Here: A Biography of the New American Continent – DePALMA (CSS)

DePALMA, Anthony. Here: A Biography of the New American Continent. New York: PublicAffairs, 2001. 375p. Resenha de: HOFFMAN, George. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.2, p., 2004.

In this much-acclaimed book, Anthony DePalma argues that the traditional continental divisions in North America are fading. Canada and Mexico, though still distinctive, are becoming more American and the United States is beginning to pay more attention to its northern and southern neighbours. By the end of the 20th century North America was more than a geographic expression; it was becoming an economic, cultural and even political entity.

DePalma reported from both ends of the continent in the 1990s. He was the New York Times foreign correspondent in Mexico City from 1993 to 1996 and in Ottawa from 1996 to 1999. This gave him an unusually good vantage point during an interesting decade. In 1994, from Mexico, he reported on the peso crisis and the assassination of Luis Donaldo Cololosio, who many expected to become the next Mexican president. He travelled deep into the forests of Chiapas and heard Subcomandante Marcos address his Zapatista followers. In Canada he reported on the Nisga’a Treaty, visited the Inuit of Igloolik in the Arctic, and commented on the aftermath of the sovereignty referendum in Quebec. Here: A Biography of the New American Continent is based on such experiences. It is impressively reported and eloquently written. DePalma has an acute reporter’s eye.

The book is the story of the personal re-education (DePalma uses this term in the preface, p. xiii) of a journalist who understood little about Mexico and Canada before he lived there. He reports to Americans on their neighbours and informs them that the three countries can no longer exist as islands. In the new global age they have no choice in this matter; they are stuck with each other. DePalma believes that the United States, because of its wealth, power and past errors, has a special obligation as these new realities take shape. The book is an appeal for Americans to look southward and northward. Canada and Mexico are vital to the future of the continent. They have great potential and are interesting, culturally diverse societies. And surely, DePalma argues, diversity is a virtue in the interdependent world of the 21st century. Here is a book more for Americans than for Canadians and Mexicans. The author hopes that by reading it the American public will experience some of the re-education which he did.

The title of the book is interesting. DePalma attempts to write the biography of a place, the new America, which he believes emerged in the 1990s. But, of course, biography cannot be written without looking back at where the subject came from. Thus the author reflects extensively on the histories of Mexico and Canada in light of the critical changes on the continent which he witnessed. However, the book should not be read primarily to understand Canadian history. There are over generalizations, misleading impressions and errors. Are the thousands of loyalists (p. 78) who settled in Canada at the time of the American Revolution the major explanation for Canadian anti-Americanism over the next two centuries? Did Eastern Europeans who settled in the Canadian west bring socialist ideals with them (p. 78), which contributed to the development of cooperatives on the prairies and a national publicly funded medical system? This would be news to the vast majority of Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians and Mennonites who came from Russia and Austria in search of land. Has Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights made Canada more American? Is use of the charter to enhance Native treaty claims and gay rights evidence of creeping Americanism (p. 203)? Certainly many Canadians, and likely most Americans, would question that assumption. Can the massive Progressive Conservative defeat in 1993 and Brian Mulroney’s personal unpopularity be explained by a backlash against the Free Trade agreement (p. 50)? This ignores Meech Lake and the rise of the Reform party in the west, a party that supported free trade. And surely DePalma’s sympathetic treatment of Andy McMechan’s hatred for the Canadian Wheat Board (pp. 204-208) sheds little light on the differences between Canadians and Americans and even less on the history of prairie agriculture.

January 1, 1994, the date NAFTA went into effect, is central to the thesis of the book. It marked the birth of the new America. DePalma acknowledges that there was considerable opposition in all three countries. Some people in the short run were hurt. Others were more marginalized than ever. Change never occurs without a social cost. But, in the end, the author argues, the proponents of NAFTA were right, and the agreement created a new and better continent. He concludes that in the mid-90s the United States, Mexico and Canada, though still different and despite continuing tensions, began to focus on what they had in common and not to accentuate their differences. In the process Mexico became more democratic, less corrupt and more economically stable; Canada was less nationalistic, less obsessed with its identity; and the United States was less insular, more outward looking, more international. DePalma sees the outcomes of the three almost concurrent national elections in 2000 as a manifestation of that continental conversion (p. 343) that had begun earlier in the decade. The winners, George W. Bush, Vincente Fox and Jean Chrtien strongly supported NAFTA and greater continental cooperation.

DePalma’s views are optimistic, even idealistic. He approvingly refers to Vclev Havel’s speech to the Canadian parliament in 1999. The poet-president of the Czech Republic claimed that the nation state was passing away and that he foresaw a world in which traditional states would cede power to international agencies. To Anthony DePalma the new America is a part of that future. Blurring national differences will usher in a new and better world.

Possibly this is a prophetic book, but surely it is too soon to tell. In fact, the events of the past three years lead one to question its conclusions more than support them. Large numbers of Mexicans continue to live in desperate poverty. Opposition to globalization is growing. The Balkans and Middle East appear to disprove Vclav Havel’s vision of declining nationalism. The Iraq War was a disastrous setback to international cooperation. And certainly the United States, Mexico and Canada were not a triumvirate against Saddam Hussein! George W. Bush, the first president during the new North American age, is far less popular among Canadians than Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy who were in office when Canada, according to DePalma, spent much of its energy opposing continental integration and distinguishing itself from the United States.
Obviously this book is thought provoking and controversial. The issues it raises should be discussed in all Canadian classrooms.

George Hoffman – History Department. University of Regina. Regina, Saskatchewan.

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