“La ciudadanía cultural y las leyes ‘Greaser’ del siglo 21”

English: Great Seal of The State of Alabama

Por Bruce Campbell

 
Los latinos están desapareciendo de las escuelas públicas, de las cocinas de los restaurantes, de las obras de construcción, y de los sembrados del estado de Alabama.

Se alegran los nativistas, xenófobos, racistas, y activistas y legisladores del Partido Republicano que apoyan la nueva legislación dura (HB 56) que toma por blanco a los migrantes indocumentados.

La huída de miles de latinos del estado a pesar de su estatus legal no es una consecuencia imprevista de la legislación – es precisamente su objetivo.  Como Lindsey Lyons, el alcalde de Albertville, Alabama, lo dijo en una entrevista con National Public Radio: “Vamos a ver un éxodo de los que se mudan a otros estados que no contemplen semejante legislación.”  El objetivo no es la reforma al sistema de inmigración; el objetivo es hacer que la población latina creciente se vaya.

Para los autores y para quienes apoyan la ley, el estado de Alabama está viviendo una fantasía que han promovido y han deseado ver puesta en escena al nivel nacional.  De modo importante, la fantasía de una población latina que se pierde de vista no es una fantasía estrictamente legal.  Se trata, de hecho, de un proyecto cultural, y tiene una larga historia.

Cultura, Poder, Ilusión
¿Cómo hacer que decenas de millones de latinos desaparezcan de la esfera pública nacional? Es un truco espectacular, comparable al truco del ilusionista David Copperfield cuando hizo desaparecer la Estatua de la Libertad frente a un público televisivo.  La decepción de Copperfield en 1983 se hizo bajo el cubierto de la oscuridad y usando una manipulación estratégica de la perspectiva del público. Las artimañas que buscan la invisibilidad relativa de los latinos en los Estados Unidos se llevan a cabo en plena luz y recurriendo a manipulaciones retóricas y medidas legislativas.

A estas alturas, nos es bastante familiar la retórica. La asociación constante, tocada como tambor por los nativistas anti-inmigrantes, entre los términos “ilegal” y “mexicano” y “inmigrante,” amplificada y reproducida por los medios masivos y en el discurso demagógico político, ha creado una nube semántica que oscurece la presencia, en plena vista, de diversos millones de latinos en la vida pública de los Estados Unidos.

El dueño de un restaurante en el vecindario donde vivo en Minneapolis, un hombre que había emigrado (legalmente) de Ecuador, me relató una experiencia que tuvo mientras tomaba un paseo veranal con su hijo. Fue interrogado por la policía, y la suposición pertinaz de los oficiales de policía fue que el ecuatoriano era mexicano, y al parecer creían también que había entrado a los Estados Unidos ilegalmente.

“Soy de Ecuador,” me dijo, “pero sólo podían ver a un mexicano ilegal.” La Estatua de la Libertad, se podría decir, se esfumó frente a sus propios ojos.

La ilusión pública en este caso resulta de mensajes culturales que niegan a los latinos su ciudadanía cultural – es decir, el derecho de ser diferente y de contribuir con esa diferencia al proceso público.  Teóricamente, todos los ciudadanos son iguales bajo la ley.  Sin embargo, en la práctica las normas culturales públicas están estructuradas por una jerarquía implícita de valores y privilegios que eleva a algunos ciudadanos por encima de otros.

Piense de cómo en una reunión pública el ciudadano que habla un inglés acentuado con una fonética no inglés podría conllevar menos autoridad moral con su audiencia que el locutor nativo hablante del inglés, a pesar de ser igualmente inteligibles y poseer los mismos derechos legales los dos. O piense de cómo un hombre que lleva un dashiki del oeste de África podría parecer, para muchas personas de un público estadounidense, un extranjero.  Las jerarquías de raza, clase social, género, y hasta edad se reflejan en el reconocimiento, o negación, de la ciudadanía cultural plena de diferentes grupos sociales.

Las marcas de las diferencias culturales en el cuerpo político pueden ser, y frecuentemente son, convertidos en signos de estatus de ciudadano de segunda clase.  Esta es una encrucijada importante de la cultura y la política en los Estados Unidos (igual que en otros países), un nexo de lo cultural y lo político que se aprovecha activamente por los que quisieran que los latinos se desaparecieran de la esfera pública.

El tomar por blanco a los inmigrantes con el martillo retórico de “ilegal” golpea pesadamente para sujetar en la mente pública una cadena de equivalencias.  Donde se trata de los latinos, el martillo y el yunque anti-inmigrantes de “ilegal” y “mexicano” buscan convertir a la piel morena, el español, y otras marcas de la visibilidad latina, en señales de la periferia de la vida pública estadounidense.  “Ellos,” nos dicen a los no latinos, no son como “nosotros.”

Destrás del amarillismo de los medios y de las posturas de campaña electoral, se halla una política de subrodinación y aislamiento cultural, y de divisionismo cívico. En la medida en que las marcas externas de la identidad latina se convierten en el equivalente cívico de letras escarlatas, los latinos se dejan menos legítimos como actores públicos, y menos visibles como compatriotas y ciudadanos. En el mismo proceso, los recursos específicos de su herencia cultural que podrían traer al proyecto nacional quedan categóricamente segregados y expulsados de las esfera pública.

Las consecuencias culturales son diversas. El español no se reconoce como lenguaje legítimo de participación cívica.  Regiones enteras del país se despojan de su rica herencia hispana en las mentes de muchos estadounidenses, a quienes se les facilita el olvido de la historia pluricultural grabada en topónimos como Arizona, Nevada, y Florida.

La ignorancia por parte del público estadounidense sobre los puertorriqueños – quienes a partir de la ley Jones de 1917 nacen ciudadanos de los Estados Unidos, aunque sin el derecho de votar en las elecciones de los Estados Unidos – se profundiza y se extiende a otra generación más.  El bilingüismo se hace sospechoso, en vez de ser reconocido como un tremendo recurso económico y cultural nacional, y como una virtud cívica.  Otras formas importantes de cultura pública – los murales, los corridos, las pachangas, entre otras – se castigan como cultura del Otro.  Las voces críticas de la política exterior de los Estados Unidos, las voces de las comunidades que tienen experiencia directa de las implicaciones para los derechos humanos para los Salvadoreños, para los Guatemaltecos, y otros, del financiamiento militar o de los tratados comerciales, se silencian.

