Immigration, History, Politics, and the Latino Vote

2019 Lectures




January 30, 2019 4:30 pm McKee 113 


WCU Humanities Initiative

WCU welcomes Uruguayan-American scholar and author Jorge Majfud. 

In the first event, Dr. Majfud will join Dr. Benjamin Francis-Fallon (WCU History) in a panel about Immigration and the evolution of the Latino Voting Bloc in the US. 

Join us also the following day, when Dr. Majfud will engage in a dialogue with Dr. Alberto Centeno-Pulido (WCU World Languages) about immigration, racism, and the role of intellectuals in the public sphere as explorers of the human experience.

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For more information, contact Alberto Centeno-Pulido at




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Rescuing Memory: the Humanist Interview with Noam Chomsky

by Jorge Majfud

August 8, 2016.

[Pictures Sarah Silbiger]

Originally published in The Humanist, July/August 2016


July / August 2016



Just before twelve thirty on a recent spring afternoon, I found myself on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the building that houses the linguistics and philosophy departments. A group of Japanese students, full of youthful excitement, were waiting outside Noam Chomsky’s eighth-floor office. They approached the door and read the name card on it. They took pictures—lots of pictures—with happy and surprised expressions, but then quickly turned serious. They paused to take a brief moment of silence, which almost felt mystical, and then headed out.


At the age of eighty-seven, the renowned linguist, philosopher, historian, cognitive scientist, and critic Noam Chomsky maintains the same clarity found in any of his books, lectures, or television appearances dating back to the 1970s. While in a face-to-face he might adopt an informal and humorous tone towards relevant topics, he is very much that same serious and detailed thinker who we all recognize from the conferences and different interviews—one of those individuals history will remember for centuries.


Years after having met Chomsky at Princeton University and collaborating with him on the Spanish translation of a book (Ilusionistas, 2012), I was now interested in finding out the roots of his social and political thinking during our meeting. I started by remembering the many letters we had exchanged for the better part of a decade. In one of the letters I had commented about how my son was adjusting to a society that was his but only by birth, noting that he spoke English with a slight Spanish accent. When Chomsky had a chance, he wrote me this:


When I was a boy, we were the only Jewish family in a terribly anti-Semitic neighborhood. Those streets weren’t any fun for us but our parents never found that out. In a way, you avoid telling your parents what happened to you during those days.


I reminded him of this in order to start a dialogue about that world and its universal implications. What follows is a conversation that went beyond what was initially planned.


Jorge Majfud: Before WWII, anti-Semitism and Nazism were much more common in the United States than Americans are willing to accept today. Henry Ford (awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle by the Nazi Government), General Motors, Alcoa, and Texaco are just a few examples of supportive U.S. business interests. And after the war, Jews faced serious (and absurd) obstacles in migrating as refugees while many Nazis were granted visas (through Mexico) to help develop NASA programs. What memories do you have of those times when you were a Jewish teenager?


Noam Chomsky: When I was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s anti-Semitism was rampant. It wasn’t like Nazi Germany but it was pretty serious—it was part of life. So, for example, when my father was able to buy a secondhand car in the late 1930s, and he took us to the countryside for a weekend, if we looked for a motel to stay in we had to see if it said “restricted” on it. “Restricted” meant no Jews. You didn’t have to say “no Blacks,” which was something people took for granted. There was also a national policy, which as a child I didn’t know anything about. In 1924 the first major immigration law was passed. Before that, there was an Oriental Exclusion Act, but other than that, European immigrants like my parents were generally admitted in the early years of the twentieth century. But that ended in 1924 with an immigration law that was pretty much directed against Jews and Italians.


JM: Was it connected to the Red Scare?


Chomsky: Well, sort of—in the background. It was right after Woodrow Wilson’s first serious post-World War I repression, which deported thousands of people, effectively destroyed unions and independent press, and so on. Right after that, the anti-immigration law was passed that remained in place until 1960s. And that was the reason why very few people fleeing the rise of fascism in Europe, especially in Germany, could get to the United States. And there were famous incidents like with the MS Saint Louis, which brought a lot of immigrants, mostly Jewish, from Europe. It reached Cuba, with people expecting to be admitted to the United States from there. But the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt wouldn’t allow them in and they had to go back to Europe where many of them died in concentration camps.


JM: There were cases involving different countries as well.


Chomsky: It’s a lesser-known story, but the Japanese government (after the Russian-Nazi pact, which split Poland) did allow Polish Jews to come to Japan, with the expectation that they would then be sent to the United States. But they weren’t accepted, so they stayed in Japan. There’s an interesting book called The Fugu Plan, written by Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz, which describes the circumstances when European Jews came to Japan, a semi-feudal society.


After WWII there were many Jews who remained in refugee camps … President Harr F. Truman called for a commission, it was called the Harrison Commission, to investigate the situation in the camps and it was a pretty gloomy report. There were very few Jews admitted into the United States.


JM: These policies had many other lasting consequences.


Chomsky: Of course. The Zionist movement based in Palestine pretty much took over the camps and instituted the policy that every man and woman between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five should be directed to Palestine—they weren’t allowed to go to the West. A 1998 study was done in Hebrew by an Israeli scholar, Yosef Grodzinsky, and the English translation of the title is Good Human Material. That is what they wanted sent to Palestine for colonization and for the eventual conflict that took place some years later. These policies were somewhat complementary to the U.S. policy of pressuring England to allow Jews to go to Palestine, but not allowing them here. The British politician Ernest Bevin was pretty bitter about it, asking, “if you want to save the Jews, why send them to Palestine when you don’t admit them?” I suspect most likely that more Nazis came to America. I was a student at Harvard during the early 1950s. There was practically no Jewish faculty there.


JM: According to some articles, Franklin Roosevelt, when he was a member of the board at Harvard, considered that there were too many Jews in the college.


Chomsky: There’s an interesting book about that called The Third Reich and the Ivory Tower, written by Stephen H. NorwoodIt has a long discussion about Harvard, and indeed the school’s president, James Conant, did block Jewish faculty. He was the one who prevented European Jews from being admitted to the chemistry department—his field—and also had pretty good relations with the Nazis. When Nazi emissaries came to the United States, they were welcomed at Harvard.


JM: It’s something that was very common at the time, however today nobody seems willing to accept it.


Chomsky: In general, the attitude towards Nazi Germany was not that hostile, especially if you look at the U.S. State Department reports. In 1937 the State Department was describing Adolf Hitler as a “moderate” who was holding off the forces of the right and the left. In the Munich agreement in late 1938, Roosevelt sent his chief adviser Sumner Welles, who came back with a very supportive statement saying that Hitler was someone we could really do business with and so on. That was late 1938. George Kennan is another extreme case. He was the American consul in Berlin until the war between Germany and United States broke out in December 1941. And until then he was writing pretty supportive statements back stressing that we shouldn’t be so hard on the Nazis if they were doing something we didn’t agree with—basically saying they were people we could do business with. The British had an even stronger business interest in Nazi Germany. And Benito Mussolini was greatly admired.



On racism of every color


JM: In addition to anti-Semitism and racism toward African Americans, there were other groups that suffered. For example, during the 1930s, around half a million Mexican Americans were blamed for the Great Depression and deported in various different ways. And most of them were U.S. citizens.


Chomsky: Well, there was a strong nativist tradition—saying, “we have to protect ourselves”—that comes from the founding of the country. If you read Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment in the United States and the most distinguished representative of the movement here, he actually advised that the newly founded republic should block Germans and Swedes, because they were too swarthy—dark.


