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EAR the airport in Irvine, in another office park, was the Orange County Business Journal. When I had phoned for an appointment, the editor, Rick Reiff, offered to take me to lunch. I assumed he preferred to talk over lunch rather than in his office. I was wrong. Reiff took me to lunch to show me what really goes on in Orange County.
Reiff, who won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in Akron, Ohio, has run the editorial side of the Business Journalsince 1990. He wore a blazer and a stylish collarless shirt without a tie. He drove me from his own office park to one just like it, where he led me to a restaurant, Bistango, next to a Japanese bank. Inside, amid sculptures, tinted glass, metal alloys, spotlights, canopies, and a black see-through pyramid stacked with expensive bottles of wine that reached almost to the ceiling, I heard the hum of conversation that had been absent at the Fashion Island Mall. The men and women who crowded the tables wore flashy ties and dazzling jewelry. I saw brown and yellow faces everywhere, and noticed many more cups of coffee and glasses of iced tea than alcoholic drinks. "That's because real business is occurring here," Reiff said, in his warm and rough Chicago accent, as we sat down to eat. "Millions of dollars are being transacted all around you." During the country's extraordinary urban growth of the 1880s Rudyard Kipling observed that in America "men were babbling about money, town lots, and again money."
Where's the power? John Gunther always asked in his travelogue of mid-twentieth-century America, Inside U.S.A. In the late 1940s the answer was often the local party machine. In the late 1990s power was here, in this restaurant, dispersed among many more people, who were much less accountable. The issue was simply profit, disconnected from political promises or even geography. Orange County was merely a home base for the headquarters of global corporations, which could be moved in an instant -- for example, in response to a tax increase.
"What kind of business is being transacted?" I asked.
"Biomedical, pharmaceutical, a little genetic engineering, international investment, precision manufacturing, apparel, computer chips, and all kinds of software multimedia," Reiff told me. "Global trade and work forces are everything for us. Orange County is roughly one percent of the U.S. population, but it has three percent of Fortune 500 companies. Every time there is a conflation of the publishing and multimedia industries, power shifts slightly to California from New York, because the future will favor multimedia over mere books."
Later, back at Reiff's office, I leafed through recent editions of the Business Journal. There were stories about this group of Iranians or that group of Taiwanese or Pakistanis or Mexicans from Sonora buying this or that technology company. Some years ago the Polish journalist Ryzsard Kapuscinski, seeing Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Mexican faces in an Orange County computer factory owned by a Pakistani and two Chinese, wrote that the culture of the southern California work force is "a mix of Hispanic-Catholic family values and Asian-Confucian group loyalty," with hiring done through family networks. One quarter of science-degree holders in the United States were born abroad, with Indians and Chinese predominating.
"Mexico has become both our cheap labor force and our export platform," Reiff went on. "Companies that are moving factories to Mexico would have left the U.S. anyway -- and gone to Malaysia, for instance. The nation-state cannot keep them here if cheap, competent labor exists abroad. With
NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], at least we can keep much of the work in North America."
I asked about Orange County's credit collapse in 1994, after officials had made bad investments with public money. "A blip on the screen -- in historical terms just a rainy day," Reiff said. "Roads are still being paved. No police have been fired. What I'm saying is that the Orange County phenomenon is intact. Imagine the effect on Cleveland, for instance, if it lost two billion dollars in bad investments, the way Orange County did. If in twenty years all this glitter around you fades, historians will look back on the 1980s and 1990s here as a golden age, with the credit crash a minor theme."
Reiff continued, "I'm originally a city kid. I played baseball in the alleys in Chicago. I know what is urban and suburban, and this" -- his eyes wandered around the room -- "is neither; it's something new."
Reiff told me that the reason there are so many malls is that "with 'income tax' a dirty word, the only way for municipalities to raise revenue is through sales taxes, so they encourage mall building; some of these malls will go bust."
"Will this place fight for its country?" I asked. "Are these people loyal to anything except themselves?"
"Loyalty is a problem," Reiff said. "Only about half the baseball fans in Orange County root for the California Angels [whose stadium is in Anaheim, a county municipality]. I root for the Chicago White Sox. So many people here are from somewhere else, whether the U.S. or the world. People came here to make money and enjoy the good life. In the future patriotism will be more purely and transparently economic. Perhaps patriotism will survive in the form of prestige, if America remains the world economic leader."
