Jorge Castañeda has written an important book with his America Through Foreign Eyes. America is a large, complex and diverse country, a country that cannot be pigeonholed into a box by any American or foreigner. I have always been fascinated by the various ways America has been described through differing points of view in both fiction and nonfiction. On The Road by Kerouac, Lolita by Nabokov, and The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test by Wolfe were as important to me growing up as Doctorow’s Ragtime, the U.S.A. Trilogy by Dos Passos and Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Almost everything you read has something to offer about time and place. A few of my thoughts on this are in Road Tripping Through World Peace, Part I, and Part II, as well as in Crossing Borders. American Through Foreign Eyes is also timely. Read it before the election if you can.
My fate—or perhaps good fortune—has been that of a foreigner who for half a century lived the American experience—as a child, as a student, as an author, as a recurrent visitor, and as a university professor … I do not seek to explain America to others, but to share one foreigner’s view of the United States with Americans themselves. Jorge G. Castaneda
Castañeda sums up his book like this:
The over-arching theme of these pages consists in the simple thought that most of what could be said about the United States since the first foreigners began to wonder about it can be boiled to one distinguishing feature: a middle-class society. Not an ordinary one: rather, a society that allowed and encouraged equality for many, and exclusion for the rest … Who the rest were is no secret: Native Americans; enslaved peoples from Africa; disenfranchised, dispossessed, and discriminated-against women; African Americans; Mexicans and subsequently other Latinos; plus Chinese; Muslims of many lands; and more.
While Castañeda is critical on some fronts, he is ultimately a great fan of America and optimistic about the future.
He discusses many of the issues America faces today as well as those inherited from the past. This list is instructive: American exceptionalism (buttressed by the belief that “its size, might, and wealth offer it immunity from developments abroad), “land of the free” where slavery was entrenched, social mobility and meritocracy, inequality, diversity, protectionism versus free markets, power and success, culture and civilization, increasing polarization, malfunctioning democracy, technical innovation and business, America’s lack of historical perspective and the unique sense of humor of its people, pragmatism and hypocrisy (especially as relating to drugs and immigration), student debt, mass incarceration, race and religion. He also discusses the death penalty, guns, and intelligent design.
The book roams widely as it should.
Castañeda mentions what he thinks are three major challenges moving forward: climate change, China and “consolidating, deepening, and strengthening American civilization.” He ends on a positive note:
The strongest traits of this civilization—a certain type of economy, representative democracy, respect for human rights, freedom of expression, a large, though shrinking middle class, mass culture and consumption—may be either criticized or rejected on their own merits. Or some societies might discard them precisely because they are inherent to American civilization. This implies addressing the age-old challenges still awaiting a solution—racism, violence, an aggressive and unilateral defense of perceived national interests abroad, insularity and retrenchment when things go awry at home, disrupting the environment … Will American civilization last as long as Rome, either the empire or civilization? Certainly not, if only for demographic reasons. But it has a long way to go still, especially if it shows Rome’s adaptability, and understands what American civilization is, and what it still lacks to consolidate it. A fulfilled modernity would perhaps be the best name for what is missing. The journey toward that modernity—and full-fledged civilization—is underway. It will be arduous, but ultimately successful.
There are wonderful quotes both from Castañeda and those he gleans from others.
Jean Baudrillard: “Drive ten thousand miles across America on the road, and you will know more about this country than through all the social science institutes put together.”
Being avid Mexicophiles, we at Think in the Morning can vouch for this:
Most people ignore the fact that over one million Americans reside in Mexico, more than in any other country in the world. If Americans are the most materialistic people on earth, and Mexicans among the least, it would stand to reason that their encounter, in any case on Mexican soil, would be uncomfortable, if not downrsight hostile. Not at all.
One of our favorite writers, Jorge Luis Borges, is quoted as follows: “I found America the friendliest, most forgiving and most generous nation I had ever visited. We South Americans tend to think in terms of convenience, whereas people in the United States approach things ethically.”
