‘In order for the world to be transformed into a new mould it is necessary that human beings themselves shall psychically turn on to another path. Until you really make yourself a brother to tall, brotherhood will not arrive. Niver, prompted by science or self-interest alone, will human beings be able to share their property and their privileges in harmless fasion. None will consider that he has enough, and all will grumble, envying and destroying one another. You ask when what I describe will come true. It will come true, but first there must be a period of human solitariness.’

‘What kind of solitariness do you mean?’ I asked him.

‘The kind that reigns in everywhere now, particularly in our own time, though it has not yet established itself universally, and its hour has not yet come. For in our era all are isolated into individuals, each retires solitary within his burrow, each withdraws from the other, conceals himself and that which he possesses. He amasses wealth in solitariness, thinking: how strong I am now and how secure, yet he does not know, the witless one, that the more he amasses, the further he will sink into suicidal impotence. For he has become accustomed to relying upon himself alone and has isolated himself from the whole as an individual, has trained his soul not to trust in help from others, in human beings and mankind, and is fearful only of losing his money and the privileges he has acquired. In every place today the human mind is mockingly starting to lose its awereness of the fact that a person’s true security consists not in his own personal, solitary effort, but in the common integrity of human kind.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

The last time I read El Norte, I suppose I was somewhat suprised to skim over a graph that listed Mexico as the 10th wealthiest nation in the world; well ahead of most European countries. But not that surprised. The problem is, we’re accustomed to measuring wealth by metrics like minimum wage ($4 a day in Mexico, $7 an hour in California) and property value., But, if you were to measure something like purchase of $40,000+ cars per capita, I bet you’d be surprised. In fact, per capita, I’d be willing to bet that Mexico would “win out.”

I am writing this installment of the series from San Diego. Taking the trolley from Tijuana to Old Town San Diego a few days ago, an important realization struck me regarding the difference between the U.S. and Mexico. Both countries have their multi-million dollar corporate headquarters, sprawling private universities, fenced off estates and costly country clubs. And they both have their homelessness and poverty – rural and metropolitan. And against popular myth, both countries even have a sizable middle class.

What struck me as the real reason we continue to call the U.S. and Western Europe “first world” and Mexico “third world” is the night and day difference in government infrastructure.

There I was sitting on comfortable and dependable public transportation with the rest of my fellow San Diegans, rich and poor. Looking out the windows, I saw well constructed, safe, and maintained highways, freeways, and roads. Decently planned nieghborhoods with well-constructed houses that meet municipal housing standards. We passed government maintained public spaces: parks, train stations, community centers, theaters, and museums. (Monterrey’s most well known museum is privately owned.)

Mexicans would never – and with good reason – trust their government to … well, govern … so many programs and projects.

During the long haul from the Otay Mesa border crossing to Old Town – listening to Nightmares on Wax on the iPod – it dawned on me for the first time that, though we have a well-deserved reputation for extreme individualism, American culture is (was?) very much about entrusting our government institutions to provide us with the shared facilities, comforts, and programs we desire.

Before getting to know HP and reading many more conservative blogs, I was naive enough to think that the only difference between liberals and conservatives was simply that liberals are compassionate adn giving while conservatives are greedy and stingy. It is true that there are plenty of greedy, individualistic, secular conservatives. And I don’t mean greedy in a derogatory sense, bur rather, as Peter puts it, simply self-interest.

But the more (and more objectively) I read, the more I’ve come to understand that the greater difference is one of God. Actually, that’s poorly put. Let me try to explain myself. Like Dostoyevsky wrote 125 years ago, we all desire a sense of community. It’s one of the reasons we keep revisiting each other’s blogs. Most liberals want a democratically elected and transparent government to help promote that sense of community. Public parks, public universities, government funded art projects, grants, museums: we consider these good things.

Most conservatives also want a sense of community, but they want it to take place outside the government. It would be an interesting survey, but I am pretty sure that most conservatives (worldwide) seek a sense of community in their church or religious community. Or at their country club or athletic club.

The difference is a cultural one, but more and more, it seems like it always is.

Maybe this post seems a bit tangential in the context of the series, but I think it’ll tie in later on. The next post will be about my reflections while traveling in Cuba and then – if the State Department doesn’t come after me – my thoughts on the open source movement.