JM: Why is that pattern of fear historically repeated?


Chomsky: There’s a strange myth of Anglo-Saxonism. When the University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, for example, its law school offered the study of “Anglo-Saxon Law.” And that myth of Anglo-Saxonism carries right over into the early twentieth century. Every wave of immigrants who came were treated pretty badly, but when they all finally became integrated, all of us became Anglo-Saxons.


JM: Like the Irish. They were brutally persecuted, suffered violence because of their orange colored hair and their Catholicism, and then became “assimilated,” instead of being “integrated.”


Chomsky: The Irish were treated horribly, even here in Boston. For example, in the late nineteenth century they were treated pretty much like African Americans. You could find signs here in Boston in the restaurants saying “No dogs and Irish.” Finally they were accepted into society and became integrated, became part of the political system, and there were Kennedys, and so on. But the same is true about other waves of immigrants, like the Jews in the 1950s. If you take a look at places like Harvard, it’s striking. In the early 1950s, I think, there were a handful of Jewish professors, three or four. But by the 1960s, there were Jewish deans and administrators. In fact, one of the reasons why MIT became a great university was because they admitted Jews whereas Harvard did not.


JM: We can see changes in certain cases, but we can also see things that repeat themselves, such as now in the case of Mexicans and Muslims.


Chomsky: Yes, and Syrians. There is a horrible crisis there and the United States has admitted virtually none of the refugees. The most dramatic case is the Central Americans. Why are people fleeing from Central America? It’s because of the atrocities the U.S. committed there. Take Boston, where there’s a fairly large Mayan population. These people are fleeing from the highlands of Guatemala, where there was virtual genocide in the early 1980s backed by Ronald Reagan. The region was devastated, and people are still fleeing to this day, yet they send them back. Just a couple of weeks ago, the administration of Barack Obama, which has broken all sorts of records in regards to deportation, picked up a Guatemalan man living here. I think he had been living here for twenty-five years, had a family, a business, and so on. He had fled from the Mayan region and they picked him up and deported him. To me, that’s really sick.


JM: In the case of Guatemala, the story began in 1954 with the CIA military coup organized against the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz.


Chomsky: Yes, it basically began in 1954, and there were other awful atrocities in the late ’60s, but the worst happened in the ’80s. There was a really monstrous and almost literal genocide in the Mayan area, specifically under Ríos Montt. By now it has been somewhat recognized by Guatemalan society. In fact, Montt was under trial for some crimes. But the U.S. prohibits people from fleeing here. The Obama administration has pressured Mexico to keep them away from the Mexican border, so that they don’t succeed in reaching U.S. borders. Pretty much the same thing Europeans have done to Turks and Syrians.


JM: Actually, under international law children should not, in principle, be detained when crossing a non-neighboring country’s border. The American Homeland Security Act of 2002 recognizes the same rights. However, this basic law has been broken many times.


Chomsky: A lot of countries break (or go against) the international law… There had been a free and open election in Haiti in the early 1990s and president Jean-Bertrand Aristide won, a populist priest. A few months later came the expected military coup—a very vicious military junta took over, of which the United States was passively supportive. Not openly, of course, but Haitians started to flee from the terror, and they sent them back and on towards Guantanamo Bay. Of course, that is against International Law. But the United States pretended that they were “economic refugees.”


The Spanish War in the basis of Chomsky’s thinking


JM: Let’s go back very quickly to your contact with the Spanish anarchists. How important was the Spanish Civil War for your social thinking and activism?


Chomsky: Quite important. Actually, my first article…


JM: You wrote that article when you were eleven years old.


Chomsky: Ten, actually. It wasn’t about the anarchists; it was about the fall of Barcelona and the spread of fascism over Europe, which was frightening. But a couple of years later I became interested in the anarchist movement.


I had relatives in New York City who I stayed with. And in those days, the area from Union Square down Fourth Avenue had small bookstores, many of which were run by Spanish immigrants who’d fled after Franco’s victory. I spent time in them, and also in the offices of Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Worker’s Voice) with anarchists. I picked up a lot of material and talked to people, and it became a major influence. When I wrote about the Spanish Civil War many years later, I used documents that I picked up when I was a child, as a lot hadn’t been published (a lot more resources are available now). I also learned from reading the left-wing press about the Roosevelt administration’s indirect support for Francisco Franco, which was not well known, and still isn’t.


JM: Apparently Roosevelt regretted that decision but it was too late and the fact is that many other big companies like ALCOA, GM, and Texaco were crucial for the defeat of the Second Republic—the only democratic experiment in Spain after centuries if we don’t consider the almost nonexistent First Republic during the nineteenth century. Many big companies collaborated with the Nazis and Franco.


Chomsky:  It was reported in the left-wing press in the late 1930s that the Texas Company (Texaco), headed by the Nazi sympathizer Torkild Rieber, diverted its oil shipments from the Republic, with which it had contracts, to Franco. The State Department denied they knew about it but years later admitted it to be true. You can read it in history books now, but they often suppress the fact that the U.S. government tolerated it. It’s really remarkable because they claim that Roosevelt was impeded by the Neutrality Act. On the other hand, he bitterly condemned a Mexican businessman for sending several guns to the Republic. If you look back, oil was the one commodity that Franco could not receive from the Germans and the Italians, so that was quite significant.


JM: All of that sounds familiar.


Chomsky:  During the terrorist regime in Haiti in the 1990s, the CIA, under the administration of Bill Clinton, was reporting to Congress that oil shipments had been blocked from entering Haiti. That was just a lie. I was there. You could see the oil terminals being built and the ships coming in. And it turned out that Clinton had authorized Texaco, the same company, to illegally ship oil to the military junta during a time that we supposedly were opposing the military junta and supporting democracy instead.


Same company, same story, but the press wouldn’t report it. They must have known it. If you look at the Associated Press wires, there’s a constant flow of information coming in. At that time I happened to have direct access to AP wires. The day the marines landed in Haiti and restored Aristide there was a lot of excitement about the dedication to democracy and so on. But the day before the marines landed, when every journalist was looking at Haiti because it was assumed that something big was happening, the AP wires reported that the Clinton administration had authorized Texaco to ship oil illegally to the military junta. I wrote an article about the marine landing right away, but barely mentioned that, because my article would come out two months later and I assumed by then, “of course, everybody knows.” Nobody knew. There was a news report in the Wall Street Journal, in the petroleum journals, and in some small newspapers, but not in the mainstream press. And it was kind of a repeat of what happened in the late ’30s but this was under Clinton, mind you. These are some pretty ugly stories—not ancient history.


JM: Do you think the Spanish anarchists’ experience, had they not been destroyed by Franco, could be used as an example of a third position (to Stalinism, fascism, and Western capitalism)?


Chomsky: Well, the communists were mainly responsible for the destruction of the Spanish anarchists. Not just in Catalonia—the communist armies mainly destroyed the collectives elsewhere. The communists basically acted as the police force of the security system of the Republic and were very much opposed to the anarchists, partially because Stalin still hoped at that time to have some kind of pact with Western countries against Hitler. That, of course, failed and Stalin withdrew the support to the Republic. They even withdrew the Spanish gold reserves.


JM: The fourth largest in the world.


Chomsky: But before that, the anarchist movement was one of their main enemies… There’s an interesting question, whether the anarchists had alternatives. If they did tend to support the government that had been destroyed, what were the alternatives? There was actually a proposal by Camillo Berneri, an Italian anarchist who was in Spain at the time, which is not a crazy notion in my opinion. He opposed participation in government and was against the formation of an army, meaning a major army to fight Franco. He said they should resort to guerrilla war. Which has a history in Spain.