Y mi vecino ecuatoriano-americano se encuentra enredado en una decepción de la cultura de masas que le niega la ciudadanía cultural plena, a pesar de sus derechos legales innegables.  Se le niega el poder de definir su propia presencia pública, su propia identidad como compatriota y ciudadano, y de ser reconocido como auténticamente Americano.

Ley, política, cultura
La magia negra promulgada por la retórica pública manipuladora tiene sus límites, afortunadamente.  La gente puede aguantar, y responder, los insultos.  Y el discurso público nunca es asunto de un solo lado.  Mi vecino ecautoriano-americano, por ejemplo, sin duda ha relatado su experiencia a muchos de sus compatriotas, produciendo una conciencia local que sirve de contrapeso en alguna medida para la tergiversación general de las realidades nacionales ejecutada por el amarillismo anti-inmigrante.  Los educadores siguen enseñando el español, y el interés estudiantil en el idioma sigue creciendo al lado del número creciente de estadounidenses que reconocen el valor político y económico y cultural del bilingüismo.

Y en algún momento, el discurso anti-inmigrante empieza a decir más sobre él que lo produce que sobre el objeto de su rencor.  De las 308 millones de cabezas contadas en el Censo de 2010, más de 50 millones (o más de 16%) se identificaron como Hispano o Latino. En algún momento, el hablar como si 16% de la nación no existiera (o no debiera existir) se convierte en estrategia de payaso (por no decir algo más fuerte).

Este es el momento en que entran en el escenario los mecanismos legislativos del  espectáculo cínico de la desaparición de los latinos.  Una confluencia de intereses xenófobos, nativistas, y Republicanos – después de haber visto desarrollarse los cambios demográficos de las últimas dos décadas, y al ver la consolidación de las consecuencias electorales de tales cambios – percibe una necesidad aún mayor de aislar la cultura latina y subordinar la participación pública de los latinos. Han aprendido que la retórica sola está perdiendo su magia.

De manera predicible, después de que las elecciones de 2008 resultaron en victorias convincentes para el Partido Demócrata, con márgenes significativos de apoyo entre los votantes latinos, en varios estados las asambleas legislativas bajo control Republicano han aprobado leyes que toman por blanco a los inmigrantes indocumentados.

La asamblea del estado de Arizona en 2010 aprobó SB 1070, una ley que criminaliza el no llevar consigo documentos que acrediten el estatus legal y permite que la policía detenga a cualquier persona sospechada de ser inmigrante indocumentado. (Para dejar claro que el blanco político y cultural incluía a los ciudadanos latinos, la mayoría Republicana también aprobó una ley que prohibe la enseñanza de Estudios Étnicos en las escuelas públicas.)  Luego, en 2011, los estados de Georgia, Indiana, Utah, y Carolina del Sur aprobaron sus propias versiones de la ley de Arizona, promoviendo de manera semejante las prácticas del perfil racial en el tratamiento oficial a los latinos y la criminalización de los esfuerzos por integrar económicamente y socialmente a los inmigrantes indocumentados.

No queriendo quedarse atrás, el estado de Alabama aprobó HB 56, una ley que, entre otras cosas, prohibe a que los inmigrantes indocumentados asistan a las unidersidades estatales, criminaliza “el transporte, el hospedaje, o el alquiler de propiedad” a los indocumentados, y requiere que las escuelas públicas verifiquen el estatus legal de todos sus estudiantes.

Estas leyes aplican el poder del estado – en la forma de las prácticas del perfil racial – para apoyar los mensajes culturales que subordinan y marginalizan a los latinos y los excluyen de las esfera pública.  Una medida del efecto cultural de la ley en Alabama: los niños latinos que no han desaparecido de las escuelas públicas ahora reportan que son maltratados e intimidados por otros niños que les dicen “ilegales.”

Todos estos estados comparten dos elementos clave: Primero, el gobierno del estado está bajo el control del Partido Republicano, y segundo, el Censo de 2010 halló una tasa de crecimiento drámatica de la población latina/hispana entre 2000-2010, un crecimiento demográfico que pronto o tarde podría poner en peligro la dominancia política de los Republicanos en el estado.

Georgia, Carolina del Sur, y Alabama vieron tasas de crecimiento alucinantes para la población latina/hispana, de 96.1%, 147.9%, and 144.8%, respectivamente. La tasa de crecimiento en Indiana para la categoría demográfica de Latinos/Hispanos fue 81.7%, y en Utah’s 77.8%, casi doble la tasa nacional para el mismo sector de la población. En el caso de Arizona, el crecimiento del sector latino/hispano fue “sólo” 46.3% – pero lo que sería aún más preocupante para los Republicanos, los racistas, y los xenófobos: la población latina/hispana había llegado a representar aproximadamente 30% de la población del estado.

Es difícil no llegar a la conclusión de que la legislación anti-inmigrante en estos estados se trata de un esfuerzo por cambiar los hechos demográficos para futuras elecciones, y antes del momento inevitable en que una reforma federal y comprensiva de la política migratoria ofrezca una oportunidad para hacerse ciudadanos a los estimados 12 millones de inmigrantes indocumentados en la nación, principalmente de México y Centroamérica.

A la misma vez, la legislación anti-inmigrante al nivel estatal puede verse como un esfuerzo desesperado por usar la ley como aparato para extender la vida de una política cultural que ha buscado históricamente la subordinación y la exclusión de los latinos de la esfera pública.

Redefiniendo América
Lo que está en juego en la coyuntura actual no es una cuestión solamente de leyes y resultados electorales.  Los parámetros culturales de la vida pública en los Estados Unidos también se están jugando. Lo que está en juego en el largo plazo es nada menos que las formas y el significado de la vida pública democrática en América  – es decir, la cuestión de quién se permite hablar, y cómo, y sobre qué.

Es importante recordar (y no permitir que otros olviden) que la cultura política que niega a los latinos la igualdad en la vida pública en los Estados Unidos tiene una larga historia.  Los esfuerzos actuales por expulsar a los latinos de la vida pública tienen parentesco común en los asaltos a los mexicano-americanos que ocurrieron después del Tratado de Guadalupe Hidalgo de 1848, el acuerdo oficial que puso fin a la guerra entre los Estados Unidos y México, y mediante el cual México cedió a los Estados Unidos aproximadamente la mitad de su territorio nacional.

