Brown: The Last Discovery of America (20 page)

BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
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In the new nation of
el norte,
where we are all destined to live, the limits of our anthem will no longer be from sea to shining sea, as in the Katharine Lee Bates lyric. A newer America opens to extremes of weather and landscape and discontent—hot and cold—as in the Irving Berlin lyric: Dreaming of snow in Beverly Hills.
The dilemma of California remains as Edmund Wilson described it. We have built right up to the edge of the sea. It is also that the soil and the air promote contesting legends. The earth in California is finite, animate, unreliable—the earth quakes, burns, slides into the sea. The tiniest houses cost a million dollars. But the air is temperate—light and vast—a stepping-off place, and we have only recently discovered how.
Even as I write, American migratory paths are digitally scrambling. The Internet is everywhere advertised as an advance to equal the opening of the Northwest Territory or the transcontinental railway. American business is in a frenzy to leave the earth, following restless Californian imagination “on-line.”
California has found an aperture, which is not up or down or sideways but rather is a race without a goal, an application without a purpose; speed without distance; infinitude without place. A revolution—yes, everyone agrees it is a revolution—without a point.
For purposes of this book, the digital divide is between the Few and the Many. The Few will continue to disport themselves within their exception, as is their custom. For purposes of this book, the Many are many more than they were. They sleep in shanties. They shit in holes. They give birth from their bodies, incorrigibly. They move in real time upon the real surface of the earth. They are moving from South to North.
When Canada, Mexico, and the United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Canadian and the Mexican politely acknowledged each other, as rumors sometimes do upon meeting.
shook hands with
A vertical alignment, yes, but Nafta signified more than a meeting of basement and balcony. The surprise was mezzo. President William Jefferson Clinton rose to welcome Canada and Mexico into “the American future”—words blazing like northern lights on an Eskimo Pie packet.
The American imagination—that is, the U.S. imagination—stood to change most by the agreement. The American future, which had always lain westward, was rhetorically recalibrated that day to north and south. Henceforward, the American future will not be reckoned a sunrise; decline will not be reckoned a sunset. We will need a vocabulary appropriate to people of the middle.
When Canada, Mexico, and the United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, I was reminded of Thoreau’s recommended cosmopolitanism, an antidote to the New York provincialism that daily rankles. I was as quickly reminded of Octavio Paz and Marshall McLuhan.
Canada and Mexico have produced North American intellectuals a generation ahead of the United States. U.S. intellectuals of the middleweight New York school continue to uphold the east-to-west custom of intellectual property in order to maintain their authority as critics. East Coast intellectuals continue to contest with the Old World, especially the notorious tag team of England and France.
Mexico and Canada are alike north-south countries. In Mexican history, marauding hordes descend upon the capital from the North. Mexican mothers fear losing their children to jobs in the North. The Mexican North is little distinct from the United States, whereas the South in Mexico reassures; stones of Indian civilization litter the jungle floor.
Octavio Paz, the greatest writer of his Mexican generation, wrote of the larger world as only someone not born at the center of any map can. Paz wrote of Hindu spirituality, French painting, Yankee pot roast. Paz lived for a time in the United States and returned frequently in his writing to the dialectic posed by the proximity of the United States and Mexico—their shared difference.
In Canada, the North represents continuity, the unchanging aspect of the nation. Old-timers in autumn speak of the winter as the North—the North is coming, they say. Whereas the Canadian south is little distinct from the United States.
Marshall McLuhan is as distinct from Paz as is wit from romance. McLuhan is the other writer of the last century whose work seems to me comparably North American. A scholar of Renaissance rhetoric at the University of Toronto, McLuhan employed antinomy to decode new technologies that would shorten the attention span of the postwar world. McLuhan read the future as he would read an arcane text. McLuhan lived close enough to the American boom box to suffer its concussion; far enough removed to consider objectively the effect of American culture on civilization. And incidentally, to regret. In his stoic regard of a future he found deplorable, McLuhan never asked (as Mexico invariably will ask) why things have to go the American way. His thesis is plain: Things will.
It was Octavio Paz’s vanity, as a Mexican of the old school, to assume his nation’s cultural imperishability. He could not have anticipated, so soon after his death, that Mexico would elect a Coca-Cola cowboy to the presidency, a president who would express in English his wish for a borderless future.
