Hurricane Katrina and the Hyperreality of the Image

Post-Katrina School Bus

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Katrina y la hiperrealidad de la imagen (Spanish)

Hurricane Katrina and the Hyperreality of the Image

by Jorge Majfud

Translated by Bruce Campbell

September 2, 2005

In the 16th century, the Dominican brother Bartolomé de las Casas wrote an empassioned chronicle about the brutal conquest by the Spanish Empire of the new world. The denunciation by this Christian convert (which is to say, “of impure blood”) in behalf of a universal humanism, resulted in the Juntas de Valladolid (1550) in which he faced off, before the public and the king, with Ginés de Sepúlveda. Using a biblical quotation taken from Proverbs, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and his partisans defended the right of the Empire to enslave indigenous peoples, not only because they did it in the name of the “true faith” but, above all, because the Bible said that the intelligent man must subjugate the idiot. We will not go into who were the intelligent men. What matters now is knowing that over the centuries, a debate resulted among the “chroniclers” (the only literary genre permitted by the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas). As always, only a minority promoted a new ethics based on ethical “principles.” In this case the humanists and defenders of the “natural right” of the indigenous peoples. One had to wait until the 19th century for these “principles” to become reality by the force of “necessity.” In other words, the Industrial Revolution needed wage laborers, not free labor that competed with standardized production and that, besides, had no consumption power. From that point on, as always, “necessity” quickly universalized the “principles,” so that today we all consider ourselves “anti-slavery,” based on ethical “principles” and not by “necessity.”* I have explained this elsewhere, but what is important to me now is to briefly analyze the power of the written text and, beyond this, the power of dialectical (and sometimes sophistic) analysis.

Using the denunciations of father Bartolomé de las Casas, a nascent empire (the British) quickly found writers to create the “black legend” of Spain’s colonial enterprise. Then, like any new empire, it presumed an advanced morality: it presented itself as the champion of the anti-slavery struggle (which – what a coincidence – only became a reality when its industries developed in the 19th century) and pretended to give moral lessons without the necessary authority, which was denied by its own history of brutal oppression, equally as brutal as that of the old Spanish empire.

Shortly after the De las Casas-Supúlveda controversy and following the approval of the New Laws governing treatment of the indians as a consequence (although the laws weren’t worth the paper they were printed on), Guamán Poma Ayala denounced a similar history of rapes, torture and mass murder. But he did it, in contrast, with a collection of drawings, which at the time was a form of chronicle as valid as the written word. These drawing can be studied in detail today, but we would have to say that there impact and interest was minimal in their own time, despite the starkness of the images. In those days, just as during the Middle Ages, images had a special usefulness because the majority of the population did not know how to read. Nevertheless, and for that very reason, it is easy to explain why Guamán Poma’s chronicle was of no great consequence: because the “masses,” the population, didn’t matter as an agent of change. Or it simply didn’t matter. Rebellion might be headed by a cacique, like Tupac Amaru, but the population was not a protagonist of its own story.

Now here’s where I’m going with this: this process has been reversed today. The “masses” are no longer “masses” and have begun to matter: citing Ortega y Gasset, we might say that we had a “rebellion of the masses” but now can longer speak of “masses” but of a population composed of individuals that have started to question, to make demands, and to rebel. Nonetheless, the struggle is rooted on this front: as the masses (now subjects in rebellion) matter in the generation of the story, those who still belong to the old order seek to dominate them with their own language: the image. And often they succeed to perfection. Let’s take a look.

Our Western popular culture is based (at times trapped) in visual codes and a visual sensibility. We know that the culture of the ruling (or dominant) classes continues to be based on the complexities of the written text. Even the experts on images base their studies and theories on the written word. If in Latin America public opinion and sensibility are strongly conditioned by an ideological tradition (formed from the time of the Conquest, in the 16th century, and exploited by opposing political groups in the 20th century), here, in the United States, the relationship with the past is less conflict-oriented, and hence the lack of historical memory can, in some cases, facilitate the work of the proselytizers. We will not get into that issue here. Suffice it to say that the United States is a complex and contradictory country, and therefore any judgement about “Americanness” is as arbitrary and unfair as speaking of “Latinamericanness” without recognizing the great diversity that exists within that mythological construct. We must not forget that all ideology (of the left or of the right, liberal or conservative) sustains itself via a strategic simplification of the reality it analyzes or creates.

I understand that these factors should be taken into account when we want to understand why the image is a basic “text” for capitalist societies: its “consumption” is quick, disposable, and therefore “comfortable.” The problem arises when this image (the sign, the text) ceases to be comfortable and pleasant. When this happens the public reacts, becomes aware. That is to say, the understanding, the awareness, enters through the eyes: a photograph of a girl fleeing the napalm bombs in Viet Nam, for example. For the same reason it was “recommended” to not show the public images of the war in Iraq that included children torn apart by bombs (see the daily papers of the rest of the world in 2003), the coffins of American soldiers returning home, etc. By contrast, the Terri Schiavo case occupied the time and concern of the American public for many weeks, day after day, hour after hour; the president and governor Bush of Florida signed “exceptions” that were rejected by the judiciary, until the poor woman died to rest in peace from so many obscene images of which she was the unknowing and unwilling victim. Despite it all, during thos same weeks hundreds of Iraqis, as well as American soldiers, continued to die and they didn’t even make the news, beyond the publication of the daily statistic. Why? Because they aren’t persons, they are numbers for a sensibility that is only moved by images. And this was proved by the photographs of Abu Graib and with a video that showed an American soldier shooting a wounded man. Those were the only two moments in which the American public reacted with indignation. But we should ask ourselves, does anyone really believe that these things don’t happen in war? Does anyone still believe in that postmodern story about hygienic wars, where there are “special effects” but no blood, death and pain? Yes. Many people do. Lamentably, a majority. And it’s not due to lack of intelligence but to lack of interest.

We can analyze the same process at work with the recent problem of New Orleans. The catastrophe was not grasped when the meteorologists warned of the scale of the tragedy, several days before. Nor was there broad awareness of the problem when reports spoke of tens of dead. Four days after, we knew that the number of dead could rise into the hundreds. Possibly thousands, if we consider those wuo will die for lack of dialysis, lack of insulin and other emergency medicines. But television did not show a single dead person. Anyone can search the pages of the principal daily newspapers of the United States and they will not find an “offensive” image, one of those photographs that we can view in daily papers from other parts of the world: bodies floating, children dying “like in Africa,” violence, rapes, etc. Because if there is one thing in abundance it is digital cameras; but there is even more “modesty.” I am no advocate of morbid gratuitousness, nor of showing blood over and over again unnecessarily: I am an advocate of showing everything. As a U.S. citizen said with reference to the war, “if we were capable of doing it we should be capable of seeing it.”