After I left Reiff, I drove through Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and Anaheim, ending up in the northeasternmost township of Orange County: Yorba Linda, birthplace of Richard Nixon. The little wooden house that Nixon's father, Francis, built in 1912 with materials from a mail-order catalogue still stands. The President and his wife, Pat, are buried a few steps away. The memorial, which includes a museum and a library, was packed with visitors. The multiracial crowd at the site, like the people I saw on the streets of Yorba Linda, appeared to represent Nixon's "silent majority." Yorba Linda is the original, sepia-toned California -- Iowa in the Sunbelt. The Latinos and Asians here looked wholesome and self-assured; they looked American, lacking the worldly flair of their compatriots at Bistango.
From Yorba Linda I headed southwest, back through Anaheim and Garden Grove, into the heavily Vietnamese Orange County municipality of Westminster. Amid miles of one-story tract homes I pulled into a shingle-and-Sheetrock strip mall named Saigon Plaza to look for a place to eat dinner. I entered a run-down café where men were playing cards and listening to Vietnamese music. The atmosphere was thick with the smoke of unfiltered cigarettes. I felt that I was in Southeast Asia. Then somebody switched off the Vietnamese music and put on the NBA playoffs.
HEREAS in southern California I focused on how the transformation of the city was changing the face of America, in the Pacific Northwest I focused on the idea of nationhood itself.
A sequence of maps depicting the evolution of the nation's international, provincial, and territorial boundaries.
A concise refresher on Canadian history.
A Washington Post article by Charles Trueheart.
Dismissing Canada as irrelevant, boring, or a joke comes easily to Americans,
and occasionally to Canadians as well. The Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler
says that Canada is "not so much a country as a continental suburb, where
Little Leaguers govern ineffectually, desperate for American approval." Canada
has a population one ninth that of the United States (29 million as opposed to
261 million). Canada did not have to struggle for independence from
Britain -- Britain approved confederation in 1867, forcing disparate provinces to
unite as a way to contain the United States after the reconsolidation of the
Union. Whereas the United States represented the most daring political
experiment since Athenian democracy (one that would succeed beyond imagining),
Canada never had a clear-cut historical mission -- except, perhaps, providing for
its own survival. Polls show that Canada's sense of identity rests heavily on
the country's social-service institutions, including national health care, and
even those are deteriorating.|
Yet to ignore Canada's fate is to miss the point of North American history. Military events in Canada may have set the stage for American independence in the first place. Had the French held on to Canada through the eighteenth century, they might well have constrained the thirteen colonies to retain a protective bond with Britain. The nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman wrote, "So long as an active and enterprising enemy threatened [the colonists'] borders, they could not break with the mother-country, because they needed her help ... [thus] there would have been no Revolutionary War; and for a long time, no independence." But, as it happened, the French and Indian War, part of a worldwide struggle among the European powers called the Seven Years War, ended in 1763 with a British victory over French forces in Canada, which encouraged France's withdrawal from North America, obviating the English-speaking colonies' dependence on Britain. During the War of 1812 New England actually debated secession and a closer link to British North America, and this threat hastened the rise of American nationalism under President Andrew Jackson. The relationship is still symbiotic: the dissolution of Canada would affect the United States more than any imaginable crisis overseas.
Moreover, Canada, which along with Switzerland is already among the most decentralized countries in the post-industrial world, is split by a blood-and-soil linguistic nationalism that threatens to dismember it. When I asked the president of one of America's most powerful international corporations what was the most important issue the Washington foreign-policy elite was ignoring, he responded, "The eventual breakup of the Canadian federation and its effect" on our own nationhood.
Though Canada is the largest country in the Western Hemisphere, stretching to the polar ice cap, the habitable part of it looks like Chile laid on its side. Almost all Canadians live within a hundred miles of the U.S. border, so it is reasonable to imagine that they might merge politically with the rest of North America's temperate-zone population. In Canada's early days, before bridges and motorized boats, the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes formed enough of a natural boundary for an Atlantic-oriented nation to take root. Even west of the Great Lakes, along the arbitrary border formed by the Forty-ninth Parallel, the fact that the fur trade was so much more important to the people north of that line than to those south of it made for some semblance of an organic division. But with expressways and ferries now crossing the waters, and the inexorable merging of the two countries' economies (four fifths of Canada's export trade and two thirds of its import trade are with the United States), Canada is increasingly like the northern United States.
