Mixed Media: Books
Behold, America – A History of America First and the American Dream by Sarah Churchwell (Bloomsbury, ISBN 9781408894804)
One of the many things that chilled the blood in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech on 20 January 2017 was his repetition of the phrase, ‘America First’. Commentators were quick to point out the unsavoury history of the phrase and asked (not for the last time) whether Trump’s provocation was deliberate or the result of ignorance. In her timely and revealing study, Sarah Churchwell unearths the history of the term and, in alternating chapters, compares and contrasts it with the seemingly more appealing and aspirational ‘American Dream’.
Both terms, as she explains, are relatively recent coinages, originating around a century ago, America First becoming the rallying cry for isolationist voices opposing America’s participation in World War One, morphing into a nexus for American exceptionalism, intolerance, xenophobia and racism. The American Dream is today shorthand for rampant consumerism and commercialism but, as Churchwell shows, it has honourable origins in campaigns for a more equal and democratic society in which personal advancement was tempered by social justice.
Drawing on a wealth of original sources from across the political spectrum and all aspects of society, Churchwell’s splendid and highly readable book brings to life the struggle between these two competing views of nationhood – its two conflicting origin myths, if you will. It is a struggle that, as the world knows to its cost, is still being played out both within America and across the globe.
A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Raj Patel and Jason W Moore (Verso, ISBN 9781788732130)
These days world histories seem to need a big idea up on the marquee to lure in the tentative audience. Whether the story is hinged on a supposedly crucial date or single commodity, the reader is given a simple lodestone to help us chart our way through the complexities of human development. In their attempt to give us no less than ‘A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet’ Raj Patel and Jason W Moore have hit on an intriguing idea for their jumping-off point: the concept of ‘cheapness’. They build their narrative on seven ‘cheap’ things that have shaped our societies and that will dictate our future; nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. For the authors’ purposes cheapness does not merely signify low cost, although that is part of the story; rather it betokens degraded value and squandered resources, both natural and human. Beginning with the voyages of Columbus and the economic and natural devastation wrought on the island of Madeira by the forces of commerce, the authors show how, time and again through history, the needs of capitalism have turned the ratchet on cheapness, to the point where environmental and societal catastrophe looms.
It is unfortunate that the academic approach adopted by the authors and their jargon-laden style will deter many a casual reader. Nevertheless, their central argument – that the inevitable trajectory of capitalism is a race to the bottom in which we all end as losers – is surely one that needs to be heard.
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Klover (Europa Editions, ISBN 9781609454517)
This debut novel chronicles the lives of four generations of an Iranian family. The narrator, Kimiâ, is a first-generation immigrant living in contemporary Paris. Her great-grandfather was an aristocrat in what was then Persia, and her parents were dissidents against the Shah and Khomeini in the 1970s and 80s. Their backstories trace a timeline of Iran’s modern political history: we see an atavistic feudalism muddling alongside emergent bourgeois capitalism in a polity clumsily held together by successive authoritarian governments. Kimiâ’s father blames a lack of welfare infrastructure for the persistence of extreme religiosity in Iran: ‘Justice and equality, safety and trust, are the real modernizers... Who’s going to go and pray at the mosque when their child gets sick if they have social security and a hospital nearby?’
Djavadi is a screenwriter by occupation, and Disoriental is profoundly concerned with culture. The narrator looks back on the arrival of American cinema in Iran in the 1950s and reflects on a childhood spent watching Columbo and Little House on the Prairie. Her acclimatization to Western society was fraught: ‘to really integrate into a culture … you have to disintegrate first, at least partially, from your own,’ she observes. Disoriental won several prestigious prizes in France in 2016 and comes to Anglophone readers courtesy of Tina Klover’s competent translation. Djavadi’s monotone prose style, reminiscent of Elena Ferrante, is very au courant, and the book’s intersectional sweep – encompassing pointed commentaries on patriarchal mores and the politics of sexuality – is similarly timely.
The Empire’s New Clothes – The Myth of the Commonwealth by Philip Murphy (Hurst, ISBN 9781849049467)
The Commonwealth, what is it good for? It’s tempting to answer: absolutely nothing. Surprisingly, Philip Murphy – director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies – seems to agree. The Empire’s New Clothes is held together by a quizzical ambivalence about that peculiar institution of former colonies and dominions of the British Empire, which, he believes, risks being turned into a mythology by delusional Brexiteers, who see in its 53 member states the inviting pastures of a post-EU trading bloc.
Most of the book is a historical account of the Commonwealth’s development, and it is surprisingly – for what seems like a dry topic – interesting. Its leadership under the charismatic Sonny Ramphal in the 1980s saw clashes with the Thatcher government over apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia’s transition to independence; in this period the organization feels less like an imperial relic and more like a flexible, modern forum for newly independent non-aligned nations.
But Murphy’s analysis of the Brexit vote is less convincing. He is sceptical that it was motivated by ‘imperial nostalgia’. ‘Concerns about immigration, then, yes. But “imperial nostalgia”? I very much doubt it.’ This fails to recognize that the loss of Empire – which provided the resources for industrialization, economic growth and then the labour to service Britain’s welfare state – is deeply knotted in many Leave voters’ restorative longing. As Kojo Koram has written elsewhere: ‘It is common to say that Britain had an empire, but it would actually be more accurate to say the Empire had Britain.’