A natural tragedy like this one (or like the tsunami in Asia) is a disgrace for which we cannot hold anyone responsible. (Let’s set aside, for a moment, the share of responsibility that societies have in the global warming of the oceans.) Nonetheless, the tragedy of New Orleans demonstrates that a superpower like the United States can mobilize tens of thousands of soldiers, the most advanced technology in the world, the most effective machinery of assault in human history in order to remove a foreign president (or dictator), but prove incapable of reaching thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina, in a city within its own country. In New Orleans, there were acts of vandalism and violence, rapes and general chaos while victims complained that there were no policemen or soldiers to help them, in an area that found itself under martial law. This complaint was made in front of the cameras, and so we can believe that at least the journalists were able to gain access to those places. Some loot because they are opportunists, others out of desperation, as they begin to experience a situation of struggle for survival previously not seen in the most powerful country in the world. On September 1 president G.W. Bush appealed for private aid and on September 2 he said it was not sufficient. There is no lack of resources, of course (the war in Iraq cost more than three hundred billion dollars, ten times more than all the damages produced by the hurricane in this tragedy); the Congress voted for economic aid of ten billion dollars for the victims. But the latter continued to die, trapped in stadiums, on bridges, without shelter, offering up a jarring image for a country whose poor suffer from problems of overeating, where beggars are fined a thousand dollars for asking for things they don’t need (since the State supposedly provides them everything necessary to survive without desperation in case they can’t do so by their own means). Undocumented Hispanics suffer a double tragedy: they will not receive compensation like their neighbors, but rest assured that they will be the first to take up the task of reconstruction. Who else? What other social group in this country has the physical, moral and spiritual toughness to work under conditions of survival and hopelessness? Or do we still believe in fairy tales?

The people of the United States will become aware of the objectives and priorities of this government when they compare its efficiency or inefficiency in different places and moments. But for that to happen they must “see it” on their television sets, in the English-language news media on the Internet, to which they turn out of habit. Because it is of little or no use for them to read it in written texts, since the critical analyses of the New York Times are seemingly useless – a paper that, with a large number of brilliant analysts noting one by one the contradictions of this government, took sides publicly against the the reelection of G. W. Bush. Now, when there is a “fatigue” in public opinion, the majority of the country’s population understands that the intervention in Iraq was a mistake. Of course, as my grandfather used to say, you chirped too late.

U.S. public opinion will become aware of what is happening in New Orleans (and of what is happening beyond the natural phenomenon) when people can see images; a part of what the victims see and tell orally to a public that listens but is unmoved by a dialectical analysis that doesn’t appeal to images or biblical metaphors. The U.S. public will realize what is happening when its sees “raw” images, as long as they don’t confuse those images with the chaos of some underdeveloped country.

The brilliant Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, exiled by the dictatorship of his country “out of ignorance,” published in 1971 The Pedagogy of the Oppressed with a publishing house in Montevideo, Uruguay. He mentioned there the pedagogical experience of a colleague. The teacher had shown to a student an alley of New York City filled with garbage and asked him what he saw. The boy said that he saw a street in Africa or Latin America. “And why not a street in New York City?” observed the teacher. A short timearlier, in the 1950s, Roland Barthes had done an interesting analysis of a photograph in which a black soldier saluted “patriotically” the flag of the empire that oppressed Africa (the French empire), and concluded, among other things, that the image was conditioned by the (written) text that accompanies it and that it is the latter that confers on the image (ideological) meaning. We might think that the semantic (or semiotic) problem is a bit more complex than this, and arises from other unwritten “texts,” other images, other (hegemonic) discourses, etc. But the “raw” image also has a revelatory, or at least critical, function. What do I mean by “raw”? “Raw” images are precisely those images censored (or repressed, to use a psychoanalytic term) by the dominant discourse. For this reason those of us who use dialectics and analysis related historically to thought and language must recognize, at the same time, the power of those others who control visual language. To dominate or to liberate, to hide or to reveal.

Once, in an African village, a Macua man told me how a sorceress had transformed a sack of sand into a sack of sugar, and how another sorcerer had come flying down from the sky. I asked him if he remembered any strange, recent dream. The Macua man told me he had dreamed that he saw his village from an airplane. “Have you ever flown in a plane?” I asked. Obviously not. He hadn’t even been close to one of those machines. “But you say that you saw it,” I observed. “Yes, but it was a dream,” he told me. Spirits in the bodies of lions, flying men, sand turned into sugar aren’t dreams. Stories like these can be read in the chronicles of the Spaniards who conquered Latin America in the 16th century. We can also see them today in many regions of Central America. My response to my Macua friend was the same as I would give to the more “evolved” U.S. public: we must always be aware that not everything we see is true, nor is can everything true be seen.

*This same principal that I call “necessity” was identified in the 19th century by Bautista Alberdi, when he recognized that laicism in the Rio de la Plata was (and had to be) a consequence of the great diversity of religions, a product of immigration. It was not possible to expel or engage in “ethnic cleansing,” as Spain did in the 15th century, since in Alberdi’s time we were in a different arena of history, and of the concept of “necessary resources.”

Translated by Bruce Campbell

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If Latin America Had Been a British Enterprise

His family was originally from Serantes, Ferro...

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Si América Latina hubiese sido una empresa inglesa (Spanish)

If Latin America Had Been a British Enterprise

Jorge Majfud

In the process of conducting a recent study at the University of Georgia, a female student interviewed a young Colombian woman and tape recorded the interview.  The young woman commented on her experience in England and how  the British were interested in knowing the reality of Colombia.  After she detailed the problems that her country had, one Englishman observed the paradox that England, despite being smaller and possessing fewer natural resources, was much wealthier than Colombia.  His conclusion was cutting:  “If England had managed Colombia like a business, Colombians today would be much richer.”

The Colombian youth admitted her irritation, because the comment was intended to point out  just how incapable we are in Latin America.  The lucid maturity of the young Colombian woman was evident in the course of the interview, but in that moment she could not find the words to respond to the son of the old empire.  The heat of the moment, the audacity of those British kept her from remembering that in many respects Latin America had indeed been managed like a British enterprise and that, therefore, the idea was not only far from original but, also, was part of the reason that Latin America was so poor – with the caveat that poverty is a scarcity of capital and not of historical consciousness.

Agreed: three hundred years of monopolistic, retrograde and frequently cruel colonization has weighed heavily upon the Latin American continent, and consolidated in the spirit of our nations an oppositional psychology with respect to social and political legitimation (Alberto Montaner called that cultural trait “the suspicious original legitimacy of power”).  Following the Semi-independences of the 19th century, the “progress” of the British railroad system was not only a kind of gilded cage – in the words of Eduardo Galeano -, a strait-jacket for native Latin American development, but we can see something similar in Africa: in Mozambique, for example, a country that extends North-to-South, the roads cut across it from East-to-West.  The British Empire was thus able to extract the wealth of its central colonies by passing through the Portuguese colony.  In Latin America we can still see the networks of asphalt and steel flowing together toward the ports – old bastions of the Spanish colonies that native rebels contemplated with infinite rancor from the heights of the savage sierras, and which the large land owners saw as the maximum progress possible for countries that were backward by “nature.”

Obviously, these observations do not exempt us, the Latin Americans, from assuming our own responsibilities.  We are conditioned by an economic infrastructure, but not determined by it, just as an adult is not tied irremediably to the traumas of childhood.  Certainly we must confront these days other kinds of strait-jackets, conditioning imposed on us from outside and from within, by the inevitable thirst for dominance of world powers who refuse strategic change, on the one hand, and frequently by our own culture of immobility, on the other.  For the former it is necessary to lose our innocence; for the latter we need the courage to criticize ourselves, to change ourselves and to change the world.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

* Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan writer and professor of Latin American literature at the University of Georgia.