El Tratado de 1848 incluyó una opción de ciudadanía estadounidense para los muchos mexicanos que de repente se econtraron viviendo en territorio ajeno, pero el sentimiento xenófobo y racista conspiró con ciertos intereses económicos para despojar a los mexicanos de su tierra en toda la región afectada por el Tratado, y quitándoles además sus concesiones mineras en California durante la fiebre de oro en aquella época. Una de las múltiples maneras en que estos intereses operaron al cuerpo social para extirpar la presencia mexicano-americana fue el aprobar de legislación que tomaba por blanco a los aspirantes a la ciudadanía.

Las leyes “Greaser” (así llamadas por sus partidarios, con el término racista “Greaser” indicando claramente el objetivo de la legislación) incluyeron una ley infame que se aplicaba explícitamente a “Toda persona típicamente conocida como ‘Greaser’ o de sangre india o española…y que anda armada y no es pacífica y quieta” [“All persons who are commonly known as ‘Greasers’ or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood…and who go armed and are not peaceable and quiet persons”]. Este ataque legislativo contra la presencia pública de los mexicano-americanos y los indígenas fue antecedida por el Impuesto al Minero Extranjero de 1850, el cual les cobró una tarifa abusiva a las concesiones mineras de los no nativos, con la consecuencia práctica de despojar a los mexicanos y latinoamericanos (y los franceses y alemanes) de sus concesiones en el contexto de la Fiebre de Oro. Por supuesto, la hostilidad xenófoba avivada contra los hispanohablantes ninguna distinción hizo entre los mexicanos y los californios nativos.

La política cultural que intenta desaparecer a los latinos no podrá superar la realidad contundente de una población creciente.  David Copperfield pudo desaparecer a la Estatua de la Libertad, pero al salir el sol la próxima mañana, allí estaba otra vez.  La diferencia es que Copperfield no quería cambiar el significando de la Libertad.

A final de cuentas, los intentos nativistas por actualizar para el siglo 21 las leyes “Greaser” del siglo 19, no harán que los latinos desaparezcan literalmente. Pero las artimañas en este caso cambian el significado potencial de América, disminuyen las posibilidades democráticas, debilitan el diálogo y las relaciones sociales posibles tanto en el presente como en el futuro.  Los recursos culturales y las perspectivas que los latinos podrían traer consigo a la mesa común se desprecian y se mantienen al margen de la esfera pública nacional.  Nuestros esfuerzos por contrarrestar la desigualdad promulgada y promovida por estas leyes necesitan encararse con la dimensión cultural de la lucha por definir la democracia americana.

Bruce Campbell es profesor de Estudios Latinos/Latinoamericanos en St. John’s University en Collegeville, MN.  Es autor de ¡Viva la historieta!: Mexican Comics, NAFTA, and the Politics of Globalization (University Press of Mississippi, 2009), y Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (University of Arizona, 2003)

Hurricane Katrina and the Hyperreality of the Image

Post-Katrina School Bus

Image by laffy4k via Flickr

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

The Importance of Being Called an Idiot

Mario Vargas Llosa

Image via Wikipedia

¿ Cómo definimos la idiotez ideológica? (Spanish)

The Importance of Being Called an Idiot


Jorge Majfud

 

A few days ago a gentleman recommended that I read a new book about idiocy.  I  believe it was called The Return of the Idiot, The Idiot Returns, or something like that.  I told him that I had read a similar book ten years ago, titled Manual for the Perfect Latinamerican Idiot.

“What did you think?” the man asked me narrowing his eyes, kind of scrutinizing my reaction, kind of measuring the time it took me to respond.  I always take a few seconds to respond.  I also like to observe the things around me, take a healthy distance, control the temptation to exercise my freedom and, kindly, go after the guy.

“What did I think?  Entertaining.  A famous writer who uses his fists against his colleagues as his principal dialectical weapon when he has them within reach, said that it was a book with a lot of humor, edifying… I would not say so much.  Entertaining is sufficient.  Clearly there are better books.”

“Yes, that was the father of one of the authors, the Nobel Vargas Llosa.”

“Mario, he is still called Mario.”

“Fine, but what did you think about the book?” he insisted anxiously.

Perhaps he was not so interested in my opinion as he was in his own.

“Someone asked me the same question ten years ago”, I recalled.  “I thought it deserved to be a best seller.”

“That’s what I said.  And it was, it was; in effect, it was a best seller.  You realized that pretty quick, like me.

“It wasn’t so difficult.  In the first place, it was written by experts on the topic.”

“Undoubtedly”, he interrupted, with contagious enthusiasm.

“Who better to write about idiocy, am I right?  Second, the authors are staunch defenders of the market, above all else.  I sell, I consume, therefore I am.  What other  merit could they have but to turn a book into a sales success?  If it were an excellent book with limited sales it would be a contradiction.  I suppose that for the publisher it’s also not a contradiction that they have sold so many books on the Idiot Continent, right?  In the intelligent and successful countries it did not have the same reception.”

For some reason the man in the red tie sensed some doubts on my part about the virtues of his favorite books.  That meant, for him, a declaration of war or something of the kind.  I made a friendly gesture to bid farewell, but he did not allow me to place my hand on his shoulder.

“You must be one of those who defend those idiotic ideas of which those books speak.  It is incredible that a cultured and educated man like yourself could uphold those stupidities.”

“Could it be that too much studying and researching cause damage?” I asked.

“No, studying doesn’t do damage, of course not.  The problem is that you are separated from reality, you don’t know what it is to live like a construction worker or business manager, like us.”

“Nonetheless, there are construction workers and business managers who think radically differently from you.  Might there not be another factor?  That is, for example, could it be that those who have ideas like yours are more intelligent?”

“Ah, yes, that must be…”

His euphoria had reached climax.  I was going to leave him with that little vanity, but I couldn’t contain myself.  I thought out loud:

“It’s quite strange.  The most intelligent people don’t need idiots like me to realize such obvious things, no?”

“Negative, sir. Negative.”

