Las perversiones de un sistema (Spanish)
The Perversions of a System
When the State Loses its Raison D’Etre
Translated by Bruce Campbell
One of Mexico’s most popular television programs, Singing for a Dream (Cantando por un sueño, Televisa–Univisión, 2006), also available on cable in the United States to a large audience, consists of the well-known formula of a competition between amateur singers who seek to initiate a successful artistic career. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this kind of circus fare and we might even say that most of the participants demonstrate special singing talent. The problem arises when we recognize another common characteristic of our times. Just as in a similar series where the competitors danced instead of singing, each one does so “for a noble cause,” which is also one of the rules of the game: one needed the prize money in order to pay for the treatment that would restore his father’s eyesight, another so that his paralyzed brother might walk again, another so that his wife’s terrible cancer, covering half her face, could be treated, etc. The most common cases involve extreme illnesses and part of the entertainment spectacle consists in showing the suffering victim, with the competitor and the audience on the verge of tears as they imagine how good, sensitive and supportive we all are when faced with someone else’s misfortune. This morbid sadism, camouflaged as teary sensitivity, is consistent with those other contemporary competitions where, instead of the best of a group of five or ten participants, it is instead the worst who is selected – generally using the democratic vote of the audience – and then humiliated by being taken out of the competition. Like a Miss Universe contest that begins by electing the ugliest of all the women in order to watch her retreat, disillusioned and humiliated under the bright lights and the cameras, until arriving at the most beautiful of the contestants, at which point morbid fascination has anesthetized any aesthetic expectation and the coronation no longer possesses the importance it once had. In the end, it’s the same as always: our capitalism rewards desire but punishes pleasure.
In principle we might think that the program in question is a way of helping someone who otherwise would receive no help. In fact this is exactly the argument that is repeated from center stage. Even accepting this circumstantial truth, we should ask ourselves about the root of the problem. Why would they “otherwise receive no help”? Why must a person who lays prostrate in a bed suffering day to day the torture of a terrible illness expose themselves to the audience and hope that their defender might sing better than the others (and that the judges and finally the audience take pity on the victim and at the same time be captivated by the contestant’s voice) in order to be able to survive? Is this spectacle not comparable to the old and barbarous custom of castrating young singers in order to shape the perfect voice? Or that other barbaric custom of taking out birds’ eyes with a nail so that they stop singing in their cages? Paraphrasing Horacio Guaraní, though not without deep scepticism, one would have to recite:
If the singer falls silent, life is silenced
because life, life itself is all a song
if the singer falls silent, all is gone
all hope, and light and happiness
the dock workers cross themselves
who will fight for their wages?
This programming is one of the worst examples of the morbidity promoted by capitalism and of the perversion of the obedient and consumerist masses. Numbed by the dream of “individual liberty,” we consumers are nothing but that: devourers of products, trained and anesthetized by the same system that produces these Roman-style circuses, where cruelty is not only part of the entertainment spectacle but, even worse, is dressed up as compassion and generosity. A system that moralizes and teaches that this type of spectacle as well as the final act of charity are proof of surprising and humane good will. One applauds the generosity and good intentions of the donations that the program and the television channel will make to one or two of the seven victims. We will not sit in judgement of the good faith of everyone involved; but let’s also not make the mistake of believing that the enterprise and its employees will lose any money on this “noble act,” which pretends to remedy the ethical abyss in the economic system they serve.
Once the singer who competed for a brain operation for his brother wins, the agonizing wife of the loser must resign herself to hearing that somehow, in a manner not established by the rules of the game, they are going to help her too. So, why the competition? Why so much suspense? One might argue that it is necessary in order to raise money. But this argument is additional proof of the perversion of the system (i.e. late capitalism) and a slap in the face for millions of people who believe themselves to be generous when they vote for one of the contestants, giving hope to one and plunging into despair the other, who takes his cancer home with him when the lights go out, and with them the fleeting memory of the generous consumers. Like those emails we receive every day with images of someone who appears to suffer from some terrible illness (although it is never clear exactly who they are, or if any of the information can be trusted), appealing to charity to save a life. Like that army of lepers in India who showed us their mutilated limbs, covered with open sores, in exchange for a donation – which, by the way, demonstrates that this perversion is older than capitalism, although the latter has added stage lights and melodrama, abundance and hypocrisy.