However, as the frigid tundra keeps Canada's population from spreading northward, America's loud materialism, unruly style, and social problems keep Canadians from straying south. That hundred-mile-wide belt of population from the Atlantic to the Pacific has evolved as a subtly distinctive community, one that many citizens want to preserve. English and French Canadians might not mind separating from each other, but immigrants from throughout the world may demand Canada's continued existence. For them, Canada provides unlimited freedom and economic opportunity while offering protection from the ruthless laissez-faire capitalism of the United States.
The psychological importance for Canadians of their country's style and separate evolution should not be underestimated. Canadian resentment of the United States is clear in the way that Canadians smugly disapprove of those who attempt great endeavors. Indeed, says the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, "Canadian rebellions have never become revolutions precisely because they have never received popular support. `Prophets' here don't get very far against the civil service." Canada never had a Wild West, because Canadians love law and order -- the Mounties are a national symbol. Canada's society prefers collective heroes, like the builders of the transcontinental railroad, over individual ones.
Not a stimulating place, perhaps, but one different enough that parts of English Canada are not eager to merge with parts of the United States; they would do so only if the Canadian federation fractured first. Such a dissolution may be as likely to begin in Canada's westernmost province, British Columbia, as in Francophone Quebec.
Basic statistics about the City of Vancouver.
British Columbia and its urban dynamo, Vancouver, which is linked more closely
to the Pacific Rim than to most of the rest of Canada, are animating North
American regionalism. Strengthened by NAFTA, regionalism may yet undo the
current divisions of sovereignty, which have their origins in the 1763 Treaty
of Paris. Margaret Ormsby, a local historian, writes that "British Columbia was
in, but not of, Canada." Canada did not grow westward in the same organic
manner as the United States. British Columbia joined the Canadian federation
only in 1871, four years after the British forced the other provinces to unite.
Out here, Ormsby writes, the Canadian Union was based not on "sentiment" but on
"material advantage." The economic benefits of the transcontinental Canadian
Pacific Railway in effect bribed British Columbia to join Canada. Even so, the
British part of Columbia, which in 1846 split from the part that became the
state of Washington, retained strong cultural and economic links to a region
whose center was San Francisco. Today British Columbia's economy is separate,
and the highway to Seattle and Portland and the air routes across the Pacific
matter more than links to the rest of Canada. The province exports an amazing
40 percent of its goods to the Pacific Rim, and 50 percent to the United
States; 80 percent of exports from Canada as a whole go to the United States.
It is the only Canadian province that would surely do better, not worse, were
the country to disintegrate. "Canada ends at the Rockies" is an expression I
This is not to say that British Columbia identifies with the United States. When I crossed the border at Osoyoos, the differences between the two countries were what I first noticed. Not only were the money, the measurement units, the shapes of the signs, the construction materials, and the flag (with the soft imagery of the maple leaf replacing the overtly political stars and bars) different in Canada but so were the accents, which were sharper and vaguely British. "Schedule," for instance, was pronounced without the c. But compared with the Third World-First World division I saw on the Mexican border, these differences were trivial.
I set out for Vancouver, a leisurely day's journey. Halfway there I reached Manning Provincial Park -- across the border from North Cascades National Park. Manning Park marks the beginning of the Cascade Range, a north-south line of powder-white volcanoes and glaciers, tinted blue and garlanded by cold rain forests, which more than any other geographical feature -- to say nothing of any state or national border -- defines the Pacific Northwest. It is a magical frontier, breathtaking even when seen from the air. To fly from the eastern United States to Portland, Oregon, and see the "Ring of Fire" -- the glacier-mantled peaks of Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, and Mount St. Helens soaring over brooding, cathedral-dark forests -- is to arrive in a distinct place, or almost nation.
I met Pacific mists, sparkling snow, moist and glistening spruce and fir forests, tumbling streams, and silvery lakes, beside one of which I watched an Indian immigrant family fishing for rainbow trout. The parents spoke in the accents of the subcontinent, the children in the hard-edged English of Pacific Canada. Harlequin ducks and gray-and-white belted kingfishers flipped off the water.
Farther west, close to Vancouver, the Fraser River was choked with massive logs, chained together and about to be dispatched, perhaps to the Far East. Vancouver appeared rather suddenly -- a lesson in how compact the cities of the Pacific Northwest are compared with others on the continent. Here, even for urbanites, nature is close by.
The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part three.
Robert D. Kaplan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His article in this issue will appear, in somewhat different form, in his new book, An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future, to be published by Random House in late summer.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; Travels Into America's Future; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 37 - 61.