The Fall of an Empire

Bartolome de las casas

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Cómo se derrumba un imperio (Spanish)

The Fall of an Empire


Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

The same day that Christopher Columbus left the port of Palos, the third of August of 1492, was the deadline for the Jews of Spain to leave their country, Spain.  In the admiral’s mind there were at least two powerful goals, two irrefutable truths: the material riches of Asia and the perfect religion of Europe.  With the former he intended to finance the reconquest of Jerusalem; with the latter he would legitimate the looting.  The word “oro,” Spanish for “gold,” spilled from his pen in the same way the divine and bloody metal spilled from the ships of the conquistadors who followed him.  That same year, the second of January of 1492, Granada had fallen, the last Arab bastion on the Iberian Peninsula.  1492 was also the year of the publication of the first Castilian grammar (the first European grammar in a “vulgar” language).  According to its author, Antonio de Nebrija, language was the “companion to empire.”  Immediately, the new power continued the Reconquest with the Conquest, on the other side of the Atlantic, using the same methods and the same convictions, confirming the globalizing vocation of all empires.

At the center of power there had to be a language, a religion and a race.  Future Spanish nationalism would be built on the foundation of a cleansing of memory.  It is true that eight centuries before Jews and Aryan Visigoths had called for and later helped Muslims replace Roderick and the rest of the Visigoth kings who had fought for the same purification.  But this was not the principal reason for despising the Jews, because it was not memory that was important but forgetting.  The Catholic monarchs and successive divine royalty finished off (or wanted to) the other Spain, multicultural and mestizo Spain, the Spain where several languages were spoken and several religions were practiced and several races mixed.  The Spain that had been the center of culture, the arts and the sciences, in a Europe submerged in backwardness, in the violent superstitions and provincialism of the Middle Ages.  More and more, the Iberian Peninsula began closing its borders to difference.  Moors and Jews had to abandon their country and emigrate to Barbaria (Africa) or to the rest of Europe, where they integrated to peripheral nations that emerged with new economic, social and intellectual restlessness.1 Within the borders were left some illegitimate children, African slaves who go almost unmentioned in the better known version of history but who were necessary for undignified domestic tasks.  The new and successful Spain enclosed itself in a conservative movement (if one will permit me the oxymoron).  The state and religion were strategically united for better control of Spain’s people during a schizophrenic process of purification.  Some dissidents like Bartolomé de las Casas had to face, in public court, those who, like Ginés de Supúlveda, argued that the empire had the right to invade and dominate the new continent because it was written in the Bible (Proverbs 11:29) that “the foolish shall be servant to the wise of heart.”  The others, the subjugated, are such because of their “inferior intellect and inhumane and barbarous customs.”  The speech of the famous and influential theologian, sensible like all official discourse, proclaimed: “[the natives] are barbarous and inhumane peoples, are foreign to civil life and peaceful customs, and it will be just and in keeping with natural law that such peoples submit to the empire of more cultured and humane nations and princes, so that due to their virtues and the prudence of their laws such peoples might throw off their barbarism and reduce themselves to a more humane life and worship of virtue.”  And in another moment: “one must subjugate by force of arms, if by other means is not possible, those who by their natural condition must obey others but refuse to submit.”  At the time one did not recur to words like “democracy” and “freedom” because until the 19th century these remained in Spain attributes of humanist chaos, anarchy and the devil.  But each imperial power in each moment of history plays the same game with different cards.  Some, as one can see, not so different.

Despite an initially favorable reaction from King Carlos V and the New Laws that prohibited enslavement of native Americans (Africans were not considered subject to rights), the empire, through its propertied class, continued enslaving and exterminating those peoples considered “foreign to civil life and peaceful customs” in the name of salvation and humanization.  In order to put an end to the horrible Aztec rituals that periodically sacrificed an innocent victim to their pagan gods, the empire tortured, raped and murdered en masse, in the name of the law and of the one, true God.  According to Bartolomé de las Casas, one of the methods of persuasion was to stretch the savages over a grill and roast them alive.  But it was not only torture – physical and moral – and forced labor that depopulated lands that at one time had been inhabited by thousands of people; weapons of mass destruction were also employed, biological weapons to be more specific.  Smallpox and the flu decimated entire populations unintentionally at times, and according to precise calculation on other occasions.  As the English had discovered to the north, sometimes the delivery of contaminated gifts, like the clothing of infected people, or the dumping of pestilent cadavers, had more devastating effects than heavy artillery.

Now, who defeated one of the greatest empires in history, the Spanish Empire?  Spain.  As a conservative mentality, cutting across all social classes, clung to a belief in its divine destiny, as the “armed hand of God” (according to Menéndez Pelayo), the empire sank into its own past.  The society of empire fractured and the gap separating the rich from the poor grew at the same time that the empire guaranteed the mineral resources (precious metals in this case) allowing it to function.  The poor increased in number and the rich increased the wealth they accumulated in the name of God and country.  The empire had to finance the wars that it maintained beyond its borders and the fiscal deficit grew until it became a monster out of control.  Tax cuts mainly benefited the upper classes, to such an extent that they often were not even required to pay them or were exempted from going to prison for debt or embezzlement.  The state went bankrupt several times.  Nor was the endless flow of mineral resources coming from its colonies, beneficiaries of the enlightenment of the Gospel, sufficient: the government spent more than what it received from these invaded lands, requiring it to turn to the Italian banks.

This is how, when many countries of America (what is now called Latin America) became independent, there was no longer anything left of the empire but its terrible reputation.  Fray Servando Teresa de Mier wrote in 1820 that if Mexico had not yet become independent it was because of the ignorance of the people, who did not yet understand that the Spanish Empire was no longer an empire, but the poorest corner of Europe.  A new empire was consolidating power, the British Empire.  Like previous empires, and like those that would follow, the extension of its language and the dominance of its culture would be common factors.  Another would be publicity: England did not delay in using the chronicles of Bartolomé de las Casas to defame the old empire in the name of a superior morality.  A morality that nonetheless did not preclude the same kind of rape and criminality.  But clearly, what matters most are the good intentions: well-being, peace, freedom, progress – and God, whose omnipresence is demonstrated by His presence in all official discourse.

Racism, discrimination, the closing of borders, messianic religious belief, wars for peace, huge fiscal deficits to finance these wars, and radical conservatism lost the empire.  But all of these sins are summed up in one: arrogance, because this is the one that keeps a world power from seeing all the other ones.  Or it allows them to be seen, but in distorted fashion, as if they were grand virtues.

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

February 2006.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

(1) It is commonly said that the Renaissance began with the fall of Constantinople and the emigration of Greek intellectuals to Italy, but little or nothing is said of the emigration of knowledge and capital that were forced to abandon Spain.

The Privatization of God

Blaise Pascal first explained his wager in Pen...

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The Privatization of God


by Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

Custom-made for the consumer

In the 17th century, the mathematics genius Blaise Pascal wrote that men never do evil with greater pleasure than when they do it with religious conviction. This idea – from a deeply religious man – has taken a variety of different forms since. During the last century, the greatest crimes against humanity were promoted, with pride and passion, in the name of Progress, of Justice and of Freedom. In the name of Love, Puritans and moralists organized hatred, oppression and humiliation; in the name of Life, leaders and prophets spilled death over vast regions of the planet. Presently, God has come to be the main excuse for excercises in hate and death, hiding political ambitions, earthly and infernal interests behind sacred invocations. In this way, by reducing each tragedy on the planet to the millenarian and simplified tradition of the struggle between Good and Evil, of God against the Devil, hatred, violence and death are legitimated. There is no other way to explain how men and women are inclined to pray with fanatical pride and hypocritical humility, as if they were pure angels, models of morality, all the while hiding gunpowder in their clothing, or a check made out to death. And if the leaders are aware of the fraud, their subjects are no less responsible for being stupid, no less culpable for their criminal metaphysical convictions, in the name of God and Morality – when not in the name of a race, of a culture – and from a long tradition, recently on exhibit, custom-fit to the latest in hatred and ambition.