Amid all this absurdity we must not only point the finger at a decadent system, but also, and especially, at every State that serves it. I am familiar with the classic objection: “Why must we always be dependent on the State? Why must we always expect the State to provide a solution to social and individual problems?” As far as I am concerned, the ideal would be for societies not to have to rely on any State – nor even to have one at all. At least not that traditional apparatus, a nest of vertical power and corruption, resource for the aristocracy and depository of national apologies. Nevertheless, I have always been struck by the fact that those who raise this kind of rhetorical question as their only ideological tool tend to be radical partisans of traditional capitalism. I am struck, I say, not because I believe that capitalism is the worst of all systems, but because I recognize that both communism and capitalism are systems that could not survive without the existence of a central State. Refering back to the problem posed at the beginning of the essay, why don’t we ask: Why not take recourse to the State in these cases? If the State is required to guarantee the smooth functioning of the stock markets (for which purpose it incurs astronomical expenses), roads and communication networks, why not require that it take care of a dying man who, through the State’s aid, might enjoy a full life? Most economic activity – from the useless propagation of cellphone calls inform the spouse that one has returned home and in that instant sticking the key in the front door, from the “minute-to-minute update” on a football game, to the most banal necessities ever invented in history – has as its purpose the development of a sector of the economy and not exactly coming to the aid of those in need. There is no better proof of that than the inefficient health systems of countries as wealthy as the United States, where a considerable part of the population can spend a hundred dollars a week on clothes for their dogs and three hundred for a visit to the veterinarian, and are offended when one reminds them that south of the Río Grande there are children who spend less in a year. Because, how is it possible for someone to doubt my sensitivity if I care for a dog as if it were a person?
How is it possible for a State – any State, in any country – to invest millions of dollars in urban “beautification”, millions more in political propaganda, comparable sums to protect luxury hotels and casinos and not take care of those citizens who are in agony with a terminal illness? Why should a girl, faced with a bed-ridden life unless she receives a spinal operation or has a cyst removed from her eye, have to turn to raffles, or television programs that publicize her terrible circumstances in order to emotionally motivate potential donors while the States look on impassively, worried more about the insatiable growth of the Gross Domestic Product? If the State imposes a tax charge in order to pay the salaries of its bureaucrats, its chauffers, its coffee servers and, what is worse, its unelected political appointees, why not raise a little more money in order to save the lives of those who have fallen undeservedly into misfortune? Why are useless militaries sustained by compulsive tribute and yet to save a child with cancer one must turn either to the generous heart of some good Samaritan or to the Church?
Dying of cancer or going blind due to some reversible disease is a potential circumstantial misfortune for any individual, but it is a regular and constant fact of life for any society. A government might be excused for not foreseeing an earthquake or the explosion of a damned bomb on a train, but how does one excuse a government and an entire society from attending to those thousands of innocents who predictably fall, year after year, into misfortune through no fault of their own? How does one forgive a president and his legislators who are watching a gruesome television spectacle where the competition is between a cancer and a tumor, between a paralysis and a blindness, who are satisfied with the good will of their nation because advertisement revenue from commercial products will finance the rehabilitation of one of the afflicted? Afflictions that the program’s host, with his voice noticeably breaking, must repeat every week in the language of mass entertainment: “Juan and María are competing for a dream; Juan’s dream is to win so that the tumor destroying his wife’s face can be removed; what a beautiful dream.” The capitalist system isghoulish, but it does have its modesty. Except when it casts aside subtlety and airs a promotional preview for an exhausted public in the middle of the work week saying, with the agitated voice of a soccer announcer and the harangue of a boxing commentator: “Juan left María’s brother with no hope to ever see again, and now he faces Pedro, who competes for his own dream.”