JM: Particularly at the beginning of the nineteenth century under the French occupation.


Chomsky: Under Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation, yes. The same method could have been implemented during the Spanish Civil War, a guerrilla war against Franco’s invaders. But Berneri also advocated a political war. Franco’s army was mainly Moorish. They were recruiting people from Morocco to come to Spain. There was an uprising in Morocco at the time led by Abd el-Krim (whose tactics influenced Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara) that sought independence for Morocco and Northern Africa. Berneri proposed that the anarchists should link up with the effort of Northern Africa to overthrow the Spanish government, carry out land reform, attract the base of the Moorish army, and see if they could undermine Franco’s army through political warfare in Northern Africa combined with guerrilla warfare in Spain. Historians laughed at that, but I don’t think they should have. This was the kind of war that might have succeeded in stopping Spanish fascism.


JM: There were few other successful cases of guerrilla resistance in the world.


Chomsky: There are cases, for example the American Revolution. George Washington’s army lost just about every battle with the British, who had a much better army. The war was basically won by guerrilla forces that managed to undermine the British occupation. The American Revolution was a small part of a major world war going on between France and England, so the French intervened and that was a big factor, but the domestic contribution was basically guerrilla warfare. George Washington hated the guerrillas. He wanted to imitate the British red coat armies, fighting as gentlemen are supposed to fight. There are very interesting books about these events, for instance one by a very well-known American historian named William R. Polk called Violent Politics. It’s a record of what are basically guerrilla wars from the American Revolution right up through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He discusses the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon and other cases where the conflict turns into a political war, and the invader, who usually has overwhelming power, loses because they can’t fight the political war. Against this kind of background, I don’t think that the Berneri proposal was that absurd.



Our conversation continued informally on other topics: the most important human intellectual capability, the language, which made possible communication, art, and liberation, at the same time made it possible deceiving and consciousness oppression; the current most serious threats to human existence according to him: atomic weapons and the ecologic catastrophe.

In a copy of the original edition of Syntactic Structures of 1957 (book that is considered the most influential in cognitive sciences of the 20th century and one of the most important one hundred books ever published) he wrote for me the legendary sentence “Colorless green ideas dream furiously”, the equivalent to E=mc2 for Linguistics and, below, he added with humor: “Revolutionary new ideas appear infrequently”.

I gave him Memory of Fire by my dear friend Eduardo Galeano, who died almost one year before, and Chomsky remembered him with affection. Right or wrong, both men taught generations to never accept Stockholm syndrome, to never be accomplice to the crimes of arbitrary powers. Both men taught us that memory and history not always are the same thing. And because of that, both –like Galileo, like Einstein– were equally hatred and labeled as “idiots” –in vain.




A child of Uruguayan military dictatorship (1973-1985), Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan-American writer who obtained his PhD from the University of Georgia. He is the author of numerous books and essay collections, including The Eternal Return of Quetzalcoatl and the novels The Queen of AmericaThe City of the Moon, and Crisis. He currently teaches Latin American Literature and International Studies at Jacksonville University in Florida. His upcoming novel is called Tequila

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 Fall of an Empire

Bartolome de las casas

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Cómo se derrumba un imperio (Spanish)

The Fall of an Empire

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

February 2006.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

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

Propaganda and the Myth of Reconquest

Diego Rivera

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Propaganda and the Myth of Reconquest

By Jorge Majfud

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Culture of Hate

The Culture of Hate

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

Universal Pedagogy of Obedience

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

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

Revolution and Reaction

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

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

The Grand Reactionary Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exits from the Labyrinth

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

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

© Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia, November 2006.

Translated by Bruce Campbell


Humanism, the West’s Last Great Utopia

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at Bal...

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El humanismo, la última gran utopía de Occidente (Spanish)

Humanism, the West’s Last Great Utopia

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia

One of the characteristics of conservative thought throughout modern history has been to see the world as a collection of more or less independent, isolated, and incompatible compartments.   In its discourse, this is simplified in a unique dividing line: God and the devil, us and them, the true men and the barbaric ones.  In its practice, the old obsession with borders of every kind is repeated: political, geographic, social, class, gender, etc.  These thick walls are raised with the successive accumulation of two parts fear and one part safety.

Translated into a postmodern language, this need for borders and shields is recycled and sold as micropolitics, which is to say, a fragmented thinking (propaganda) and a localist affirmation of  social problems in opposition to a more global and structural vision of the Modern Era gone by.

These regions are mental, cultural, religious, economic and political, which is why they find themselves in conflict with humanistic principles that prescribe the recognition of diversity at the same time as an implicit equality on the deepest and most valuable level of the present chaos. On the basis of this implicit principle arose the aspiration to sovereignty of the states some centuries ago: even between two kings, there could be no submissive relationship; between two sovereigns there could only be agreements, not obedience.  The wisdom of this principle was extended to the nations, taking written form in the first constitution of the United States.  Recognizing common men and women as subjects of law (“We the people…”) was the response to personal and class-based absolutisms, summed up in the outburst of Luis XIV, “l’Etat c’est Moi.”  Later, the humanist idealism of the first draft of that constitution was relativized, excluding the progressive utopia of abolishing slavery.

Conservative thought, on the other hand, traditionally has proceeded in an inverse form: if the regions are all different, then there are some that are better than others.  This last observation would be acceptable for humanism if it did not contain explicitly  one of the basic principles of conservative thought: our island, our bastion is always the best.  Moreover: our region is the region chosen by God and, therefore, it should prevail at any price.  We know it because our leaders receive in their dreams the divine word.  Others, when they dream, are delirious.

Thus, the world is a permanent competition that translates into mutual threats and, finally, into war.  The only option for the survival of the best, of the strongest, of the island chosen by God is to vanquish, annihilate the other.  There is nothing strange in the fact that conservatives throughout the world define themselves as religious individuals and, at the same time, they are the principal defenders of weaponry, whether personal or governmental.  It is, precisely, the only they tolerate about the State: the power to organize a great army in which to place all of the honor of a nation.  Health and education, in contrast, must be “personal responsibilities” and not a tax burden on the wealthiest.  According to this logic, we owe our lives to the soldiers, not to the doctors, just like the workers owe their daily bread to the rich

At the same time that the conservatives hate Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, they are radical partisans of the law of the survival of the fittest, not applied to all species but to men and women, to countries and societies of all kinds.  What is more Darwinian than the roots of corporations and capitalism?

For the suspiciously celebrated professor of Harvard, Samuel Huntington, “imperialism is the logic and necessary consequence of universalism.”  For us humanists, no: imperialism is just the arrogance of one region that imposes itself by force on the rest, it is the annihilation of that universality, it is the imposition of uniformity in the name of universality.

Humanist universality is something else: it is the progressive maturation of a consciousness of liberation from physical, moral and intellectual slavery, of both the opressed and the oppressor in the final instant.  And there can be no full consciousness if it is not global: one region is not liberated by oppressing the others, woman is not liberated by oppressing man, and so on.  With a certain lucidity but without moral reaction, Huntington himself reminds us: “The West did not conquer the world through the superiority of its ideas, values or religion, but through its superiority in applying organized violence.  Westerners tend to forget this fact, non-Westerners never forget it.”

Conservative thought also differs from progressive thought because of its conception of history: if for the one history is inevitably degraded (as in the ancient religious conception or in the conception of the five metals of Hesiod) for the other it is a process of advancement or of evolution.  If for one we live in the best of all possible worlds, although always threatened by changes, for the other the world is far from being the image of paradise and justice, for which reason individual happiness is not possible in the midst of others’ pain.