Empire of the simplifications

Yes, we can believe in the people. We can believe that they are capable of the most astounding creations – as will be one day their own liberation – and also of incommensurable stupidities, these latter always concealed by a complacent and self-interested discourse that manages to nullify criticism and any challenge to bad conscience. But, how did we come to such criminal negligence? Where does so much pride come from in a world where violence grows daily and more and more people claim to have heard the voice of God?

Political history demonstrates that a simplification is more powerful and better received by the vast majority of a society than is a problematization. For a politician or for a spiritual leader, for example, it is a show of weakness to admit that reality is complex. If one’s adversary expunges from a problem all of its contradictions and presents it to the public as a struggle between Good and Evil, the adversary undoubtedly is more likely to triumph. In the final analysis, the primary lesson of our time is grounded in commercial advertising or in permissive submission: we elect and we buy that which solves our problems for us, quickly and cheaply, even though the problem might be created by the solution, and even though the problem might continue to be real while the solution is never more than virtual. Nonetheless, a simplification does not eliminate the complexity of the problem in question, but rather, on the contrary, produces greater problems, and sometimes tragic consequences. Denying a disease does not cure it; it makes it worse.

Why don’t we talk about why?

Let’s try now to problematize some social phenomenon. Undoubtedly, we will not plumb the full depths of its complexity, but we can get an idea of the degree of simplification with which it is treated on a daily basis, and not always innocently.

Let’s start with a brief example. Consider the case of a man who rapes and kills a young girl. I take this example not only because it is, along with torture, one of the most abhorrent crimes imaginable, but because it represents a common criminal practice in all societies, even those that boast of their special moral virtues.

First of all, we have a crime. Beyond the semantics of “crime” and “punishment,” we can evaluate the act on its own merits, without, that is, needing to recur to a genealogy of the criminal and of his victim, or needing to research the origins of the criminal’s conduct. Both the rape and the murder should be punished by the law, and by the rest of society. And period. On this view, there is no room for discussion.

Very well. Now let’s imagine that in a given country the number of rapes and murders doubles in a particular year and then doubles again the year after that. A simplification would be to reduce the new phenomenon to the criminal deed described above. That is to say, a simplification would be to understand that the solution to the problem would be to not let a single one of these crimes go unpunished. Stated in a third way, a simplification would be to not recognize the social realities behind the individual criminal act. A more in-depth analysis of the first case could reveal to us a painful childhood, marked by the sexual abuse of the future abuser, of the future criminal. This observation would not in any way overturn the criminality of the deed itself, just as evaluated above, but it would allow us to begin to see the complexity of a problem that a simplification threatens to perpetuate. Starting from this psychological analysis of the individual, we could certainly continue on to observe other kinds of implications arising from the same criminal’s circumstances, such as, for example, the economic conditions of a specific social underclass, its exploitation and moral stigmatization by the rest of society, the moral violence and humiliation of its misery, its scales of moral value constructed in accordance with an apparatus of production, reproduction and contradictory consumption, by social institutions like a public education system that helps the poor less than it humiliates them, certain religious organizations that have created sin for the poor while using the latter to earn Paradise for themselves, the mass media, advertising, labor contradictions… and so on.

We can understand terrorism in our time in the same way. The criminality of an act of terrorism is not open to discussion (or it shouldn’t be). Killing is always a disgrace, a historical curse. But killing innocents and on a grand scale can have no justification or pardon of any kind. Therefore, to renounce punishment for those who promote terrorism is an act of cowardice and a flagrant concession to impunity.

Nevertheless, we should also remember here our initial caveat. Understanding a social and historical phenomenon as a consequence of the existence of “bad guys” on Earth is an extremely naive simplification or, to the contrary, an ideologically astute simplification that, by avoiding integrated analysis – historical, economic, political – exempts the administrators of the meaning of “bad”: the good guys.

We will not even begin to analyze, in these brief reflections, how one comes to identify one particular group and not others with the qualifier “terrorist.” For that let it suffice to recommend a reading of Roland Barthes – to mention just one classic source. We will assume the restricted meaning of the term, which is the one assumed by the press and the mainstream political narratives.

Even so, if we resort to the idea that terrorism exists because criminals exist in the world, we would have to think that in recent times there has been an especially abundant harvest of wicked people. (An idea explicitly present in the official discourse of all the governments of countries affected by the phenomenon.) But if it were true that in our world today there are more bad people than before, surely it isn’t by the grace of God but via historical developments that such a phenomenon has come to be. No historical circumstance is produced by chance, and therefore, to believe that killing terrorists will eliminate terrorism from the world is not only a foolish simplification but, by denying a historical origin for the problem, by presenting it as ahistorical, as purely a product of Evil, even as a struggle between two theological “essences” removed from any social, economic and political context, provokes a tragic worsening of the situation. It is a way of not confronting the problem, of not attacking its deep roots.

On many occasions violence is unavoidable. For example, if someone attacks us it would seem legitimate to defend ourselves with an equal degree of violence. Certainly a true Christian would offer the other cheek before instigating a violent reaction; however, if he were to respond violently to an act of aggression no one could deny him the right, even though he might be contradicting one of the commandments of Christ. But if a person or a government tells us that violence will be diminished by unleashing violence against the bad guys – affecting the innocent in the process – not only does this deny the search for a cause for the violence, it also will serve to strengthen it, or at least legitimate it, in the eyes of those who suffer the consequences.

Punishing those responsible for the violence is an act of justice. Claiming that violence exists only because violent people exist is an act of ignorance or of ideological manipulation.

If one continues to simplify the problem, insisting that it consists of a conflict produced by the “incompatibility” of two religious views – as if one of them had not been present for centuries – as if it were a matter of a simple kind of war where victory is achieved only with the total defeat of the enemy, one will drag the entire world into an intercontinental war. If one genuinely seeks the social origin and motivation of the problem – the “why” – and acts to eliminate and attenuate it, we will most assuredly witness a relaxing of the tension that is currently escalating. We will not see the end of violence and injustice in the world, but at least misfortune of unimaginable proportions will be avoided.

The analysis of the “origin of violence” would be useless if it were produced and consumed only within a university. It should be a problem for the headlines, a problem to be discussed dispassionately in the bars and in the streets. At the same time, we will have to recognize, once again, that we need a genuine dialogue. Not a return to the diplomatic farce, but a dialogue between peoples who have begun dangerously to see one another as enemies, as threats – a disagreement, really, based on a profound and crushing ignorance of the other and of oneself. What is urgent is a painful but courageous dialogue, where each one of us might recognize our prejudice and our self-centeredness. A dialogue that dispenses with the religious fanaticism – both Muslim and Christian – so in vogue these days, with its messianic and moralizing pretensions. A dialogue, in short, to spite the deaf who refuse to hear.

The True God

According to the true believers and the true religion, there can be only one true God, God. Some claim that the true God is One and he is Three at the same time, but judging by the evidence, God is One and Many more. The true God is unique but with different politics according to the interests of the true believers. Each one is the true God, each one moves the faithful against the faithful of other gods, which are always false gods even though each one is someone’s true God. Each true God organizes the virtue of each virtuous people on the basis of true customs and the true Morality. There is only one Morality based on the true God, but since there is more than one true God there is also more than one true Morality, only one of which is truly true.