 

Translated by Bruce Campbell

 

 

An Imperial Democracy

Parthenon from west

Image via Wikipedia

Una democracia imperial (Spanish)

An Imperial Democracy

Jorge Majfud

Translated by Bruce Campbell

Judging by the documents that remain to us, Thucydides (460-396 B.C.) was the first philosopher in history to discover power as a human phenomenon and not as a virtue conferred by the heavens or demons. He was also aware of the principal value of money in defeating the enemy in any war. We can add another: Thucydides never believed in the principle that those with no trust in arguments are so fond of repeating in revisionist criticism: “I know what I am talking about because I lived it.” We once noted that this idea was easily destroyed with two contradictory observations by those who experienced the same event. Thucydides demonstrated it thusly: “Investigation has been laborious because the witnesses have not given the same versions of the same deeds, but according to their sympathies for some and for others or they followed the memory of each one.” (Ed. Gredos, Madrid 1990, p. 164)

According to Thucydides, in order for Sparta, the other great city state, to go to war against the dominant Athens, the Corinthians directed themselves to their assembly with a portrait of the great enemy democracy: “they [the Athenians] are innovators, resolute in the conception and execution of their projects; you tend to leave things as they are, to say nothing and to not even carry out that which is necessary” (236). Then: “exactly as it happens in techniques, novelties always impose themselves.” (238)

Hearing of this speech, the Athenian ambassadors responded with the following words: “by the very exercise of command we saw ourselves obligated from the beginning to take the empire into the present situation, first out of fear, then out of honor, and finally out of interest; and once we were already hated by the majority […] it did not seem safe to run the risk of letting go.” (244) The law that the weaker be oppressed by the stronger has always prevailed; we believe, besides, that we are worthy of this empire, and that we appeared so to you until now, calculating your interests, you set about invoking reasons of justice, reasons that no one has ever set forth who might obtain something by force in order to stop increasing their possessions. […] in any case, we believe that if others occupied our place, they would make perfectly clear how moderate we are”; (246) “if you were to defeat us and take control of the empire, you would quickly lose the sympathy which you have attracted thanks to the fear that we inspire.” (249)

Its pride provoked, the conservative and xenophobic Sparta decides to confront Athenian expansionism. The Athenians, convinced by Pericles, refuse to negotiate and face by themselves a war that leads them to catastrophe. “We should not lament for the houses and for the land – advises Pericles, repeating a well-known topic of the period – but for the people: these goods do not obtain men, but rather it is men who obtain goods.” (370)

Nonetheless, the war extends death over Greece. In a funeral speech, Pericles (Book II) gives us testimony of the ideals and representations of the ancient Greeks, which today we would call “humanist precepts.” Refering to the Spartan custom of expelling any foreigner from their land, Pericles finds a moral contrast: “our city is open to the whole world, and in no case do we turn to expulsions of foreigners” (451) In another speech he completes this ideological portrait, repeating ideas already formulated by other philosophers of Athens and which today’s conservatives have forgotten: “a city that progresses collectively turns out to be more useful to individual interests than another that has prosperity in each one of its citizens, but is being ruined as a state. Because a man whose private affairs go well, if his fatherland is destroyed, he goes equally to ruin with it, while he who is unfortunate in a fortunate city is saved much more easily.” (484)

But humanist egalitarian that Pericles was, he did not escape from oppressive patriotism. As if Greek foresight had become myopia by extending the gaze beyond the limits of his own homeland. Radical democracy at home becomes imperialism abroad: “Realize that she [Athens] enjoys the greatest renown among all men for not succumbing to disgrace and for having expended in war more lives and effort than any other; know that she also possesses the greatest power achieved until our days, whose memory, even though we now may come to cede a little (since everything has been born in order to diminish), will endure forever in future generations; it will be remembered that it is we Greeks who have exercised our dominion over the greatest number of Greeks, who have sustained the greatest wars against both coalitions and separate cities, and who have inhabited the richest city in every kind of resources and the largest. […] To be hated and prove a nuisance for the moment is what has always happened to those who have attempted to dominate others; but whomever exposes himself to envy for the most noble motives takes the correct decision.” (491)

In his critical introduction to this same Gredos edition, Julio Calogne Ruiz recalls that Sparta’s objective was “to put an end to the progressive increase of the Athenians’ markedly imperialist power. Given that all of Athens’ power came from the tributes of its subjects, the pretext that Sparta gave to go to war was the liberation of all Greek cities.” (20) Then he speculates: “many ordinary Athenians must have realized that their well-being basically depended on the continuity of domination over the allies without thinking about whether this was just or unjust.” (26)

The question of power in the Fifth Century is – continues Calogne Ruiz – the question of the imperialism of Athens. For three quarters of a century Athens is an empire and nothing in Athenian life can be removed from that reality.” (80)

Nonetheless, this reality, which at times is explicitly named by Thucydides, is never expressed as a central theme in the major works of ancient thought and literature.

In The World, the Text, and the Critic Edward Said, referring to the literature of recent centuries, reflects on the false political neutrality of culture and the so-called “absolute freedom” of literary creation: “What such ideas mask, mystify, is precisely the network binding writers to the State and to a world-wide ‘metropolitan’ imperialism that, at the moment they were writing, furnished them in the novelistic techniques of narration. […] What we must ask is why so few ‘great’ novelists deal directly with the major social and economic outside facts of their existence – colonialism and imperialism – and why, too, critics of the novel have continued to honor this remarkable silence.” (p. 176)

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

Mayo, 2007

Monthy Review (New York)

The Perversions of a System

Cantando por un sueño (song)

Image via Wikipedia

Las perversiones de un sistema (Spanish)

The Perversions of a System

When the State Loses its Raison D’Etre

Jorge Majfud

Translated by Bruce Campbell

 

 

One of Mexico’s most popular television programs, Singing for a Dream (Cantando por un sueño, TelevisaUnivisión, 2006), also available on cable in the United States to a large audience, consists of the well-known formula of a competition between amateur singers who seek to initiate a successful artistic career.  In principle, there is nothing wrong with this kind of circus fare and we might even say that most of the participants demonstrate special singing talent.  The problem arises when we recognize another common characteristic of our times.  Just as in a similar series where the competitors danced instead of singing, each one does so “for a noble cause,” which is also one of the rules of the game: one needed the prize money in order to pay for the treatment that would restore his father’s eyesight, another so that his paralyzed brother might walk again, another so that his wife’s terrible cancer, covering half her face, could be treated, etc.  The most common cases involve extreme illnesses and part of the entertainment spectacle consists in showing the suffering victim, with the competitor and the audience on the verge of tears as they imagine how good, sensitive and supportive we all are when faced with someone else’s misfortune.  This morbid sadism, camouflaged as teary sensitivity, is consistent with those other contemporary competitions where, instead of the best of a group of five or ten participants, it is instead the worst who is selected – generally using the democratic vote of the audience – and then humiliated by being taken out of the competition.  Like a Miss Universe contest that begins by electing the ugliest of all the women in order to watch her retreat, disillusioned and humiliated under the bright lights and the cameras, until  arriving at the most beautiful of the contestants, at which point  morbid fascination has anesthetized any aesthetic expectation and the coronation no longer possesses the importance it once had.  In the end, it’s the same as always: our capitalism rewards desire but punishes pleasure.

