Where Does the Voice of the People Come From?

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¿De dónde viene la voz del pueblo? (Spanish)


Where Does the Voice of the People Come From?

Jorge Majfud

If naïve is not the opposite of genius, it is also not its substitute. This is the origin of fables and parables. Or of sophisms like: “I can resist anything, except temptation” (attributed to Oscar Wilde); “a communist is someone who has read Marx; an anti-communist is someone who has understood him” (Ronald Reagan); or Groucho Marx’s smartest bits. The sophism is a miniscule piece of naivety that frequently stands in for or pretends to cover up the absence of a more complex thought.

Lincoln’s hopeful and popular statement, “you can fool all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time,” is similar to Churchill’s, “never before have so many owed so much to so few.” Perhaps phonetic geometry – “…all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time” – conspires against historical truth. It depends on the meaning of “part of the time” and “part of the people.” For despots and dictators perhaps a couple of decades might be “so few” but to those who must suffer them a half an hour might be “so much time.”

For centuries, the idea that the Sun revolved around the Earth was unanimous. Ptolemy’s old system – pretty new if we consider that other Greeks believed that in reality the Earth moved around the Sun – was the “vox populi” on cosmology. The calculations that took Ptolemy’s model into account were able to predict eclipses. That cosmological model was overturned, bit by bit, beginning with the Rennaissance. Today heliocentrism is the “vox populi.” It at least sounds ridiculous to say that in reality the Sun revolves around the Earth. Nevertheless, this reality is undeniable. Even a blind man can see it. From the point of view of an earthling, what revolves is the Sun, not the Earth. And if we consider the first Einsteinian principle which holds that there is no privileged point of view nor solitary system of observation in the Universe, there is no reason to deny that the Sun revolves around the Earth. The heliocentric idea is only valid for a (imaginary) point of view outside the solar System, a simpler and more aesthetically accomplished point of view.

One of the first written mentions of vox populi, vox Dei is made by Flaccus Albinus Alcuinus more than a thousand years ago, precisely in order to refute it: …tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit (“…the good sense of the common people is more like madness”). Its pagan and perhaps demagogic roots authorize the people in the name of God but/and are used by a whole range of atheists or anti-clericals. On the other hand, the bureaucracy that has been invented for God in order to assist him in administering his Creation, has practiced historically the opposite slogan: “the power of the king originates from God.” At least from Tutankhamen through to the generalísimos and (not) very Catholic Franco, Videla, Pinochet and the U.S. neo-conservatives. Nor has the Vatican ever taken recourse to the “vox populi” in order to elect the “vox Dei.” How could God have given us intelligence and then demanded from us the conduct of a herd?

Since the times in which feudal and theocratic propaganda reined and in the times of the absolutist monarchs, the “vox populi” was a creation of (1) pulpits and school desks and of (2) popular stories about kings and princesses. Not very different from (2) are the most current soap operas and the magazines about the Rich&Famous where the elegant miseries of the dominant classes are placed on exhibit for the moral consumption of the people. Different from (1), although not by much, the “vox populi” is formed today on the political stage and in the dominant mass media.

Not very different from that first black-and-white Nixon-Kennedy debate. Does the candidate exist who dares to defy the sacred “public opinion”? Yes, only the one who knows that he has no serious likelihood of winning and is not afraid to stick his finger in the wound. But politicians with a chance cannot afford the luxury of making that “vox populi” uncomfortable, for which reason they tend to accommodate themselves to the center – the ideological space created by the media – in the name of pragmatism. If the ultimate goal is angling for votes, does anyone dare to say something that he knows, beforehand, will not be well received by the voting masses? Candidates do not debate; they compete in seduction, as if they were “singing for a dream.”

Now, does all this mean that the people have the authority to impose a behavior on their own candidates? Does it mean that the people have power? In order to respond we must consider whether that public opinion is not frequently created, or at least influenced by the large communication media – a title self-evidently false and at times demagogic – just like in the Middle Ages it was created and influenced from the pulpit and communication was reduced to the sermon and the message was, as today, fear.

Obviously, I am not going to defend freedom of the press in Cuba. But on the other hand the repeated freedom of the press of the self-proclaimed “free world” does not shine under close inspection. I am not referring only to the democratic self-censorship of those who fear losing their jobs, or to the unemployed politicians who must disguise their ideas in order to convince a potential employer. If in the “unfree” countries the press is controlled by the State, who controls the means (or media) and the ends in the free world? The people? Someone who does not belong to the select family of the large media that exercise “world coverage,” who can say what kind of news, what kind of ideas should dominate the air, the land and the seas like our daily bread? When it is said that ours is a free press because it is governed by the free market, is one arguing for or against the freedom of the press and of the people? Who decides which news and which truths should be repeated 24 hours a day by CNN, Fox or Telemundo? Why is it that Paris Hilton crying over a two-week jail stay – and then selling the story of her crime and of her “moral conversion” – is frontpage news but thousands of dead as a result of avoidable injustices are an item alongside the weather prediction?

In order to complete the (self)censorship in our culture, each time that someone dares to examine things closely or scribble out a few questions, they are accused of preferring the times of Stalinism or some corner of Asia where theocracy reigns at its whimsy. This is, also, part of a well-known ideological terrorism about which we must be intellectually alert and resistant.

History demonstrates that big changes have been driven, foreseen and provoked by minorities attentive to the majority. Almost as a rule, national peoples have been more conservative, perhaps owing to the historical structures that have imposed on them a leaden obedience. The idea that “the people are never wrong” is very similar to the demagoguery of “the client is always right,” even though it is written with the other hand. In the best (humanistic) sense, the phrase “vox populi, vox Dei” can refer not to the idea that the people necessarily are right, but to the idea that the people is its own truth. That is to say, every form of social organization has the people as subject and object. Except in a theocracy, where this rationality is a god who regrets having conferred free will on his little creatures. Except in the most orthodox mercantilism, where the end is material progress and the means to the end human flesh and blood.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

March 2008


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