Sun, 23 July 2017
This is part 1 in a 2-part series on The Labyrinth of Solitude.
The differences between the U.S. and Mexico go back long before Europe discovered North America. In what is now Mexico, there were massive and complex civilizations. Farther north there were mostly nomadic tribes. The Aztecs and Maya were economically richer than, say, the Apache and the Cherokee. Spain and England were also different, though not as different as the Aztecs and the Cherokees. The south, Mexico, had different natural resources than the north did.
I’ll talk more about the divergent paths that the U.S. and Mexico took in a future episode, but for this one we’re again talking about Labyrinth of Solitude. The author, Octavio Paz, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, and I’d be surprised if anybody who’s ever taken a Spanish class hasn’t at least heard his name.
Paz says there’s one fundamental difference that helps to explain the modern differences between Mexico and the U.S. “In England the Reformation triumphed, whereas Spain was the champion of the Counter-Reformation.
Spain had been under Islamic oppression since roughly the year 700 until 1492, when Arab domination of the Iberian Peninsula ended. But after 700 years of something, a culture can’t really help but internalize some aspects of it. And so conversion by the sword as well as crusades and holy wars and inquisitions had become a fact of Spanish life and it became part of Spain’s brand of Catholicism, which Spain then exported to Mexico.
Paz writes that conquest and evangelization are as fundamental to Spain and to Catholicism as they are to Islam. For them, conquest meant occupying foreign lands, subjugating the people, and forcing them to convert. The conversion then legitimized the conquest.
English colonization was different in that evangelization was not quite as important.
Mexico was conquered by people who were orthodox, inflexible, dogmatic, and authoritarian about their faith, and extremely violent. The United States was conquered by people who were also very religious, but who were largely dissidents and who felt that religion should be read and understood by everyone, not just by a priestly class. Broadly speaking, the American vision was one of Protestant Reformism, while the Mexican vision was one of Catholic Orthodoxy.
Mexico’s Catholic orthodoxy was defensive rather than critical, it resisted modernity. It prevented examination and criticism.
Paz writes that these two styles of religious thought are irreconcilable, the rigidly dogmatic and the interpretive. And that irreconcilable difference played out in the structure of the religions.
The hierarchy of the Catholic church is complex, and the mass itself focuses mostly on ritual and sacrament. In the Protestant tradition, scripture is freely discussed and examined and questioned, hierarchy between the clergy and the believers is less, and the focus of mass is more on delivering an ethical message than ritual.
This difference comes from the Reformation, which was a criticism of European religion. The Reformation led to the Enlightenment. Spain closed itself off from the Reformation, and the Enlightenment never happened in Spain.
That’s going a bit too far maybe, but when anyone thinks of the Enlightenment, no Spanish names come to mind, whereas several French and English names are immediately recognizable. John Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu. Immanuel Kant was German.
For Octavio Paz, Mexico’s vision of progress comes from looking to the past, whereas America’s vision of progress comes from looking toward the future. The founding of the United States was done with a promise of a better future.
One major difference is that in Mexico there are still millions of indigenous people. In America there are few, and even then, most native people are corralled into reservations and forgotten. America was founded as a land without a past.
In Mexico, the past is still at war with itself. Cortes and Moctezuma are still alive. Emiliano Zapata’s great desire was a return to the past, a return to pre-Hispanic communal ownership of land.
Paz writes that clear-thinking Mexicans have been wondering about modernization since the 18th century. “In the 19th century it was believed that to adopt the new democratic and liberal principles was enough. Today after almost two centuries of setbacks, we have realized that countries change very slowly, and that if such changes are to be fruitful they must be in harmony with the past and the traditions of each nation. And so Mexico has to find its own road to modernity. Our past must not be an obstacle, but a starting point.”
I want to take a moment to point out that I’ve had this thought independently of Octavio Paz. Therefore I am extremely smart and impressive.
But seriously, the major discovery that I’ve had while living in Mexico is that the singer Selena was wrong, and Gloria Anzaldua was wrong, and every other whiny post-modernist was wrong in the assumption that it’s oh-so hard being bicultural.
In reality it’s a superpower. (And by the way, what the whiners fail to realize is that if they were monocultural, there would still be parts of their culture that alienated them, because no culture will ever fit anyone perfectly. Nobody in France is perfectly in tune with all aspects of French culture.)
I say that being bicultural is a superpower because you get to see the good parts and the bad parts of both cultures, and you get to see them from both an insider perspective and an outsider perspective. You can see each culture more clearly, and then you can decide for yourself which of those good and bad parts you want to keep and which ones you want to get rid of.