In principle we might think that the program in question is a way of helping someone who otherwise would receive no help.  In fact this is exactly the argument that is repeated from center stage.  Even accepting this circumstantial truth, we should ask ourselves about the root of the problem.  Why would they “otherwise receive no help”?  Why must a person who lays prostrate in a bed suffering day to day the torture of a terrible illness expose themselves to the audience and hope that their defender might sing better than the others (and that the judges and finally the audience take pity on the victim and at the same time be captivated by the contestant’s voice) in order to be able to survive?  Is this spectacle not comparable to the old and barbarous custom of castrating young singers in order to shape the perfect voice?  Or that other barbaric custom of taking out birds’ eyes with a nail so that they stop singing in their cages?  Paraphrasing Horacio Guaraní, though not without deep scepticism, one would have to recite:

 

If the singer falls silent, life is silenced

because life, life itself is all a song

if the singer falls silent, all is gone

all hope, and light and happiness

the dock workers cross themselves

who will fight for their wages?

This programming is one of the worst examples of the morbidity promoted by capitalism and of the perversion of the obedient and consumerist masses.  Numbed by the dream of “individual liberty,” we consumers are nothing but that: devourers of products, trained and anesthetized by the same system that produces these Roman-style circuses, where cruelty is not only part of the entertainment spectacle but, even worse, is dressed up as compassion and generosity.  A system that moralizes and teaches that this type of spectacle as well as the final act of charity are proof of surprising and humane good will.  One applauds the generosity and good intentions of the donations that the program and the television channel will make to one or two of the seven victims.  We will not sit in judgement of the good faith of everyone involved; but let’s also not make the mistake of believing that the enterprise and its employees will lose any money on this “noble act,” which pretends to remedy the ethical abyss in the economic system they serve.

Once the singer who competed for a brain operation for his brother wins, the agonizing wife of the loser must resign herself to hearing that somehow, in a manner not established by the rules of the game, they are going to help her too.  So, why the competition?  Why so much suspense?  One might argue that it is necessary in order to raise money.  But this argument is additional proof of the perversion of the system (i.e. late capitalism) and a slap in the face for millions of people who believe themselves to be generous when they vote for one of the contestants, giving hope to one and plunging into despair the other, who takes his cancer home with him when the lights go out, and with them the fleeting memory of the generous consumers.  Like those emails we receive every day with images of someone who appears to suffer from some terrible illness (although it is never clear exactly who they are, or if any of the information can be trusted), appealing to charity to save a life.  Like that army of lepers in India  who showed us their mutilated limbs, covered with open sores, in exchange for a donation – which, by the way, demonstrates that this perversion is older than capitalism, although the latter has added stage lights and melodrama, abundance and hypocrisy.

Amid all this absurdity we must not only point the finger at a decadent system, but also, and especially, at every State that serves it.  I am familiar with the classic objection: “Why must we always be dependent on the State?  Why must we always expect the State to provide a solution to social and individual problems?”  As far as I am concerned, the ideal would be for societies not to have to rely on any State – nor even to have one at all. At least not that traditional apparatus, a nest of vertical power and corruption, resource for the aristocracy and depository of national apologies.  Nevertheless, I have always been struck by the fact that those who raise this kind of rhetorical question as their only ideological tool tend to be radical partisans of traditional capitalism.  I am struck, I say, not because I believe that capitalism is the worst of all systems, but because I recognize that both communism and capitalism are systems that could not survive without the existence of a central State.  Refering back to the problem posed at the beginning of the essay, why don’t we ask: Why not take recourse to the State in these cases?  If the State is required to guarantee the smooth functioning of the stock markets (for which purpose it incurs astronomical expenses), roads and communication networks, why not require that it take care of a dying man who, through the State’s aid, might enjoy a full life? Most economic activity – from the useless propagation of  cellphone calls inform the spouse that one has returned home and in that instant sticking the key in the front door, from the “minute-to-minute update” on a football game, to the most banal necessities ever invented in history – has as its purpose the development of a sector of the economy and not exactly coming to the aid of those in need.  There is no better proof of that than the inefficient health systems of countries as wealthy as the United States, where a considerable part of the population can spend a hundred dollars a week on clothes for their dogs and three hundred for a visit to the veterinarian, and are offended when one reminds them that south of the Río Grande there are children who spend less in a year.  Because, how is it possible for someone to doubt my sensitivity if I care for a dog as if it were a person?

How is it possible for a State – any State, in any country – to invest millions of dollars in urban “beautification”, millions more in political propaganda, comparable sums to protect luxury hotels and casinos and not take care of those citizens who are in agony with a terminal illness?  Why should a girl, faced with a bed-ridden life unless she receives a spinal operation or has a cyst removed from her eye, have to turn to raffles, or television programs that publicize her terrible circumstances in order to emotionally motivate potential donors while the States look on impassively, worried more about the insatiable growth of the Gross Domestic Product?  If the State imposes a tax charge in order to pay the salaries of its bureaucrats, its chauffers, its coffee servers and, what is worse, its unelected political appointees, why not raise a little more money in order to save the lives of those who have fallen undeservedly into misfortune?  Why are useless militaries sustained by compulsive tribute and yet to save a child with cancer one must turn either to the generous heart of some good Samaritan or to the Church?

Dying of cancer or going blind due to some reversible disease is a potential circumstantial misfortune for any individual, but it is a regular and constant fact of life for any society. A government might be excused for not foreseeing an earthquake or the explosion of a damned bomb on a train, but how does one excuse a government and an entire society from attending to those thousands of innocents who predictably fall, year after year, into misfortune through no fault of their own?  How does one forgive a president and his legislators who are watching a gruesome television spectacle where the competition is between a cancer and a tumor, between a paralysis and a blindness, who are satisfied with the good will of their nation because advertisement revenue from commercial products will finance the rehabilitation of one of the afflicted?  Afflictions that the program’s host, with his voice noticeably breaking, must repeat every week in the language of mass entertainment:  “Juan and María are competing for a dream; Juan’s dream is to win so that the tumor destroying his wife’s face can be removed; what a beautiful dream.” The capitalist system isghoulish, but it does have its modesty. Except when it casts aside subtlety and airs a promotional preview for an exhausted public in the middle of the work week saying, with the agitated voice of a soccer announcer and the harangue of a boxing commentator: “Juan left María’s brother with no hope to ever see again, and now he faces Pedro, who competes for his own dream.”