And notice that they haven’t got the courage to put into the competition a malnourished child, though I assure you such candidates abound in our long-suffering America. This may be because in that case the prize would be a daily plate of food, and what the entertainment spectacle requires is a $50,000 dollar operation, a real effort capable of revealing the great strength of a people when it comes together for a noble cause.
It is in moments like these when the over-used word “solidarity” finally runs aground. Because it is not the solidarity of charity that makes a society virtuous but the solidarity of a system that places a higher priority on the lives of its inhabitants than on the luxury or convenience of so-called economic growth. Because, as it turns out, economic growth is built on this kind of perverse civic morality, and when we can enjoy that we are so corrupt the only thing we think about is perpetuating, proudly, the vices that have brought us success.
The University of Georgia, junio 2006.
Jorge Majfud was born in Uruguay, in 1969. From an early age he read and wrote fiction, but chose to major in Architecture and in 1996 he graduated from the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay. His university studies and interests led him to travel to more than forty countries to gather, in an obsessive and continuous way, pages that would later become part of his novels and essays. He was a professor at the Universidad Hispanoamericana de Costa Rica and at Escuela Técnica del Uruguay, where he taught Mathematics and Art. In 2003 he entered the University of Georgia, where he also began postgraduate studies in the Department of Romance Languages. Master of Art in Literature, he currently teaches Latin American Literature at The University of Georgia.
Some publications: Hacia qué patrias del silencio (memorias de un desaparecido), novel published for the first time in 1996, by Editorial Graffiti, Montevideo (latest edition: Baile del Sol, Spain 2001); Crítica de la pasión pura, essays 1998, Editorial Graffiti, Montevideo (2nd edition –selection-: 1999, HCR, Virginia, USA; 3rd edition: 2000, Editorial Argenta, Buenos Aires); La reina de América, novel (Baile del Sol, Tenerife. 2002). He has contributed to the issue Entre Siglos-Entre Séculos: Autores Latinoamericanos a Fin de siglo, edited by Pilar Ediçoes (Brasilia) and Bianchi Editores (Montevideo), in 1999. 9 viajes (Ed. Trilce, Montevideo, 2002), El tiempo que me tocó vivir (Ed. Miguel de Cervantes, España), Los significados ideológicos de América Latina (CEPAL, Santiago de Chile, 2006). His stories and articles have been published in daily newspapers, magazines, and readers, such as El País and La República of Montevideo, Rebelion, Hispanic Culture Review of George Mason University, Resource Center of The Americas, Tiempos del Mundo, Jornada, etc. He has been the founder and editor of the magazine SigloXXI-reflexiones sobre nuestro tiempo. He is a habitual collaborator in Bitácora, weekly publication of the daily newspaper La República of Montevideo, La Vanguardia of Barcelona and of other daily and weekly newspapers in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Spain, France, Sweden, Canada, and the United States. He is a member of the International Scientific Committee of the magazine Araucaria in Spain and The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi
He was distinguished in different international contests, for example: Honor Mention in the XII Certamen Literario Argenta, in Buenos Aires in 1999, for the first drafts of Crítica de la pasión pura. Mention at Premio Casa de las Américas, in Habana, Cuba in 2001, for the novel La Reina de América, “because it stands out as an intense writing regarding the established powers by the use of parody and irony,” according to the panel of judges composed of Belén Gopegui (Spain), Andrés Rivera (Argentina), Mayra Santos Febres (Puerto Rico), Beatriz Maggi (Cuba), and José Luis Díaz Granados (Colombia). Segundo Premio Concurso Caja Profesional 2001, for the story Mabel Espera, “for its posing of annotated, harsh reality written with valuable literary strategies,” in the opinion of the panel of judges made up of Sylvia Lago, Alicia Torres, and Mario Delgado Aparaín. Excellence in Research Award, UGA, United States 2006.
His essays and articles have been translated into Portuguese, French, English and German.