Today's date:
Fall 2009/Winter 2010

A Premonition of Obama: La Raza Cosmica in America

Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died in 2007, was one of the 20th century’s greatest literary journalists. He personally witnessed the dramatic post-World War II upheavals of decolonization and revolution across what we used to call “the Third World” and set down his reflections in such best-selling books as The Emperor, about the fall of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and Shah of Shahs, about the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. He served on NPQ’s editorial board until his death.

When I last saw Kapuscinski for coffee at the Hotel Bristol in Warsaw in the summer of 2005 he was busy preparing a lecture on Herodotus, the ancient Greek traveler and historian regarded as “the father of journalism.”

In 1987, NPQ brought Kapuscinski to Los Angeles to roam around and observe North America’s largest “Third World city.” He stayed at the New Seoul Hotel in the heart of Koreatown, venturing from there all the way down to Disneyland, Hispanic East L.A. and the wealthy Westside. At the end of each day, we sat down to gather his impressions.

Kapuscinski saw the United States as the place where the idea of “la raza cosmica”—the cosmic race—would be realized. For him, America was a premonition of the plural, racially mixed, culturally hybrid civilization the whole world would one day become. In a way, his insight was also a premonition of the presidency of Barack Obama, a self-described cultural and racial “mutt.” In a world where the contamination of globalization has sparked troubling yearnings for a return to purity, being a nation of mutts, Kapuscinski understood, is America’s competitive advantage.

Los Angeles—The mere fact that America still attracts millions of people is evidence that it is not in decline. People aren’t attracted to a place of decline. Signs of decline are sure to be found in a place as complex as America: debt, crime, the homeless, drugs, dropouts. But the main characteristic of America, the first and most enduring impression, is dynamism, energy, aggressiveness, forward movement.

It is so hard to think of this nation in decline when you know that there are vast regions of the planet that are absolutely paralyzed, incapable of any improvement at all.

It is difficult for me to agree with Paul Kennedy’s thesis in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers that America must inevitably follow historical precedent. That’s the way history used to be—all-powerful nations declined and gave way to other empires. But maybe there is another way to look at what is happening. I have a sense that what is going on here concerns much more than the fate of a nation.

It may be that the Euro-centered American nation is declining as it gives way to a new Pacific civilization that will include, but not be limited to, America. Historically speaking, America may not decline but instead fuse with the Pacific culture to create a kind of vast Pacific collage, a mix of Hispanic and Asian cultures linked through the most modern communication technologies.

Traditional history has been a history of nations. But here, for the first time since the Roman Empire, there is the possibility of creating the history of a civilization. Now is the first chance on a new basis with new technologies to create a civilization of unprecedented openness and pluralism. A civilization of the polycentric mind. A civilization that leaves behind forever the ethnocentric, tribal mentality, the mentality of destruction.

Los Angeles is a premonition of this new civilization. Linked more to the Third World and Asia than to Europe of America’s racial and cultural roots, Los Angeles and Southern California will enter the 21st century as a multiracial and multicultural society.

This is absolutely new. There is no previous example of a civilization that is being simultaneously created by so many races, nationalities, and cultures. This new type of cultural pluralism is completely unknown in the history of mankind.

America is becoming more plural every day because of the unbelievable facility of the new Third World immigrants to put a piece of their original culture inside of American culture. The notion of a “dominant” American culture is changing every moment. It is incredible coming to America to find you are somewhere else—in Seoul, in Taipei, in Mexico City. You can travel inside Korean culture right on the streets of Los Angeles. Inhabitants of this vast city become internal tourists in the place of their own residence.

There are large communities of Laotians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Iranians, Japanese, Koreans, Armenians, Chinese. We find here Little Taipei, Little Saigon, Little Tokyo, Koreatown, Little Central America, the Iranian neighborhood in Westwood, the Armenian community in Hollywood, and the vast Mexican-American areas of East Los Angeles. Eighty-one languages, few of them European, are spoken in the elementary school system of the city of Los Angeles.

This transformation of American culture anticipates the general trend in the composition of mankind. Ninety percent of the immigrants to this city are from the Third World. At the beginning of the 21st century, 90 percent  of the world’s population will be dark-skinned; the white race will be no more than 11 percent of all human beings living on our planet.

