Guillermo C. Jimenez, J.D., is a writer and educator living and working in New York. As a professor of international trade, he teaches at SUNY, Iona College and the International School of Management (Paris).
I was born in Mexico City to a Mexican father and an American mother. My parents had five more children and then my father, a surgeon, moved to Austin, Texas in search of financial success, which he was eventually gratified to find. Thus, I grew up in Mexico City until I was six, lived in Texas until I was 12, and then, after my parents divorced, moved to Los Angeles, California. Later, I finished high school in Texas.
Amongst my earliest memories are ones of cultural bias. I clearly remember that in elementary school in the 1960s we were always informed that America was the “richest and most powerful nation” on earth, as if this were an established fact as immutable as the alphabet or the periodic table. However, when we returned to Mexico City two or three times a year, to visit my father’s family, which was composed of successful lawyers and politicians, my Mexican relatives expressed the opposite bias. They looked down on “gringos” as loud and vulgar, bad dressers and bad dancers, the women loose and the men money-crazed. The Mexicans never tired of telling me this stuff. There was an implication that I had already been tainted by life in America. Eventually, I began to realize they were laying it on thick. I soon learned that Americans and Mexicans were unable to look at each other except through biased eyes.
When my parents divorced I encountered a new culture shock. My mother moved us to California. I had grown up in a red state and hadn’t realized that blue states existed. But on the left coast the slang was different, the air was different, the music was different, the sports were different. It was a different country. My mother went through difficult financial times and we ended up living in ethnic, working-class neighborhoods, where I had new exposures to cultural bias and irrationality. When we moved into a Chicano neighborhood on the East Side, South San Gabriel, I found great difficulty in being accepted by Chicano kids because of my light skin. They just couldn’t understand how a Mexican could have light skin, so I was rejected as a “Patty," which was the derogatory term in fashion for white person. I could speak Spanish, after a fashion, while most of them couldn’t, but that didn’t help a bit. Although I was generally accepted by Mexicans in Mexico as a compatriot, that was not enough to make me authentic in the eyes of the California Chicanos, with their fetish for brown skin. The only time in my life in which I have felt a strong and unfair racial discrimination was from California Chicanos.
High school in Texas would have been a wasteland except for a providential encounter with a gifted teacher, Christian Smith, who taught Latin and English. Smith, who wore a bow-tie with his natty 1950s-style suits, peppered his lectures with offhand references to his youthful experiences in the Navy, or hitching through Mexico, or working in a coal mine in North Dakota, or the 6 months he had spent in Paris reading the Odyssey in Greek. Smith, who once showed me bits of his correspondence with Ezra Pound, was a true home-bred Texas intellectual, the kind you only find in Austin. We read Horace and Catullus together and he graded my juvenile essays with hyperbolic praise.
Harvard was difficult largely because I made the wrong choice of major -- biology. As a freshman I declined sophomore standing, which I regret to this day, because it is a great media gimmick to say that you graduated from Harvard in three years. Cornel West shamelessly uses that boast all the time, which makes me regret I didn’t take advantage of it as well. I thought carefully about my choice of major all year long, and thus came to an idiotic conclusion, which was perhaps my first lesson on the interplay of reason and emotion in the making of optimal life decisions. As recent research bears out, we drown in data when making important decisions unless we are able to make them by the gut. I wasn’t, and chose blindly, which is best that reason can offer when we are overwhelmed by the natural chaos of life.
My secret dream was to be a writer, so I applied to Harvard’s writing major, known then as Option 3. But I also knew from my father’s experience that the surest way to become rich and respected in America was to become a doctor, not a poet -- so I also tried out the introductory biology class, taught by that Nobel Prize-winning old hippie, George Wald. The biology major was the easiest way to fulfill the pre-med requirements. And then, to be safe, I took an Introduction to American Government class, with the famous Professor James Q. Wilson, because I suspected a fallback option would be law school. So as a freshman I was trying to make the rather bourgeois life choice between a career as a writer, a doctor or a lawyer. I don’t think that kind of uncertainty was uncommon amongst freshmen at Harvard at the time, and they probably face similar dilemmas today.
The reason I recount this youthful decision in detail here is that I feel that my current book, Red Genes, Blue Genes: Exposing Political Irrationality (“RGBG”), has allowed me to finally integrate the three life-paths I explored as an undergraduate many years ago. RGBG brings biology and politics together in a new and meaningful way, and the book wouldn’t have been possible without a deep enjoyment in the craft of writing. One of the necessary irrationalities of life is that we can’t become all the things we dream of becoming – we have to narrow it down, which sometimes seems like rejecting a part of our selves. Though my book, I was finally able to integrate those different parts of me, the biologist, the lawyer and the writer, which is one reason I enjoyed writing it so much.
While at Harvard I was exposed to the basic disciplines which make up the core of the intellectual framework underlying RGBG – biology, history, economics and politics. From the fabulously-entertaining Biology 22, taught by the great entomologist Bert Hoelldobler, I learned the basics of evolutionary theory, which was the most important concept I learned in college. Hoelldoebler, as a social insects specialist, spurred my interest in the application of evolutionary theory to social animals. However, the social animals I was interested in were humans. Robert Trivers had written some earth-shaking papers as a graduate student just a couple of years before, and when the brilliant Trivers was denied tenure by Harvard it was amazing and disappointing news in our tiny little corner of the world. As a senior, I was lucky enough to have dinner with E.O. Wilson, the author of the ground-breaking work “Sociobiology.” I thought that after so many years of studying ants he had begun to look rather like an ant himself. But a nice and brilliant man nonetheless. I think we talked about sharks.
