The Colonization of Patriotisms

Juan Carlos Onetti

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La colonización intra-nacional de los patriotismos (Spanish)

The Intra-national Colonization of Patriotisms


Jorge Majfud


Once, in a high school class, we asked the teacher why she never talked about Juan Carlos Onetti.  The answer was blunt: that gentleman had received everything from Uruguay (education, fame) and “he had left” for Spain to speak ill of his own country.  That is, an entire country was identified with a government and an ideology, excluding and demoralizing everything else.

Implicitly, it is assumed that there exists a unique – true, honorable – form for the nation and of being Uruguayan (Chinese, Argentine, North American, French).  If one is against that particular idea of country, of fatherland (patria), then one is anti-patriotic, one is a traitor.

A fundamental requirement for the construction of a tradition is memory.  But never all memory, because there is no tradition without forgetting.  Forgetting – always more vast – is indispensable for the adequation of a determined memory to the present-day powers that need to legitimate themselves through a tradition.  If we assume that national symbols and myths are not imposed by God, we are left with no other remedy than to suspect earthly powers.  Which is to say, a tradition is not simple and innocent memory but convenient memory.  The latter tends to be crystalized in symbols and sacred cows, and there is nothing less objective than symbols and cows.

In the Spain of Isabel and Fernando, exclusion was the basis for a previously non-existent fatherland.  The Iberian peninsula was, at the time, the most culturally diverse corner of Europe and comprised of as many countries as the rest of Europe.  Being Spanish became for many, after the Reconquest, an exercise in purification:  one sole language, one sole religion, one sole race.  Almost five hundred years later, Francisco Franco imposed the same idea of nation based at least on the first two categories of purity.  Camilo José Cela recognized it thusly: “Not one single Spaniard is free to see Jewish or Moorish blood run through his veins” (A vueltas con España, 1973); like they say, “nobody is perfect.”  For centuries the intellectuals sought out, obsessively, the “Spanish character,” as if the absence of a concrete character ran the risk of losing the country.  Américo Castro in Los españoles…(1959) observed: “one will not find anything similar to the Spanish fantasy of imagining Spaniards before they existed.”  He then criticized the patriotic writings that praised what was Spanish about Luis Vives, who, even abroad “never forgot Valencia”: he could not forget Valencia because his family, of Jewish origin, had been persecuted and both his parents burned by the Inquisition.  The celebrated priest Manuel García Morente believed that “for the Spanish there is no difference, there is no duality between fatherland and religion” (Idea de la hispanidad, 1947); “there exists no dualism between Caesar and God.”  “Spain is made of Christian faith and Iberian blood.”  “In Spain, Catholic religion constitutes the purpose of a nationality…”  The ultraconservative taste for essences led him to repeated tautologies of this kind: “the patriotic duty” is to be “faithful to the essence of the fatherland.”  Another Spaniard, Julio Caro Baroja (El mito del carácter nacional, 1970), questioned these functional ideas of power: “I consider that everything that speaks of “national character” is a mystical activity.”  “National characters are meant to be established as collective and hereditary.  Thus, at times, one recurs to expressions like ‘bad Spaniard,’ ‘renegade son,’ traitor to the ‘legacy of the fathers’ in order to attack an enemy.”

This strategy of forgetting and exclusion is universal.  We Chileans, Argentines and Uruguayans constructed a tradition to the measure of our own euro-centric and not infrequently racist and genocidal prejudices.  The authors of various ethnic cleansings (Roca, Rivera) are honored even today in the schools and in the names of streets and cities.  Indigenous people were not only expoliated and exterminated; we also ended up whitewashing the memory of the indomitable savages.  Another Spaniard, Américo Castro, reminds us: “When the people are more believers than thinkers […] it becomes unpleasant to doubt.”

Thus, The fatherland is turned into an idea of nation that tends to exclude all other ideas of nation.  For this reason it usually becomes a weapon of negative domination based on the positive sentiments of belonging and familiarity.  In order to consolidate that arbitrariness of traditional power, other semantic instruments are made use of.  Like honor, for example.

Honor is the symbolic tribute that a society imposes, by way of ideological and moral violence, on those individuals who must exercise physical violence in order to defend the sectarian interests of those others who will never risk their own life to do so.  For this reason, a composite and contradictory ideolexicon like “the honor of weapons” has survived for centuries.  There exists no other way to predispose an individual to death for reasons he is in no position to understand or, if he understands them, he is in no position to accept them as his own reasons.  If it is a matter of a soldier (the most common case) the salary will never be sufficient reason to die.  It is necessary to cultivate a motivation beyond death.  In the case of the religious martyr, this function is fulfilled by Paradise; in the case of a secular society that organizes an army through a secular State, there is no alternative but the retribution of an exemplary death: honor, fulfillment of one’s duty, love of country, etc.  All ideolexicons based on positive, unquestionable meanings.

One honors individuals (paradoxically anonymously) because one cannot honor the war that produces seas of nameless dead, nor can one honor the financial and political reasons, the sectarian interests in power.  This is demonstrated when, each day that fallen soldiers are remembered, the motives that led the now heroes to die are never remembered.  One abstracts and decontexualizes in order to consolidate the symbol and confer upon it an absolutely natural character.  It may be that just wars exist (like an action of defense or of liberation), but even so it remains impossible to think that all wars are just or holy.  Then, why is this perturbing element abstracted from the collective conscience?  Any questioning is (must be) interpreted as an affront to the “fallen heroes.”  In this way, the benefit is quadruple: 1) society washes its sins and its bad conscience; 2) the victims of the absurd receive a moral gratification and meaning for their own disgrace; 3) any radical questioning of the sense of past wars is prevented; and 4) a loan is secured against stock for wars yet to come – for a few but in the name of all.


Translated by Bruce Campbell


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