Fear of Freedom: On the Left and the Right

Edward Said

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El miedo a la libertad, Sobre izquierdas y derechas (Spanish)


Fear of Freedom: On the Left and the Right


Jorge Majfud


Generally, an historical phenomenon is naturalized thanks to an absence of memory (hence the political value of neutrality and forgetting). Obviously not always for political reasons: it was once assumed that a nerve originating from the heart ended in one of the fingers of the left hand, which is why the wedding ring is worn there today. A man takes his bride to the altar with the left arm because centuries ago other grooms had to keep the right arm free in order to grasp the sword aimed at skewering the enemy. Carriages drove down the left side of the road: the driver’s right hand took up the weapon needed to defend himself against other drivers. For political reasons, revolutionary France and North America chose to drive on the other side and Napoleon confirmed it, not because he was revolutionary but because he was left-handed. Greeting with the right-handed handshake or handwave was able to signify the same thing: it was a friendly way of verifying that one was not armed.

Despite the fact that the right hand signified violence, symbolically it was associated with all of the virtues. The knight who alone or with other nobles crossed the countryside of Europe and the Middle East valued his right hand for many reasons, among which was its identification with defense. In a violent world, the right served for self-defense, and therefore possessed a value superior to the left hand and to reason. There was no argument about the fact that the right served to defend against other right hands in a culture of violence. In the same way, armies are justified even today for the defense of the homeland and of honor and not for assaults on other homelands and other honors. Right, righteous, rights, rightwing, righthand man, have come to be synonyous with virtue while the left is identified with the sinister (from the Latin sinister, meaning “on the left” or “unlucky”).  Culture nourished the superstition that a left-handed man was a partner of Evil and school children’s left hand was tied down and they were forced to write with their right hand.

At the same time, as Saussure would observe, there is no reason for a sign to have any necessary relationship with its signified. The fact that the Jacobins and Girondins would sit on one side or the other of the National Assembly of revolutionary France was merely circumstantial.

What is not accidental is the creation of semantic fields (the establishment of ideolexicons) in the struggle for social power.

Twenty or thirty years ago in the Southern Cone declaring oneself a leftist was enough to send you to prison or lose your life in a torture session. Nearly the majority of citizens and almost all the media took pains – in different ways – to identify themselves with the right. Being on the right was not only politically correct but, also, a requirement for survival.

The valorization of this ideolexicon has changed dramatically. This is demonstrated by a recent trial taking place in Uruguay. Búsqueda, a well-known weekly magazine, has taken to court a senator of the republic, José Korzeniak, because he characterized the publication as “on the right.” If this attitude were generalized, we would have to say that censorship no longer extends from political power toward the communication media, as before, but from the media toward the politicians in power. Which would be an interesting historical rarity.

The trial represents another rarity. The judge in the case had to call different witnesses to define what is on the right and what is on the left. It is assumed that the judicial process must resolve a philosophical problem that has never been closed or resolved. Dialectical exercise is completely healthy, but the form and place are proving to be surrealist at the very least.

I suppose that if it is demonstrated that Búsqueda is not on the right the senator will lose the trial, but if the opposite is demonstrated, he would be absolved of his crime. Nonetheless, another problem arises here. Is freedom of expression a crime now? What does it matter if Búsqueda is on the right or on the left as far as the law is concerned? Why should it be considered an insult or a civil crime to be on the right? Is not all opposition to the government on the right, and who knows if the government itself as well from some more radical point of view?

We will dispense with pretensions of independence, of neutrality or of objectivity, because those superstitions have already been demolished by thinkers like Edward Said. Nothing in culture is neutral, even though the will to objectivity might be a utopian virtue which we should not renounce. Part of intellectual honesty consists of recognizing that our own point of view is human and not necessarily the point of view of God. Historically political neutrality is prescribed only when it works in favor of a status quo, since every social order implies a network of political values imposed through the violence of their alleged neutrality.

Whether the senator is on the left or on the right, whether this or that daily paper is on the left or the right, that is up to each citizen to judge. The only thing that every citizen should demand of the law, of justice, is that it respect and protect their right to whatever opinion they like and their right to do so in any medium. In an open society, censorship should only result from reason or the strength of arguments. If a social consensus were possible about theme X, this should be derived from the most complete freedom of expression and not from any authority’s imposition of force or from the fear of “crime of opinion.”