It was painfully instructive to see E.O. Wilson later pilloried in the press for having had the audacity to summarize current scientific consensus in his seminal “Sociobiology.” He was wrongly and idiotically vilified as a sexist and racist, though he was nothing but a great scientist who loved ants. However, the example of Wilson was so profound that the entire discipline of sociobiology was more or less driven underground throughout the 1980s, until some brave souls resuscitated it as “evolutionary psychology,” which has proven sturdier.
From James Q. Wilson’s government class I took away the concept of counter-productive government action. The example he brought home to us was that of regulation, which is once again in vogue. Wilson argued that high degrees of regulation facilitate the capture of the regulators by the regulated. In other words, the lobbyists for monopolists love high degrees of regulation. Since they are the only ones able to master the arcane rules, it keeps out the competition.
As a college senior I only applied to one graduate school, the Law School at the University of California-Berkeley, a decision I have not regretted. I did not learn as much law as I should have, given the excellent faculty (especially Stefan Riesenfeld), but I did play a lot of chess and basketball, drove my old Suzuki T-500 up and down the beautiful Berkeley hills, and became a member of a group of friends who have remained compadres for decades. In my third year I found that international law sparked my interest. I focused on international dispute-resolution, and particularly on alternative dispute-resolution methods such as arbitration and mediation.
I eventually spent a dozen years in France, most of it as an international policy specialist for the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), based in Paris. Although the ICC is well-known for its International Court of Arbitration, I did not end up working for the Court of Arbitration, but rather for its Policy Division, which submitted policy positions to global institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. Our ICC “policy positions” were developed by international committees of “experts,” which mainly meant business executives, lawyers and economists. It was my job to run several of these committees as the Secretary, working closely with a Chair. It was an intensely political environment from top to bottom. Our objectives were political and our internal working methods were as well.
If any organization needed multicultural training, it was the ICC. As young executives, we were thrown into a completely international context with little guidance or warning as to the unpredictable and baffling kinds of behavior we could expect from our members and colleagues. Indeed, cultural exceptionalism was the rule. We were like a United Nations of business experts, all the cultures jostling each other uncomfortably. Misunderstanding was common. The French were bossy and tried to run everything, the Americans were naïve and brutal, the Swedes stony but efficient, the Italians focused inordinately on the meals and cocktails, the English were polite to a fault especially when back-stabbing, the over-worked Japanese fell asleep in meetings, the Swiss always showed up on time, the Finns were sober and dull, and the Mexicans and Colombians flirted with our secretaries. I indulge in all these stereotypes with good humor and a request for forgiveness, since there were of course a multitude of exceptions and variations. In fact, multicultural conflict management has become one of my preferred academic subjects and I teach it at highly enjoyable seminars in Paris for the International School of Management. However, one of the reasons the subject is so interesting is that it involves exploring the various stereotypes we hold for cultures around the world.
While at the ICC I became involved as a sort of global lobbyist for a variety of controversial policy issues considered by international organizations. At different times and for different reasons, I ended up addressing a variety of international organizations on behalf of the ICC, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the European Commission, the Universal Postal Union, the UN Commission for Asia-Pacific and several others. I lectured on international trade topics at business organizations and universities in over 35 countries. I also published two of my own books on international trade while at ICC, one of which has now gone into its successful third printing (ICC Guide to Export-Import Basics), while supervising the publication of dozens of books, articles and guides for the ICC.
For the past decade I have worked in American universities as a professor of international trade and international business law. Most recently, my legal research has focused on issues related to the global fashion, apparel and luxury-goods industries. I am a co-author of the first guide to legal issues in the fashion industry (Fashion Law, Guillermo Jimenez and Barbara Kolsun, Conde Nast 2009).
I became piqued by the potential for evolutionary psychology to explain political behavior in the late 1990s, when it first seemed clear to me that political behavior was on the whole irrational. I decided I needed some kind of intellectual framework for understanding that. I have now spent about a decade reading widely on related topics and more specifically have spent the past three years developing the theory of political irrationality set forth in RGBG.
I publish RGBG with some trepidation as to the great number of controversies it touches upon from a biological angle, given the contemporary American taboo that still surrounds biological explanations of social behavior. However, I think the concept of political irrationality stands up even if you discount the importance of a biological influence. The studies on cross-cultural divergence lead to a very similar conclusion, namely, that people’s differences go deep and are hard to perceive or appreciate. We are politically programmed by culture, just as much as we are by biology, to split up into rival groups which then express hostility and bias toward each other.
I think the originality of RGBG is that it takes a cross-disciplinary view which includes biological, psychological, evolutionary, cultural and historical explanations for our perceived irrationality. A further innovation of this book is in the proposal for a citizen-controlled party, the Let’s Try Democracy Party, which is spelled out in detail in RGBG’s concluding chapter.
Brooklyn, NY, June 9, 2009