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“As an American”…

25 May 2009

I’ve received several  comments on a recent post of mine in which I questioned the motives behind a bill in the United States Senate that  included a demand on the Mexican Federal government that it investigate Brad Will’s death as a condition of receiving financial assistance with narcotics interdiction.

While I think Will was over his head in Oaxaca, and of course I don’t think the state’s investigation into the death was anything other than a whitewash, I objected to including this demand for several reasons — not the least of which was the assumption that the Mexican Federal government should intervene in a state matter (Mexico, like it’s neighbor to the north, is a federal republic.

There is no particular reason for the Federal courts to step in to a murder investigation, either in the United States or in Mexico, but the assumption was that the Federal government SHOULD, in return for an unrelated benefit.  Describing Will as an “unaccredited journalist who was illegally intruding in Mexican political affairs” resulted in some negative feed-back, as well as this comment by Leslie  Beyerstein:

Just to play devil’s advocate here… As an American, I want non-citizen residents of the U.S. to participate in our domestic politics. If they live here, they’re part of our community, and their opinions on internal issues are important. So, I have a hard time buying the argument that a non-Mexican, ipso facto, has nothing to say about Mexico’s domestic politics.

Ms. Beyerstein is not just “an American” — she is a well-known respected on-line journalist and photographer, whose “Majikthise” site “provides daily coverage of local, national, and international politics from a left liberal perspective.”  I usually don’t receive comments from writers of Beyerstein’s reputation: our cordial exchange of e-mails probably doesn’t explain my whole response to her comment.

As an American

Were I a citizen of Canada, Cuba, Chile, Chile, Colombia or for that matter, Mexico, I’d register the usual complaint about estadounidenses who assume the name for anyone in the hemisphere for residents of one country… and leave the impression that citizens of one of the  47 nationalities speak for all of us.  But, I’m anestadounidense, and accept what for my neighbors grates on their sensibilities.

That was not Ms. Beyerstein’s intention, but the suggestion is that “we do things thus in the United States, therefore it is good.”

…their opinions on internal issues are important.

Of course, not everyone in the United States is as enlightened as Ms. Beyerstein. U.S. courts and legislatures that have ignored the Mexican government when it presses for legally mandated rights (such as consular consultation for criminal defendants) for its own citizens. And, the number of yahoos who claimed immigrant protests in the United States SHOULD be illegal is legion. I’m afraid Ms. Beyerstein’s opinion is a minority one.

Be that as it may, the United States — for whatever reason — chooses to allow political participation by foreign residents. Mexico does not. Ms. Beyerstein — “as an American” — is making the assumption her country’s way is “right” and Mexico’s “wrong.”

I have a hard time buying the argument that a non-Mexican… has nothing to say…

It’s a cliche of Latin critiques of the United States that it’s people use commercial metaphors for everything.  As Oscar Wilde said of cynics, “they know the price of everything, but not the value.”  No one was making that “argument” anyway.  And nothing to buy or sell…  I did not write Capitulo III, articlo 33 of the Constitución Política De Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos — but I understand the reasoning behind it.

As a practical matter, and this is what Ms. Beyerstein and I discussed, given Mexican historical thinking, and the touchiness about foreign criticism (especially from estadounidenses), foreign involvement in political matters is counterproductive. It is not viewed as an offer to “sell” even the finest of products, but an unwarranted intrusion. If not by the persons supporting any given movement, then by their opponents… who will “sell” the foreign presence as such.

Certainly, a foreign blogger can comment obliquely (and maybe directly — though I chose not to do so) on day to day issues.  He or she cannot, however, state that Mexican voters MUST vote for this or that candidate or party, or that the legislature MUST pass a given bill… or that the Federal Government MUST intervene in a state police matter.

I don’t want to “sell” an argument… but I do want to sell books (either through my publisher), or in the United States through or Jackson Street Books.