In Mexico, I am not normal. I am a foreigner. I haven’t been to the U.S. in about four years, and I’m sure when I go back I won’t be normal there either. I’ve discarded things I don’t like about the U.S. and I’ve discarded things I don’t like about Mexico, and I’ve combined the stuff I like about each country.
And when nobody considers you normal, when nobody expects you to be normal, you realize that it doesn’t matter whether you’re normal or not. All that matters is that you live the way you think you should live and that you strive to improve constantly.
And so my message about Mexico’s path forward is close to what Octavio Paz seems to be laying out. I don’t think Mexicans need to be like me, bicultural out of choice, but millions of Mexicans live in the U.S anyway. And besides, Mexicanness is a combination of Spanish and indigenous culture, and there are dozens of indigenous cultures in Mexico. For people living in Mexico, the biggest cultural force besides Mexican culture is American culture. And nearly every family has relatives who’ve been to the U.S. or who are living there right now. All that’s required is to awaken this dormant superpower and use it. Just take inspiration from the good parts of Spanish culture, American culture, and Mexico’s indigenous cultures, and then get rid of the crappy parts.
Not everyone is going to agree on what the good and bad parts are. That’s up to each person to decide for themselves. But in my own humble opinion, Mexico has been going about it blindly for 500 years. But Mexico isn’t alone in this; every culture moves unconsciously.
Octavio Paz writes that Mexico needs to reconcile itself with its past in order to move forward. He may not be explicitly proposing this, but in my opinion the only real practicable way to carry that out is through education. Most people don’t want education. I do, which is why I do this podcast. You do, which is why you’re listening to this podcast. But most people don’t want education, because it’s just easier to not learn. And even when we do want to learn, most teaching methods are outdated and low quality. When you think of public schools in the U.S. or Mexico, quality is probably not the first word that pops in your head.
If you think of a business school, are they teaching you how to operate in 2017? Or 1988? Yeah, 1988.
Paz then writes about how the nations that inspired Mexico’s 19th century liberals, (meaning France, the US, and England,) are no longer inspirational like they were centuries before. He wrote this particular essay in 1979, but I think his point is still valid today.
The thinkers who inspired Mexico’s liberals were people writing about freedom, writing about escaping tyranny. And they were writing about the future. They were engaging in a transformation of their cultures.
But then in the 20th century the United States went from inspiring freedom to being yet another colonizing empire. I’m oversimplifying it way too much and I have very little patience for the Noam Chomsky style of everything-bad-is-America’s-fault, but no one can deny that the U.S. has done things to make lots of people in lots of coutnries less free than they would have been had the U.S. not interfered. The country that inspired tons of independence movements later became a cynical geopolitical manipulator seeking nothing but power.
However, I also think Paz is exaggerating a bit, or at least he’s too close chronologically to see what had just happened in 1979.
In the 60s and 70s America and England went from producing inspiring intellectuals to inspiring cultural figures. Some of the greatest art in all of human history came out of the 60s and 70s. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan are all such unbelievably great artists that eventually everyone on Earth has to recognize their greatness. Even those of us who wanted to rebel against our parents by pretending we didn’t like those bands…eventually had to admit that we were wrong.
And that’s just music. We don’t need to get into this whole conversation, but I think I’ve made my point that the inspiration went from intellectual to artistic.
Octavio Paz is searching for a source of inspiration for Mexicans on how to move forward as a country.
But I think he’s missing the point of classical Liberalism, which is about the sovereignty of the individual. And I think the message of the Liberals is more important today than ever. The 20th century was the great science experiment of liberalism versus collectivism, and we’ve seen the horrors that collectivism always produces.
And now in 2017 as collectivists are trying to take over Western civilization, yet again, we must draw inspiration from the classical Liberals and remind people that the only real minority is the individual and that freedom must be defended fiercely against any force that seeks to limit it.
The people who inspired Mexico’s 19th century liberals are still relevant, and they can still serve as a source of inspiration for Mexicans today, and for people of any country.
Paz points out that Mexico’s position is much better than many other countries. That was true in 1979 and it’s true today. Paz mentions Latin America’s military dictatorships, most of which were propped up by the U.S. The U.S. propped up those dictatorships in order to keep collectivism from spreading like cancer, but military dictatorships and communist purges are both terrible options.
And life in some Asian and African countries post-independence was sometimes worse than it was during colonialism.
Then at the end of his essay he gets into some things that aren’t really relevant to anybody. He was writing before the fall of the Soviet Union. His assessment of history is great. His analysis of his present was less impressive.