But, how do we know which one is the true truth? The proper methods for proof are disputable; what is not disputed is the current practice: scorn, threats, oppression and, when in doubt, death. True death is always the final and inevitable recourse of the true truth, which comes from the true God, in order to save the true Morality and, above all, the true believers.

Yes, at times I have my doubts about what is true, and I know that doubt has been condemned by all religions, by all theologies, and by all political discourses. At times I have my doubts, but it is likely that God does not hold my doubt in contempt. He must be very busy concerning himself with so much certainty, so much pride, so much morality, behind so many ministers who have taken control of his word, holding Him hostage in a building somewhere so as to be able to conduct their business in public without obstacles.

Jorge Majfud

Translated by Bruce Campbell.

Monthly Review (New York)

Propaganda and the Myth of Reconquest

Diego Rivera

Image via Wikipedia

Propaganda and the Myth of Reconquest


By Jorge Majfud

A few days ago a well-known syndicated talk radio personality repeatedly asserted an opinion that is becoming common these days:  illegal immigrants should be denounced as dishonest and criminal, not only because they have entered the U.S. illegally but, mainly, because their objective is the Reconquest.

Let’s analyze the syllogism posited here. Even assuming that illegal workers are Reconquistadors – that’s what they were called – which is to say that they lay claim to vast territories lost by Mexico to Anglo Saxon settlers in the 19th century, one would have to conclude, according to the argument of the angry sophists, that the U.S. is founded on illegitimacy and the actions of alleged criminals.  (Texas was conquered in 1836 and thereby re-established slavery in a Mexican territory where it was illegal; other Western states met the same fate, following a war with Mexico and a payment to the vanquished in the manner of a purchase, because by then money was already a powerful legitimating agent.)

Now, if a reconquest is a crime, then what is a conquest?  In any case it would be understandable to assert that this immigration phenomenon is not politically convenient (although economically it appears to be so). But, dishonest? Criminal?  Would they dare to qualify as criminal the Spanish Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula?  No, of course not, and not because it wasn1t carried out in a bloody and racist fashion, but because in that case it was a matter of Christians against Muslims – and Jews.

Any conquest, like any reconquest, is a simple political deed that aims to hide behind morality. The legitimacy of the deed always originates from force; propaganda then takes on the task of confusing force with morality, or with exposing the contradictions to analysis. In general, the former is abused by the victors, and the latter is a meager resource of the vanquished.  Much like today, in the Middle Ages propaganda, religious and political, was indispensable.  The nobility, the upper classes, were the ones who produced the greatest quantity of nationalist propaganda, aimed at morally orienting the people. Nevertheless, both in the early years of the Muslim conquest in Spain, and later in the Spanish conquest in the Americas, the upper classes were the first to come to an agreement with the invaders in order to maintain their class and gender privileges.

Propaganda is the hook in the jaw of history.  The idea of a reconquest is a fiction for millions of expatriated workers, the forever disinherited who simply look to survive and feed their economically marginal families by recourse to a hundred-years-old, unjust, anachronistic social tradition.  But it is a strategic fiction for the propagandists who are able to use it to hide the dramatic political rationale – i.e., the rationale of power – that exists behind the moralizing discourse.

Every time I hear someone sermonizing, I lose faith. That faith to which the haranguers of the U.S. extreme right and the caudillos of Latin American liberation lay claim. The more I hear, the less I believe.  But this surely is the fault of my personal inability to enjoy what other people enjoy, like the safety of trenches dug with propaganda and self-indulgence.
Jorge Majfud, The University of Georgia. July 2006.
Translated by Bruce Campbell

The History of Immigration

Cesar Chavez Estrada

Image by Troy Holden via Flickr

The History of Immigration


by Jorge Majfud

 

One of the typical – correction: stereotypical – images of a Mexican has been, for more than a century, a short, drunk, trouble-maker of a man who, when not appearing with guitar in hand singing a corrido, was portrayed seated in the street taking a siesta under an enormous sombrero. This image of the perfect idler, of the irrational embodiment of vice, can be traced from old 19th century illustrations to the souvenirs that Mexicans themselves produce to satisfy the tourist industry, passing through, along the way, the comic books and cartoons of Walt Disney and Warner Bros. in the 20th century. We know that nothing is accidental; even the defenders of “innocence” in the arts, of the harmless entertainment value of film, of music and of literature, cannot keep us from pointing out the ethical significance and ideological function of the most infantile characters and the most “neutral” storylines. Of course, art is much more than a mere ideological instrument; but that does not save it from manipulation by one human group for its own benefit and to the detriment of others. Let’s at least not refer to as “art” that kind of garbage.

Ironies of history: few human groups, like the Mexicans who today live in the U.S. – and, by extension, all the other Hispanic groups, – can say that they best represent the spirit of work and sacrifice of this country. Few (North) Americans could compete with those millions of self-abnegating workers who we can see everywhere, sweating beneath the sun on the most suffocating summer days, in the cities and in the fields, pouring hot asphalt or shoveling snow off the roads, risking their lives on towering buildings under construction or while washing the windows of important offices that decide the fate of the millions of people who, in the language of postmodernity, are known as “consumers.” Not to mention their female counterparts who do the rest of the hard work – since all the work is equally “dirty” – occupying positions in which we rarely see citizens with full rights. None of which justifies the racist speech that Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, gave recently, declaring that Mexicans in the U.S. do work that “not even black Americans want to do.” The Fox administration never retracted the statement, never recognized this “error” but rather, on the contrary, accused the rest of humanity of having “misinterpreted” his words. He then proceeded to invite a couple of “African-American” leaders (some day someone will explain to me in what sense these Americans are African), employing an old tactic: the rebel, the dissident, is neutralized with flowers, the savage beast with music, and the wage slaves with movie theaters and brothels. Certainly, it would have sufficed to avoid the adjective “black” and used “poor” instead. In truth, this semantic cosmetics would have been more intelligent but not completely free of suspicion. Capitalist ethics condemns racism, since its productive logic is indifferent to the races and, as the 19th century shows, slave trafficking was always against the interests of industrial production. Hence, anti-racist humanism has a well-established place in the hearts of nations and it is no longer so easy to eradicate it except through practices that hide behind elaborate and persuasive social discourses. Nevertheless, the same capitalist ethics approves the existence of the “poor,” and thus nobody would have been scandalized if instead of “blacks,” the Mexican president had said “poor Americans.” All of this demonstrates, meanwhile, that not only those in the economic North live off of the unhappy immigrants who risk their lives crossing the border, but also the politicians and ruling class of the economic South, who obtain, through millions of remittances, the second most important source of revenue after petroleum, by way of Western Union to the “madre pobre,” from the blood and sweat of those expelled by a system that then takes pride in them, and rewards them with such brilliant discourses that serve only to add yet another problem to their desperate lives of fugitive production.