Something that can only be seen in America:

In the manicured, landscaped, ultraclean high-technology parks of northern Orange Country there is a personal computer company that seven years ago did not exist. There were only strawberry fields where the plant is. Now, there is a $500 million company with factories in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well. The company was founded by three young immigrants—a Pakistani Muslim and two Chinese from Hong Kong. They only became citizens in 1984. Each individual is now probably worth $30 million. Walking through this company we see only young, dark faces—Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Mexicans—and the most advanced technology. The culture of the workforce is a mix of Hispanic-Catholic family values and Asian-Confucian group loyalty. Employment notices are never posted; hiring is done through the network of families that live in southern California. Not infrequently, employees ask to work an extra 20 hours a week to earn enough money to help members of their extended family buy their first home.

In Los Angeles, traditional Third World cultures are, for the first time, fusing with the most modern mentalities and technologies. After decades of covering war and revolution in the Third World, I carry in my mind an image of crowds, tension, crisis. My experience has always been of social activity that leads to destruction, to trouble, to unhappiness. People are always trying to do something, but they are unable to. The intentions of people trying to make revolution are just and good, but suddenly something goes wrong. There is disorganization, unending problems. The weight of the past. They cannot fulfill their objectives.

Usually, the contact between developed and underdeveloped worlds has the character of exploitation—just taking people’s labor and resources and giving them nothing. And the border between races has usually been a border of tension, of crisis. Here we see a revolution that is constructive.

This Pacific Rim civilization being created is a new relationship between development and underdevelopment. Here, there is openness. There is hope. And a future. There is a multicultured crowd. But it is not fighting. It is cooperating, peacefully competing, building. For the first time in 400 years of relations between the non-white Western word and the white Western world, the general character of the relationship is cooperation and construction, not exploitation, not destruction.

Unlike any other place on the planet, Los Angeles shows us the potential of development once the Third World mentality merges with an open sense of possibility, a culture of organization, a Western conception of time. For the destructive, paralyzed world where I have spent most of my life, it is important, simply, that such a possibility as Los Angeles exists. To adjust the concept of time is the most difficult thing. It is a key revolution of development.

Western culture is a culture of arithmetical time. Time is organized by the clock. In non-Western culture, time is a measure between events. We arrange a meeting at 9 o’clock, but the man doesn’t show up. We become anxious, offended. He doesn’t understand our anxiety, because for him, the moment he arrives is the measure of time. He is on time when he arrives.

In 1924, the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcellos wrote a book entitled La Raza Cosmica. He dreamed of the possibility that, in the future, mankind would create one human race, a mestizo race. All races on the planet would merge into one type of man. La raza cosmica is being born in Los Angeles, in the cultural sense if not the anthropological sense. A vast mosaic of different races, cultures, religions, and moral habits are working toward one common aim. From the perspective of a world submerged in religious, ethnic, and racial conflict, this harmonious cooperation is something unbelievable. It is truly striking.

What is the common aim that harmonizes competing cultures in one place? It is not only the better living standard. What attracts immigrants to America is the essential characteristic of American culture: the chance to try. There is a combination of two things that are important: culture and space. The culture allows you to try to be somebody—to find yourself, your place, your status. And there is space not only in a geographical sense but also in the sense of opportunity, of social mobility. In societies that are in crisis and in societies that are stagnant—or even in those that are stable—there is no chance to try. You are defined in advance. Destiny has already sentenced you.

Other countries, even if they are open like Great Britain or France, don’t have this dynamic of development. There is no space for development. This is what unites the diverse races and culture in America. If the immigrant to America at first fails, he always thinks, “I will try again.” If he had failed in the old society, he would be discouraged and pessimistic, accepting the place that was given to him. In America, he’s thinking, “I will have another chance, I will try again.” That keeps him going. He’s full of hope.

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Nathan Gardels | Unlike most nations on the planet, what ties us together in America is not our past but our future. As Octavio Paz has remarked, America is “the Republic of the Future.” In that sense, we are a nation divorced from the plural cultures that are all rooted in different pasts, and that now comprises us.