And notice that they haven’t got the courage to put into the competition a malnourished child, though I assure you such candidates abound in our long-suffering America.  This may be because in that case the prize would be a daily plate of food, and what the entertainment spectacle requires is a $50,000 dollar operation, a real effort capable of revealing the great strength of a people when it comes together for a noble cause.

It is in moments like these when the over-used word “solidarity” finally runs aground.  Because it is not the solidarity of charity that makes a society virtuous but the solidarity of a system that places a higher priority on the lives of its inhabitants than on the luxury or convenience of so-called economic growth.  Because, as it turns out, economic growth is built on this kind of perverse civic morality, and when we can enjoy that we are so corrupt the only thing we think about is perpetuating, proudly, the vices that have brought us success.

 

 

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia, junio 2006.

 

 

 

 

Jorge Majfud was born in Uruguay, in 1969. From an early age he read and wrote fiction, but chose to major in Architecture and in 1996 he graduated from the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay. His university studies and interests led him to travel to more than forty countries to gather, in an obsessive and continuous way, pages that would later become part of his novels and essays. He was a professor at the Universidad Hispanoamericana de Costa Rica and at Escuela Técnica del Uruguay, where he taught Mathematics and Art. In 2003 he entered the University of Georgia, where he also began postgraduate studies in the Department of Romance Languages. Master of Art in Literature, he currently teaches Latin American Literature at The University of Georgia.

Some publications: Hacia qué patrias del silencio (memorias de un desaparecido), novel published for the first time in 1996, by Editorial Graffiti, Montevideo (latest edition: Baile del Sol, Spain 2001); Crítica de la pasión pura, essays 1998, Editorial Graffiti, Montevideo (2nd edition –selection-: 1999, HCR, Virginia, USA; 3rd edition: 2000, Editorial Argenta, Buenos Aires); La reina de América, novel (Baile del Sol, Tenerife. 2002). He has contributed to the issue Entre Siglos-Entre Séculos: Autores Latinoamericanos a Fin de siglo, edited by Pilar Ediçoes (Brasilia) and Bianchi Editores (Montevideo), in 1999. 9 viajes (Ed. Trilce, Montevideo, 2002), El tiempo que me tocó vivir (Ed. Miguel de Cervantes, España), Los significados ideológicos de América Latina (CEPAL, Santiago de Chile, 2006). His stories and articles have been published in daily newspapers, magazines, and readers, such as El País and La República of Montevideo, Rebelion, Hispanic Culture Review of George Mason University, Resource Center of The Americas, Tiempos del Mundo, Jornada, etc. He has been the founder and editor of the magazine SigloXXI-reflexiones sobre nuestro tiempo. He is a habitual collaborator in Bitácora, weekly publication of the daily newspaper La República of Montevideo, La Vanguardia of Barcelona and of other daily and weekly newspapers in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Spain, France, Sweden, Canada, and the United States. He is a member of the International Scientific Committee of the magazine Araucaria in Spain and The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi

He was distinguished in different international contests, for example: Honor Mention in the XII Certamen Literario Argenta, in Buenos Aires in 1999, for the first drafts of Crítica de la pasión pura. Mention at Premio Casa de las Américas, in Habana, Cuba in 2001, for the novel La Reina de América, “because it stands out as an intense writing regarding the established powers by the use of parody and irony,” according to the panel of judges composed of Belén Gopegui (Spain), Andrés Rivera (Argentina), Mayra Santos Febres (Puerto Rico), Beatriz Maggi (Cuba), and José Luis Díaz Granados (Colombia). Segundo Premio Concurso Caja Profesional 2001, for the story Mabel Espera, “for its posing of annotated, harsh reality written with valuable literary strategies,” in the opinion of the panel of judges made up of Sylvia Lago, Alicia Torres, and Mario Delgado Aparaín. Excellence in Research Award, UGA, United States 2006.

His essays and articles have been translated into Portuguese, French, English and German.

 

Roman Apocrypha

A street of Pillars at the ruins of the city S...

Image via Wikipedia

Apócrifo romano (Spanish)

 

Roman Apocrypha

Jorge Majfud

 

At the edge of the Empire and of the world, an old man lamented day and night and futilely awaited death. While he waited he told this story to those willing to venture out so far:

 

I have discovered that in the subsoils of the Empire my name is cursed. It would be useless to pursue those who remember me and would only augment the sad fame that will extend my shadow to the end of time. They will remember me for only one day, snuffed out forever in Palestine.

When the protests began (not against my government nor against the Empire, but against one lone man) I never thought of the seriousness of such an insignificant deed. I knew that the Caesar would only care about order, not justice; besides, the rebel was not Roman.

I will say that I, in some way, knew my fate, like someone who has received the revelation of an absurd dream which is quickly forgotten. During the protests I thought, time and again, about the memory of that distant people I governed. I also knew of the case of a Greek prisoner, philosopher or charlatan by profession, who had been condemned to death and the intellectuals remembered him more than they did Pericles. I learned in that now far away land that Eternity depends on the fleeting and confusing moment which is life. Rome is not eternal and one day it will be nothing more than a memory of stones and books; and what the future remembers will not be the best of the Empire.

When everyone was demanding that I crucify the rebel and nobody knew why, I asked for the counsel of others less great than I. The Romans did not care or were distracted, and so I had to turn, several times to Joachim of Samaria, a wise man who I had previously made use of to try to understand his people.

“Tell me, Joachim,” I asked him that day or the day before, “What can I do in these circumstances? I must be a judge and I am not able to distinguish clear water from bad. Is there even anything I can do? I have heard that the rebel himself has announced his death, just as others among your people announced his arrival.”

“The world is in your hands,” said the old man.

“No!” I shouted, “…it is not yet in my hands. First I will be Emperor of Rome.”

“Perhaps Rome and all the Romes to come will remember you for this day, my king.”

“And what will they say about me?”

“How could I know? I am a blind man,” answered the old one.

“As blind as anyone. I would give my eyes to see the future!”

“Even if you had a thousand eyes you would not see it, my king, because the future does not exist for men. It only exists in God who encompasses all things.”

“If your god knows it, then doesn’t the future exist somewhere?” I reasoned. “If God or the rebel can predict what will occur, what is to be done was already done…” I concluded, eloquently. I felt satisfied with that triumph over the wise foreigner.

When the rebel was brought before me, I began to interrogate him, stammering; I knew that was unfitting for a future Caesar and I could almost not contain my anger.

“So you are king?” I asked.

“You have said it,” stated that dark man, serene as if nothing mattered to him. “I came to this world to bring the Truth. And those who can understand it will listen to me.”

