"Give Paz a Chance: Understanding Mexico and Ourselves"
By Joseph P. Duggan
Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, Nov. 22, 2008
MEXICO CITY — This and every other Mexican city has a street named 20 de Noviembre for the national holiday marking the first fusillades of the Revolution of 1910. Here, where there is often a yawning gap between what is said and what is done, the nation this week celebrated 20 de Noviembre on Nov. 17. As their northern neighbors have bent history and tradition to make Washington's Birthday a moveable feast, Mexicans too have opted for the Monday holiday and the three-day weekend.
Globalization and embourgeoisement have air-conditioned the once torrid rites of the quintessentially Mexican myths of Madero, Villa, and Zapata into another day for affluent teens to prowl the shopping mall, perhaps to ingest a Big Mac and see the third incarnation of "High School Musical." Instead of celebrating valiant adelitas (female fighters), adolescents celebrate themselves, enthroned as Consumerism's new Bourbons who have "learned nothing and forgotten nothing."
This bewitching country, a font of "magical realism," is at risk of becoming like us: stranded on an existential reef, neither feeling magic nor knowing realism.
Civilization in Mexico today still faces mortal threats from bullets and bombs–the narcotraffickers' war against law enforcement. But the greater threat may come from the death inherent in never having lived–that is, never having used the creative and critical faculties God gave us, uniquely, as human beings. The greater threat is in the self-amputation that Cicero warned against 2,000 years ago: that he who fails to learn the history of events before he was born will never grow out of childhood.
In this same sense, Mexico is wandering in the same desert as the United States and most other countries that have reached, or are striving to reach, secularistic scientism's El Dorado of "development" or "modernization."
Is there a voice in this wilderness? The writings of the Mexican Octavio Paz (1914-98) provide a perennial wake-up call for drowsy intellects.
Poet, critic, and diplomat, Paz won the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature. His best-known work, "The Labyrinth of Solitude," composed with the mind of a critic and the heart of a poet, sorts through the tangle of myth and history forming (and many times deforming) the Mexican soul.
"To avoid new disasters," Paz said in the latter essay, "we Mexicans must reconcile ourselves with our past: only in this way shall we succeed in finding a route to modernity. The search for our own model of modernization is a theme directly linked with another: Today we know that modernity, both the capitalist and the pseudo-socialist versions of the totalitarian bureaucracies, is mortally wounded in its very core–the idea of continuous, unlimited progress. The nations that inspired our 19th-century liberals–England, France, and especially the United States–are doubting, vacillating, and cannot find their way. They have ceased to be universal examples."
This was written in 1979, during the "malaise" of Jimmy Carter. But its critique of the myth of progress, and its demand that we search for understanding deep below the surface of things, could apply just as well to today's Wall Street meltdown and its strange relationship with the economic power and leverage of China–perhaps the perfect combination of "both the capitalist and pseudo-socialist versions of the totalitarian bureaucracies."
In the same essay, Paz said that the self-evident disparities of wealth and poverty, of power and weakness, do not make the fundamental difference between the United States and Mexico. Not these, but this: "We are two distinct versions of Western civilization." Among the divides that Paz does not minimize are those of religion and language. Culturally, Mexico is Hispano-Catholic; the United States, Anglo-Protestant.
Mexico classically looks backward. Even the revolutionists who rejected Catholicism looked to a Golden Age in the pre-Columbian past: "Utopia for them was not the construction of a future but a return to the source, to the beginning."
America's Power Source
On the other hand, the United States "lives on the very edge of the now, always ready to leap toward the future…. The act of its founding was a promise of the future, and each time the United States returns to its source, to its past, it rediscovers its future."
Paz, who embraced Marxism in his youth but later denounced Soviet tyranny, never was a conventional Christian. Yet he observed that "the sickness of the West is moral rather than social and economic. The hedonism of the West is the other face of its desperation; its skepticism is not wisdom but desperation. The empty place left by Christianity in the modern soul is filled not by philosophy but by the crudest superstitions."
Paz's criticism of the "perfect dictatorship" of the Mexican Partido Revolucionario Institucional very much resembled Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's challenge to the Soviet regime. So, too, Paz's sadness at the state of the West resembles that of Solzhenitsyn's "Warning to the West."
"Faithful to its origins," Paz wrote in 1979, "the United States has always ignored the 'others.' Today, the United States faces very powerful enemies, but the mortal danger comes from within: not from Moscow but from that mixture of arrogance and opportunism, blindness and short-term Machiavellianism, volubility and stubbornness which has characterized its foreign policies during recent years."
Substitute "al-Qaida" or "Tehran" for "Moscow," and Paz's challenge that the United States carry out a rigorous moral and intellectual self-examination would seem more relevant than ever during the dying days of 2008.
Contemplating Paz's work can establish a solid basis for critical thinking and true dialog among and between the still- or yet-to-be-conscious citizens of both Mexico and the United States.
"Criticism," Paz wrote in 1969, "is the imagination's apprenticeship in its second turn, the imagination cured of fantasies and determined to face the world's realities."
(Joseph Duggan, a former editorial writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, worked in the State Department for President Reagan and as a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. In 2006 he earned an M.A. in Statecraft and World Politics from The Institute of World Politics; he was salutatorian of his class. Mr. Duggan is now a visiting professor at Universidad de Celaya in Mexico.)