Is it that we Uruguayans, who are so proud of our democratic tradition, are still not able to overcome the mental parameters of the dictatorship? Why such fear of freedom?

In many of our countries, trials for reasons of “honor” are still common. The stamp of the duel to the death – heritage of the violent knights of the Middle Ages – projects its image onto an anachronistic mentality. Like the famous “honor of weapons,” a paradoxical ideolexicon, if such a thing exists, since there is nothing less appropriate to a demonstration of honor than instruments of death.

Someone might argue that if Juan insults me that stains my honor. Nonetheless, even in that extreme, in an open society I would have the same right to respond to the hypothetical offense using the same means. But the very idea that someone can offend another person by recourse to insult is a flawed construction: anyone who insults gratuitously insults his own intelligence. If we knew how to develop a culture of freedom and uproot the implicit fear of debate and dissidence, the insult would be an undesired option just as it is today to assault each other in a ridiculous weapons duel. For the same reason, we would stop confusing criticisms with personal affront.

I can understand that defense of the crime might be considered a crime in itself, but we still have not been able to demonstrate clearly that naming someone or an organ of the press with the title “on the right” is a defense for the crime. First, because being on the right does not lead necessarily (directly or deliberately) to theft or criminality. Second, because we know people who honestly believe that being on the right is a virtue and not an insulting defect. Third, because nobody is safe from acts and opinions on the right.


Translated by Bruce Campbell




The Fragments of the Latin American Union

This political cartoon (attributed to Benjamin...

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Los fragmentos de la desunión latinoamericana (Spanish)

The Past Hurts But Does Not Condemn

The Fragments of the Latin American Union

Jorge Majfud

Lincoln University


In Latin America, in the absence of a social revolution at the moment of national independence there were plenty of rebellions and political revolts. Less frequently these were popular rebellions and almost never were they ideological revolutions that shook the traditional structures, as was the case with the North American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution. Instead, internal struggles abounded, before and after the birth of the new Republics.

A half century later, in 1866, the Ecuadorian Juan Montalvo would make a dramatic diagnosis: “freedom and fatherland in Latin America are the sheep’s clothing with which the wolf disguises himself.” When the republics were not at war they enjoyed the peace of the oppressors. Even though slavery had been abolished in the new republics, it existed de facto and was almost as brutal as in the giant to the north. Class violence was also racial violence: the indigenous continued to be marginalized and exploited. “This has been the peace of the jail cell,” conclued Montalvo. The indian, deformed by this physical and moral violence, would receive the most brutal physical punishments but “when they give him the whip, trembling on the ground, he gets up thanking his tormenter: May God reward you, sir.” Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican Eligenio M. Hostos in 1870 would already lament that “there is still no South American Confederation.” On the contrary, he only saw disunion and new empires oppressing and threatening: “An empire [Germany] can still move deliberately against Mexico! Another empire [Great Britain/Brazil] can still wreck Paraguay with impunity!”

But the monolithic admiration for central Europe, like that of Sarmiento, also begins to fall apart at the end of the 19th century: “Europe is no happier, and has nothing to throw in our face with regard to calamities and misfortunes” (Montalvo). “The most civilized nations—Montalvo continues—, those whose intelligence has reached the sky itself and whose practices walk in step with morality, do not renounce war: their breasts are always burning, their jealous hearts leap with the drive for extermination.” The Paraguay massacre results from muscular reasoning within the continent, and another American empire of the period is no exception to this way of seeing: “Brazil trades in human flesh, buying and selling slaves, in order to bow to its adversary and provide its share of the rationale.” The old accusation of imperial Spain is now launched against the other colonialist forces of the period. France and England – and by extension Germany and Russia – are seen as hypocrites in their discourse: “the one has armies for subjugating the world, and only in this way believes in peace; the other extends itself over the seas, takes control of the straits, dominates the most important fortresses on earth, and only in this way believes in peace.” In 1883, he also points out the ethical contradictions of the United States, “where the customs counteract the laws; where the latter call the blacks to the Senate, and the former drive them out of the restaurants.” (Montalvo himself avoids passing through the United States on his trip to Europe out of “fear of being treated like a Brazilian, and that resentment might instill hatred in my breast,” since “in the most democratic country in the world it is necessary to be thoroughly blonde in order to be a legitimate person.”)

