Thursday, 17 December 2009

“Ark of the Liberties”, by Ted Widmer (Hill & Wang)

Widmer-ArkOfTheLiberties The roots of American Engagement with the World

From the colonial period through to our current age, Ted Widmer traces the legacy of American ‘liberty’; with all its contradictions, misapplications, and also frequent misappropriation.

The author’s narrative also explains the significance of America’s fall from international popularity in the past decade. Ark of the Liberties illustrates the importance of religion and religious beliefs throughout American history: how a sense of divine destiny has infused images and thoughts about America since the very beginning, informing citizens and politicians since its founding. It is also about the interaction between this idealistic, some might call is messianic nationalism and the hard-headed realism preached by the Founding Fathers. Widmer explains how “the wall of separation” between church and state “was more of a picket fence, with eyeholes to peak through”.

“A fuller appreciation of our divisive origins and the muddle of our early foreign policy is newly desirable at another moment when so many people around the world are divided about what it is, precisely, that the United States stands for.”

In Ark of the Liberties, Widmer has offered his take on how America’s divisive origins have informed the United States’ later interaction with the global community. He starts with the discovery of America, the first waves of immigration and its time as a colony, before progressing through the Great Awakening, the Revolution, and on to the present day – drawing comparisons and lines of continuity between each period, how one could not have happened without the events that preceded it.

Widmer addresses all the major themes and events of American history, bursting bubbles and myths as he goes (all of which are the result of America’s idealistic heritage). For example, when discussing the westward expansion, he says:

“We have so many inaccurate notions about our westward expansion that it is difficult to list them all, but to suggest that our pioneers simply walked into land that was unoccupied, or occupied solely by Native Americans is blatantly wrong” and “We built this country on thousands of tiny invasions”

Widmer holds Abraham Lincoln in particularly high regard. According to the author, Lincoln “brought the ark back to its true course” after the expansionist and adventuresome first half of the Nineteenth Century (Mexican War, acquisition of Texas and California, etc.).

“Lincoln’s greatness lies as much in his restraint as in his capacity for action. In retrospect, he seems almost to have been called into service for the express purpose of calming [America’s] baser instincts and summoning our better angels.”

The above quote, in fact, is a perfect exemplar of the sometimes overly-flowery language Widmer can be prone to. It’s not a bad thing, as it certainly lacks the stuffiness of some histories. Equally, however, it does sometimes come across as over-written, or it can make his passages overly idealistic – just as he says America itself has frequently been. No doubt some will be put off by this, seeing the author as just another American ‘booster’ (to use his word), trumpeting the greatness of the United States. He is, in some ways – it is clear throughout the book that Widmer is a proud American, but one who wants to shine a little light on the truth of America’s approach to the world. He does this, even if sometimes he succumbs to the patriotic fervour he cautions against.

Another section in the book that stood out concerned Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson – how the two of them are frequently paired up as opposites and exemplars of the two strands of the American character (TR as the ‘realist’, Wilson as the ‘idealist’). Both of these presidents had a huge impact on American foreign policy, which is still felt today. For example, about Wilson’s liberal and idealistic approach to international relations:

“We may express distaste for Wilson’s simplistic idea that the world will eventually resemble the United States – but every president since then has voiced a similar aspiration.”

Widmer admires TR, it is clear. As a personal favourite of mine among the US presidents, this section was lively and balanced, as well as originally presented. The author clearly and concisely articulates the importance of TR’s presidency and how he changed US foreign policy (or, at the very least, started the US on its new course). For one, TR expanded America’s approach to foreign policy:

“In effect, he was going past the Monroe Doctrine, and even the Roosevelt Corollary, into a new way of thinking that argued the United States has a responsibility to solve the world’s problems in addition to its own.”

And also,

“Through his skill and his bluster, he had shown that Americas could do far more than occupy the world stage – they could command it.”

The author’s admiration for his country doesn't prevent him from recognizing its faults and, at times, the country's inability to hold true to the ark of liberty set forth in the national narrative. His approach to his subject is balanced and frequently humorous, dealing with his topic at times with a cheekiness that helps lighten the subject, making it more accessible, but not diminishing its impact. Widmer's writing is well nuanced, extrapolating large ideas and themes from the smallest of actions and symbols, painting a grand picture of America’s sense of self and ideals.

“History never sleeps”, Widmer writes. In Ark of the Liberties, he artfully manages to trace continuities and causality throughout America’s history. This review could be almost endless, given the amount of interesting and originally-presented ideas Widmer has managed to cram into this book. However, the longer this review is, the less the reader will actually have to go out and get it for themselves.

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in American history and how and why the nation sees itself the way it does. Very enjoyable and engaging.

Also try: Morton Keller, America’s Three Regimes (2007); Simon Schama, The American Future (2008); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2007); David Reynolds, America, Empire of Liberty (2008); George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower (2009); Walter Nugent, Habits of Empire (2008)

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

“Sarah From Alaska”, by Scott Conroy & Shushannah Walshe (PublicAffairs)


“The Sudden Rise & Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar”

Sarah Palin’s two-month run for the vice presidency was one of the most bizarre, outrageous, and, in many respects, most-secretive campaigns ever run. Regardless of how you feel about her, it's almost impossible not to want to know more about what actually went on behind-the-scenes when Palin wasn’t out on the campaign trail, backslapping and rallying her fans, and what Republican insiders were and are thinking about her political future and the future of the party.