For progressive humanism there are no healthy individuals in a sick society, just as there is no healthy society that includes sick individuals.  A healthy man is no possible with a grave problem of the liver or in the heart, like a healthy heart is not possible in a depressed or schizophrenic man.  Although a rich man is defined by his difference from the poor, nobody is truly rich when surrounded by poverty.

Humanism, as we conceive of it here, is the integrating evolution of human consciousness that transcends cultural differences.  The clash of civilizations, the wars stimulated by sectarian, tribal and nationalist interests can only be viewed as the defects of that geopsychology.

Now, we should recognize that the magnificent paradox of humanism is double: 1) it consisted of a movement that in great measure arose from the Catholic religious orders of the 14th century and later discovered a secular dimension of the human creature, and in addition 2) was a movement which in principle revalorized the dimension of man as an individual in order to achieve, in the 20th century, the discovery of society in its fullest sense.

I refer, on this point, to the conception of the individual as opposed to individuality, to the alienation of man and woman in society.  If the mystics of the 14th century focused on their self as a form of liberation, the liberation movements of the 20th century, although apparently failed, discovered that that attitude of the monastery was not moral from the moment it became selfish: one cannot be fully happy in a world filled with pain.  Unless it is the happiness of the indifferent.  But it is not due to some type of indifference toward another’s pain that morality of any kind is defined in any part of the world.  Even monasteries and the most closed communities, traditionally have been given the luxury of separation from the sinful world thanks to subsidies and quotas that originated from the sweat of the brow of sinners.  The Amish in the United States, for example, who today use horses so as not to contaminate themselves with the automotive industry, are surrounded by materials that have come to them, in one form or another, through a long mechanical process and often from the exploitation of their fellow man.  We ourselves, who are scandalized by the exploitation of children in the textile mills of India or on plantations in Africa and Latin America, consume, in one form or another, those products.  Orthopraxia would not eliminate the injustices of the world – according to our humanist vision – but we cannot renounce or distort that conscience in order to wash away our regrets.  If we no longer expect that a redemptive revolution will change reality so that the latter then changes consciences, we must still try, nonetheless, not to lose collective and global conscience in order to sustain a progressive change, authored by nations and not by a small number of enlightened people.

According to our vision, which we identify with the latest stage of humanism, the individual of conscience cannot avoid social commitment: to change society so that the latter may give birth, at each step, to a new, morally superior individual.  The latest humanism evolves in this new utopian dimension and radicalizes some of the principles of the Modern Era gone by, such as the rebellion of the masses.  For which reason we can formulate the dilemma: it is not a matter of left or right but of forward or backward.  It is not a matter of choosing between religion or secularism.  It is a matter of a tension between humanism and tribalism, between a diverse and unitary conception of humanity and another, opposed one: the fragmented and hierarchical vision whose purpose is to prevail, to impose the values of one tribe on the others and at the same time to deny any kind of evolution.

This is the root of the modern and postmodern conflict.  Both The End of History and The Clash of Civilizations attempt to cover up what we understand to be the true problem: there is no dichotomy between East and West, between us and them, only between the radicalization of humanism (in its historical sense) and the conservative reaction that still holds world power, although in retreat – and thus its violence.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

The Rebellion of the Readers, Key to Our Century

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523. Oil an...

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La rebelión de los lectores (Spanish)

The Rebellion of the Readers,

Key to Our Century

Jorge Majfud

Among the most frequented sites for tourists in Europe are the Gothic cathedrals.  Gothic spaces, so different from the Romanesque of centuries before, tend to impress us through the subtlety of their aesthetic, something they share with the ancient architecture of the old Arab empire.  Perhaps what is most overlooked is the reason for the reliefs on the facades.  Although the Bible condemns the custom of representing human figures, these abound on the stones, on the walls and on the stained glass.  The reason is, more than aesthetic, symbolic and narrative.

In a culture of illiterates, orality was the mainstay of communication, of history and of social control.  Although Christianity was based on the Scriptures, writing was least abundant.  Just as in our current culture, social power was constructed on the basis of written culture, while the working classes had to resign themselves to listening.  Books were not only rare, almost original pieces, but were jealously guarded by those who administered political power and the politics of God.  Writing and reading were nearly exclusively the patrimony of the nobility; listening and obeying was the function of the masses.  That is to say, the nobility was always noble because the vulgate was very vulgar.  For the same reason, the masses, illiterate, went every Sunday to listen to the priest read and interpret sacred texts at his whim – the official whim – and confirm the truth of these interpretations in another kind of visual interpretation: the icons and relief sculptures that illustrated the sacred history on the walls of stone.

The oral culture of the Middle Ages begins to change in that moment we call Humanism and that is more commonly taught as the Renaissance.  The demand for written texts is accelerated long before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450.  In fact, Gutenberg did not invent the printing press, but a technique for movable type that accelerated even more this process of reproduction of texts and massification of readers.  The invention was a technical response to a historical need.  This is the century of the emigration of Turkish and Greek scholars to Italy, of the travel by Europeans to the Middle East without the blindness of a new crusade. Perhaps, it is also the moment in which Western and Christian culture turns toward the humanism that survives today, while Islamic culture, which had been characterized by this same humanism and by plurality of non-religious knowledge, makes an inverse, reactionary turn.

The following century, the 16th, would be the century of the Protestant Reform.  Although centuries later it would become a conservative fore, it birth – like the birth of all religion – arises from a rebellion against authority.  In this case, against the authority of the Vatican.  Luther, however, is not the first to exercise this rebellion, but the humanist Catholics themselves who were disillusioned and in disagreement with the arbitrariness of the Church’s political power.  This disagreement was justified by the corruption of the Vatican, but it is likely that the difference was rooted in a new way of perceiving an old theocratic order.

Protestantism, as the word itself says, is – was – a disobedient response to an established power.  One of its particularities was the radicalization of written culture over oral culture, the independence of the reader instead of the obedient listener.  Not only was the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the sacred texts, questioned; the authority of the sermon moved to the direct, or almost direct, reading of the sacred text that had been translated into vulgar languages, the languages of the people.  The use of a dead language like Latin confirmed the hermetic elitism of religion (philosophy and science would abandon this usage long before).  From this moment on, the oral tradition of Catholicism will continually lose strength and authority.  It will have, nevertheless, several rebirths, especially in Franco’s Spain.  Professor of ethics José Luis Aranguren, for example, who made a number of progressive historical observations, was not free from the strong tradition that surrounded him.  In Catolicismo y protestantismo como formas de existencia (Catholicism and Protestantism as Forms of Existence) he was explicit: “Christianity should not be a ‘reader’ but a ‘listener’ of the Word, and ‘hearing it’ is a much as ‘living it.’” (1952)

We can understand that the culture of orality and obedience had a revival with the invention of the radio and of television.  Let’s remember that the radio was the principal instrument of the Nazis in Germany of the pre-war period.  Film and other techniques of spectacle were also important, although in lesser measure.  Almost nobody had read that mediocre little book called Mein Campf (its original title was Against Lying, Stupidity and Cowardice) but everyone participated in the media explosion that was produced with the expansion of radio.  During the entire 20th century, first film and later television were the omnipresent channels of US culture.  Because of them, not only was an aesthetic modeled but, through this aesthetic, an ethics and an ideology, the capitalist ideology.