Even after Nafta, Paz continued to refer to citizens of the United States as
an old Mexican habit. But, of course, the Mexican is as much a
as the gringo is—more so, I think, since so many Mexican peasants commute up and down, as easy with one version of themselves as with another. What that might mean for Mexico’s notion of an unchanging South, Paz never let himself imagine before he turned into a postage stamp.
If history is male, as Octavio Paz was male—as intractable, I mean—then power, influence, conquest belongs only to the stronger contestant. One buck vanquishes all other currency.
Farewell, old Paz. Mexicans drink more Coca-Cola than Americans drink.
President Vicente Fox is the first Americanized president of Mexico. President George W. Bush is America’s first Hispanic president. And Canada is already brown. Vancouver has become an Anglo-Chinese city, for example. What if history is female, and as permeable as McLuhan’s eye and ear? Marshall McLuhan observed the moment America’s culture becomes the culture of the world it is no longer American culture. What if victory can sometimes belong to the nation or people who most readily absorb a foreign culture? Capitalism flourishes in Vietnam. The elegancies of the English language are formid ably sustained by Jane Austens in Sri Lanka. The Japanese stole the manufacture of the automobile from Detroit, because the Japanese were preoccupied with refining what they admired. If history is male, there is no way to understand such subversions.
Canada has never been much of an idea for Americans. We like Canada. Our good neighbor. Never hear them. Tidy.
Downstairs . . . well, so many people come and go. What can they be up to? Mexico is a brown idea we would rather not discuss.
To the extent Americans wish to believe ourselves a people of temperance, Canada disturbs us. Canada is more orderly than we Americans know ourselves to be.
It interests Americans that Canada is clean and empty and unimplicating; the largest country in the world that doesn’t exist. Without distinct music or food or capacity for rudeness— less rich, less angry, less complicated, less neurotic, less dark, less brilliant. Canadians live among us rather as spies do. They are ideologically at some remove from complete compliance with us as regards the American adventure. And yet they are indistinguishable (by us) from us. Whereas Mexicans are so easily distinguishable, we think. We do not always, in speech, distinguish Mexican Americans from Mexicans.
On my way in from the airport, the Toronto cabbie was too discreet to ask outright about my face. He tried by indirection to reconcile my—Arab?—features with the academic American accent. My answer to his tentative “Which flight did you take?” evidently did not satisfy. (New York.) Emboldened, then: “Is that where you live?” (No.) Finally: “Where
you live?” (California.) At which point, he safely commenced a disquisition about guns and the psychological disorder south of the border. (The headline in the morning’s
Globe and Mail
described mass murder at a U.S. high school.) And yet he must wonder (blue eyes filled the rearview mirror): Does wildness rise?
American politicians, American classrooms turn to Canada for an idea of orderly civic life. The saving idea is called “multiculturalism.” Multiculturalism became Canadian policy in 1971 when Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government elaborated a solution for French Canada’s coexistence within the English-speaking union.
Multiculturalism is honorable to the extent it welcomes the newcomer and mediates a monotonous Anglo-Saxon model of Canadianness. In Canada-after-Trudeau, one can be Chinese and fully Canadian. One can be Pakistani or Greek. Canada will respect the fact that
You are not I. You who are different shall be welcomed into the idea of the whole without suffering the loss of your exception.
Curiously, however, not a few brown immigrant children in today’s Canada regard multiculturalism as implausible. After all, Canada is real weather and landscape and a distinct set of ideas and hotcakes and values—one of the values being the value of diversity. Canadian multiculturalism, in other words, is not “multi” at all, but culturally biased to the degree that it expresses a Canadian respect for individualism not shared by most countries in the world.
To borrow from Professor McLuhan, multiculturalism is cool. Too cool. The favored metaphor of multicultural Canada, the “mosaic”—separate units; composite by satellite—propounds a most unerotic notion of society.
will never inextricably entwine with
. Croatian and Pakistani will not graft a varietal. Montreal, once an erotic city of jazz and mix, has become the noun-splitting capital of the world. Eyes remain suspicious, tongues are held in check. French-language police in rubber soles patrol the streets, writing tickets for bilingual menus and shop signs.
With some regularity I hear from CBC radio or television (the French service in Montreal). The question is always the same:
Are Hispanics in the Southwest destined to forge some sort of new Quebec?
BOOK: Brown: The Last Discovery of America
9.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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