Monday, April 16, 2007


Distant Neighbors

America sits powerfully now from sea to shining sea. There is a whole continent washed by both oceans carved out of the lands of native Americans, Mexicans, and anyone else who was not white enough to be cooped or Black enough to be enslaved.

To the south is Mexico. They are our closest neighbors except for Canada. Both share lengthy, contiguous borders with us. But, unlike Canada with whom we bicker now that we can no longer attack it 18th c style, Mexico is part of a wholly alien culture. It is not America or Canada with a Spanish accent. It is a unique and sovereign country with a totally unique culture even for Central and South America.

It did not share our history of English Common Law nor the American ideal (never met) of democracy and the Rights of Man. It was at one and the same time European, Spanish colonial; multiple, mixed indigenous tribes that had shared ancient civilizations of much mystery (still) and of beautiful cities and advanced scientific and mathematical sciences. The Mayans and Aztecs are the best known although they were and are not the only indigenous groups of Mexico.

This is a complex sovereignty and a unique country that may or may not ever be understood by the English speaking countries. The USA is at the top of that list. The gap of deep understanding between the two is closer to an abyss.

As a stranger in a strange land, living here but still an American; I cannot comment on Mexican politics nor any negative aspects of the culture — it is my adopted land for now. Therefore I present a short review of a good, long book on the subject.

Read Alan Riding's book, Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans. It is composed of his thoughts and observations-- and they are insightful — from his years here as a New York Times correspondent. He wrote the book after leaving Mexico.

He wrote of history (America's Conquest that we called "Manifest Destiny" was so different from Mexico's strange domination by a small band of Spanish conquistadores). They came as gods and found a civilization that thought they were. They enslaved and burned books and knowledge and tried to destroy all the old religions. Instead they made one of the most successful societies of mixed ancestry in the western hemisphere (and perhaps the eastern).

Riding also writes of politics from the viewpoint of a knowledgeable foreign correspondent. He presents a complex story of interlocking parties and battles in a way that the myriad political parties can be almost understood. He presents a picture of the way the political society works that is now being changed but is ingrained in the culture.

Best, I think, is that he tries to explain the culture of a complex society in a way that an American can grasp. That is not an easy chore.

Today, more than ever, America must understand the forces of nationhood, pride, honor and desires of the nations of a shrinking world and especially those of our two closest neighbors.

I leave Canada to American expatriates there and Canadians to explain. I once listened to the CBC on shortwave about a battle memorial where a great defense was made against the invaders. It took quite a time before I realized that the invaders were us.

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