AMERICA RIGHT OR WRONG: An Anatomy of American Nationalism

Article excerpt

AMERICA RIGHT OR WRONG An Anatomy of American Nationalism Anatol lieven New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. xiv, 274pp, $45.00 cloth (ISBN 0-19-516840-2)

"Over the past fifty years," writes Anatol lieven in the preface to this important and controversial book, "the United States has stumbled into one disastrously misconceived intervention after another, both large (Vietnam, Iraq) and small (Lebanon, Somalia). It is time that more Americans begin to ask themselves just what is wrong with their bloody system " (x). The question of what is wrong with America has of course been asked before, classically by such foreign observers as Alexis de Tocqueville and James Bryce, and at home by a long train of critics and dissenters, from Puritan divines to Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Senator J. William Fulbright, and their presentday successors. lieven-a British journalist now resident in Washington who has written on east European nationalism-finds what is wrong with the American system to be its nationalism, or, more precisely, "the demons of American radical nationalism" (217).

Part polemic, part political sociology, and part comparative history, America Right or Wrong is the product of a particular time and place: the period of great fear, war fever, and intellectual paralysis in George W. Bush's Washington during the two years or so immediately following destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001. In his attempt to explain the malfunctioning of the US system, lieven argues that the ugly underside of American nationalism, with its social sources in the embittered white middle class, the "cracker" south and frontier-minded west, and in the aggressive religiosity of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, came to the fore in the nation's capital in newly respectable form in that time of perceived national emergency. This radical nationalism intimidated and silenced all potential centres of political opposition and dangerously threatened the secular Enlightenment ideals enshrined in the founding documents of the American republic. "America keeps a splendid and welcoming house," lieven observes, but it "also keeps a family of demons in its cellar" (i).

The sudden political ascendancy in Washington of this bush-league American nationalism, which is fundamentally different from the mild, civic nationalism of the almost universally admired American creed, lieven continues, brought out the worst instincts of Washington's lingering Cold War-era policy elites to produce a vengeful, bullying foreign policy comparable to that of the Kaiser's Germany of 1914. Inevitably, this American militarism resulted in the estrangement of the United States from the international community. The problem was exacerbated, particularly in the Islamic world, by an unholy alliance that developed between radical American nationalism, with its roots in evangelical religion, and radical Israeli nationalism, with its roots in Israeli fundamentalist religion-and its characteristic intransigence on the question of Palestine.

Read closely-and America Right or Wrong is a book that demands and richly repays close reading-the book's thesis is itself both partly right and partly wrong. lieven's overall argument about the nationalist tendencies of the Bush-era Republicans, whom the author refers to repeatedly as "the American Nationalist Party," is, of course, unexceptionable. But his research into that party's current religio-political and regional base serves merely to confirm the conventional wisdom among political observers. …