Riding, Alan 1943-
Riding, Alan 1943-
Born December 8, 1943, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; son of William (in business) and Ina (a teacher) Riding; married Marlise Simons (a journalist), November 10, 1974; children: Alexander. Education: University of Bristol, B.A., 1964.
Called to the Bar at Gray's Inn, London, England, 1966; Reuters (news service), London, copy editor in London, 1966-67, foreign correspondent at United Nations, New York, NY, 1967-68 and 1970-71, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1969; Financial Times, London, foreign correspondent in Mexico and Central America, 1971-78; New York Times, New York, NY, bureau chief for Mexico and Central America based in Mexico City, 1978-83, bureau chief for South America based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1983-89, bureau chief for Paris, France, 1989-94, European cultural affairs correspondent, 1994—.
Maria Moors Cabot Prize, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1980, for coverage of 1979 Nicaraguan revolution and Central America in general.
Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
(With Leslie Dunton-Downer) Essential Shakespeare Handbook, DK Publishers (New York, NY), 2004.
Also author of a book on Latin America for Knopf.
In Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans foreign correspondent Alan Riding presents a wide-ranging discussion of the people of Mexico and their society. As Peter H. Smith wrote in the New York Times: "Convinced that Mexican society must be understood as a complete whole, not as a collection of parts, he offers an integrated and up-to-date analysis of the nation's history, politics, economics, culture and class structure."
Critics found the author well-qualified for his task. John Dinges, for one, asserted in the Nation that Riding is "one of the few U.S. correspondents in Latin America to whom the word ‘veteran’ can be applied," a journalist who "distinguished himself by his meticulous reporting." Dinges added that "Riding's coverage rose above the pack … [because] his knowledge of Mexico is both broader and deeper than the journalistic minimum needed to cover political and economic events intelligibly." The author "was comfortable with many of the most influential figures in the Mexican government," stated Christopher Dickey in New Republic, "and generally they appear to have been comfortable with him. Riding's access and understanding allow him to examine Mexico's weaknesses in detail, and also to make the system's contradictions comprehensible and to appreciate its strengths." Richard R. Fagen wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "the hand of the experienced and knowledgeable journalist is evident, and at times a well-turned phrase illuminates a whole range of issues. For example, the chapter on Indians opens with this striking sentence: ‘Proud of its Indian past, Mexico seems ashamed of its Indian present.’"
In a succession of chapters, Riding discusses the extended kinship network of the Mexican family and depicts harsh urban life in the burgeoning capital of Mexico City, the strain of which threatens to pull that family structure apart. He also surveys the regional differences that divide Mexico. Turning to the economy, Riding discusses both industry and labor unions, including a chapter that recounts the history of the Mexican petroleum industry from the first discovery of oil, to nationalization in 1938, and then on to the dramatic boom-and-bust pattern of the 1970s and 1980s. As Carolyn See observed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "Riding manages to suspend his own judgments, to leave out all his own personal anecdotes, to refrain from pontification." Instead, he "give[s] us an objective almanac … of an entire country."
A key portion of Distant Neighbors that was singled out for praise by many reviewers is its discussion of Mexican politics. As Riding explains at length, Mexico's political system is complex and unique, a paradoxical blend of authoritarianism and negotiation. From the 1930s until the 2000 election, when Vicente Fox and his National Action Party won the president's office, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) maintained control of the presidency and all provincial governorships. It stayed in power for so long not simply through armed force, but by making opportunistic alliances with its potential opponents. The author demonstrates how members of Mexican society who might have the resources to challenge the government, including professional politicians, journalists, labor union members, businessmen, soldiers, intellectuals, religious figures, and the government's own employees, are encouraged to accept the status quo in exchange for subsidies, tax breaks, jobs, or bribes. As a result, Mexicans who would ordinarily oppose each other work together for their personal gain, and only those who refuse the government's efforts at co-optation are likely to be silenced by force. Riding adds that at the same time the peasants, Indians, and urban poor, who comprise the impoverished majority of Mexicans, are offered the promise of a more equitable society, though in practice the PRI tends to rely on the lower classes' patient endurance of their poverty to keep them pacified.