Violence is not only physical; it is also moral. After contributing an invaluable part of the economy of this country and of the countries from which they come – and of those countries from which they were expelled by hunger, unemployment and the disfavor of corruption – the nameless men, the unidentified, must return to their overcrowded rooms for fear of being discovered as illegals. When they become sick, they simply work on, until they are at death’s door and go to a hospital where they receive aid and understanding from one morally conscious part of the population while another tries to deny it to them. This latter part includes the various anti-immigrant organizations that, with the pretext of protecting the national borders or defending the rule of law, have promoted hostile laws and attitudes which increasingly deny the human right to health or tranquility to those workers who have fallen into illegality by force of necessity, through the empire of logic of the same system that will not recognize them, a system which translates its contradictions into the dead and destroyed. Of course we can not and should not be in favor of any kind of illegality. A democracy is that system where the rules are changed, not broken. But laws are a product of a reality and of a people, they are changed or maintained according to the interests of those who have power to do so, and at times these interests can by-pass the most fundamental Human Rights. Undocumented workers will never have even the most minimal right to participate in any electoral simulacrum, neither here nor on the other side of the border: they have been born out of time and out of place, with the sole function of leaving their blood in the production process, in the maintenance of an order of privilege that repeatedly excludes them and at the same time makes use of them. Everyone knows they exist, everyone knows where they are, everyone knows where they come from and where they’re going; but nobody wants to see them. Perhaps their children will cease to be ill-born wage slaves, but by then the slaves will have died. And if there is no heaven, they will have been screwed once and forever. And if there is one and they didn’t have time to repeat one hundred times the correct words, they will be worse off still, because they will go to Hell, posthumous recognition instead of attaining the peace and oblivion so desired.

As long as the citizens, those with “true human” status, can enjoy the benefits of having servants in exchange for a minimum wage and practically no rights, threatened day and night by all kinds of haunts, they will see no need to change the laws in order to recognize a reality installed a posteriori. This seems almost logical. Nonetheless, what ceases to be “logical” – if we discard the racist ideology – are the arguments of those who accuse immigrant workers of damaging the country’s economy by making use of services like hospitalization. Naturally, these anti-immigrant groups ignore the fact that Social Security takes in the not insignificant sum of seven billion dollars a year from contributions made by illegal immigrants who, if they die before attaining legal status, will never receive a penny of the benefit. Which means fewer guests at the banquet. Nor, apparently, are they able to understand that if a businessman has a fleet of trucks he must set aside a percentage of his profits to repair the wear and tear, malfunctions and accidents arising from their use. It would be strange reasoning, above all for a capitalist businessman, to not send those trucks in for servicing in order to save on maintenance costs; or to send them in and then blame the mechanic for taking advantage of his business. Nevertheless, this is the kind and character of arguments that one reads in the newspapers and hears on television, almost daily, made by these groups of inflamed “patriots” who, despite their claims, don’t represent a public that is much more heterogeneous than it appears from the outside – millions of men and women, overlooked by simplistic anti-American rhetoric, feel and act differently, in a more humane way.

Of course, it’s not just logical thinking that fails them. They also suffer from memory loss. They have forgotten, all of a sudden, where their grandparents came from. Except, that is, for that extremely reduced ethnic group of American-Americans – I refer to the indigenous peoples who came prior to Columbus and the Mayflower, and who are the only ones never seen in the anti-immigrant groups, since among the xenophobes there is an abundance of Hispanics, not coincidentally recently “naturalized” citizens. The rest of the residents of this country have come from some part of the world other than where they now stand with their dogs, their flags, their jaws outthrust and their hunter’s binoculars, safeguarding the borders from the malodorous poor who would do them harm by attacking the purity of their national identity. Suddenly, they forget where a large part of their food and raw materials come from and under what conditions they are produced. Suddenly they forget that they are not alone in this world and that this world does not owe them more than what they owe the world.

Elsewhere I have mentioned the unknown slaves of Africa, who if indeed are poor on their own are no less unhappy for fault of others; the slaves who provide the world with the finest of chocolates and the most expensive wood without the minimal recompense that the proud market claims as Sacred Law, strategic fantasy this, that merely serves to mask the one true Law that rules the world: the law of power and interests hidden beneath the robes of morality, liberty and right. I have in my memory, etched with fire, those village youths, broken and sickly, from a remote corner of Mozambique who carried tons of tree trunks for nothing more than a pack of cigarettes. Cargo worth millions that would later appear in the ports to enrich a few white businessmen who came from abroad, while in the forests a few dead were left behind, unimportant, crushed by the trunks and ignored by the law of their own country.

Suddenly they forget or refuse to remember. Let’s not ask of them more than what they are capable of. Let’s recall briefly, for ourselves, the effect of immigration on history. From pre-history, at each step we will find movements of human beings, not from one valley to another but crossing oceans and entire continents. The “pure race” proclaimed by Hitler had not emerged through spontaneous generation or from some seed planted in the mud of the Black Forest but instead had crossed half of Asia and was surely the result of innumerable crossbreedings and of an inconvenient and denied evolution (uniting blonds with blacks) that lightened originally dark faces and put gold in their hair and emerald in their eyes. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, in 1453, the wave of Greeks moving into Italy initiated a great part of that economic and spiritual movement we would later know as the Rennaissance. Although generally forgotten, the immigration of Arabs and Jews would also provoke, in the sleepy Europe of the Middle Ages, different social, economic and cultural movements that the immobility of “purity” had prevented for centuries. In fact, the vocation of “purity” – racial, religious and cultural – that sunk the Spanish Empire and led it to bankrupcy several times, despite all of the gold of the Americas, was responsible for the persecution and expulsion of the (Spanish) Jews in 1492 and of the (Spanish) Arabs a century later. An expulsion which, paradoxically, benefited the Netherlands and England in a progressive process that would culminate in the Industrial Revolution. And we can say the same for our Latin American countries. If I were to limit myself to just my own country, Uruguay, I could recall the “golden years” – if there were ever years of such color – of its economic and cultural development, coinciding, not by accident, with a boom in immigration that took effect from the end of the 19th until the middle of the 20th century. Our country not only developed one of the most advanced and democratic educational systems of the period, but also, comparatively, had no cause to envy the progress of the most developed countries of the world, even though its population lacked, due to its scale, the geopolitical weight enjoyed by other countries at the time. At present, cultural immobility has precipitated an inverted migration, from the country of the children and grandchildren of immigrants to the country of the grandparents. The difference is rooted in the fact that the Europeans who fled from hunger and violence found in the Río de la Plata (and in so many other ports of Latin America) the doors wide open; their descendants, or the children and grandchildren of those who opened the doors to them, now enter Europe through the back door, although they appear to fall from the sky. And if indeed it is necessary to remember that a large part of the European population receives them happily, at a personal level, neither the laws nor general practice correspond to this good will. They aren’t even third class citizens; they are nothing and the management reserves the right to deny admission, which may mean a kick in the pants and deportation as criminals.

In order to obscure the old and irreplaceable Law of interests, it is argued – as Orian Fallaci has done so unjustly – that these are not the times of the First or Second World War and, therefore, one immigration cannot be compared to another. In fact, we know that one period can never be reduced to another, but they can indeed be compared. Or else history and memory serve no purpose. If tomorrow in Europe the same conditions of economic necessity that caused its citizens to emigrate before were to be repeated, they would quickly forget the argument that our times are not comparable to other historical periods and, hence, it’s reasonable to forget.

I understand that in a society, unlike a controlled laboratory experiment, every cause is an effect and viceversa – a cause cannot modify a social order without becoming the effect of itself or of something else. For the same reason, I understand that culture (the world of customs and ideas) influences a given economic and material order as much as the other way around. The idea of the determining infrastructure is the base of the Marxist analytical code, while the inverse (culture as a determinant of socio-economic reality) is basic for those who reacted to the fame of materialism. For the reasons mentioned above, I understand that the problem here lies in the idea of “determinism,” in either of the two senses. For its part, every culture promotes an interpretive code according to its own Interests and, in fact, does so to the measure of its own Power. A synthesis of the two approaches is also necessary for our problem. If the poverty of Mexico, for example, were only the result of a cultural “deformity” – as currently proposed by the theorists and specialists of Latin American Idiocy – the new economic necessities of Mexican immigrants to the United States would not produce workers who are more stoic and long-suffering than any others in the host country: the result would simply be “immigrant idlers.” And reality seems to show us otherwise. Certainly, as Jesus said, “there is none more blind than he who will not see.”