In great measure, we can consider the 20th century to be a regression to the culture of the cathedrals: orality and the use of the image as means for narrating history, the present and the future.  News media, more than informative have been and continue to be formative of opinion, true pulpits – in form and in content – that describe and interpret a reality that is difficult to question.  The idea of the objective camera is almost uncontestable, like in the Middle Ages when no one or very few opposed the true existence of demons and fantastical stories represented on the stones of the cathedrals.

In a society where the governments depend on popular support, the creation and manipulation of public opinion is more important and must be more sophisticated than in a crude dictatorship.  It is for this reason that television news media have become a battlefield where only one side is armed.  If the main weapons in this war are the radio and television channels, their munitions are the ideolexicons.  For example, the ideolexicon radical, which is encountered with a negative value, must always be applied, by association and repetition, to the opponent.  What is paradoxical is that radical thought is condemned – all serious thought is radical – at the same time that a radical action is promoted against that supposed radicalism.  That is to say, one stigmatizes the critics that go beyond politically correct thinking when these critics point out the violence of a radical action, such as a war, a coup d’etat, the militarization of a society, etc.  In the old dictatorships of our America, for example, the custom was to persecute and assassinate every journalist, priest, activist or unionist identified as radical.  To protest or throw stones was the behavior of radicals; torturing and killing in a systematic manner was the main resource of the moderates.  Today, throughout the world, official discourse speaks of radicals when referring to anyone who disagrees with official ideology.

Nothing in history happens by chance, even though causes are located more in the future than in the past.  It is not by accident that today we are entering into a new era of written culture that is, in great measure, the main instrument of intellectual disobedience of the nations.  Two centuries ago reading meant a lecture or sermon from the pulpit; today it is the opposite: to read means an effort at interpretation, and a text is no longer only a piece of writing but any symbolic organization of reality that transmits and conceals values and meanings.

One of the principal physical platforms for that new attitude is the Internet, and its procedure consists of beginning to rewrite history at the margins of the traditional media of visual imposition.  Its chaos is only apparent.  Although the Intenet also includes images and sounds, these are no longer products that are received but symbols that are searched for and produced in an exercise of reading.

In the measure that the economic powers that be, corporations of all kinds, lose their monopoly on the production of works of art – like film – or the production of that other genre of school desk fiction, the daily sermon where the meaning of reality is managed – the so-called news media – individuals and nations begin to develop a more critical awareness, which naturally is a disobedient state of mind.  Perhaps in the future, we might even be speaking of the end of national empires and the inefficacy of military force.  This new culture leads to a progressive inversion of social control: top-down control is converted to the more democratic control from the bottom up.  The so-called democratic governments and the old style dictatorships do not tolerate this because they are democratic or benevolent but because direct censorship of a process that is unstoppable is not convenient to them.  They can only limit themselves to reacting and delaying as long as possible, by recourse to the old tool of physical violence, the downfall of their sectarian empires.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

Violence of the Master, Violence of the Slave

A Bolivian aymara woman praying

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Violencia del amo, violencia del esclavo (English)

Violence of the Master, Violence of the Slave

Jorge Majfud

For some reason, the phrase “violence begets violence” was popularized the world over at the same time that its implicit meaning was kept restricted to the violence of the oppressed.  That is to say, the master’s violence over the slave is invisible in a state of slavery, just as in a state of oppression the force that sustains it uses every(ideological) means in order not to lose this category of invisibility or – in case of exposure– of naturalness.

Within that invisible or natural frame, the Cuban slave Juan Manzano referred nostalgically to his first masters: “I had there the same Madam Joaquina who treated me like a child, she would dress me, groom me and take care that I not come in contact with the other little black boys at the same table like when with the Marquess Lady Justis I was given my plate at the feet of my Lady the Marquess.”  Then the bad times came, when the young Juan was punished by imprisonment, hunger and torture.  Once the punishment was finished, he ate “without measure” and for this sin he was punished again.  “Not a few times have I suffered by the hand of a black man vigorous whippings,” he recalled in his Autobiography of a Slave (1839), which proves the perfection of the oppression even in a primitive state of production and education.

This type of slavery was abolished in the written laws of almost all of Latin America in the early 19th century.  But slavery of the same kind was continued in practice until the 20th century.  The Ecuadorian Juan Montalvo warned that “the indians are free by law, but how can one deny it? They are slaves by abuse and custom.”  And then: “they give him the stick so he will remember and return for another beating.  And the indian returns, because that is his condition, that when he is whipped, trembling on the ground, he gets up thanking his tormenter: ‘Diu su lu pagui, amu.’ [God bless you, Master] Races oppressed and reviled for three hundred years need eight hundred more to return to themselves.”

For his part, the Bolivian Alcides Arguedas, in Pueblo enfermo (A Sick People, 1909), recognized that the landed elite of his country refused to develop the freight train because the indians carried their harvests from one region to another for free and, as if that were not enough, the honesty of the indians made them incapable of stealing someone else’s oxen.  This example alone would be enough to demonstrate that the ideologies of the dominant classes insinuate themselves into the morality of the oppressed (the way the fact that an illiterate might handle complex grammatical rules demonstrates the existence of an unconscious knowledge). Another Arguedas, the Peruvian José María Arguedas, left us a living portrait of this culture of the indian-servant, the unsalaried freed slave, in Los ríos profundos (Deep Rivers, 1958).

According to the Bolivian Alcides Arguedas, the soldiers would take the indians by the hair and drag them off under threat of the saber to clean their barracks, or steal their sheep in order to maintain army troops as they passed through.  So that it be clear to us that oppression makes use of all possible institutions, in the same book we read a citation from the period which informed, with reference to one of those condemned by history, that “the ox and his seven year old son are impounded by the priest due to the rights of the burial of his wife.”  And further along: “Exasperated, dispirited, physically and morally spent, incapable of attempting the violent assertion of its rights, the indigenous race has given itself over to alcoholism in alarming fashion.  […] The indian is never seen laughing except when he is inebriated.  […] His soul is a repository of rancor accumulated from long ago, since the moment when, the flower of the race sealed up, against its will, in the depth of the mines, he rapidly withered, without provoking mercy in anyone. […] Today, ignorant, degraded, miserable, he is the object of general exploitation and general antipathy.”  Until one day he explodes “listening to his soul replete with hatreds, vents his passions and robs, kills, murders with atrocious brutality.”  And since violence cannot occur with impunity, “the soldiers go out well munitioned; they shoot down as many as they can; they rob, rape, spread fear and terror wherever they go.”  In this culture of oppression, the woman can be no better: “rough and awkward, she feels loved when beaten by the male; otherwise, for her a man has no value.”

A year later, in various articles appearing in daily newspapers of La Paz and collected in the book Creación de la pedagogía nacional (Creation of National Pedagogy), Franz Tamayo responds to some of Arguedas’ conclusions and confirms others:  “work, justice, glory, it is all lies, it is all lies in Bolivia; everyone lies, except the one who does not speak, the one who works and is silent: the indian.”  Then: “Even whites of a certain category spoke of a divine curse, and the priests of the small towns and villages spread rumors among their ignorant indian parishioners of God’s anger at the fallen race and his desire to make it disappear due to its lack of obedience, submissiveness and obsequiousness.” (1910)  Needless to say, instead of Bolivia we could write the name of any other Latin American country and we would not do violence to the truth of the statement.

The master is visualized as a pure and generous being when he concedes an unusual benefit to the slave, as if he possessed a divine power to administer the rights of another.  Perhaps we might accept a certain kindness of the oppressor if we were to consider a particular context.  The point is that we do not demand of the old feudal subjects that they think like us; we demand from ourselves that we not think like the old feudal subjects, as if there existed no historical experience in between.

