engagement with the world.

Its absence was obvious during an exchange in 2002 between Karl Rove, a key advisor of President Bush, and a journalist as preparations for the invasion of Iraq were advancing. Rove interrupted the journalist when he started to talk about the values of the Enlightenment:

“Not the way the world works anymore. We are an Empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Maçães is dismissive of neo-conservative thinking about nation-building. However, he sees America as increasingly a place apart. In the Introduction he writes: “I define a fresh scenario: ‘the development of a new indigenous American society, separate from modern Western civlization, rooted in new feelings and thoughts.’ ”

He tries to show how television and, later, new technology, have intensified this underlying trait. Amidst the current turmoil, he expresses cautious optimism about “the birth pangs of a new culture” rather than “the death throes of an aged civilization.”

Unlike Europe, he believes that the United States retains the energy and resources enabling it to reform its main organizing principles. The inner-relationship with Europe is a dominant theme well into the book. He has little time for the perspective of Alexis de Tocqueville, still seen as the grand interpreter of the essence of American political culture nearly two centuries after the appearance of his tome, Democracy in America. The problem with this French visitor to the early Republic is the way he takes the rules of political development in Europe as universal. America is seen as excelling in the application of European principles but not in the invention of new ones. Its historical role is to resolve the contradictions of democracy that had burst open in Europe.

This early interpreter of America is faithful to perhaps the central theme of European philosophy, involving repeated attempts to find the final truth, to build a final system of thought. Maçães is critical of his failure to see how history is made up of multiple stories in a world constantly in flux. He describes how this realisation came first to the philosopher William James as he was jolted by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, an experience that revealed a world “having nothing fixed or stable in it.”

One of the book’s central arguments is that the United States would come to affirm its global primacy more often against Europe than with it. He singles out Alexander Hamilton who envisaged “one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!” A century later, and in contrast to Europe, American public opinion saw that in the US many different nations could live and work together in a friendly fashion. Soon the US would embark on several attempts of “saving the world from the inner demons of European culture.”

In 1918, Maçães reckons that “the United States had a golden opportunity, unprecedented in all history, to assume the leadership of the world.” President Woodrow Wilson failed because he still saw America as part of the European order. The US was then a spectator as Europe indulged in an even worse bout of murderous fratricide. By 1952, the French-born thinker Jacques Barzun was able to write that “by 1945, America having won a war on both her oceans... was quite simply the world power... it was Europe that was provincial.”

Various cooperative initiatives ensued but as America developed the power to shape events in Europe, it acquired a very different outlook on the world from the European one. Europe continued its relentless search for the ideal society of the future that would resolve accumulated woes. The technocracy of the European Union (involving the relegation of the nation-state) became its priority rather than upholding a specifically Western identity.

By contrast, Americans preferred to endure reality or escape from it in vicarious ways rather than taming it. The rise of “the unreality principle” is in fact the dominating element in this book. The author first explores the world of American letters to find a literary imagination full of escapist themes from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit to later works by Kerouac and John Updike. But it is through the world of television that the fictional metaphor invaded nearly all spheres of life.

Maçães suggests that “Americans see the world as an action movie, Europeans as a documentary.” Europeans have lost the ability to experiment or innovate because they fear the possibility of repeating old mistakes. There is little scope for the individual’s search for meaning which he believes is at the root of much of American life.

He takes up the escapist theme in American politics when he discusses Ronald Reagan. He was opposed to exhausted liberalism. He wanted Americans to “live like movie characters, lost in many different identities and relaxed about their ultimate truth or meaning.” He is adamant in his insistence that “television is the secret key to the American century, the primary structure of experience...”

Reaching our own day, he observes that Trump “runs the administration like a television series, carefully staging distinct story lines where conflict and crisis are used to power the plot before...the fully-scripted resolution.” Media foes oblige by basing a series of dramas around Trump, a new one being slotted in as the previous one splutters to a halt. The Ukraine affair that led to the President’s impeachment, was intended to be a television show and it did become one, albeit with a markedly different script.

Maçães, a conservative, who was Portugal’s Europe minister when the left in his native Portugal was out of power, is relaxed about the belated appearance of American socialism. Socialism became what each individual television anchor decided it should be. As it lost connection with reality, it started to grow in appeal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, became the new star not because of her policies but because her meteoric rise was straight out of a melodramatic soap opera. She herself avowed: “we have to become master storytellers... my advice is to make arguments with your five senses and not five facts.”

Similar composure is directed towards the rise of the new tech oligarchy which in other quarters is viewed as the rise of a new feudal order in in America. He contends that Facebook, Tesla, SpaceX, Amazon want to create a host of new experiences that were previously, in some cases, in the realm of science fiction. He believes Silicon valley represents a middle path from a monolthic technology-based state as in China or the European situation where high tech is constrained by laws protecting privacy. Mark Zuckerberg’s call for a universal income is seen in his eyes as a move to offset the regulation that would stifle creativity.

A final chapter on American foreign policy examines the way that it failed to respect the mystery of the distant and the strangeness of the unfamiliar. Preventing the domination of one power across much of Eurasia has been an enduring American concern. But Maçães thinks that remains hard to accomplish.

The most coherent course for the United States in its future engagement with the world is to “slowly emerge as a great balancer.” The United States should allow the co-existence of many different ways of life while stopping all of them from endangering the balance. It should put aside the epic engagements that wise figures like George Kennan warned against at the start of the Cold War, and replace the epic with the novel.

The chief feature of the modern novel, as he sees it, is “the plurality of consciousness... Everyone in the work “is endowed with autonomy and power” but “they must move together in a common world”. This involves recognising that “world history is not written from a single point of view and it does not follow a single line of development... Every ending is simultaneously a beginning.”

This quick-witted, sensible and well-read writer adopts a proportionate response to America. He turns aside from the once again fashionable views of Spengler and Toynbee about the rise and exhaustion of civilisations and is altogether more optimistic.  Far from it being an an ‘end of times’ he sees the possibility of renewal and adaptation in America.  He has stated that Covid-19 is likely to spur explosive technological innovation. The ideas were already there. What was absent was a large shock enabling regulatory restrictions to be swept aside.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divided his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016.  His next book, Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die will be pubished by Christopher Hurst in July. His twitter account is @cultfree54

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