“And what is the truth,” I hurried to ask, certain that his answer would not be so great.

There was an infinite silence in response. Immediately the impatient multitude exploded again: “Release the son of man!,” the crowd began to shout, referrng to another prisoner who had used weapons against Rome, not words. And the Caesars will always fear words more than weapons.

I tried to be careful. I calculated my options. I understood that if I chose poorly, Palestine would go up in flames. So many people could not be wrong, and therefore there could only be one decision in the clear mind of a king.

When the soldiers finished whipping the rebel, I took the prisoner out again and said to the people:

“Look, here he is, I have taken him out so you can see that I find no crime in him.”

But the people insisted again:

“Kill him, crucify him!…”

“Better that you take him and crucify him yourselves,” was my answer.

“No, we cannot,” they yelled again, almost as one voice. To one side, the lords of the Law waited patiently for the inflamed masses to restore the sacred order.

Then, I saw the Rebel enter and I asked him:

“Where are you from, that you put me on this crossroads?”

But the Rebel did not answer this time, just like he hadn’t answered the last time.

“Are you not going to answer me? Don’t you know that I have the authority to crucify you or to set you free?”

“You would have no authority if God had not given it to you.”

So I, the governor of Palestine, finally yielded to the crowd, or to the arrogance of that prisoner. I decided for the good of the Pharisean Law and for the peace of Rome.

I delivered the dangerous rebel for the cross, and since his was not a crime against the gods but against the politics of the Caesar and of our allies, I had him executed along with other thieves.

The cries of that day long ago reached all the way to the palace. The people and their priests were satisfied. Except for an infamous minority. The same minority as always.

They crucified him at noon and, until mid-afternoon, the whole land fell dark. A deep cold covered the palace and perhaps the entire city.

“What is happening, my king?” asked Joachim, from some dark corner.

“You cannot see it, but the whole Earth has gone dark and it is because of the Rebel,” I murmured.

“Rome and the World will remember you for this day,” the blind man said.

“How can I be the guilty one? Did you not say that God knows what happened and what is to come? If your God knew that today I would err, how could I be free not to do so?”

“Listen, my king,” said the blind man, “I cannot see the present that you see. Nor can I see the future.  Nevertheless, now I know, almost before the rebel knew it, that you made a mistake. But this knowledge, oh, my king, does it suppress something of the freedom you had today to choose?”

Perhaps that is what fate and freedom are together. Now I only have the consolation that one day that handful of men and women will be the people of Rome. My fame will extend, dark and damned the world over, but I will become once again the honorable governor of a province of the Empire, freely deciding on behalf of its fate. And I will be once again remembered in infamy by another handful of prisoners, simply for fulfilling my divine duty. Now I know definitively my other fates. But I will believe once again that I am free, vested with all of the power of Rome.

 

Translated by Bruce Campbell

 

The Walled Society

A dune in Sossusvlei, Namibia

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The Walled Society

The Walled Society

With the passing of the years, and thanks to attentive observation of his clients, Doctor Salvador Uriburu had discovered that the majority of the population of Calataid lacked the European origin of which it boasted. In its eyes, in its hands, persisted the African slaves who repaired the walls in the nineteenth century, and surely the older slaves who built the wells in the times of Garama. In its ritual gestures persisted the followers of Kahina, the priestess of the African desert who converted to Judaism before the arrival of Islam. Within the white minority, diversity was also noteworthy, but this had been suspended while they were busy considering themselves the representative (and founding) class of the town. The same blue eyes could be found behind Russian eyelids or behind other Irish ones; the same blonde hair could cover a German cranium or another, Gallegan one. How is it possible, Salvador Uriburu had written, that such a diverse town could be so racist and, at the same time, so overflowing with patriotism, with so much fanatical love for one and the same flag? How can the whole be worshiped and at the same time the parts that comprise it disdained? It can’t. Unless patriotic reverence is nothing more than the necessary lie nourished by one part in order to use the other parts for its own benefit.

In one of his final public appearances, in May of 1967 in the hall of notables of the Liberty Club, Doctor Uriburu had attempted an exercise that bothered the new traditionalists, once they were able to decipher how it questioned things. Salvador Uriburu had drawn, on a blackboard, a series of at least fifteen triangles, circles and squares. When he asked those present how many kinds of drawings they saw there, everyone agreed that they saw three. When he asked that they select one of those three types, everyone chose the group of triangles and the doctor asked them again how many groups they saw in the group of triangles. Everyone said that there were at least two groups: a group of isosceles triangles and a group of right triangles.

“More or less isosceles and more or less right-angled” said one discerningly, noticing that the drawings were not perfect.

“The figures aren’t perfect,” confirmed Salvador Uriburu, “just like human beings.” And like human beings everyone saw first the differences, those that made the figures different, before seeing what they had in common.

“That’s not true,” said someone, “the triangles have something in common among themselves. Each one has three sides, three angles.”

“The circles and the squares also have something in common: they are all geometrical figures. But nobody observed that there was also one unique group of drawings, the group of geometrical figures.”

Salvador Uriburu neither made accusations nor clarified the example, as was his custom. But after months of arguing about the strange and pedantic exposition of the doctor’s little figures, the pastor George Ruth Guerrero arrived at the conclusion that this kind of thinking came to the little doctor from the sect of humanists and, most certainly, the Illuminati.

“The group of geometrical figures,” concluded the pastor with his index finger in the air, “represented humanity and each group of figures represented a race, a religion, a deviation and so on and so forth. The humanists would like to make us believe that the truth does not exist; that the faith of the Moors and of the Jews is the same as the true faith of the Christians, the race of the chosen ones and the race of the sinners, the morality of our fathers and the sodomy of the moderns, the garments of our women and the indecent nudity of the Nigerians.”

They accused the doctor of being a gnostic. It was known, by rumors and magazines from France, that the Heterodox one had conquered the rest of Europe with an extraordinary belief: the truth did not exist; any heresy could be taken as a substitute for the true faith and logical reason. And it was said that someone was trying to introduce all of that in Calataid.

The allusion was direct, but Doctor Uriburu did not respond. The last time he entered the hall of notables, in August of 1967, it was expected that he would say that he was for or against this superstition, that he would define, once and for all, which side he was on. Instead, he came out with another of his figures that had nothing to do with his profession as a scientist, much less as a believer, which demonstrated his irremediable descent into mysticism, into the sect of the Illuminati who, it was said, assembled every Thursday in an unknown chamber of the old cisterns.

