Bookshelf: The Untied States of America

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No, that's not a misprint. The book is called The Untied States of America, and the author is Juan Enriquez, a CEO of a life sciences research firm and a former fellow at Harvard's Center for International Affairs.

We take national boundaries for granted, Enriquez says, and yet they often change. And of course he's right. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union look a lot different on the map now than they did 20 years ago; the United Nations has something like four times as many members as it did in 1960. In the Americas, it is seemingly different. Boundaries in North America and South America haven't changed, he says, since 1910. Actually, that's slightly wrong. Newfoundland, a separate dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations, was absorbed into the Dominion of Canada in 1949 after the Newfoundland government went broke. But that only makes Enriquez's point stronger. Every two years in revising The Almanac of American Politics, I have to deal with the politics of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa, all of which send nonvoting delegates to Congress (the resident commissioner—misleading title—of Puerto Rico is the only member of the House with a four-year term). I have been fascinated with those at the margins of United States nationality. Also, I have been following in the Alaska and Hawaii write-ups the treatment, legally and politically, of Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. Enriquez mentions all these and notes that the anomalies—Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship only by virtue of an act of Congress passed in 1917, and Congress could reverse that at any time—might produce an "untying" of the United States. He mentions briefly the demand for Native Hawaiian sovereignty. That's before Congress; a vote on Sen. Daniel Akaka's bill for sovereignty was promised for September in the Senate but was set aside after Hurricane Katrina. "A bad idea whose time has come," I wrote in this space in August.

Enriquez also touches on the question of Hispanic separateness in the United States. He makes another mistake here, writing that Hispanic immigration was blocked before the 1965 immigration act; actually, there were no limits on intra-Americas immigration before then. There was just very little immigration from that quarter, the notable exception being the huge migration from Puerto Rico in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Enriquez does a good job of raising interesting questions. He describes how Canada could be divided up into three countries that would resemble, demographically and economically, Australia, Finland, and New Zealand, and how Mexico could be divided up into four countries that would resemble Poland, Chile, Tunisia, and Ecuador. The regions are as follows:

Australia = Ontario and western Canada

Finland = Quebec (but is Quebec Hydro Nokia?)

New Zealand = the maritime provinces

Poland = Central Mexico

Chile = Northern Mexico

Tunisia = Maya Mexico

Ecuador = Southern Mexico

All interesting stuff. But I think Enriquez tends to downplay the negative aspects of "untying." Does it really make sense to encourage some large number of the residents of Hawaii (almost none of them of purely Native Hawaiian descent) to think of themselves as Polynesians instead of Americans? Do Lower 48 Indian reservations do as good a job of allowing people of aboriginal descent to choose the degree of assimilation they want as the Alaska Native corporations? (My answers: no and no.) And what is the empirical evidence about whether the people the Census Bureau classifies as Hispanics want a degree of separateness in the United States? Enriquez also lards up the book with some silly talk about how religious fundamentalists are preventing people from learning (I'd look at the teacher unions and education schools instead) and writes that the standards of living of ordinary Americans have deteriorated over the past 40 years (I guess all those DVDs and all that air conditioning that people have now and didn't have 40 years ago don't count). All that is evidence that he's spent too much time in Cambridge and not enough in getting around the rest of the country.

Enriquez's book will enrage some readers in another way. It is written not in conventional sentences and paragraphs but in sentence fragments, asides, and statistics all presented in different typefaces and font sizes. I found this not irritating but refreshing. It struck me that it would have been hard to compose a book in this way with precomputer technology, but it must be easy to do it on your laptop now. It's a good way to raise interesting questions, as Enriquez has done. A thought-provoking and sometimes thoughtful book.