Anthony DePalma’s New Book, "Here: A Biography of the New American Continent"
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RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Here: A Biography of the New American Continent.” The author is Anthony DePalma, international business correspondent for the New York Times; he’s been based in both our North American neighbors Canada and Mexico. And the title, beginning with the title, there’s all kinds of minefields here. We don’t usually write biographies of places, and the new American continent is still so new that maybe its biography should be a pamphlet instead of a full-length book.
ANTHONY DePALMA: Well, there’s no biography written without looking back into the history of where that person came from. That really helps you understand, whether it be a person or a place. What I tried to do– and the reason that there’s that kind of reaction to the book right now– is that North America, unlike Europe or Asia or Africa, has never really had an identity of its own. If you said “Europe,” a picture came to mind and the same with Asia and Africa. If you said “North America,” well, it was sort of a fuzzy sort of image, and there was a misunderstanding about what it was right from the beginning. You know, it was discovered because it happened to be in the way. Nobody came looking for it. Nobody knew it was there. They were trying to get somewhere else, and it happened to be in the way. And even after that, for years afterwards, there was no conception of it as a place other than a place that you needed to get around to get where you were going.
RAY SUAREZ: But those images that exist of those other places that you mentioned– Asia, Africa, Europe– they were often sentimental notions, silly notions in many cases. Wasn’t North America benefiting from the fact that it didn’t have this kind of image?
ANTHONY DePALMA: (Chuckles) Well, maybe you could argue that, but I think what has happened over most of that period of time, from the founding or the discovery or the stumbling on to North America to just recently, is that although all three nations began at the same time and in the same place and were founded by people from roughly the same part of the world, being Europe, they developed in very different ways. And during the 500 years afterwards, we focused very much in all three nations on the distinctions and the things that were different about us. And we tried to… We tried to live as though we were all on islands. The Mexicans had nothing to do with Americans and, in fact, were at war, resented us or were suspicious of us for many years. And the Canadians because of their history having basically sided with the other side during the Revolutionary War, spent a lot of energy trying to distinguish themselves from Americans. What happened in the mid 1990s for the first time, I think, was while those distinctions and differences remain, were being forced — and there was an act of will on the part of all three nations– that said instead of focusing on the differences, we have to acknowledge that we have a lot in common. And we’re going to pursue those areas, not forgetting about the others or erasing them, but pursuing those things we have in common because basically we don’t have much choice. We’re stuck with each other.
RAY SUAREZ: But do both countries outside of the United States– Canada and Mexico– define themselves in terms of the United States more than they ever do in terms of each other? Do Canadians think that much about Mexico? Do Mexicans wonder that much about Canada?
ANTHONY DePALMA: Well, what is said often is that Canada and Mexico, although they’re distant, have one common problem between them. (Laughs) And that’s the United States. But increasingly as we’ve come together in this union and as Mexico has sort of turned its vision towards the United States and North America in terms of its economy, in terms of its embracing democracy, in terms of its respect for the rule of law and individual rights, is distancing itself to some degree from the rest of Latin America and its brethren down there, and there’s some resentment. And Brazilians sort of think Mexicans are sort of uppity now, because they’re close to the United States. And the Canadians have always tried to put up a wall between themselves and the United States for obvious reasons: For fear of being smothered by the United States. They’re often looking at the United States as this power because, physically, most of them live within 100 miles of our border. So the border is a very significant aspect of their daily lives. As a North American identity emerges, we’re actually providing, or what the Canadians and the Mexicans will have, is a way to protect, in fact, their own identity, because they will be able to say what’s happening is not the Americanization of their countries because McDonald’s and the Marriott Hotels are there, but it’s actually a North Americanization of the entire continent as we all trade more with each other, do business with each other, send our kids to schools across the border and move more freely from one country to another. That allows them to protect their own identities as Canadians and as Mexicans.
RAY SUAREZ: Protect their own identities? I was wondering if maybe the cement that holds these places precariously together doesn’t weaken during this time of convergence. In Mexico, you had a full-blown secessionist uprising. In Canada, Quebec did it a little more peacefully through the ballot box, but certainly Vancouver and Halifax feel themselves to have more in common with Seattle and Portland, Maine, than they do with each other.
ANTHONY DePALMA: Yeah. It depends on what level. And I think it’s important to look at that, that there are going to be different levels of the identity. This North American identity, or this Americanization, is… On one level, but fundamentally they’re different. Those people in Halifax and Vancouver all live under the same constitution, which has different ideas about individual rights and about equality than in the United States. When President Bush talks about a faith-based initiative to allow religious organizations, no matter what they believe in, to get involved in providing social services as an innovation in the United States, well, it doesn’t have much resonance in Canada because they’ve been doing it for 100 years. In Ontario, the Catholic Charities Children’s Society… Children’s Aid Society has legal responsibility for all Catholic children under the age of 16, and has had it since 1894. Fundamental differences. People in Canada have to decide where they’re going to pay their property taxes, whether to the nonsectarian school board or the Catholic school board, the English language school board or the French school board. Now in the United States, that wouldn’t happen because we wouldn’t distinguish one faith or one language over another, except for English, of course, in the United States. Canada often times looks back on its history and decides what it’s going to do based on where it was, and becomes much more of a historical society than the United States, which is an ideological nation. We look at basic ideas of individual rights and what’s held in the Constitution as a guiding principle. Mexico, they tend to rely more on their culture rather than history or ideology, and they make their decisions based on where they’ve been and who they are, what their society is like.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, there are about one- third as many Mexicans as citizens of the United States; there are about one-tenth as many Canadians. Do people in those other countries have to be wary about what it means to live next to a giant?
ANTHONY DePALMA: Oh, I don’t think they ever forget that. But there are lots of advantages. And those people who are in Nortel, which is a big Canadian telecommunications company, certainly appreciate the fact that they’re living next to the United States and the world’s biggest market rather than, perhaps, living next to Lesotho in Africa, where they’d be hard- pressed to sell the kind of equipment that they sell. And Mexico, when it got into its peso crisis in 1994-95 was able, because of the trade linkages that exist between them that were just being formed at that time, to recover from that in a matter of months. Ten years earlier when they had the first peso crisis in 1981, the debt crisis, it took them years to recover. So while they’re aware of, and in many ways, as you say, wary of the fact that they’re living next to this colossus, there are also advantages to it in terms of health care, in terms of being able to take advantage of the research that’s done in the United States, in terms of access to the market. It’s not by accident that all of the other nations, all of the other Democratic nations, with the exception of Cuba, which is not a democratic nation, want desperately to have the same access to the market in the United States that Mexico has.
RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Here,” a biography of the new North American continent. Anthony DePalma, thanks a lot.
ANTHONY DePALMA: Thank you, Ray.