 

Translated by Bruce Campbell

 

Why Culture Matters

Tomb of Ahmad al-Mansur

Image by Sheriff of Nothing via Flickr

 

Why Culture Matters

 

In September of 2006, in Lewisburg, Tennessee, a neighborhood group protested because the public library was investing resources in the purchase of books in Spanish.  Of the sixty thousand volumes, only one thousand were published in a language other than English.  The annual budget, totalling thirteen thousand dollars, dedicates the sum of one hundred and thirty dollars to the purchase of books in Spanish. The buying spree representing one percent of the budget enraged some of the citizens of Tennessee, causing them to take the issue to the authorities, arguing that a public service, sustained through taxes charged to the U.S. populace, should not promote something that might benefit illegal workers.

 

Thus, the new conception of culture surpasses that distant precept of the ancient library of Alexandria.  That now almost completely forgotten library achieved the height of its development in second century Egypt.  Its backward administrators had the custom of periodically sending investigators throughout the world in order to acquire copies of texts from the most distant cultures.  Among its volumes there were copies of Greek, Persian, Indian, Hebrew and African texts.  Almost all of those decades-long efforts were abruptly brought to an end, thanks to a fire caused by the enlightene ships of the emperor Julius Caesar.  Nearly a thousand years later, another deliberately-set fire destroyed the similarly celebrated library of Córdoba, founded by the caliph Al-Hakam (creator of the University and of free education), where the passion for knowledge brought together Jews, Christians and Arabs with texts from the most diverse cultures known in the period.  Also in this period, the Spanish caliphs were in the habit of dispatching seekers throughout the world in order to expand the library’s collection of foreign books.  This library was also destroyed by a fanatic, al-Mansur, in the name of Islam, according to his own interpretation of the common good and superior morality.

 

The Tennessee anecdote represents a minority in a vast and heterogeneous country.  But it remains significant and concerning, like a sneeze on a passenger train.  Also significant is the idea, assumed there, that the Spanish language is a foreign language, when any half-way educated person knows that before English it was Spanish that was spoken in what today is the United States; that Spanish has been there, in many states of the Union for more than four hundred years; that Spanish and Latino culture are neither foreign nor an insignificant minority: more than forty million “Hispanics” live in the United States and the number of Spanish-speakers in the country is roughly equivalent to the number of Spanish speakers living in Spain.  If those who become nervous because of the presence of that “new culture” had the slightest historical awareness, they would neither be nervous nor consider their neighbors to be dangerous foreigners.  The only thing that historically has always been dangerous is ignorance, which is why the promotion of ignorance can hardly be considered synonymous with security and progress – even by association, as with the reigning method of propaganda, which consists of associating cars with women, tomatoes with civil rights, the victory of force with proof of the Truth or a million dollars with Paradise.

 

Translated by Bruce Campbell

 

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia, October 2006.

 

 

The Culture of Hate

The Culture of Hate


On the silent revolution and reaction of our time. The reasons for ultramodern chaos. On the colonization of language and how traditional authority reacts to historical progress using the anachronistic tools of repetition.

Universal Pedagogy of Obedience

The old pedagogical model was synthesized in the phrase “the letters enter with blood.” This was the ideological support that allowed the teacher to strike with a ruler the buttocks or hands of the bad students. When the bad student was able to memorize and repeat what the teacher wanted, the punishment would end and the reward would begin. Then the bad student, having now been turned into “a good man,” could take over teaching by repeating the same methods. It is not by accident that the celebrated Argentine statist and pedagogue, F. Sarmiento, would declare that “a child is nothing more than an animal that must be tamed and educated.” In fact, this is the very method one uses to domesticate any old animal. “Teaching” a dog means nothing more than “making it obedient” to the will of its master, humanizing it. Which is a form of canine degeneration, just like the frequent dehumanization of a man into a dog – I refer to Osvaldo Dragún’s theatrical work.

The social logic of it is not much different. Whoever has power is the one who defines what a particular word means. Social obedience is implicit. In this sense, there are key words that have been colonized in our culture, words like democracy, freedom, justice, patriot, development, civilization, barbarism, etc. If we observe the definition of each one of these words derived from the same power – the same master – we will see that it is only by dint of a violent, colonizing and monopolistic “learning” that the term is applied to a particular case and not to another one, to one appearance and not to another, to one flag and not another – and almost always with the compelling force of the obvious. It is this logic alone that dominates the discourse and headlines of daily newspapers the world over. Even the loser, who receives the semiotic stigma, must use this language, these ideological tools to defend (timidly) any position that differs from the official, established one.

Revolution and Reaction

What we are experiencing at present is a profound crisis which naturally derives from a radical change in system – structural and mental: from a system of representative obedience to a system of progressive democracy.

It is not by accident that this current reaction against the disobedience of nations would take the form of a rennaissance of religious authoritarianism, in the East as much as in the West. Here we might say, like Pi i Margall in 1853, that “revolution is peace and reaction is war.”  The difference in our time is rooted in the fact that both revolution and reaction are invisible; they are camouflaged by the chaos of events, by the messianic and apocalyptic discourses, disguised in the old reading codes inherited from the Modern Era.

The Grand Reactionary Strategy

Now, how does one sustain this reaction against radical democratization, which is the invisible and perhaps inevitable revolution? We might continue observing that one form of attack against this democratization is for the reaction itself to kidnap the very idea of “democracy.” But now let’s mention just a few of the least abstract symptoms.

At the center of the “developed world,” the most important television and radio networks repeat tiresomely the idea that “we are at war” and that “we must confront an enemy that wants to destroy us.” The evil desire of minority groups – minority but growing – is unquestionable. The objective, our destruction, is infinitely improbable; except, that is, for the assistance offered by self-betrayal, which consists in copying all of the defects of the enemy one pretends to combat. Not coincidentally, the same discourse is repeated among muslim peoples – without even beginning to consider anyone outside this simple dichotomy, product of another typical creation of the powers in conflict: the creation of false dilemmas.

In the most recent war, irrigated as always with copious innocent blood, we witnessed the repetition of the old model that is repeated every day and ceaselessly in so many corners of the world. A colonel, speaking from we know not which front, declared to a television channel of the Civilized World, dramatically: “It is on this road where the future of humanity will be decided; it is here where the ‘clash of civilizations’ is unfolding.” Throughout that day, as with all the previous days and all the days after, the words and ideas repeated over and over again were: enemy, war, danger, imminent, civilization and barbarism, etc. To raise doubts about this would be like denying the Holy Trinity before the Holy Inquisition or, even worse, questioning the virtues of money before Calvin, God’s chosen one. Because it is enough for one fanatic to call another fanatic “barbaric” or “infidel” to get others to agree that he needs to be killed. The final result is that it is rare for one of these barbaric people not to die by their own choice; most of those eliminated by the virtue of holy wars are innocents who would never choose to die. As in the time of Herod, the threat of the individual is eliminated by assassinating his entire generation – without ever achieving the objective, of course.