From a humanistic point of view, the violence of the slave is always engendered by the violence of the master and not the other way around.  But when we impose the idea that the violence of the slave engenders more violence, we are equating what is not equal in order to maintain an order that, in fact and in its discourse, denies the very notion of human equality.

For this reason, just as during the mid-twentieth century reactionaries of all kinds associated, strategically, racial integration with communism in order to justify apartheid as a social system, today also they associate humanist principles with a specific left politics.  Conservatives cannot comprehend that part of their so frequently mentioned personal responsibility is to think globally and collectively.  Otherwise, personal responsibility is just selfishness, which is to say, moral irresponsibility.

If as recently as 1972 Rene Dubos coined the famous phrase, “Think globally, act locally,” reactionary thought has always practiced an inverse moral formula: “Think locally, act globally.”  In other words, think provincially about the interests of your own village, your own class, and act like an imperialist who is going to save civilization as if he were the armed hand of God.

If the masters insist so much on the benefits of competition, why do they demand so much cooperation from the slaves?  Because one needs something more than all the weapons in the world in order to force an entire people into submission: it is the demoralization of the oppressed, the ideology of the master, the fear of the slave and the collaboration of the rest of the people that functions as the fulcrum for the lever of oppression.  Otherwise, one could not comprehend how a few thousand Spanish adventurers conquered, dominated millions of Incans and Aztecs and destroyed centuries old sophisticated cultures.

In many moments of history, from the so-called independence of the American countries to the liberation of the slaves, frequently the only solution was the use of violence.  It remains to be determined whether this resource is always effective or, on occasion, only aggravates the initial problem.

I suspect that there exists historically a coefficient of critical progression that depends on the material possibilities of the moment – technical and economic – and on the mental, moral and cultural maturity of a people.  An ideal state for humanism, in accordance with its development since the 15th century, should be a perfectly anarchic social state.  Nevertheless, to pretend to eliminate the force and violence of the State without having achieved the requisite technical and moral development, would not make us advance toward that utopia but rather the opposite; we would be set back several centuries.  Both a revolutionary advance that aims to by-pass that parameter of critical progression and a conservative reaction lead us to the historical frustration of humanity as a whole. I am afraid that there are recent examples in Latin America where the oppressor even organized the violence of the oppressed in order to legitimate and conserve the oppressor’s privileges.  This refinement of the techniques of domination has a purpose.   At a point in history when the population counts, not only in systems of representative democracy but, even, in some dictatorships, the construction of public opinion is a key chess piece, the most important, in the strategy of the dominant elites.  Not by accident was the poorly-named universalization of the vote in the 19th century a way of maintaining the status quo: with scarce instruction, the population was easy to manipulate, especially easy when it believed that the caudillos were elected by them and not by a previously constructed discourse of the oligarchy, a discourse that included ideolexicons like, fatherland, honor, order and freedom.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

The Repressed History of the United States

Robert R. Livingston

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La historia reprimida de Estados Unidos (Spanish)


The Repressed History of the United States

Revolution, Egalitarianism and Anti-imperialism

By Jorge Majfud


Taking advantage of another anniversary of the birth of George Washington, president George W. Bush used the occasion to compare the American Revolution of the 18th century with the war in Iraq.  In passing he recalled that the first president, like the latest, had been “George W.”

The technique of associations is proper to advertising.  In accordance with the latter, a fast food chain promotes itself with thin, happy young people or a mouse like Mickey is identified with the police and the legal order, while the only character from this “natural” world that dresses like a worker, the Wolf, is presented as a criminal.  Direct associations are so effective that they even permit the use of the observation of the conical shadow that the Earth projects on the Moon as proof that the Earth is square.  When the defenders of private enterprise mention the great feat of the businessman who managed to complete a space trip in 2004, they exercise the same dialectical acrobatics.  Is this an example in favor of or against private sector efficacy?  Because neither Sputnik nor any of the flights and missions carried out by NASA since 1950 were anything other than achievements of governmental organization.

But let’s get to the main point.

An implicit reading accepts as a fact that the United States is a conservative country, refractory of all popular revolution, an imperial, capitalist monolith, constructed by its successful class – which is to say, by its upper class – from the top down.  Ergo, those engines of material progress must be conserved here and copied over there in other realities, for good or for bad, in order to provoke the same happy effects.  These implicit understandings have been consolidated within the national borders by the omnipresent apparatuses of private diffusion and simultaneously confirmed outside by their very detractors.

Let’s see just how fallacious this is.

If we re-read history, we will find that the American Revolution (financed in part by the other power, France) was an anti-imperialist and egalitarian revolution.  Not only was it a violent revolution against the empire of the other George, the king of England, against this empire’s theft via foreign exchange designed to finance its own wars, but also against the vertical structures of absolutist, aristocratic and estate-based societies of old Europe.  The United States is born on the basis of a radically revolutionary and progressive ideology.  Its first constitution was the political and institutional materialization of an ideology that well into the 20th century was condemned by European conservatives as a popular subversion, responsible for the annihilation of all noble tradition, for the exercise of a social practice that was identified as the “devil’s work”: democracy.  The humanist radicalism of the first drafts of that foundational document (like the proposal to abolish slavery) did not materialize due to the pragmatism that always represents conservatives.  Despite which, nevertheless signified a novel and revolutionary proclamation which many famous Latin Americans, from José Artigas to Simón Bolívar, attempted to copy and adapt, ever frustrated by the feudal culture that surrounded them.

Let’s situate ourselves in the second half of the 18th century: the principles of Enlightenment thought, the new ideas about the rights of the individual and of the nations were as subversive as the most socialist thought could have been under the Military Junta headed by Videla or as the thought of a republican surviving under Franco’s regime.  Paradoxically, while in Latin America anyone with a book by Marx in their home was being kidnapped, tortured and killed, in the universities of the United States Marxism was one of the most commonly used instruments of study and analysis, even by his detractors.  Those colonels and soldiers who justified their crimes by accusing the dead of being Marxist, had never in their lives read a single book by the German philosopher.  We might recall that none other than Octavio Paz, one of the clearest and most conservative Mexican intellectuals, never ceased to recognize the lucidity of that current of thought.  One of my professors, Caudio Williman, a conservative politician from my country was, at the same time, a scholar of Marxism, when this doctrine and its mere mention were prohibited because it represented a threat to Western tradition, never mind that Marxist thought was a large part of that same tradition.  Obviously, all with the consent and complacency of Big Brother.

The Spanish Conquest of the American continent was an undeniably imperialist enterprise, carried out by priests and military men, by the loyal servants of Emperor-King Carlos I.  The first goal of its leaders was the extraction of wealth from the subjugated territories and peoples in order to sustain an aristocratic society and in order to finance its endless imperial wars.  For many of the priests, the goal was the expansion of religion and the ecclesiastical dominance of the Catholic Church.  For the soldiers and adventurers, it was the opportunity to make themselves rich and then return to Europe and buy themselves a title of the nobility that would give them prestige and save them from the curse of labor.  The Spanish conquistadors crossed the territory of what today is the United States and left it behind not only because they did not find mineral wealth there but because the indigenous population was scarce.  It made more sense to occupy Mexico and Perú.