Although Mexico's political system may seem undemocratic when compared to the American model, Riding notes that the reign of the PRI has been benevolent by the standards of Mexican history. Haunted by Mexico's volatile past, such as its 1910 Revolution that overthrew the landed aristocracy at the cost of a million lives, many Mexicans have been satisfied with a regime that has maintained stability and been relatively limited in its repression.
Riding extends his survey to recent events in Mexico and their implications for the country's future. "Distant Neighbors‘ especial merit is to capture Mexico at [the] moment when its system has begun to fail," noted Robert S. Leiken in the Washington Post Book World. "Riding's portrait is not a still photograph of a static Mexico but a moving picture of a system in slow but apparently inexorable decomposition." The immediate cause of Mexico's problems in the 1980s is the troubled state of its economy, but Riding traces Mexico's economic woes to the weaknesses of its current political system. As the author suggests, the traditional PRI system of government was capable of handling neither a surge of prosperity nor the threat of its precipitous collapse. When the government-owned petroleum industry came into massive amounts of money in the 1970s, the PRI responded in its accustomed fashion by distributing the wealth among its important constituents, and Riding shows how the unprecedented level of corruption ensured that Mexico's oil windfall would not be spent in ways that were best for the country's long-term prosperity. In the early 1980s, when oil income dwindled as world prices fell, the party was facing an election, and sudden austerity did not fit with its normal program of offering favors to the electorate. The government borrowed massively on the promise of future revenues, and the continued depression in oil prices left Mexico burdened with an enormous debt, unable to finance further economic development, and committed to an austerity program that was difficult for all levels of society.
Just as the political system damaged Mexico's economy, economic hard times in turn are threatening to destroy Mexico's fragile political consensus. As Gene Lyons summarized in Newsweek: "Mexico's urban middle class, Riding says, is particularly restive. It's fearful and contemptuous both of government incompetence and of the staggering corruption at the very highest state levels." Riding is concerned that the greatest threat to Mexico's stability is this middle-class discontent, which he feels strengthens opposition right-wing politicians who are backed by business interests. If the government moves to the right in order to satisfy the middle class, it will disturb the network of compromises with other interest groups that has kept the country stable for decades, provoking dissent among workers, peasants, and students, and driving the country into the chaos of political polarization.
Having described the nature of Mexico's malaise, Riding offers his opinions about the cure, and in so doing has prompted some dissent among reviewers of
Distant Neighbors. The author's controversial warnings about how to deal with Mexico's incipient political crisis are based on his assessment of the nation's culture and class structure. Dickey noted that Riding "has tried throughout the book to draw a contrast between the upwardly mobile, highly Americanized middle classes … and 'the ordinary Mexicans,’ most of them peasants or the children of peasants." The westernized, prosperous middle class favors individualism and the pursuit of material wealth, and it views American-style democracy as a way to bring Mexico more in step with the Western world it admires.
Contrasting with the middle class—and increasingly alienated from it—are Mexico's poor, who, Riding suggests, espouse a way of life closer to the pre-industrial world than to twentieth-century America. Essentially, Riding sees this impoverished majority as holding to the traditional virtues of peasant life, in which conformity, respect for the community, and an interest in religion form a base of support that allows an individual to weather the deprivation and limited expectations of existence. The author believes that in such a setting many values of the Western world, including American-style democracy, may be inappropriate and unwanted. As Susan Kaufman Purcell wrote in Atlantic Monthly, "Mexicans, [Riding] says, ‘felt comfortable with the system when it was peculiarly Mexican, with its mixture of authoritarianism and paternalism, of cynicism and idealism, of conciliation and negotiation.’ If Mexico reforms in ways that make it less Mexican, he argues, it will not survive."