On social and economic mobility, Castañeda writes:
In 1940, more than 90 percent of Americans at 30 or 40 years of age earned more than their parents at the same age; by 1985 only 50 percent did. The number dropped considerably by the seventies and even more in recent times.
A growing number of economic studies have found that the United States stands out as having less, not more, intergenerational mobility than do Canada and several European countries. American children are more likely than other children to end up in the same place on the income distribution as their parents. Moreover, there is emerging evidence that mobility is particularly low for Americans born into families at the bottom of the earnings or income distribution.
Until 2016, 1970 was the last year in which wages or household income grew along with productivity and the economy as a whole. After 1970, salaries for the large majority of Americans stagnated, even if the economy continued to expand. The proportion of income corresponding to labor fell gradually but consistently. The share of income of the top 1 percent of society increased; that of the lowest 20 percents shrank. Today, the United States “has the most unequal distribution of after-tax income in the world for people under 60,” according to Peter Temin’s The Vanishing Middle Class.
America is not as exceptional as its citizens think.
Tony Judt: The illusion of American exceptionalism is one of the more dangerous myths in which this country has wallowed, separating itself in its own eyes from everyone else.
On slavery, the history of which continues to divide America today:
By 1860, of approximately 31 million Americans, 4 million, or 13 percent, were slaves. But in the South, nearly one in three were.
The most “exceptional” feature of the first sixty-five years of the American nineteenth century was the expansion of slavery, together with the immense cost the young nation paid to abolish its existence, albeit not its legacy: more than 600,000 Civil War dead.
On American ideals:
… the ideals that Washington and New York soon began touting and exporting all over the world were rapidly belied or betrayed at home: the Red Scare and union-busting practices of the 1920s; Wilson’s re-segregation efforts; mass deportation of Mexicans after World War I; Prohibition and the difficulties of giving women the vote.
On American policy toward Latin America:
… From the late forties through the beginning of the 1990s, American policy toward Latin America was undistinguishable from that of traditional empires’ links with their colonies, leaving aside the formality of military occupation and legal subordination.
On power and success and the limits of both:
Whether hard or soft, American power was unmatched in the world between 1946 and the end of the Cold War and the downfall of the socialist bloc.
If exceptionalism was power, it was also success. Over this “short” century, the United States fought two world wars, five regional ones (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq twice, and Afghanistan), and came out winning four, losing one, and stalemating another two. It also launched multiple pinprick interventions in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia.
Success was not only military. It was political, cultural, and ideological.
Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela, as well as the ongoing tensions with Iran, are perhaps the best examples in recent times of the limits of US military power in the post Cold War world.
There is a fascinating discussion of American civilization and culture.
On the malfunctioning democratic system:
In most cases, however, the argument centers on one fundamental aspect of the conundrum: the (in)compatibility of the American political system with the re-emergence of inequality in the United States, with the down-sizing of the middle class, as well as with the stagnation of wages and wealth in the middle deciles of the income distribution scale since 1980. And indeed, these are all factors that have contributed to the dysfunctional nature of numerous American institutions.
On the difficulty of making institutional change:
Be it the Second Amendment and gun possession, the Electoral College for choosing a president, or even the role of religion in politics and the separation of Church and State, America responds slowly, fitfully, and incompletely to the need for institutional change.
There is an interesting section on drugs and immigration where Castañeda argues that Americans say one thing and do another, that they display an interesting combination of “pragmatism and hypocrisy.” One could argue that the same mix applies to race and religion and to contentious social issues such as cohabitation, divorce, abortion, and same sex marriage.
The comments above merely touch on the complicated and complex analyses Castañeda provides in his excellent book. One does not need to agree with all the conclusions or even the choice of topics to benefit from this book. America Through Foreign Eyes is an eye-opener no matter your personal views or feelings. Ignore it at your peril.