A decade ago, a close friend and colleague of mine left
We had worked closely together at a publishing company where we ran a special projects department and, quite frankly, we did a lot more talking about writers, literature and growing up in our two cultures (his urban Argentine, mine rural North American) than we did about special projects. I recall him thinking it odd that I should be as critical as I was of certain aspects of life in the
“Why should that surprise you?" I asked him once. “I mean, you’re critical of
“Of course I criticize
We swapped literary heroes: He gave me Julio Cortázar. I traded him Henry Miller. After reading a lot of Miller and discussing him with me in detail, there came a day when we were arguing some point about
Now it was my turn to laugh. I said: “You’re wrong. I don’t hate the
Some days later, my friend came into the office carrying a paperback book in his hand and grinning from ear to ear. He flopped down on the old green leather couch by the office door, red-faced and excited, with his overcoat still on, and started to read aloud:
“I am a patriot — of the Fourteenth Ward,
“But I was born and raised in the street...
“To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts that gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them. What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature...”
Then he sat there grinning and held up the cover of the book, as if that had been necessary. He had been reading from the first lines of Henry Miller’s Black Spring. He had done so purposefully, intentionally. He was telling me that he understood what I was talking about, comprehended that there was the
Later, when he settled in and was studying at
To anyone who has lived anywhere else in the
At first you think, “This is stupid. What’s the big deal? We call ourselves Americans. So what?” But in the end, it's a lack of awareness at best and a mark of blatant arrogance at worst. As in, “Yeah right, we’re all Americans, but we’re the only Americans that really count.”
Clearly, a great majority of Americans tend to think of North America as ending at the
If that sounds cynical and unfair on my part, just look at how we’ve bent the meaning of the word continent to fit our ends. By the simplest of definitions, a continent is a large unbroken land mass completely surrounded by water. By this definition, my friend would have won the argument hands down, because before we dug the Panama Canal, somebody who wanted to sail from New York to San Francisco had no choice but to “round the Horn” at the southernmost tip of (South) America.
Now, a more modern, complex and pragmatic definition of what a continent is claims that: "Continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water." [Lewis, Martin W.; Kären
Anyway, the discussion turned into a real shootout. My friend said that the professor’s argument was indefensible to anyone who could read a map. Clearly, the North and South American land masses were connected from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego and that any presumption of two separate continents was purely political (and perhaps ethnic) in nature. In the end, the professor, furious at having something she had been taught to believe all of her life from grade school on questioned, and clearly grasping at straws as she saw her authority at the head of the classroom fading, said something like: “Okay then, let me see you walk across the Panama Canal, if it’s all one continent.” My friend, whose intellectual arguments are always based on sound intellectual capital, was dumbstruck, and decided to let the issue ride. Obviously, if a professor at the head of a post-graduate level class in one of the most prestigious universities in the world was incapable of seeing the oh-so-obvious fallacy in such an argument, then conventional political indoctrination was evidently immune to almost any amount of education.
After my friend got his master’s degree from
So as I say, he stayed on and toughed it out teaching at underprivileged schools in underprivileged neighborhoods in New York while freelancing for papers back home in Argentina and, meanwhile, making all of the contacts he could, trying to fit in, trying to get an “in” into the system. And finally, after a decade of striving, he’s making some inroads. He’s not exactly living the American dream. But after a hard-fought decade, he's getting some better teaching opportunities, even some non-tenured teaching at
But the point I want to make isn’t about immigration or about my friend. It’s about us. It’s about Americans and about the learning opportunity we have just been dealt by the government and big business. The opportunity is this: Stop believing the hype.
When people in
“...it is probably safe to say that Americans living at home pretty much believe in the system and, in general, don't expect government action to wreak sudden havoc in their daily lives.
“So imagine, if you can, this scenario: After a full decade in which your country's prices and foreign exchange parity have been among the most stable in the world, in which yearly inflation has been single-digit and in which you have been able to freely invest your income at home and abroad — years in which you have come to depend on banks for every kind of financial service imaginable, in which you have entrusted your life savings to the financial system in the belief (backed by repeated assurances not only from your local government but also multilateral institutions) that you are living in a strong, emerging economy with bright prospects for the future — you wake up one morning to find that your world has gone completely crazy. Your bank accounts have been frozen and the government has just announced that the money you had been saving in the system is now worth 40% less than it was yesterday. Your international hard currency has been confiscated. Worse still, no matter how many thousands of dollars you have in your foreign exchange account, the government and the bank will only make $5,000 available to you — not in hard cash, but transferable at an unrealistic official exchange rate to your domestic account, where withdrawals are limited to 1,000 local currency units a month.
“It is, of course, a real stretch for Americans living at home within the stability of the most economically powerful nation on earth to imagine this kind of scenario, but this is precisely what has happened, practically overnight, to the people of Argentina last December.”
At the time, I couldn’t find a single buyer for that article among my journalism contacts in
The ever-increasing popularity of Barak Obama in the run-up to the general elections is not nearly as much a result of his own merit — although he is surely the most revolutionary candidate since John F. Kennedy — as it is of the anger and frustration of Americans who believed in the system and were duped by an administration that did absolutely nothing to protect them from the greed and arrogance of big business and big banking.
But despite the pain and hardship that this crisis has caused to millions of Americans, and indeed to the world economy, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from it. And the lesson is that we should never say never again: that such a thing “could never happen in the greatest nation on earth,” that our business and banking system is reliable and trustworthy beyond all doubt, that trickle-down works, that business can and should be self-regulating, that the US government looks out for its citizens. Perhaps this blow will sober us up and make us realize once and for all that greed and power make government and business do whatever they can get away with and that we ourselves, and our willingness to question and not fall for the hype are all that are standing between us and this kind of disaster.
The late Robert F. Kennedy once said: "The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country."
We would all do well to recall this every time an administration flashes its sardonic grin and says: "Trust me!"