The first Northamerican colonizers were not free of material ambitions nor were they above the despoiling of native peoples, often recurring to the more subtle conquest through land purchase.  Nevertheless, not a minority, they were dispossessed people who fled from the oppressions and absolutisms – religious and of the state – of the societies that resisted change: many migratory movements were motivated by the new dreams of collectivist utopias.  For the majority, to colonize meant to appropriate a small portion of land in order to work it and put down one’s roots there.  From the beginning, this distribution was infinitely more egalitarian than that which was produced in the South.  In Hispanic America, an iron willed economic monopoly was imposed and a stratified and semifeudal society was reproduced, where the boss, the strongman or the landed elite had at their disposal extensions of land as vast as any province in Europe.  Only the southern states of the United States could compare to the social, moral and economic system of Brazil or of the Caribbean, but we know that this system – although not its moral values – was defeated in the War of Secession (1861-1865) by the northern representatives of the century to come.

Within the Latin American fiefdoms the indigenous and African peoples and immigrant workers remained trapped, condemned to exploitation and to working someone else’s land for someone else’s benefit.  Nothing less egalitarian, nothing less revolutionary, nothing less imperialist than this old system which would serve in turn the new empires.  It should not seem strange, therefore, that in Latin American there would persist so many “dangerous subversives” who demanded agrarian reforms (recall the two Mexican revolutions, separated by a century), revolutionary movements of every kind who all called themselves movements of liberation, intellectuals who in their overwhelming majority positioned themselves on the left of the political spectrum because power was rooted in the dominant, conservative classes of a vertical order that favored private interests and defended these with every resource at hand: the Army, the Church, the State, the media of the press, public moral instruction, etc.

One cannot say that the United States emerged as a capitalist country while Latin American suffered the curse of a socialist ideology, or anything of the kind.  No, quite the contrary.  This fact is forgotten due to later history and the interests that dominate economic power in the present.  The rapid development of the United States was not based on economic liberalism nor on capitalist speculation.  It was based on the greater equality of its citizens which was expressed as ideology in the country’s founding and as politics in some of the country’s more democratic institutions, on the law and not on the unpredictable and uncontestable will of the Viceroy, of the Censor, or of the caudillo.  That is to say, democratic egalitarianism made possible and multiplied the development of a nation freed from monopolies and bureaucratic arbitrariness; rebelliously opposed to spoliation by the empire of the moment.  The United States did not become a world power through having been an empire, instead it became an empire through its great initial development.

The result might be paradoxical, but we cannot deny that the initial engine was precisely those values that today are held in contempt or attributed to the failure of other nations: the liberation of the people through an anti-imperialist revolution, the egalitarianism of its ideology, in its practice of workshops, from its foundational economy to the more recent technical revolutions like Microsoft or Hewlett Packard.  All values that are coherent with the humanistic wave initiated centuries before.


Translated by Bruce Campbell


The Colonization of Patriotisms

Juan Carlos Onetti

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La colonización intra-nacional de los patriotismos (Spanish)

The Intra-national Colonization of Patriotisms


Jorge Majfud


Once, in a high school class, we asked the teacher why she never talked about Juan Carlos Onetti.  The answer was blunt: that gentleman had received everything from Uruguay (education, fame) and “he had left” for Spain to speak ill of his own country.  That is, an entire country was identified with a government and an ideology, excluding and demoralizing everything else.

Implicitly, it is assumed that there exists a unique – true, honorable – form for the nation and of being Uruguayan (Chinese, Argentine, North American, French).  If one is against that particular idea of country, of fatherland (patria), then one is anti-patriotic, one is a traitor.

A fundamental requirement for the construction of a tradition is memory.  But never all memory, because there is no tradition without forgetting.  Forgetting – always more vast – is indispensable for the adequation of a determined memory to the present-day powers that need to legitimate themselves through a tradition.  If we assume that national symbols and myths are not imposed by God, we are left with no other remedy than to suspect earthly powers.  Which is to say, a tradition is not simple and innocent memory but convenient memory.  The latter tends to be crystalized in symbols and sacred cows, and there is nothing less objective than symbols and cows.

In the Spain of Isabel and Fernando, exclusion was the basis for a previously non-existent fatherland.  The Iberian peninsula was, at the time, the most culturally diverse corner of Europe and comprised of as many countries as the rest of Europe.  Being Spanish became for many, after the Reconquest, an exercise in purification:  one sole language, one sole religion, one sole race.  Almost five hundred years later, Francisco Franco imposed the same idea of nation based at least on the first two categories of purity.  Camilo José Cela recognized it thusly: “Not one single Spaniard is free to see Jewish or Moorish blood run through his veins” (A vueltas con España, 1973); like they say, “nobody is perfect.”  For centuries the intellectuals sought out, obsessively, the “Spanish character,” as if the absence of a concrete character ran the risk of losing the country.  Américo Castro in Los españoles…(1959) observed: “one will not find anything similar to the Spanish fantasy of imagining Spaniards before they existed.”  He then criticized the patriotic writings that praised what was Spanish about Luis Vives, who, even abroad “never forgot Valencia”: he could not forget Valencia because his family, of Jewish origin, had been persecuted and both his parents burned by the Inquisition.  The celebrated priest Manuel García Morente believed that “for the Spanish there is no difference, there is no duality between fatherland and religion” (Idea de la hispanidad, 1947); “there exists no dualism between Caesar and God.”  “Spain is made of Christian faith and Iberian blood.”  “In Spain, Catholic religion constitutes the purpose of a nationality…”  The ultraconservative taste for essences led him to repeated tautologies of this kind: “the patriotic duty” is to be “faithful to the essence of the fatherland.”  Another Spaniard, Julio Caro Baroja (El mito del carácter nacional, 1970), questioned these functional ideas of power: “I consider that everything that speaks of “national character” is a mystical activity.”  “National characters are meant to be established as collective and hereditary.  Thus, at times, one recurs to expressions like ‘bad Spaniard,’ ‘renegade son,’ traitor to the ‘legacy of the fathers’ in order to attack an enemy.”

This strategy of forgetting and exclusion is universal.  We Chileans, Argentines and Uruguayans constructed a tradition to the measure of our own euro-centric and not infrequently racist and genocidal prejudices.  The authors of various ethnic cleansings (Roca, Rivera) are honored even today in the schools and in the names of streets and cities.  Indigenous people were not only expoliated and exterminated; we also ended up whitewashing the memory of the indomitable savages.  Another Spaniard, Américo Castro, reminds us: “When the people are more believers than thinkers […] it becomes unpleasant to doubt.”

Thus, The fatherland is turned into an idea of nation that tends to exclude all other ideas of nation.  For this reason it usually becomes a weapon of negative domination based on the positive sentiments of belonging and familiarity.  In order to consolidate that arbitrariness of traditional power, other semantic instruments are made use of.  Like honor, for example.

Honor is the symbolic tribute that a society imposes, by way of ideological and moral violence, on those individuals who must exercise physical violence in order to defend the sectarian interests of those others who will never risk their own life to do so.  For this reason, a composite and contradictory ideolexicon like “the honor of weapons” has survived for centuries.  There exists no other way to predispose an individual to death for reasons he is in no position to understand or, if he understands them, he is in no position to accept them as his own reasons.  If it is a matter of a soldier (the most common case) the salary will never be sufficient reason to die.  It is necessary to cultivate a motivation beyond death.  In the case of the religious martyr, this function is fulfilled by Paradise; in the case of a secular society that organizes an army through a secular State, there is no alternative but the retribution of an exemplary death: honor, fulfillment of one’s duty, love of country, etc.  All ideolexicons based on positive, unquestionable meanings.