“As an American” you’re free to buy or not buy any conclusions, but understanding the Mexican way of thinking about foreign intervention is vital to writing and thinking about their culture and their politics, you need to buy the book.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 May 2009 6:15 pm

    Just an ambivalent quibble. I grew up in New York City as did all of my family. We were all New Yorkers. When we met people from New York State if we said we were New Yorkers, they said where in New York meaning the state. So did other non-New York Cityers. Anyway, it was a big shock as I grew up to discover that New York City was not huge with the rest of the state being tiny. But I still think of myself as a New Yorker as do most people who come from the city. And I think most people from the state outside of the city think of themselves as “from New York.” So I guess I think it’s just one of those things that Estadounidenses are Americans by nationality as well as continent and hemisphere. Kind of like Australians….and of course there’s some empire history there, too. And of course Mexicans are also estadounidenses. And here I do say estadounidense or sometimes norteamericano because it is a sensitive issue.

  2. 25 May 2009 7:46 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    I’m a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who grew up in Canada. I can definitely relate to Mexico’s concerns about U.S. meddling. The U.S. certainly inserted itself into Canada’s national affairs in any number of ways over the years, many of them deleterious–and unlike Mexico, our leaders usually acted like the U.S. was doing us some kind of favor.

    Still, I have deep misgivings as a matter of principle about whether any democracy should debar individuals from all political participation based on their citizenship.

    That doesn’t mean that I applaud United Statesians who barge into Mexico and start telling people what to do. There are all kinds of risks and problems associated with being a privileged outsider trying to insert oneself into the politics of another country. On the other hand, if you’re just some indie journalist and not an agent of a foreign power, the risks run more towards being a total jerk and alienating people vs. undermining the national sovereignty of Mexico.

    I think the Merida Initiative is deeply misguided as a matter of U.S. policy. The initiative just won’t do what U.S. politicians hope. It won’t do anything, IMO, besides making helicopter and high tech x-ray manufacturers richer. I don’t much care what Brad Will-related conditions are placed on the “assistance” because I don’t think we should be offering the assistance at all.

    Whatever resentment the Will proviso might cause, it’s trivial compared to the larger resentments the package will quite rightly stoke. The much larger problem is that the U.S. government expects Mexico to turn itself into an armed camp in the service of American prohibition.

  3. 25 May 2009 8:32 pm

    OTOH, Canada hasn’t been invaded by the United States since 1812. Mexico has… as recently as 1916 (only yesterday, in a country that mentions the policies of Emperor Cuauhtemoc when discussing current affairs), and Mexican military planners still have to consider a U.S. invasion a likely scenario (knowing full well they’d lose).

    While the U.S. (and other foreign powers) have intervened in Canadian affairs recently, it’s not involved invasions, or overt attempts to subvert elected leaders and/or the political process.

    Biases in the United States towards Canadians are more grounded in “they’re too nice” than as they are towards Mexicans … racist stereotyping for the most part.

    It’s not only the U.S., of course… while historically, French, Spanish, British and Canadians (Lord Cowdrey) all attempted to subvert the Mexican state, it isn’t just a historical concern that haunts the Mexicans… in 2003 there was a British spying incident that ended with the spies being expelled (and Her Majesty’s Plenipontentary being very nearly sent packing).

    How much “individualism” plays in Mexican thinking is debatable. Ned Crouch’s “Mexicans and Americans [sic!!!]: Cracking the cultural code” is centered on the idea that Mexicans think (and are rewarded financially or otherwise) as a group, not as individuals. I don’t completely accept Crouch’s theory, but will say that people do think more of rights and obligations in terms of being a member of a group (whether it’s family, all PRD members, all residents of a given building, all farmers , all Mexicans) than in terms of individual rights. This isn’t a specifically Mexican thought process… the Napoleonic Code is based on the theory.

  4. 25 May 2009 8:50 pm

    What bothers me terribly is how dismissive many in the US who are not racist anti-immigrants are of Mexico: as if there isn’t really anything to learn about it. As if there’s no reason to truly examine policies which can potentially do tremendous damage. This includes my own children, at least until they come to visit us here.

