Blistering examination of American nationalism’s dark side.
In this uneven, deeply personal essay in cultural/political history, Higonnet (History/Harvard) traces the strands that might explain the “darkening present” of George W. Bush’s United States, which the author deems a threat to world peace and a betrayal of the country’s own best instincts. A Jekyll-and-Hyde duality drives Americans’ national self image, the author declares. Since the Puritans, they have viewed differences with enemies as a conflict between good and evil, using their sense of superiority and divine election to justify a messianic bent that sometimes involves violence. Shaped by this persistent view, Americans have long shown themselves to be capable of both benevolence (Lincoln freeing the slaves, Franklin Roosevelt easing the Depression) and brutality (wars against Native Americans and Mexico). The author demonstrates how one or the other of these two behaviors dominated various periods, emphasizing that imperialist pursuits have depended largely on “the ability of a president, abetted by gutter journalists, public intellectuals, and theoreticians of empire, to involve rank-and-file Americans in his own demagogic program of war, conquest, and exclusion.” President Bush has succeeded by pursuing the darkest forms of religious and economic individualism, Higgonet avers, going well beyond anything history has prepared us for. As he tries to make sense of the country’s current course, his text is repetitious, overwritten and sometimes given to jarring, ill-tempered outbursts (Bush and Osama bin Laden are deemed “two religious extremists desperately in need of each other”) that detract from passages of thoughtful analysis.
May appeal to patient students and scholars.