Puerto Rico: Between Tradition and Modernity*
While waiting at a light to make a left-handed turn on a two lane road, a young north american driver who had been honking his horn nearly drove his car into mine and almost began a fist fight. He believed that my car's lane was in the designated to 'go straight' lane, and hence his violent outburst. In fact he had not seen the sign immediately on the left which clearly designated it as a turning lane. His clear frustration probably stemmed from those unwelcome experiences 'proving' that the island is not a place which 'abides by the rule of law'. I sympathize with his frustration as I too have felt its iniquities, but strongly disagree with its presumptions.
In spite of the fact that modernization theory and its writers have fallen out of favor in todays liberal-dominated academic arena, it is clear that many of the issues addressed by the theory are still with us today, as demonstrated in the above example. While it may have been a clear misinterpretation of the actual state of law (making the violation only his own), there were clear presumptions of a particular set of normative social situations which had been expected but not experienced by the young north-american fellow. In some small way, this young man directly felt what many hispanic immigrants feel on a daily basis in the United States: a set of social norms that clearly clash with those of their native countries. An inverse example, prior to going into the discussion, might be useful.
I was visiting Dallas, Texas one summer for the wedding of a friend of mine. A day prior to the big day, while everyone was busy making last-minute preparations, I decided to walk from my hotel to a nearby used-books store. This was in and of itself a feat because there were no sidewalks to the store as Dallas is clearly a 'driver-oriented' city. When I finally was able to get there in one piece and had seen my fair share of books, I ended up in the cafe where the real story takes place. There were two men a few tables away from one another. One was clearly an upper class 'yuppie', while the other was a more modest 'nerd'; both were approximately in their late forties. The nerd turned to the yuppie and asked him what was a fairly routine question of everyday life, I forget what, alluding to either cups, spoons, or condiments. The yuppie looked at him incredulously, stood up, and walked away--in what was one of the most aberrant examples of social incivility that I have ever witnessed.
In Dallas's cold infrastructure, where metal and steel are worth more than human dignity, it is perhaps no wonder that despite it having the highest per capita income of Texas, it also has one of the highest corresponding rates of suicide in the nation. (Dallas has one of the highest number of expensive Jaguar automobiles per capita as well.)
The two examples show that the worlds of modernity and tradition are simply very hard to reconcile. It is perhaps for this reason that members of each side perceive the opposite set of social worlds as distopias. Each social world has their own set of benefits and drawbacks. However, it is very hard for members of each, to truly understand the other.
The cold industrial world exists simply because it reduces the cost of objects while enhancing their functional traits. Today, for example, we do not have to spend two month's salary to purchase a book. Value, fortunately or unfortunately, is not tied to the 'intrinsic merit' of an object, allowing a citizen to obtain a used paperback of Shakespeare's sonnets for a few dollars or (for the religiously inclined) a bible for a few cents. This world is 'ruled' by abstract thought, which liberates men from the distraction of unproductive dialogue. The problem with this world, however, is that--as we all know--it is cold and ruthless. When you start measuring men according to dollars and cents, you degrade their innate humanity and intrinsic dignity. People have a basic right to eat and sleep, work, love, and feel meaningful, like their being and action have some ultimate purpose or social function. They want to be greeted, and recognized. When, therefore, banks begin to indefinitely lay off workers simply because the new cash machines can do the job faster and 'better', they are depriving individuals of a basic social presumption that is implicitly embedded in all social forms: 'we will take care of you'. The cold halls of UPS delivery system, perfectly timed according to mathematically precise calculations of cost and benefit, not only transports goods all over the world for a very low price, but turn its laborers into the cogs of a machine that are ground up with the passing of time and the cycle of its gears.
The warm world of compadrismo and strict 'personalism', however, is far from ideal either; those who cherish it often have a mistake idealized and stereotyped images of human nature. Left to their own devices, morality is not necessarily intrinsic to human behavior, thus any social system which depends only upon the goodwill of individuals is ultimately destined to fail. Any agreement that is based solely on oral agreement will at some point incur in the enemity of both parties, and it is perhaps no wonder that written contracts have existed ever since humanity has been able to write and record, such as the early Sumerians and Babylonians. Nonetheless, when it does work--when the bonds of human affection surpass the trivialities of the clock-driven industrial world, however---those who benefit from its action are eternally grateful for its existence. All of us are ultimately imperfect creatures will fail at some point or another; to pretend that each of us can be disposable is to already begin with a basic violation of human rights that will ultimately end in some injustice in its path. Who is not grateful for the kind word, the extended helping hand, or the warm invitation to tea? Without these basic forms of civility, in the deepest sense of the world, life would not be worth living--as the case of Dallas so clearly indicates. Small kind gestures are worth various million dollar Jaguars, contrary to the indications of our economic capitalist system.
It would be all to easy to suggest that the simple combination of both will create the perfect world: reduced goods in a humane environment, but the simple fact is that social systems are not that easily manipulated and controlled; "social planning" might be a misnomer after all. The manner in which we produce and distribute-exchange our goods will ultimately have a drastic impact on the way we live, and ultimately on our values. While we may not be able to perceive these slow and gradual changes on a day to day bases, they are very real nonetheless. The man who was raised close to his kindred as a young boy now lives alone in his apartment, though he might see his siblings once or twice a year. Though he lives in the imaginary social world of his warm youth, the world actually surrounding him has in fact long ceased to exist. The ease with which our automobiles transport us from one place to another, also drastically expands our urban infrastructure and divides us from one another; the price we pay for the many goods we desire at the same time separates us from our fellow men. While we might cherish the past, our actions in the present slowly alter it forever.
Nonetheless, let us consider the opposite view. Are we to bravely overhaul our entire economic system only to preserve our values? Such are the dreams of madmen, and equally extreme to those who would wish that modernity be the exclusive guide to social policy and law. Values are but merely the intellectual remnants of styles of life that have often faded long ago. While values modify our actions, and in the process help define and shape our contemporary world, they simply cannot be the sole determinant to our collective decisions. Though we may debate it, economic law is just as real as the law of gravity; the price of goods will fluctuate according to supply and demand, wether we might wish it to or not. As long as the liberal academia fails to understand the very real presence of these laws, they will be unable to provide viable answers to their most cherished questions.
Whatever the answer might be to our dilemma, it is certainly not a simple one. It is one that will have to vary with the times, with the shifting economies and technological environments. It is one that will vary from place to place, from nation to nation, and culture to culture.