Frank Thistlethwaite: The Great Experiment

January 27, 2021

     When I studied history at O-Level half a century ago, one of the two papers was an option on American History, which I found fascinating; I bought this book then, and have finally got round to reading it.

One of the things I have long struggled to understand is the US as a country, and the American people and the way they look at the world, because their notions are so different from ours here in Europe. I have long been horrified at many of the things that country has done (not that the UK did any better in its day, I must add in the interests of fairness) and have not met that many Americans during my life, and those that I did meet and get to know all seemed so different from the stereotypical impressions and opinions I had built up of the country. And the rank insanity of the last four years in the USA (again, closely aped by ourselves) has made me renew my efforts to understand.

In the end I find much truth in the old adage that we are two nations separated by a common language: we expect to see similarities because we can communicate relatively easily, whereas the differences are huge. And I’m struck by how the craziest ideas that come out of the USA are adopted first in English-speaking countries, and only much later by the French or the Germans, for example.

What did this book clarify for me? First of all, that the sheer size of the American continent drove so many things, and at such an incredibly hectic pace: the settlement of the entire space, the building of transport systems and industries which allowed such economies of scale that the old continent must inevitably come under the sway of the new world, economically and then politically… and that this still continues today. It seems that companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft could only develop and grow to such a size that they can dictate to the entire world, in a nation of such size. And the unbridled economic power that the looser-knit central government had to allow has gone on to influence and shape how we in Europe look at and do things, in our separate countries. It is clear that very similar development can and is happening in China, which has the size, as well as four times the population.

As a European, I find the unbridled individualism of the USA disturbing and unhealthy, along with the idea that the state should give way to business, that government is not in any sense the collective will of a unified people (not that this is exactly the case over here either, but at least it’s a notion that a sizeable proportion of the population espouse) and so each individual, no matter their circumstances, must sink or swim: to me, from this perspective, this is not a sensible way of looking at people or the world; it’s not a Christian way of looking at the world either, for all the vapouring of American fundamentalists.

Finally, the thing that shocked me most about this book – which was written in the 1950s – no sense or recognition at all that there were millions of people with a civilisation of their own already on this continent when the dissatisfied Europeans began to arrive, or that they were exterminated…

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