JPRI Critique Vol. XIX No. 5 (July 2013)
Review: Patrick Smith’s Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century
by Sheila K. Johnson, Ph.D.

Books mentioned in this review article:
* Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century (Yale University Press, 2013)
* Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon Books, 2010)
* Japan: A Reinterpretation (Pantheon Books, 1997)


Patrick Smith has written a curious and quite profound book. I say curious because depth of thought and analysis is not something one usually associates with a professional journalist. But Smith is also a student of original sources and a long-time editor who likes to play around with words. Take the unusual title of his latest book, Time No Longer, which comes from a history of the American Revolution in three volumes, written by a woman named Mercy Otis Warren while the Revolution was still in progress or barely over and published between 1775 and 1805.

Image1In his own book Smith argues that Americans are myth-makers and have been living, these past four centuries, in a kind of ideological never-never land of their own contrivance—he calls it history without memory—beginning with the Puritan myth that we are God’s chosen people. Mrs. Mercy Otis Warren certainly believed this and thought it was validated by the American revolutionaries’ defeating England. In her book, Smith has found a “passage [that] is remarkable not only for its fidelity to the seventeenth-century vision of the Puritans but also as an early record of the American inheritance as we have it before us:”

And this last civilized quarter of the globe may exhibit those striking traits of grandeur and magnificence, which the Divine Oeconomist may have reserved to crown the closing scene, when the angel of his preserve will stand upon the sea and the earth, lift up his hand to heaven, and swear by Him that liveth for ever and ever, that there shall be time no longer. (pp. 38-39)

Smith argues that this Puritan myth was augmented by the mythic image of our western movement, as personified not only by Buffalo Bill Cody but more recently by the swagger of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Western Man was further transformed by Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson into the image of ourselves as a beacon of democracy to be spread elsewhere on earth. From there, post-WWII, with the aid of big (meaning government-supported) science, we became something he calls Cold War Man, which he argues was terminally shaken by 9/11. And therefore, Smith argues, now using the words of his title in an entirely different context, “There is time no longer for our exceptionalist myths” and we must “alter our vision of ourselves and ourselves in the world” (p. 190).

It’s a pity this small book doesn’t have an index or, perhaps better yet, a concordance. Take Smith’s meditation on the word security. He begins by quoting John Dewey and his faith in science to provide man with a “reasonable degree of security in life.” From there he moves to the 1914 formation of the National Security League, an America-first organization that would, as Smith accurately notes, urge the nation to conduct its first modern witch-hunt against German speakers and other suspect groups. By now the reader himself is able to jump ahead to the President’s National Security Council, the Department of Homeland Security, and so on.

Smith argues that we had two chances in the twentieth century to free ourselves of this obsession with security and its concomitant fears. Once was in 1945, when “Americans were slightly unsteady after the victories of April and August” (p. 96), and the other was in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. In 1945 we were dissuaded by the behavior of Uncle Joe Stalin and our big science complex that the war effort had put into motion. In 1975, Smith believes that President Carter might have taken us in a different direction had he not been mouse-trapped by our own military and the embassy stand-off in Iran, capped by a failed rescue attempt.

“An inability to change is symptomatic of a people who consider themselves chosen and who cannot surrender their chosenness,” Smith asserts (p. 193). But he believes there are examples of nations and people who have changed their relations to the past, and the impetus was usually defeat. Nazi Germany and Japan are two prime modern examples.

Image2Smith was a long-time resident in Japan during the 1980s, and the 1997 book he published about post-war Japan—Japan: A Reinterpretation—is still an excellent guide to its culture, politics, and ethos. [1] As in his current book, Smith is a sensitive interpreter of what he reads and sees. He believes that Japan’s tortured relationship with modernity, which it tried to embrace after the Meiji restoration, resulting in its defeat in 1945, and then its headlong rebuilding after the war, may now be ready for a reinterpretation, not only by non-Japanese but more importantly by Japanese themselves. “How will the Japanese realize themselves in a new way—as arrogant nationalists, generous internationalists, or in some fashion not yet thought of? . . . The essential question, binding all of these, is a change in psychology” (p. 308). I am tempted to add that in the wake of the 3/11 tsunami of 2011 and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, such a revaluation is more important than ever.

Image3Smith’s next book, Somebody Else’s Century, is an interesting pendant to his Japan book and a prelude to the newest one. In it he discusses India, China, and Japan and how each country has adapted to Western technology and modernization. But it is about much more than that. It is also about cultural authenticity and memory. In India, Smith notes the remarkable inclusiveness of Hinduism but also the falseness of the political Hinduism of Hindutva. In China, he observes that “China thinks of itself by way of generations: the 50ers, the 60ers, the 70ers, and so on. The decade of one’s birth comes up more or less continually because it reveals what you recall, forget, have been taught, or never knew” (p. 140). He describes a visit to a gigantic government- designed and built museum devoted to the Nanjing Massacre and then a tiny private one about the Cultural Revolution. In Japan, Yasukuni Shrine memorializing its wartime heroes and the frequent slips of the tongue by some of its politicians reveal a still unresolved relationship to that nation’s past.

In Time No Longer, Smith argues that the time has come for us also to face up to our past. “To me,” he writes, “the efficacy of America’s national myths seemed to have begun a gradual decline in April 1975… And as September 11 marked the coming of history among us, it gave all alive that day a new kind of memory—a memory of indelible, ineffable loss—and a new kind of future, a future that hung in the balance, a future not yet determined, a future with nothing inevitable about it, a future that would require Americans to rotate their gaze and decide upon it” (p. 152).

Unfortunately, President Bush and his minions instantly began to refurbish Cold War Man with both his fear and saber-rattling, and our religious image of ourselves as God’s chosen people. “Nothing at all need be said about anything at all America had ever done to other people. . . . Evil had befallen Americans because of their goodness, and they must avenge it, destroy it by way of a ‘crusade’” (p. 155).

Instead, Smith asks Americans to rethink their place in history: “A renovated identity and a nationalism that can stand without the support of myth are high among my concerns. So is a society that can live without its inbred fear of others, its tendency to paranoia, and its habit of representation” (p. 214). Smith is optimistic, and this also sets his book apart from the jeremiads of others. Responding to a 2011 article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Is America Over?” he says, “No, only the mythological rendition.” I sincerely hope he’s right.


Sheila K. Johnson, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and the author of The Japanese through American Eyes (Stanford University Press) and Idle Haven: Community Building Among the Working-Class Retired (University of California Press), along with numerous articles and reviews. She has been an editor and member of the leadership team at JPRI since the Institute’s founding in 1994.


NOTES

[1] Truth in advertising: I got to know Patrick Smith at that time, when his book Japan: A Reinterpretation was awarded the Kiriyama Prize by a jury headed by my late husband, Chalmers Johnson. [Return to Text]


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