There is no choice: “it is necessary to win this war.” But it turns out that this war will produce no victors, only losers: peoples who do not trade in human flesh. The strangest thing is that “on this side” the ones who favor every possible war are the most radical Christians, when it was none other than Christ who opposed, in word and deed, all forms of violence, even when he could have crushed with the mere wave of his hand the entire Roman Empire – the center of civilization at the time – and his torturers as well. If the “religious leaders” of today had a miniscule portion of the infinite power of Jesus, they would invest it in winning their unfinished wars. Obviously if huge Christian sects, in an historic act of benediction and justification for the insatiable accumulation of wealth, have been able to pass an army of camels through the eye of that particular needle, how could the difficult precept of turning the other cheek present a problem? Not only is the other cheek not offered – which is only human, even though it’s not very Christian – but instead the most advanced forms of violence are brought to bear on distant nations in the name of Right, Justice, Peace and Freedom – and of Christian values. And even though among them there is no recourse to the private relief of Catholic confession, they often practice it anyway after a bombardment of scores of innocents: “we are so sorry…”

On another television program, a report showed Muslim fanatics sermonizing the masses, calling upon them to combat the Western enemy. The journalists asked professors and analysts “how is a Muslim fanatic created?” To which each specialist attempted to give a response by referring to the wickedness of these terrible people and other metaphysical arguments that, despite being useless for explaining something rationally, are quite useful for feeding the fear and desire for combat of their faithful viewers. It never occurs to them to consider the obvious: a Muslim fanatic is created in exactly the same way that a Christian fanatic is created, or a Jewish fanatic: believing themselves to be in possession of the absolute truth, the best morality and law and, above all, to be executors of the will of God – violence willing. To prove this one has only to take a look at the various holocausts that humanity has promoted in its brief history: none of them has lacked for Noble Purposes; almost all were committed with pride by the privileged sons of God.

If one is a true believer one should start by not doubting the sacred text which serves as the foundation of the doctrine or religion. This, which seems logical, becomes tragic when a minority demands from the rest of the nation the same attitude of blind obedience, usurping God’s role in representing God. What operates here is a transference of faith in the sacred texts to faith in the political texts. The King’s minister becomes the Prime Minister and the King ceases to govern. In most of the mass media we are not asked to think; we are asked to believe. It is the advertizing dynamic that shapes consumers with discourses based on simplification and obviousness. Everything is organized in order to convince us of something or to ratify our faith in a group, in a system, in a party. All in the guise of tolerance and diversity, of discussion and debate, where typically a grey representative of the contrarian position is invited to the table in order to humiliate or mock him. The committed journalist, like the politician, is a pastor who directs himself to an audience accustomed to hearing unquestionable sermons and theological opinions as if they were the word of God himself.

These observations are merely a beginning, because we would have to be very naïve indeed if we were to ignore the calculus of material interests on the part of the powerful, who – at least so far – have always decided, thumb up or thumb down, the fate of the innocent masses. Which is demonstrated by simply observing that the hundreds and thousands of innocent victims, aside from the occasional apology for mistakes made, are never the focus of the analysis about the wars and the permanent state of psychological, ideological and spiritual tension. (As an aside, I think it would be necessary to develop a scientific investigation regarding the heart rate of the viewers before and after witnessing an hour of these “informational” programs – or whatever you want to call them, since, in reality, the most informative part of these programs is the advertisements; the informational programming itself is propaganda, from the very moment in which they reproduce the colonized language.)

Dialogue has been cut off and the positions have polarized, poisoned by the hatred distilled by the big media, instruments of traditional power. “They are the incarnation of Evil”; “Our values are superior and therefore we have the right to exterminate them.” “The fate of humanity depends upon our success.” Etcetera.. In order for success to be possible we must first guarantee the obedience of our fellow citizens. But it remains to be asked whether “success in the war” is really the main objective or instead a mere means, ever deferrable, for maintaining the obedience of one’s own people, a people that was threatening to become independent and develop new forms of mutal understanding with other peoples. For all of this, propaganda, which is the propagation of hate, is indispensable. The beneficiaries are a minority; the majority simply obeys with passion and fanaticism: it is the culture of hate that sickens us day after day. But the culture of hate is not the metaphysical origin of Evil, but little more than an instrument of other interests. Because if hatred is a sentiment that can be democratized, in contrast private interests to date have been the property of an elite. Until Humanity understands that the well-being of the other does me no harm but quite the opposite: if the other does not hate, if the other is not oppressed by me, then I will also benefit from the other’s society. But one will have a heck of a time explaining this to the oppressor or to the oppressed; they will quickly come to an agreement to feed off of that perverse circle that keeps us from evolving together as Humanity.

Humanity will resist, as it has always resisted the most important changes in history. Resistance will not come from millions of innocents, for whom the benefits of historical progress will never arrive. For them is reserved the same old story: pain, torture and anonymous death that could have been avoided, at least in part, if the culture of hate had been replaced by the mutual comprehension that one day will be inevitable: the other is not necessarily an enemy that I must exterminate by poisoning my own brothers; what is to the benefit of the other will be to my benefit also.

This principle was Jesus’s conscience, a conscience that was later corrupted by centuries of religious fanaticism, the most anti-Christian Gospel imaginable. And the same could be said of other religions.

In 1866 Juan Montalvo testified to his own bitterness: “The most civilized peoples, those whose intelligence has taken flight to the heavens and whose practices are guided by morality, do not renounce war: their breasts are ever burning, their zealous heart leaps with the impulse for extermination.” And later: “The peace of Europe is not the peace of Jesus Christ, no: the peace of Europe is the peace of France and England, lack of confidence, mutual fear, threat; the one has armies sufficient to dominate the world, and only for that believes in peace; the other extends itself over the seas, controls every strait, rules the most important fortresses on earth, and only for that believes in peace.”

Exits from the Labyrinth

If knowledge – or ignorance – is demonstrated by speaking, wisdom is the superior state in which a man or a woman learns to listen. As Eduardo Galeano rightly recommended to the powerful of the world, the ruler’s job should be to listen more and speak less. Although only a rhetorical recommendation – in the sense that it is useless to give advice to those who will not listen – this remains an irrefutable principle for any democrat. But the discourses of the mass media and of the states, designed for creating soldiers, are only concerned with disciplining according to their own rules. Their struggle is the consolidation of ideological meaning in a colonized language divorced from the everyday reality of the speaker: their language is terribly creative of a terrible reality, almost always through abuse of the paradox and the oxymoron – as one might view the very notion of “communication media.” It is the autistic symptom of our societies that day after day they sink further into the culture of hate. It is information and it is deformation.

In many previous essays, I have departed from and arrived at two presuppositions that seem contradictory. The first: it is not true that history never repeats itself; it always repeats itself; it is only appearances that are not repeated. The second precept, at least four hundred years old: history progresses. That is to say, humanity learns from past experience and in the process overcomes itself. Both human realities have always battled each other. If the human race rememberd better and were less hypocritical, if it had greater awareness of its importance and were more rebellious against its false impotence, if instead of accepting the artificial fatalism of Clash of Civilizations it were to recognize the urgency of a Dialogue of Cultures, this battle would not sow the fields with corpses and nations with hate. The process of history, from its economic roots, is determined by and cannot be contradictory to the interests of humanity. What remains to be known is only how and when. If we accompany it with the new awareness demanded by posterity, we will not only advance a perhaps inevitable process; above all we will avoid more pain and the spilling of blood and death that has tinged the world hate-red in this greatest crisis of history.

© Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia, November 2006.

Translated by Bruce Campbell