Claudio Veliz is a distinguished Chilean sociologist and historian who has spent much of his career in English-speaking countries (England, Australia, and now the United States) explaining Latin America to English-speaking audiences. Here he applies the insight first proposed in the seventh century B.C. by the Greek poet Archilochus that "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing" to help unravel the old enigma that has troubled historians and observers for decades: how to account for the divergent historical paths taken by the two major former colonized regions of the Western Hemisphere. Why did the North develop while the South stagnated?
The metaphor was of course reinvigorated by the Oxford philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin during the early 1950s in his justly famous discussion of Tolstoy's philosophy of history. However, Veliz seeks to adapt Berlin's thesis in an extended essay that is at times luminous and at other times irritatingly precious to explain the contrasting essences of English and Spanish American cultures and economies. The British in the New World and their descendants became the foxes, according to Veliz, bringing an independent, pluralistic, and adaptable cultural tradition. The Spaniards were the hedgehogs, bringing a tradition that was single-minded, systematic, and rationalistic. These central cultural constructions are exemplified by the Industrial Revolution in the North and the Baroque Counter-Reformation in the South, each of which strongly influenced the subsequent and contrasting development within the Americas.
A wide-ranging book like this inevitably raises more questions than it answers, which is of course an invitation to a provocative read. Its great merit is to bring questions of religious, traditional, and cultural construction back to center stage. However, the book's categories are excessively broad and chronologically slippery, and the almost total absence of any discussion of the indigenous population, slavery, race, or economic resources is startling. While Veliz ruminates over 500 years of history, the cultural questions he raises have contemporary significance. Samuel P. Huntington in these pages recently placed Latin America and the United States on opposite sides of a cultural divide. Yet the assumptions underlying NAFTA and the Clinton administration's neo-Wilsonianism in the hemisphere, to take but two examples, follow an opposite tack. They at least are banking on the increasing "foxification" of the South.