Ryszard Kapuscinski | In America, a proper balance between past and future is possible. You can be attached to your culture, to language, to tradition, to habit, but the notion of the future is bright. The future occupies greater proportions in your imagination than the past. It is bigger. The openness of the culture allows you to revise the proportions—not to cut off your link with the past, but to give the past a proper place, a place that is less heavy, less important. You can verify your attitude toward your past.

In a society in crisis, in a society threatened by invasion or domination, the past plays a disproportionate role. It blocks the imagination. The past is the only thing the society can cling to in order to affirm itself. The main feature of a society in crisis is that you don’t see the future. The future doesn’t exist as a promising time. A man sees the future as a time more dangerous than the past. He sees that everything that is good has already taken place. He says, “Well, today, somehow, I got by.” If he looks at the future, he sees a black hole. This lack of perspective is far more damaging, far more dangerous than economic or political troubles.

Gardels | As never before, for immigrants the American future and their past culture are tied together by new communication technologies and air travel. The proportions of their perspective can be balanced across time and space. I’m thinking of the Korean Times—a newspaper in Los Angeles that every day publishes 16 pages of news sent directly by satellite from Seoul. I’m also thinking of Korea Air, which flies two nonstop 747s a day between LA and Seoul, of the Korean-language cable TV channels, and the video movies from Asia.

Kapuscinski | Part of the civilization forming here is a new kind of fusion of time and space.

For an Eastern European, to come to America at the turn of the century was a very strong cultural shock. His connection to home was cut abruptly. For the rest of his life he was completely cut out of the place where he was born and where he worshipped. Many people never recovered from the shock. It damaged their ability to enter the new culture in a dynamic way.

The new immigrants don’t need to live through this cultural shock. The world is much more open. You can be in America trying a new life, but still be closely connected with your past. Today, immigrants are living in one place physically, but they are sustained culturally from elsewhere. They can watch Mexican soap operas on TV, or regularly fly back and forth to Mexico on the cheap midnight flight out of Los Angeles International Airport. They can read Korean news at the same time it is being read in Seoul and can take the daily jumbo jet to Korea. The freedom to have this sort of contact is culturally and psychologically very healthy. They don’t feel completely cut off from their past the day after their departure from home.

Immigrants now have a higher level of education than in earlier times. The new immigrant tends to be a person with much broader ideas, with a flexible approach. Culturally, this person is much stronger in facing the difficulties of changing countries.

Ninety percent of Polish immigrants to America at the turn of the century were illiterate. The new wave of Polish immigration to the United States after marital law includes some of our most educated people. A Polish immigrant to America in the 19th century was terrified. Now, the immigrant immediately adjusts himself to the new environment. Increasingly, he’s able to participate in the new society from one day to the next.

Sixty percent of the Korean immigrants to the US—some 30,000 a year —have college educations. Even Mexican workers and peasants who come here largely benefit from the basic education provided by the Mexican government.

Emigrants would probably be willing to go to prosperous Japan. But Japan is small and dense. There is little space, geographically or culturally. Above all, there is the tremendous barrier of language. In America, by contrast, there is a complete freedom of language. To live here, you don’t even need to speak English. And, however well or poorly you speak English, your speech is more or less accepted. You don’t feel any stress. You can communicate easily. There is an ever growing sphere in Los Angeles where you don’t even hear the English language. You don’t see it on the commercial signs, in advertising, in the local newspapers. You don’t hear it on the radio or on the cable-TV channels. As an immigrant, this gives you a relaxed feeling.

You can’t find another country in which knowledge of the main language is not necessary for living. You can’t find another country where speaking the dominant language in a poor, broken way is accepted as normal. If you go to a place like Japan, you are cut off. You can’t communicate.

In America, Nobody cares. Nobody asks.

Gardels | Disneyland is a metaphor of America as the land of dreams realizable. A place where the imaginable is attainable. You walk into this land of dreams through the reconstruction of a typical turn-of-the-century Main Street: an idyllic place from America’s most idyllic time. Today, the new American Main Street is the Southeast Asian community that now encircles Disneyland: Bolsa Avenue—a sparkling new sprawling shopping strip known as Little Saigon. The signs seen and the languages heard are Cambodian, Laotian, or Vietnamese. Here, in the shadow of the fake Matterhorn, the refugees from history’s crises are rebuilding their dreams.