Reviewers were mixed in their reactions to Riding's prescription for Mexico's future. Fagen thought the author's theories were "an ethnocentric and ultimately a somewhat misleading way to end what is otherwise a useful and well-informed book." Leiken contended that "Mexico's challenge is not to preserve an idyllic, illusory past—which for most ‘ordinary Mexicans’ meant grinding poverty and the brutal and corrupt reign of privilege—but to combine equity and excellence in a national form. For that, Mexicans must broaden and nationalize democracy." Concluding that to reform itself Mexico "will require cooperation and comprehension" from America, Leiken asserted that "for such understanding Riding's book is the best place I know to begin."
Turning to a more literary subject, Riding and coauthor Leslie Dunton-Downer produced the Essential Shakespeare Handbook, a reference work which is "wellinformed and complete, covering every aspect of Shakespeare's life and works," according to Thomas Fortenberry in Reviewers Bookwatch. The comprehensive work covers in detail each of Shakespeare's plays, providing act-by-act coverage of all the Bard's histories, comedies, romances, and tragedies. Riding and Dounton-Downer cover Shakespeare's poetry, as well. The authors offer an overview of Shakespeare's life and times, plus in-depth background on the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, the language of Shakespeare, and the artistic and cultural environment in which Shakespeare worked. They include historical information on known productions of the plays, and also provide cast notes. The book is profusely illustrated and includes many explanatory charts, color photographs, statistical graphs, and information-rich lists, such as a listing of all known adaptations of Shakespeare's plays. A School Library Journal reviewer called the Essential Shakespeare Handbook a "useful resource" for students and educators. "This is an absolutely amazing guide to Shakespeare," commented Fortenberry. "I have yet to find a more compact yet complete study of this global literary master."
Riding once told CA: "My idea in Distant Neighbors was to ‘explain’ Mexico to Americans, yet the book sold more copies in Mexico—as Vecinos Distantes—than in the United States. I was puzzled. Had I aimed at Mexicans, I would have written a different book, because Distant Neighbors essentially told them what they already knew. Perhaps no nation's interest in reading about itself should be underestimated. But the book's success in Mexico nonetheless made me feel more self-conscious about my new book on Latin America. This … book also aspires to ‘explain’ Latin America to an American audience, using themes rather than country profiles, but I suddenly feel that Latin Americans are peering over my shoulder. As with Mexico, my role is to act as an interpreter between two very different cultures, but can one write for two so very different audiences simultaneously? Perils clearly lie ahead, starting with the very concept of ‘Latin America’: for Americans who see the continent as a homogeneous mass of nations, the need to emphasize the differences arises; for Latin Americans, who like to underline their national and regional identities, their common features must be traced. In the end, though, perhaps the language will define the point of view: I aspire to translate the region into English, and it is that version that will eventually be translated into Spanish and Portuguese."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, February, 1985, Susan Kaufman Purcell, review of Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, p. 97.
Calliope, April, 2005, review of Essential Shakespeare Handbook, p. 41.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 27, 1985, Carolyn See, review of Distant Neighbors, p. 1.
Nation, April 27, 1985, John Dinges, review of Distant Neighbors, p. 503.
New Republic, May 20, 1985, Christopher Dickey, review of Distant Neighbors, p. 28.
Newsweek, January 28, 1985, Gene Lyons, review of Distant Neighbors, p. 68.
New York Times, January 3, 1985, Peter H. Smith, review of Distant Neighbors, p. 15.
New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1985, Richard R. Fagen, review of Distant Neighbors, p. 5.
Reviewer's Bookwatch, January, 2005, Thomas Fortenberry, review of Essential Shakespeare Handbook.
School Library Journal, April, 2005, review of Essential Shakespeare Handbook, p. S71.
Washington Post Book World, February 10, 1985, Robert S. Leiken, review of Distant Neighbors, p. 1.