“Once there was a man who climbed a mountain of sand,” he said, “and upon arriving at the peak he decided it was the only mountain in the desert. Nevertheless, right away he realized that others had done the same, from other peaks. Then he said that his mountain, the one beneath his feet, was the true one. Then the man, or perhaps it was a woman, decided to come down from his dune and he climbed another one and then another, until he understood (perhaps from atop the highest dune) that there were many dunes, an infinite number relative to his strength. Then, tired, he said that the desert was not one sand dune in particular, but all of the dunes together. He said that there were some tall dunes and other smaller ones, and that just one fistful of sand from any of them didn’t represent one dune in particular but the entire desert, and that nobody, like none of the dunes, was the desert, completely. He also said that the dunes moved, that the true dune which allowed the unique perspective of the desert and of itself changed again and again in size and place, and that to ignore that was to deny an inseparable part of any unique truth.

“Unlike another exhausted traveler, this discovery did not lead him to deny the existence of all of the dunes, only the arbitrary pretense that there was just one in the immensity of the desert. He denied that a handful of sand had less value and less permanence than that arbitrary and pretentious dune. That is to say, he denied some ideas and affirmed others; he was not indifferent to the eternal search for truth. And for that reason he was equally persecuted in the name of the desert, until a sand storm put an end to the dispute.”

An indescribable silence followed the doctor’s new enigma. Then a repressed murmur filled the hall. Someone stood to announce the end of the meeting and reminded everyone of the date of the next one. The bell sounded; everyone rose and left without acknowledging him. He knew that they were also bothered that he would doubt the tolerance and freedom of Calataid, making use of metaphors as if he were a victim of the inquisition or living in the times of the barbarous Nero.

Uriburu remained seated, watching through the window the old men and young lads who rode by on their bicycles and could not see him, with his hands in the pockets of his suit coat, playing with a handful of sand. He lost his mind twenty days later. A strange diagnosis, written in his own hand, concluded that Calataid suffered from “social autism.” Autism, according to the books, is a product of the accelerated growth of the brain which, instead of increasing intelligence reduces it or renders it useless due to the pressure of the encephalic mass against the walls of the craneum. For Doctor Uriburu, who was more concerned with architecture than with biology, the walls of Calataid had provoked the same effect with the growth in the population’s pride. Therefore, it was useless to pretend to cure individuals if the society was sick. In fact, to suppose that society and individuals are two different things is an artifice of the view and of the medicine that identifies bodies, not spirits. And Calataid was incapable of relating two different facts with a common explanation. Even more: it was incapable of recognizing its own memory, engraved scandalously on the stones, in the dank voids of its interiors, and denied or covered over by the most recent invention of a tradition.

Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan writer who received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, and who currently teaches at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. His essays, story collections, and several novels have been translated into Portuguese, French, English, German, Italian, and Greek. His latest novel is The City of the Moon (Baile del Sol, 2008).

The Illegitimate Constitution

Montañas de la Sierra de Agalta, Olancho. Hond...

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Honduras IV: La constitución ilegítima

The Illegitimate Constitution

Jorge Majfud

The dialectical dispute over the legality of the violent process of removal from office and expulsion from the country of the president of Honduras has not reached closure. Months ago we explained our point of view, according to which there was no violation of the constitution on the part of president Zelaya at the moment of calling for a non-binding poll on the question of a constituent assembly. But at base this discussion is moot and rooted in a different problem: resistance by a social class and mentality that created the institutions of its own Banana Republic and seeks desperately to identify change of any kind with chaos, at the same time that it imposes repression on its people and on the communication media that oppose it.

The main argument of the authors of the coup in Honduras is rooted in the fact that the 1982 Constitution does not allow changes in its wording (articles 239 and 374) and establishes the removal from power of those who promote such changes. The Law of Citizen Participation of 2006, which promotes popular consultations, was never accused of being unconstitutional. On the contrary, popular participation is prescribed by the very same constitution (article 45). All of which reveals the scholastic spirit of its drafters, nuanced with a humanistic language.

No norm, no law can stand above a country’s constitution. Nonetheless, no modern constitution has been dictated by God, but by human beings for their own benefit. Which is to say, no constitution can stand above a natural law like a people’s freedom to change.

A constitution that establishes its own immutability is confusing its human and precarious origins with a divine origin; or it is attempting to establish the dictatorship of one generation over all generations to come.  If this principle of immutability made any sense, we would have to suppose that before the constitution of Honduras could be modified Honduras must first disappear as a country. Otherwise, for a thousand years that country would have to be ruled by the same wording.

The orthodox religious have tried to avoid changes in the Koran and in the Bible by counting the number of words. When societies and their values change but a sacred text cannot be altered, the text is salvaged by interpreting it in favor of the new values. This is clearly demonstrated by the proliferation of sects, isms and new religions that arise from the same text. But in a sacred text the prohibition against change, even though impossible, is more easily justified, since no man can ammend God’s word.

These pretensions of eternity and perfection were not rare in the Iberoamerican constitutions which in the 19th century attempted to invent republics, instead of allowing the people to invent their own republics and constitutions to their own measure and according to the pulse of history. If in the United States the constitution of 1787 is still in force, it is due to its great flexibility and its many amendments. Otherwise, this country would have today three fifths of a man in the presidency, a quasi-human. “That ignorant little black man,” as the now former de facto Honduran foreign minister Enrique Ortez Colindres called him. As if that weren’t enough, article I of the famous constitution of the United States originally prohibited any change in constitutional status with reference to slaves.

The result of a constitution like that of Honduras is none other that its own death, preceded sooner or later by the spilling of blood. Those who claim to defend it will have to do so with force of arms and with the narrow logic of a collection of norms that violate one of the most basic and undeniable natural rights.

For centuries, the philosophers who imagined and articulated the utopias that today are called Democracy, State and Human Rights said so explicitly: no law exists above these natural rights. And if such a thing were attempted, disobedience is justified. Violence does not originate from disobedience but from he who violates a fundamental right. Politics is for everything else. Negotiation is the concession of the weak. A convenient concession, inevitable, but in the long term always insufficient.

A mature democracy implies a culture and an institutional system that prevent breaks from the rules of the game. But at the same time, and for that same reason, a democracy is defined by allowing and facilitating the inevitable changes that come with a new generation, with the greater historical consciousness of a society.

A constitution that impedes change is illegitimate in the face of the inalienable right to freedom (to change) and equality (to determine change). It is paper, it is a fraudulent contract that one generation imposes upon another in the name of a nation that no longer exists.

Translated by Bruce Campbell