The Oldest Enemy of Civilization


A few years ago, 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, totaling thirteen thousand dollars, dedicated 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 decade-long efforts were abruptly brought to an end, thanks to a fire caused by the enlightened ships of the emperor Julius Caesar. Nearly a thousand years later, another deliberately-set fire destroyed the similarly celebrated library of Córdoba, Spain, founded by the caliph Al-Hakam (creator of the University and of free education for poor kids), where the passion for knowledge brought together Jews, Christians, and Muslims 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.

In the past, military rulers of Latin American dictatorships (I grew up in one of them), to exacerbate honor and patriotism, tried to clean up Spanish language, college education and culture itself from any foreign influence, starting from ideas (people in power frequently fear other’s ideas, which is understandable; words are perceived as more dangerous than money and arms and, in fact, sometimes they are). For some reason they, as the Nazis and many other self-proclaimed democratic people did and do today, never realized that there is no idea, no tradition, no language, no religion, no race uncontaminated by foreigners. By definition, every human creation is historical, that is, is the result of a long evolution and, very frequently, of short and devastating involutions.

The Tennessee anecdote perhaps represents a minority in a vast and heterogeneous country (both “real Americans” and anti-Americans hate the most beautiful characteristic of this country: diversity). But it remains significant and representative of still millions of people, frequently exacerbated by some big media shows, a practice that was invented in Germany eighty years ago.

It is significant and common the idea, assumed in that anecdote, that the Spanish language is a foreign language, when any half-way educated person knows that almost one hundred years 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 five centuries; that Spanish and Latino culture are neither foreign nor an insignificant minority: more than fifty 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. For many, the “real American” (another stereotype, as most of the real men and women are), often depicted as a kind of cowboy, actually derives from the Mexican vaquero (originally from the Arabic tradition, like most of the traditional West and Southwest architectural style) who left a strong mark on both legal and illegal immigrants from Eastern US. The dollar symbol, $, is derived from the Spanish Peso (PS), the common currency until late 18th century—not to mention the Spanish Empire Flag, which is in the flag of some southern U.S. States. And so on, and so forth.

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 and wealth with proof of the truth, or a million dollars with paradise.

According to French-American Thomas Jefferson, Spanish is a crucial language to an American. He read Don Quixote in its original language and recommended the study of both Spanish and French. However, as the revolutionary British Thomas Paine once said: “nothing can reach the heart that is steeled with prejudice.”

I am not so naïve as to think that today we could have intellectual politicians like the Founding Fathers, but at least it could be convenient to consider that myths, traditions, and popular history are written based on a convenient combination of memory and forgetfulness. Sometimes it helps to mitigate the pride of ignorance—and the fire as well.

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