“She remains so polarising that her very name elicits visceral emotions ranging from adoration to abhorrence, with little room in the middle.”

The book begins with an introduction focussing on election night, and the abundant mis-communications between Palin’s and McCain’s camp, about the possibility of Palin delivering a concession speech (she was persistent in ignoring orders from McCain’s camp, while they couldn’t seem to get their shit together).

“What just happened?” seems to have been a common question that followed Palin on the campaign trail. Indeed, it goes all the way back to when McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate:

“Her ascent to the national stage had been so unexpected that even her own campaign’s communications team was left entirely unprepared to answer questions about her record.”

After this election-night vignette, the authors provide us with some background on Sarah’s upbringing, her school and college days, and also her early political career – her first forays into Republican politics, running for Mayor of Wasilla and then governor of Alaska (including the poo-spirited tactics she sometimes used). The stories of her career show us a side of Palin that we would come to see plenty of during the campaign – an intense sense of always being the underdog. We are introduced to her parents, who actually sound pretty sweet and genuinely folksy. After reading about them, I couldn’t help thinking that Chuck (her father) would have been a better candidate than his daughter.

The “silly mistakes” Palin was good at avoiding during her basketball career (as we are told in an over-long section of the book) were slightly harder to avoid in state-level and national election politics. Her nickname of “Barracuda”, however, seems to have echoes throughout her political career: we are informed of how, “as genuine as her warmth and kindness can be, Palin’s ruthless streak is just as real.” This is illustrated with a couple of examples of her engaging in bullying tactics and also the casual discarding of close or long-term friends and aides if they appear to have crossed her, even if in minor ways. Palin seems to be obsessed with people thinking well of her, but also avoiding confrontation on a one-to-one basis, which meant that long-time aides and employees who ended up being fired were done so seemingly out-of-the-blue, and often after cordial encounters with Palin herself, before being informed of their termination.

“[H]er reluctance to get her hands dirty proved a recurring trait that would deliver increasingly severe consequences.”

The authors are careful to give Palin a fair appraisal: “Palin is neither an unblemished victim of fiendish, unpatriotic forces nor a preposterous dolt worthy only of a smirk.” Conroy and Walshe do a good job of describing a political operative who is adept at campaigning and engaging with crowds and supporters, appealing and pandering to populist demands and hopes. After all,

“anyone who can, in just six years, rise from the mayor’s office in a city of fewer than ten thousand people to become the biggest draw in the Republican Party must be doing something right.”

However, they also paint a damning portrait of someone who is disinterested in actual policy, more in love with political conflict and the pursuit of power, rather than the actual exercise of power.

The authors address Palin’s many detractors, from the campaign and before in Alaska, and how many “maintain to this day that her ethics crusading was a self-serving ploy to boost her reputation as a reformer,” rather than a genuine desire to clean up Alaska. Personally, I don’t see why these two things are mutually exclusive. As a genuine Christian, it’s obvious she does care. Also, as a genuine Christian, she can’t understand what she’s done wrong when she strays into muddy ethical waters. Now that is a generalisation, but I do think it should be pointed out that just because she benefitted politically from a policy doesn’t mean she didn’t believe in it in the first place.

The chapters about Palin’s time in Alaskan politics are difficult to swallow whole. The portrait the authors paint of Palin and her time in Juneau don’t match the Sarah Palin we all saw, heard, and read about in 2008. According to Conroy and Walshe, Palin was a keen bipartisan, frequently reaching across the aisle to gain Democracy support for her policies and proposals – often with the result of working against Republicans. Indeed, her whole approach to politics seems at odds with the divisive and partisan attack-dog we saw in 2008: “it was her success in wooing Democrats and independent, college-educated women that flummoxed her opponents” in Alaska.

There is plenty of meat in Sarah From Alaska to sink your teeth into, so it would be possible to make this review almost endless. Needless to say, Conroy and Walshe do a good job of detailing both Palin’s early career as well as the 2008 campaign – approaching the varied controversies of the election with a lack of bias and even-handedness (the Katie Couric performance, the vast amount spent on Palin’s wardrobe, and so forth). In their attempt to be unbiased, however, their arguments can sometimes seem stretched, as they put more significance on something that is easily overshadowed by her own rhetoric on the stump. The approach to the campaign from Palin’s perspective is a nice alternative (the number of accounts from Obama and McCain’s perspective is getting excessive, frankly).

Well-written, balanced and engaging, Sarah From Alaska is a good biographical account of Palin’s career to date and the 2008 Presidential Election. I can’t say that it will alter your opinion of Sarah Palin, but it might help you understand a little bit more about her, and also go some way to explaining why she thinks the way she does, and also dispel some of the more extreme perspectives of the campaign scandals that surrounded her.

Also Try: Sarah Palin, Going Rogue (2009); Matthew Continetti, The Persecution of Sarah Palin (2009); Richard Kim, Going Rouge (2009)