Kapuscinski | This kind of amazing settlement is not just a matter of the freedom of self-expression. It’s the reconstruction of a whole town! They are putting, in Orange Country, Vietnamese styles of architecture and design that have been developed over the centuries. And on such a tremendous scale! This scene is a potent symbol of the American future. These boat people have the possibility to re-create lost realities according to their image.

In America, immigrants find total tolerance to rebuild in the styles of their homelands. In Europe, if they tried to build whole areas into new cities of a foreign nature, the authorities would prohibit it. They would not allow immigrants to destroy the historical town that exists in that place. Here, having the open space physically and psychologically conducive to tolerance, everybody can re-create their past.

Nowhere else on the planet can you find this kind of multicultural space. A whole Asia, a whole Central America is being re-created here on a small scale. This is a completely new phenomenon in an already developed society.

Gardels | What’s the appeal of America mass culture—Mickey Mouse, McDonald’s, Madonna—to the rest of the world?

Kapuscinski | In the socialist bloc, at least, the appeal of American mass culture initially came from the taste of prohibition. I drank my first Coca-Cola when I was 28 years old. Before that, I regarded it, as did my compatriots, as a tool of imperialist domination. It was poison. For those who didn’t trust official propaganda, Coke was a symbol of freedom. It was the symbol of a dream, of the other world.

Gardels | In fast-food restaurants—like the McDonald’s in Moscow or Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing—everything is made in a particular way by a particular formula. Everything is the same. The food is produced with automated efficiency. These convenience chains are themselves exports of conceptions of time and organization.

Kapuscinski | Yes, the idea of convenience is a cultural export related to the use of time.

And the culture of convenience, so well developed in America, appeals everywhere. In Warsaw, you can walk for miles with no place to buy a sandwich. That’s the appeal of McDonald’s.

If immigrants streaming to America are agents of world cultural fusion—the fusion of time and cultures—this fusion spills back into the world through the exports of American mass culture: McDonald’s restaurants are agents of the world cultural fusion.

Recently, I flew from Toronto to Philadelphia. It was late at night. My plane landed. Other planes were also just landing, from Miami, from Los Angeles. At this airport, Cubans and Puerto Ricans were coming to meet the planes with their whole families. Lots of children were playing, falling down, crying. My luggage was lost. Nobody would find anything. It was hot, crowded, noisy. A mess. There I was in Philadelphia, the historical American town, and I hadn’t seen one white face. There was a terrible disorder, the lost luggage, the cries of the children, Spanish language only. I said to myself, “I’m at home. I’m in the Third World.”

Features of third world society are penetrating American life. Third world influences—dynamic disorganization, easygoing attitudes, a slower pace of life, a different measurement of time, and relations to family—are altering the once-dominant northern European ways of putting society together. The sphere of neat, well-organized white society is shrinking.

The wrong angle to approach the new multicultural reality from is the perspective of Western cultural values, including Greek philosophy. Each culture has something to bring to the new pluralistic culture being created. The Korean community in Los Angeles owes nothing to Greek culture. Their diligence, their dedication, their discipline, their familial loyalty and esteem of education know nothing of Plato.

The question is not value relativism. We can’t say values are broken down. We are in a period of transition in which the notion of values is broader. We are departing from the time in which we accepted only one set of values as the truthful way of living. We are entering the period in which we will have to accept values that represent other cultures, that are not “worse” than other values, but different. This transition is very difficult because the nature of our minds is ethnocentric. The mind of the future man, however, will be polycentric.

Gardels | The value-relativism argument is often raised precisely because we are, for the first time, crossing a critical threshold where European values are colliding with positive values that are non-European.

Giambattista Vico, the Italian philosopher, believed that each successive human culture had its own vision of reality. That vision formed customs, modes of creation, forms of language. Each successive culture, Vico believed, was incommensurable with others. Each culture’s virtues and values could only be understood in its own terms. Johann Gottfried Herder similarly believed that each society had its own center of gravity, a  “lifestyle” that was equally valid but different from all others. These men concerned themselves with understanding the validity of all human cultures in different times or of the same time in different places. Like Bronislaw Malinowksi, the Polish anthropologist, they felt cultures could not be judged in a hierarchy.

