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What is Ronald Wright?

by Archives September 9, 2008

In the early 19th century, bands of British industrial workers called “luddites” would rampage throughout modernized factories, smashing the new wide-framed looms they believed would cost them their jobs.
“How could they permit industrial advances,” these workers asked, “if the price was their exploitation?”
This same question was put to Concordia Sunday as former Massey lecturer, Ronald Wright, discussed his newest book What is America? with a full house of students.
According to Wright, the cost of industrial development, which he traces to the discovery and conquest of the Americas, has cost more than the original luddites could have ever imagined.
Starting from the new continent’s colonization, Wright sees the precious metals and resources transported back to Europe as a driving force for the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing population boom.
All of this was accomplished by the slaughter and dispossession of the Native Americans, and Wright sees the denial of this basic responsibility as poisoning the Americas’ narratives of freedom, individualist success and growth.
Wright argues this surreal belief in growth is responsible for bringing the world to the brink of environmental collapse – as Western consumption out-ships the biosphere’s capacities.
This is where Wright’s book most closely lives up to his reputation. As a revisionist history, What is America? is little better than a warmed-over mish-mash of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, who set the standard in unearthing the dark underside of America’s past.
As an environmental cri-du-coeur, Wright’s book draws necessary attention to the difficulty of spreading western middle-class prosperity to the majority of the world.
But if Wright’s claim is straightforward, his program for change borders on the absurd. Wright’s solution to a crisis of over-consumption is to push for “a return to some form of Keynesian economics.” Keynesianism, as Wright freely admits, was responsible for the greatest period of sustained consumption and growth in the last 60 years.
But what appears as a gross logical flaw becomes immediately clear when one realizes that the environment, for Wright, is a means and not an end.
Although this book does many little things, it does only one thing consistently – it attacks that half of the United States that Wright describes as “Backwoods America.” And by that, of course, he means Republicans.
Wright argues against McCain, and in favour of Obama; he argues against traditional religion, in favour of secular environmentalism’s mashed-up, watered down version of welfare station. Indeed, his argument in favour of “Enlightenment America” against “Backwoods America” is essentially an argument in favour of those who drafted the Declaration of Independence, and against those who fought the war for it.
All fair positions, but in trying to square the circle between growth and environmentalism, Wright chooses simplistic pandering over rational and coherent theory; it is not hard to see the timing of this book’s release as convenient, both for Wright and his preferred party.
In sacrificing a reasoned analysis in favour of the ideological echo-chamber’s easy road, Wright fails both the promise of his subject, and the inheritance of his canon.
In brief, when asked “What is Ronald Wright?” One is inclined to answer “less and less.”

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