Seeing Things: Southern Exposure

National Cultures are strange things. Those of us impudent enough to talk about the way that the United States or some other nation seems headed face a big hurdle. How can you characterize what more than a quarter of a billion strangers are thinking, feeling, and doing at a particular moment? Anyone who has puzzled over what’s going on under his own roof, where a human drama with a much smaller and familiar cast is constantly being played out, might feel that the alternatives seem to be either stone silence or sheer speculation.

A writer, by definition, cannot be silent, though we’d often be wiser to remain so. Most of the time, therefore, we behave like augurs and astrologers, announcing portentous changes on the basis of streaks in the livers of birds or stray signs in the sky. Under the circumstances, it’s a marvel that, occasionally, we are not entirely wrong.

These musings arise from recent experience. A few hours after voting in November I boarded a plane for South America. And a good thing, too. It was a blessing to have to follow the aftermath sporadically from a distance of 4,000 miles.

A great curiosity, however, was the Latins’ reaction. For me, the deadlock reflected a deeply divided American culture, in which a majority of people who said they were concerned about our moral state inexplicably voted for Gore. For the Latins, it demonstrated a crisis in the U.S. system. As a Brazilian friend, who knows America well and is married to a North Carolinian, put it: “It was fitting that it happened in Florida. They are halfway to a banana republic anyway.”

Foreigners see U.S. problems in a very different light than we do. Eyes glaze over when you try to explain to anyone outside the United States that we live in a country with a system deliberately set up to avoid direct democracy and the tyranny of majorities by republican institutions. The banana republics, the peoples’ republics, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of the 20th century tell them a different tale.

At a conference in Chile, many Latins gravely opined that the whole fiasco would make America less influential. We gringos listened—equally gravely—but when they were not around, we sort of looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. None of us believed that America’s leadership would be impaired unless the next president disgraces himself in ways that even the previous occupant of the White House did not. It would not necessarily be a bad thing, either, if America—solid as a rock by world standards—were thought of as only one model for how to organize society.

Chile itself impressed me as another good variant. Unlike many Latin countries, Chile has an orderliness and reserve that makes it feel like Switzerland. The snow-covered mountains around Santiago only add to the illusion. In addition, the Church seems to be in good shape there, with lots of Jubilee Year activities in full swing.

Now, my impressions of Chile are probably worth as much as the average Latin’s impression of the United States. Indeed, it is hard to get a fix on cultures that are not as prominent as our own. One way—admittedly eccentric—that I tried to get a sense of what Chile has been like over the years was to read (with timeouts for CNN) two Chilean poets, both Nobel Prize winners, who could not have been more different.

Gabriela Mistral was an austere Catholic whose fiancé unexpectedly committed suicide. She devoted the rest of her life to three things: children, education, and poetry. In 1945, when she received the Nobel Prize, the Stockholm jury had not yet succumbed to anti-Catholicism and population planning and apparently thought she represented something the postwar world badly needed. Her poetry, like her life, is serious, spiritual, and spare. Mistral lived in New York during her last years; if she were alive today, she might be reading, and perhaps writing for, Crisis.

The other poet I approached with caution. Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize in 1970, just before Chile descended into the maelstrom of Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet. Neruda was a Communist and a supporter of the Nationalists in Spain who killed Catholics by the thousands. His life was heavily edited to produce the gently romantic film Il Postino a few years ago. At the time the actress Julia Roberts pronounced Neruda her favorite poet.

But the Father sends His rain on the just and the unjust alike. Neruda received some of the most luxurious poetic gifts of the 20th century, and gifts of a special kind. Great poetry always makes us more aware of the hidden riches of creation that we believe are there but that few of us can see. Before reading Neruda, I did not believe that such gifts could coexist with such ideological obtuseness. The world’s grandeur is so palpable to him at times that he looks for final plenitude, what I (not he) would call the beatific vision. At other times the world is so overwhelming that he longs to be a stone. Any person of spiritual awareness knows what he means.

How did Mistral and Neruda come out of the same Chilean culture? Perhaps in the same way that America produced Bush and Gore, by conflicting and paradoxical currents. Whatever cultural conclusions we might draw from such complexities, one thing is certain: In Chile, those currents had bloody political consequences. We Americans have been far more fortunate. As we inaugurate a new president, we should be grateful. In spite of everything we have been through, except for the Civil War, our own self-contradictions have been mercifully mild. Since the fall, humanity has been in such sad straits that many peoples further south and around the world would gladly trade large tracts of their histories for what we in America rightly perceive as a troubling cultural crisis.

Robert Royal

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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