What Octavio Paz can tell us about U.S.-Mexico relations today

Photo by Martin do Nascimento

Octavio Paz, the Mexican diplomat and Nobel Prize winner for Literature, expressed in the 1980’s his views on American politics, history and culture and on the nature of U.S.-Mexico relations. His observations are certainly relevant in understanding the situation the United States is currently facing and the nature of the its political atmosphere today. Revisiting his writings would also benefit Mexico and its government in its goal of promoting more diverse thought throughout America.

At a minimum, four of Paz’s observations are pertinent in contemporary discussions of the U.S.

First, in its domestic and foreign policy alike, Paz asserted, the United States has always disavowed the “other.” For him, the proverbial “other” was anyone different, in any capacity, from the socially constructed view of America and Americans.

Is the United States always concerned about understanding other people’s history, cultures and political conceptions? An argument can be made that the U.S. tends to paint everything with a single brush — all Mexicans are rapists and criminals and all Muslims are terrorists — instead of understanding the intricacies and differences within and among countries with similar creeds but different political and historical backgrounds. The provinciality of these overarching statements is obvious and misguided. There are thousands of highly skilled Mexicans working in the American private sector and universities, and many Mexican business people are living and investing in the United States.

In Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, women have been democratically elected to the highest seat of political office, prime minister, something that has yet to happen in the United States. Women have remarkable freedom in Indonesia, including the right to dress as they please. This is contradictory to the widespread U.S. perception of Muslim women being required to wear burkas. For Paz, therefore, this kind of disdain for the “other” was detrimental to American politics and undermined the American identity. From his perspective, “others” were essential. Incidentally, the “others” comprised the majority of the population around the world and were prominent people, independent of their wealth or status. They were essential, he wrote, because they simply represented a “precious version of mankind.”

Second, Paz, who died in 1998, was deeply concerned about social and economic inequalities in the U.S. and about a society divided by the “clash of tremendously selfish interests.” Today, even more than in Paz’s time, the United States confronts profound economic disparities. According to Pew Research Center, the richest 20 percent of U.S. families own 88.9 percent of the wealth, while the poorest 20 percent hold only about 0.1 percent. The U.S. faces serious political, economic and ideological polarization. For example, in a CBS News poll conducted between January 13th and 17th of this year, 77 percent of Republicans favored building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, while 20 percent opposed. The response of Democrats was completely different; only 11 percent favored the idea while 87 percent opposed it.

It is therefore difficult for the U.S. to reach political agreements and share a common perspective about its direction. Though Paz was living at a time when American political polarization was not nearly as profound as it is today, he was able to foresee that the “malady of democracy is disunity, mother of demagogism.”

Third, American democracy was another of Paz’s main concerns. The United States, according to him, has free elections and a high regard for the institution of democracy, however, “the will of the majority is not synonymous of wisdom.” He judged that democracies run a big risk of electing authoritarian presidents or prime ministers. Therefore, he held wisdom as an essential component — a fundamental ingredient of a healthy and respectable democracy. Wisdom, in a nutshell, is the only antidote to the onslaught of dictators in the ballot box.

Today, American democracy has shown significant strength. Civility has, in general terms, characterized the behavior of the population since President Trump’s election. The separation of power and the rule of law appears to have remained intact. The judicial rejections of Trump’s controversial immigration bans, the reluctance of politicians to carry out his orders, and the confrontational approach of the FBI and the CIA to Trump’s administration are only three examples.

However, U.S. democracy still faces problems. Many Americans are questioning the wisdom of their politicians and the media. Some are losing their faith in democracy. In a survey conducted online by Survey Monkey on October 6th to 8th, 2016, 40 percent of respondents said that they had lost faith in American democracy, 52 percent said they still had faith, 6 percent responded that they never had faith. According to a poll conducted by Gallup between January 4 and 8, 2017, only 19 percent approved of the job Congress is doing, while 76 percent disapproved and 5 percent were unsure. Similarly, Gallup reported in September 2016 that 45 percent of the population approved of the way the Supreme Court operates, but 47 percent disapproved and 8 percent were unsure.

These numbers reveal that the trust of the people in their government is weak, and therefore American democracy is vulnerable, opening up space for ultraconservative or authoritarian expressions. There is always the risk that leaders could undermine liberal institutions, but for now the U.S. seems to be rejecting that pathway.

Paz’s solution to American democratic problems was to return to the past. The U.S. has to recuperate its unity, which today, in this highly divided world, seems idealistic and complex. And America needs to return to “the origins, to the foundation of the nation. To recuperate the vision of its founders, not to copy them, but to make a new beginning.”

Finally, Paz noted the Mexican idea that the “United States is contradictory, emotional, and impervious to criticism; it is a mythic image.” With few exceptions, Paz wrote, the United States has misunderstood Mexico. “In general, Americans have not looked for Mexico in Mexico; they have looked for their obsessions, enthusiasms, phobias, hopes, interests — and this is what they have found.” Of course, he recognized the important historical differences that have made Mexico and the United States “two distinct versions of Western civilization.”

More than thirty years ago, Paz offered an insightful perspective of the United States, the strengths and weaknesses of American politics, and democracy itself. He observed significant aspects of American politics and offered insights important to consider in our discussion of America today. He saw profound contradictions, serious inequalities and a reluctance to learn about and acknowledge the “others.” Paz found America to be a country full of prejudices.

But he also found it a place of great virtue, a vibrant democracy and, I would say, of strong political civility. He saw America as a complex country, a nation that does not falter to simplistic interpretation because one-dimensional views tend to confuse rather than clarify. Simplistic perspectives provoke misperception and antagonisms and rarely further understanding. He recognized the need for knowledge and wisdom in regards to other countries and minorities.

Presently, it would be appropriate to try to understand the U.S., as Paz did, rather than to label it and its leaders. If Mexicans do that, if we really appreciate it in its full complexity, maybe we will be able to better understand Donald Trump and what he embodies. Perhaps then we will be able to figure out the best way to approach the 45th president of the United States. In doing so, Mexico will not only be able to make better-informed decisions, enriching its foreign policy, but will also teach its northern neighbors how important is to fully understand the “other.”

Jesus Velasco

Non-resident scholar, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

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