    About individualism: there are some pretty unneighborly folks in my colonia … neighbors who don’t speak to each other for years, etc. But even so, there are numerous group identities and loyalties. Individualism used to be the exception in the world at large. It is hard to see how humans can succeed in surviving in a meaningful way if individualism comes to dominate.

  5. 25 May 2009 9:10 pm

    Even within a collectivist ethical framework, I’m not sure that it’s right to debar non-citizens from all forms of political participation. A community thrives when all its members are encouraged to participate in civic and political affairs.

  6. 25 May 2009 9:33 pm

    I’m not sure whether it’s a fair (or legal, for that matter) distinction to separate civic from political, but in practical terms, in my area foreigners do participate in civic life. I participate in my colonia’s town hall-like meetings, for instance, because we are not just asked but urged to. We don’t vote, but if asked, we say what we think on practical issues, of which there are many. We give our cooperativos to community projects; we do discuss matters freely with our neighbors, including telling them we aren’t going to get involved in politics. We are involved in some local civic efforts. Basically, we speak and act as fellow members of the community and are careful not to be people coming in telling other people what to do. I don’t feel hampered. We are, after all, guests here. Our hosts are very gracious. Lives and social and political ways have been woven together over many years and there are so many things we don’t know. What seem like obvious solutions at first glance to a foreigner turn out to be anything but. Humility is in order, I think.

  7. Mike S permalink
    25 May 2009 11:16 pm

    Oaxacans know that in their state justice depends entirely on who you know. They know that the Federation has more say in the affairs of the state government of Oaxaca than they do. This is why many Oaxacans want to see a full Federal investigation into Brad Will’s death. They understand that this is one of their best chances of accountability for the killings and other illegal activities carried out in the context of the 2006 conflict.

  8. 26 May 2009 6:10 am

    Esther, thanks for describing your experiences. Sounds like a great arrangement for all concerned. Where in Mexico do you live?

  9. Telzey permalink
    26 May 2009 5:19 pm

    I really like the Mexican article that forbids foreigners from telling it what to do politically. We need to amend our constitution to contain a similar provision. Then we could fill our jails with Canadians!

  10. Telzey permalink
    26 May 2009 5:22 pm

    Also, on the use of “American”. The “A” in USA stands for “America”, so it’s entirely appropriate for us to abbreviate to “America”. Secondly, no other nation in the entire Western hemisphere has “America” as part of its name, so (a) there’s no chance for confusion or misappropriation, and (b) they must not feel that calling themselves “Americans” is really all that important.

    Lastly, the fact that Americans call themselves Americans (and just about everyone else, for that matter) in no way prevents anyone else from any other country referring to themselves as “Americans”. Go right ahead!

    This is a totally synthetic complaint confected just to have something else to bitch about. With so many real problems to address, I’m surprised people have time to indulge in non-existent problems.

  11. 26 May 2009 5:40 pm

    Lindsay, It really makes little difference WHERE in México Esther lives. This is the norm for expats living anywhere in México.

    You say, “That doesn’t mean that I applaud United Statesians who barge into Mexico and start telling people what to do.”, but your comments in full DO in fact encourage such behavior. Those of us who, like Esther and I, look at living in México as a long-term learning proposition, never have any need to be reminded of the law, since we can’t vote there is no need for us to be involved in politics here.

    It’s only those no-nothings that come to México thinking that their way is the ONLY way (which is unfortunately still a large percentage of the gringos who relocate here) who feel the MUST get involved in politics to TEACH the locals “how things should be”, rather than getting involved in civic groups and learning “how things really are.”

  12. 27 May 2009 7:01 pm

    Last post on this I hope. Dahr Jamail wrote a piece for Truthout which appeared today called “Colonizing Culture” really about Iraq and Afghanistan, but it contained this quote from Gandhi which seemed pertinent to our discussion:
    Gandhi, the apostle of non-violent resistance said:

    “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to live in other people’s houses as an interloper, a beggar or a slave.”

    The article is worth reading. You can find it here:


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