US-Mexico Sister Cities International Association
Founded by a charter from the King of Spain, Fernando VI, when these lands were his property, Laredo has become in our time that spot in the Americas where the Spanish and English empires, after centuries of fighting, finally laid down their swords. Like any lasting truce, this peace boasts no clear vanquisher, no vanquished. The buoyancy of each culture, Anglo and Spanish, meant that neither could truly vanquish the other. Both traditions and both languages joined to form the rich blend we know as Laredo. And because of our strategic placement, on the largest land corridor connecting Spanish America and the United States, Laredo has attracted large communities from around the world: Jews, Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians. A walk in downtown Laredo can feel like a stroll in New York City, so varied are the peoples one encounters.
Some years ago, a native Laredoan asked me what aspect of our city was I most proud to show to visitors, most happy to describe to those unfamiliar with this region. The answer is an immediate one. We are, all of us, most proud of the amazing mix of peoples and cultures, Spanish and Anglo, to be sure, but also peoples from around the world. Unlike many regions where similarly juxtaposed groups struggle and kill each other, here is Laredo, every day of our lives, we shift and adjust, retool and realign our thinking and our behavior to accommodate the vast array of humanity before us. And we do this almost without thinking, a learned response which allows diversity to enrich us and contribute to the prospering and well being of all citizens. The man with whom I had this conversation suggested that we needed to establish at the University a Center for Cultural Understanding, to study how it is that in Laredo, peoples who elsewhere vow to annihilate each other here live and work in harmony.
That we might one day see a city, a region, a country, a world of multi-cultural harmony, that we might even wish to see that world, is a dream of very recent origin. If we apply Oliver Wendell Holmes's thinking to the question before us, if we interrogate history to understand "citizen diplomacy," what we find offers little encouragement. Much of what we believe in the West was first proposed by a Greek or a Jew, and therefore I cite two examples, one from Greek and one from Jewish literature, to illustrate what has been very nearly the universal human response to differences, to the Other. Herodotus, describing in the fifth century BCE the great Peloponnesian Wars, explains how the Athenians, though often at violent odds with the Spartans, would never betray their fellow Greeks to the Persians.
Race, blood, language, temples, religious practices bind us to Spartans, Athenians explain. We could not betray our some-time enemy, Sparta, with whom we share these vital links, to Persia with whom we share none of these.
Turning to the Old Testament, we find first separation, then hostilities defined as appropriate between peoples of different cultures. I am sure we all recall the story of the Tower of Babel, how God, angry that men would presume to build to heaven, struck the human race with the burden of many languages. A heretofore united humanity separated into groups of similar speech, and then spread out into nations formed by those linguistic groups. Diversity is therefore a curse, a punishment. The story suggests that if we somehow hadn't offended God, we might today all still speak the same language.
Even more daunting is the expected, Biblical outcome of encounters between peoples of differing religions. The clashes fueled by diversity end with unambiguous outcomes. You will no doubt remember how King Saul was ordered by God's prophet, Samuel, to deal with the Amalekites:
Depressingly modern sentiments. Because Saul relents and does not destroy every living thing of King Amalek, Samuel and God desert Saul. His life ends in tragedy and desolation, and David becomes King of Israel. I shudder to imagine the implications of this story for modern foreign policy.
Neither Herodotus nor the writer of the history of Israel could imagine peaceful coexistence between nations and cultures, nor did they conceive as possible diverse peoples forming one nation. The great Spanish queen, Isabel, is often maligned because she founded in the late fifteenth century the Inquisition in Spain. But the Inquisition had already been firmly established in France, Italy, Germany, and England, and Isabel was only bringing to Spain what all statesmen of her era thought essential. Her intent was to create a united nation, possible only under the language of Castile and the Church or Rome. All Europe agreed. Diversity brings instability, sedition, anarchy. Asian cultures offer countless examples of the same view. Diversity is a threat to order and even right-thinking. One group must dominate all others. Diversity and dissent are the common enemies of statehood and religion, of peace and prosperity.
How could so deeply entrenched a part of the human psyche and experience now be undergoing renovation? How might the call of the clan be modulated, attenuated, even re-directed? Are modern, affirming approaches to diversity-language, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender-simply forced upon us by technology, by the emergence of global markets, by the desire to promote good business? A desire to prosper, to trade, to buy and sell, no doubt promote many positive, modern arguments for diversity. This is nowhere more apparent than in Laredo. Jews sell to Arabs and Arabs to Catholics and all to Asians. There is much money to be made.
But apart from a pragmatic desire to tolerate the Other in order to
make money from him and with him, recent studies have disclosed far more
complex and interesting reasons why we should not just tolerate, but
freely embrace and absorb and share cultural norms and practices. And
great minds have throughout history asserted that not home and family,
but the inner worth of each human being should define us. St. Augustine
(425 CE) summed this up in his nice phrase, "Non
A recent study by Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, persuasively demonstrates an even more startling reality. More than good business, more than enlightened thinking, our capacity to understand and to learn from each other may determine our fate. Diamond cites innumerable examples of societies who perished, vanished, died because they refused to learn from other peoples, because they refused to question their own inherited wisdom, because they did not understand that the world around them was changing and evolving, because they did not understand that to do what they had always done, what they had been taught, what their fathers and grandfathers believed, might prove a poor response to the challenges they faced.
Among the many examples Diamond cites of civilizations who perished because they were too true to their roots, none is more interesting than the Norwegian community in Greenland in the thirteenth century. Intrepid Norse settlers brought their customs, their religion, their diet, their taboos with them, intact, and with tenacity and fidelity honored who and what they were, where and what they came from. And as a result, they perished. Had they been willing to learn from the indigenous population, to moderate the preferences, especially their taste for beef and their disinterest in fish, the colony might have survived.
My purpose is not to suggest that Herodotus, the Prophet Samuel, and Isabel la Católica should have behaved differently, that they should have, as we say to children, known better. They, like the Norsemen in Greenland, acted in accord with their most enlightened thinkers, advisors, and priests. These are famous cases from a history laden with similar examples. Each tribe protects its own and honors its traditions. Those from over the hill or across the river are to be resisted, ignored, or even combated.
Today, we have an opportunity to move in a broad, new direction. In
a sharp departure from the history of this matter, learning from error
and tragedy of the past, we can assert that the capacity to promote universal
human welfare may determine our fate as a species. Global warming, global
epidemic, natural disasters, and interdependent economies all tell us
that we are one, that we must act together. To continue to believe, as
we have through most of human history, that God prefers one group over
another, that he or she speaks more clearly to one people than to another,
that the Other must be opposed in the name of the Almighty, might well
hasten our demise as a species. We can write a better page than the many
we have inherited.
Ray M. Keck III