Adventures in a brave new world


Getting up at 3:00 a.m. for a business trip—with only three hours of sleep—is bad enough. Being grilled at the US border a half hour later when you’re still groggy really sucks.

I can appreciate that US border guards have a more challenging job since 9/11. It perhaps explains their interest in my business trip, which had to do with a consulting project overseas. It took a while to explain it all to the guards, and of course, the more one tries to explain, the more complicated things get. In the end, it all worked out and I was on my way.

But it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Not for the first time, I realized that I was entering a foreign land, where I was an alien presence not to be trusted. Several of the border guards were, in my opinion, more intimidating than the situation warranted. Put plainly, the treatment was authoritarian and rude. And to add insult to injury, one of them bent my car key so badly I couldn’t get my car started. I had to go back in, and one of them, an older guard I recognized, dug out a pair of pliers (while the other guards joked loudly in the back room), straightened the key and got me on the road again.

The drive to Boston was uneventful enough, and despite the delay at the border, I arrived at my first meeting a few minutes early. My next meeting was only a few minutes away, across the bay in Cambridge, but as I tried to hit the right exit, I got cut off and missed the off-ramp. I ended up taking a different bridge and getting lost in the bowels of old Cambridge somewhere. I finally ended up in a scruffy downtown area of some sort, and pulled up in front of a small bank to ask for directions.

It was drizzling rain. I rolled down the passenger window and asked the guy standing in front of the bank for directions. As he came up to the car, I could see that he’d been injured. There was a deep scar gashed into the middle of his forehead. I asked him how I could find my way back, and he leaned into the car. As he tried to talk, he began drooling into the car. He was obviously severely compromised. My first impulse was to say, “forget it” and move on. Instead, I concentrated on what he was saying, thanked him for his help, and followed his instructions. I appreciated his effort, and couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have to live with that handicap in that harsh urban landscape, the “other America”.

His instructions turned out to be right on the money. I was on the right road, suffering through a long traffic jam. The area was pretty seedy, with run down businesses, auto scrap yards and decrepit houses. Twenty minutes later I arrived at my next destination, still early for the meeting. It was like entering a whole new world. I was surrounded by modern high-rises filled with offices and a streetscape filled with pretty designer shops and smartly dressed professionals. This was the America the rest of the world envies.

You might get the idea that I’m a bit conflicted about our neighbour to the south. And you’d be right. Up here the environment feels more uniform, more homogenous. Down there it’s a study in dramatic contrasts—with very visible strengths and weaknesses. Everything in the States is bigger and bolder, blacker and whiter.

I’m not alone in feeling this. I picked up Canadian author Ronald Wright’s book What is America? last week. He writes about the hidden history of the US and the effects of that history on its modern culture. He draws some extraordinary conclusions about American history. For example, he goes to great lengths to explain that the Europeans did not arrive here to carve a new society out of the wilderness. What they actually found was a thriving agricultural society that was at least as advanced as the Europeans were, and far wealthier. In the year 1500, a quarter of the world’s population, or 80 to 100 million people, lived in the Americas. Within fifty years, over 90% of this vigorous indigenous culture had been wiped out by smallpox and other viral diseases, not to mention outright genocide, and the emptied farmland repopulated with European immigrants and African slaves over the next two centuries.

The Incan gold mines created the real wealth in Europe that allowed, for the first time, a cash surplus that eventually led to the Industrial Revolution. American foods, such as maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes and cassavas revolutionized the world’s eating. Marginal populations could now flourish on the new high-energy foods, allowing agricultural land in Europe to be redeployed. In Britain, this triggered the privatization of public lands, and ushered in large-scale sheep farming for the wool industry, with new mechanical milling and weaving machines.

Displaced peasants were either relocated in Dickensian factories or shipped to the conveniently depopulated American colonies. The rest, as they say, is history. The modern era had begun. Over the next 400 years, Western culture was forged into the urban society we know today.

The troubling bit for Wright is the disparity between actual American history and their mythology. Americans see their country as something they’ve built from scratch, rather than what actually happened—the conquering of an existing empire. And, in fact, American history is littered with empire-building notions. I think what Wright is saying is this. The underlying American sentiment is fixated on empire. This explains the subtitle of his book, A Short History of the New World Order.

These days we’re all feeling the effects of this new world order. The US housing bubble created the financial meltdown on Wall Street, which has dragged us all into a global recession. It’s no secret that the US the most powerful commercial empire on the planet, but the question is, for how long?

Wright is struggling to come to terms with America’s two opposing dynamics—the enlightened, intellectual America, and the fundamentalist, conservative America. Of course, with diminishing natural resources globally, the only hope for the future is enlightenment.

For me, even a short day-trip to the States can bring this duality into sharp focus.


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