Only in a place such as Los Angeles—where different cultures exist in the same time and in the same place—is the philosophical task of intercultural communication confronted on a daily basis simply because disparate people live and work here, side by side. In the specific, practical situations of daily life, immigrants and non-immigrants make tradeoffs among rules, values, and visions of reality.

Is all this cultural diversity concentrated in one place the source of American dynamism? Karl Polanyi, the development theorist, has noted that throughout history the crucibles of development were always the places of greatest cultural diversity. Dynamism and creativity are born from the interaction of everybody challenging everyone else’s assumptions.

Kapuscinski | Milan Kundera pointed out that at the beginning of the century Vienna was a very colorful mosaic of different cultures—Austrians, Jews, Ukranians, Hungarians and others all living in one place. The competition among cultures gave life to the times. The richness of different views, different beliefs, different races, different cultures created an immense capacity for development at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

World War II established boundaries that impeded the natural interchange among peoples and, especially after the Jewish population was liquidated, the creativity of the culture collapsed in central Europe. The dynamism faded away.

Vienna reveals a historical truth. Whenever there is a place where different cultures and values gather, a very dynamic situation is created. Development and progress explode.

Los Angeles is comparable to Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century. But here, the basis of dynamism is vastly broader. It includes cultures, peoples and beliefs from other continents and civilizations. Vienna’s immigrants came from other regions in the same part of Europe.

Gardels | How can the rest of the world keep up with America? Immigrants coming here today are more educated and literate. America gets all the goods; the rest of the world gets all the crises.

Kapuscinski | This trend will continue. It is an objective law of history. You cannot stop it. The danger for America, and for the whole world, is that American development is so dynamic and creative that, by the beginning of the next century, America will be a different world on the same planet. The position and rule of dynamic America and the paralysis of historical societies—this is the big problem for the future of mankind.

Every day, America is producing more and more elements of a completely new civilization that is further and further from the civilization of the rest of the world. The world will enter the 21st century with a greater distance between developed and underdeveloped peoples than at the middle of the 20th century. The differences are growing, not diminishing.

Two-thirds of our planet will not be able, in the foreseeable future, to come anywhere near matching American development. We know now that large parts of the planet will be left behind. This is a pessimistic statement, but it’s true. Those who can, try to emigrate to America. They don’t want to wait to participate in their own development. They know it won’t be in their lifetime or the lifetime of their children and grandchildren.

After all the upheavals of the 20th century—the wars, the revolutions, the mass migrant movements, the birth of new states, the death of empires—the world that remains is plural, fragmented, a collage.

The collage is a strange structure. It is a structure that is a contradiction within itself. On the one hand, different pieces are put together that do not compose a coherent feature. On the other hand, these pieces exist together. They create a new structure. They coexist. They cooperate as a completely new entity. Collage started in art. Artists, having a great sensitivity and ability to see the future, created this form of reflecting reality. Now, the reality is evident for all to see. In Los Angeles, collage is the form of the new civilization. There is no Culture. There are plural cultures in the same place.

Los Angeles is a vast, sprawling, gigantic collage, a display of fragments: cars, roads, architecture, cultures, races, languages. All values, all structures have broken down. Everything has gone to pieces, thrown together in one place. We have a big table. On this table there are different things: papers, pictures, fragments of various goods. Everything is there. And when we try to reconstruct these things, to put them back in their original order, we are unable to do so. The result of this effort to reconstruct the broken reality is the collage.

But each piece of the collage has its aim. All these cars crisscrossing the freeways have their destination. They are going to a certain point—organized movement, going in one direction. So, there is an order in the chaos. Unity in disunity. Composition in decomposition. Although this new American reality is composed of many different historical roots, political systems and geographic origins, everything is trying to compose into a new entity. Plurality is the defining feature of the new civilization. In this new world, values and cultures other than our own are demanding a place in our consciousness.

The world is growing up. And in the world we have more of everything—more people, more goods, more communications. This growth of everything demands more cultural space and will destroy whatever does not accept this reality. That makes systems that don’t accept plurality obsolete.

Every system that does not admit plurality as the new way of life is exploding.