Nonetheless, even though practice always tends to contradict ethical principles—it is not by accident that the most basic moral laws are always prohibitions—the unstoppable wave of humanist utopia continued to be imposed step by step, like the principal of union in equality, or the “fusion of the races in one civilization.” The same Iberoamerican history is understood in this universal process “to unite all the races in labor, in liberty, in equality and in justice.” When the union is achieved, “then the continent will be called Colombia” (Hostos). For José Martí as well, history was directed inevitably toward union. In “La América” (1883) he foresaw a “new accommodation of the national forces of the world, always in movement, and now accelerated, the necessary and majestic grouping of all the members of the American national family.” From the utopia of the union of nations, project of European humanism, it comes to be a Latin American commonplace: the fusion of the races in a kind of perfect mestizaje. The empires of Europe and the United States rejected for such a project, the New World would be “the oven where all the races must be melted, where they are being melted” (Hostos). In 1891, an optimistic Martí writes in New York that in Cuba “there is no race hatred because there are no races” even though this more of an aspiration than a reality. During the period advertisements were still published in the daily newspapers selling slaves alongside horses and other domesticated animals.

In any case, this relationship between oppressors and oppressed can not be reduced to Europeans and Amerindians. The indigenous people of the Andes, for example, also had spent their days scratching at the earth in search of gold to pay tribute to those sent by the Inca and numerous Mesoamerican tribes had to suffer the oppression of an empire like the Aztec. During most of the life of the Iberoamerican republics, the abuse of class, race and sex was part of the organization of society. International logic is reproduced in the domestic dynamic. To put it in the words of the Bolivian Alcides Arguedas in 1909, “when a boss has two or more pongos [unsalaried worker], he keeps one and rents out the others, as if it were simply a matter of a horse or a dog, with the small difference that the dog and the horse are lodged in a wood hut or in a stable and both are fed; the pongo is left to sleep in the doorway and to feed on scraps.” Meanwhile the soldiers would take the indians by the hair and beating them with their sabres carry them off to clean the barracks or would steal their sheep in order to maintain an army troop as it passed through. In the face of these realities, utopian humanists seemed like frauds. Frantz Tamayo, in 1910 declares, “imagine for a moment the Roman empire or the British empire having national altruism as it foundation and as its ideal. […] Altuism! Truth! Justice! Who practices these with Bolivia? Speak of altruism in England, the country of wise conquest, and in the United States, the country of the voracious monopolies!” According to Angel Rama (1982), modernization was also exercised principally “through a rigid hierarchical system.” That is to say, it was a process similar to that of the Conquest and the Independence. In order to legitimate the system, “an aristocratic pattern was applied which has been the most vigorous shaper of Latin American cultures throughout their history.”

Was our history really any different from these calamities during the military dictatorships of the end of the 20th century? Now, does this mean that we are condemned by a past that repeats itself periodically as if it were the a novelty each time?


Let us respond with a different problem. The popular psychoanalytic tradition of the 20th century made us believe that the individual is always, in some way and in some degree, hostage to a past. Less rooted in popular consciousness, the French existentialists reacted by proposing that in reality we are condemned to be free. That is, in each moment we have to choose, there is no other way. In my opinion, both dimensions are possible in a human being: on the one hand we are conditioned by a past but not determined by it. But if we pay paranoid tribute to that past believing that all of our present and our future is owed to those traumas, we are reproducing a cultural illness: “I am unhappy because my parents are to blame.” Or, “I can’t be happy because my husband oppressed me.” But where is the sense of freedom and of responsibility? Why is it not better to say that “I have not been happy or I have these problems because, above all, I myself have not taken responsibility for my problems”? Thus arises the idea of the passive victim and instead of fighting in a principled way against evils like machismo one turns to the crutch in order to justify why this woman or that other one has been unhappy. “Am I sick? The fault is with the machismo of this society.” Etc.

Perhaps it goes without saying that being human is neither only biology nor only psychology: we are constructed by a history, the history of humanity that creates us as subjects. The individual—the nation—can recognize the influence of context and of their history and at the same time their own freedom as potential which, no matter how minimal and conditioned it might be, is capable of radically changing the course of a life. Which is to say, an individual, a nation that would reject outright any representation of itself as a victim, as a potted plant or as a flag that waves in the wind.

Translated by Bruce Campbell