One honors individuals (paradoxically anonymously) because one cannot honor the war that produces seas of nameless dead, nor can one honor the financial and political reasons, the sectarian interests in power.  This is demonstrated when, each day that fallen soldiers are remembered, the motives that led the now heroes to die are never remembered.  One abstracts and decontexualizes in order to consolidate the symbol and confer upon it an absolutely natural character.  It may be that just wars exist (like an action of defense or of liberation), but even so it remains impossible to think that all wars are just or holy.  Then, why is this perturbing element abstracted from the collective conscience?  Any questioning is (must be) interpreted as an affront to the “fallen heroes.”  In this way, the benefit is quadruple: 1) society washes its sins and its bad conscience; 2) the victims of the absurd receive a moral gratification and meaning for their own disgrace; 3) any radical questioning of the sense of past wars is prevented; and 4) a loan is secured against stock for wars yet to come – for a few but in the name of all.


Translated by Bruce Campbell


An Imperial Democracy

Parthenon from west

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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)

One Bolivia, White and Wealthy

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Una sola Bolivia, blanca y próspera (Spanish)


One Bolivia, White and Wealthy


The rapid Conquest of Amerindia would have been impossible without the Mesoamerican and Andean cosmology. Otherwise two mature empires, with millions of inhabitants and brave armies would never have succumbed to the madness of a handful of Spaniards. But it was also possible due to the new adventurer and warrior spirit of the medieval culture of a Spanish Crown victorious in the Reconquest of Spain, and the new capitalist spirit of the Rennaissance. From a strictly military point of view, neither Cortés nor Pizarro would be remembered today if it had not been for the bad faith of two empires such as the Aztec of Moctezuma and the Incan of Atahualpa. Both knew they were illegitimate and this weighed upon them in a manner that it weighs upon no modern governor.

The Spaniards first conquered these imperial heads or crushed them and cut them off in order to replace them with puppet chiefs, privileging the old native aristocracy, a story that may seem very familiar to any peripheral nation of the 21st century.

The principal strategic legacy of this history was progressive social and geographic division. While at first the cultural revolution of the United States, based on utopian theories, was admired and then later simply its muscular power, which resulted from unions and annexations, the America of the south proceeded with the inverse method of divisions. Thus were destroyed the dreams of those today called liberators, like Simón Bolívar, José Artigas or San Martín. Thus Central America and South America exploded into the fragments of tiny nations. This fragmentation was convenient for the nascent empires of the Industrial Revolution and of the celebrated Creole caudillismo, whereby a chief representative of the feudal agrarian culture would impose himself above the law and humanist progress in order to rescue the prosperity of his class, which he confused with the prosperity of the new country. Paradoxically, as in the imperial democracy of the Athens of Pericles, both the British and American empires were administered differently, as representative democracies. Paradoxically, while the discourse of the wealthy classes in Latin America was imposing the ideolexicon “patriotism,” their practice consisted in serving foreign interests, their own as minority interests, and submitting to exploitation, expropriation and contempt a social majority that were strategically considered minorities.

In Bolivia the indigenous people were always a minority. Minority in the daily newspapers, in the universities, in the majority of Catholic schools, in the public image, in politics, in television. The problem stemmed from the fact that that minority was easily more than half of the invisible population. Somewhat like how today black men and women are called a minority in the southern United States, where they total more than fifty percent. To disguise that the fact that the Bolivian ruling class was the ethnic minority of a democratic population, one pretended that an indigenous person, in order to be one, had to wear feathers on their head and speak the Aymara of the 16th century, before the contamination of the colonial period. Since this phenomenon is impossible in any nation and in any moment of history, they were then denied Amerindian citizenship for the sin of impurity. For that, the best resource now consists of systematic mockery in well-publicized books: they mock those who would claim their Amerindian lineage for speaking Spanish and for doing so over the Internet or on a cellular telephone. By contrast, it is never demanded of a good Frenchman or of a traditional Japanese that they urinate behind an orange tree like in Versailles or that their woman walk behind them with her head lowered. Which is to say, the Amerindian peoples are out of place except in the museum and in dances for tourists. They have no right to progress, that thing which is not an invention of any developed nation but of Humanity throughout its history.

Bolivia’s recent separatist referenda – let’s dispense with the euphemism – are part of a long tradition, which demonstrates that the ability to retain the past is not the exclusive property of those who refuse to progress but those who consider themselves the vanguard of civilizing progress.

If medieval (which is to say, pre-humanist) cultures and ideologies defended until recently with blood in the eyes and in their political and religious sermons differences of class, of race, and of gender as part of nature or of divine right and now they have change their discourse, it is not because they have progressed thanks to their own tradition but despite that tradition. They have had no other recourse than to recognize and even try to appropriate ideolexicons like “freedom,” “equality,” “diversity,” “minority rights,” etc. in order to legitimate and extend a contrary practice. If democracy was an “invention of the devil” until the mid-20th century, according to this feudal mentality, today not even the most fascist would be capable of declaring it in a public square. On the contrary, their method consists of repeating this word in association with contrary muscular practices until it is emptied of meaning.

It is easy to point out why one patriotism or nationalism can be fascist and the other humanist: one imposes the difference of its muscular power and the other claims the right to equality. But since we only have one word and within it are mixed all of the historical circumstances, we usually condemn or praise indiscriminately.

Now, the muscular power of the oppressor is not sufficient; the moral defect of the oppressed is also necessary. Not long ago a Miss Bolivia – with some traces of indigenous features for an outer glance – complained that her country was recognized for its cholas (indigenous women) when in reality there were other parts of the country where the women were prettier. This is the same mentality as an impure man named Domingo Sarmiento in the 19th century and the majority of the educators of the period.

Military colonialism has given way to political colonialism and the latter has passed the baton to cultural colonialism. This is why a government composed of ethnic groups historically repudiated at home and abroad not only must contend with the practical difficulties of a world dominated by and made to order for the capitalist system, whose only flag is the interest and benefit of financial classes, but also must struggle with centuries of prejudice, racism, sexism and classism that are encrusted beneath every pore of the skin of every inhabitant of this sleeply America.

As a reaction to this reality, those who oppose it take recourse to the same method of raising up the caudillos, individual men or women who must be defended vigorously. From the point of view of humanist analysis, this is a mistake. However, if we consider that the progress of history – when it is possible – is also moved by political changes, then one would have to recognize that the theory of the intellectual must make concessions to the practice of the politician. Nevertheless, again, even though we might suspend this warning, we must not forget that there is no humanist progress through struggling eternally with the instruments of an old, oppressive and anti-humanist tradition.

But first things first: Bolivia cannot be divided in two based on one rich and white Bolivia and another indian and poor Bolivia. What moral foundation can a country or an autonomous region have based on acute mental and historical retardation? Why were these separatist – or “decentalized union” – boundaries not arrived at when the government and society were dominated by the traditional Creole classes? Why was it then more patriotic to have a united Bolivia without autonomous indigenous regions?


Jorge Majfud, Phd. The University of Georgia.

Translated by Bruce Campbell


The Fragments of the Latin American Union

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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

Men of the Cybernetic Caves

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Hombres de las cavernas cibernéticas (Spanish)

Men of the Cybernetic Caves

Jorge Majfud

Every time someone complains about ideas that fall outside an arbitrary and narrow circle called “common sense” (also known in English as “horse sense”), they do so by brandishing two classic arguments: 1) the philosophers live in another world, surrounded by books and eccentric ideas and 2) we know what reality is because we live in it. But when we ask what “reality” is they automatically recite to us a list of ideas that other philosophers placed in circulation in the 19th century or during the Renaissance, when those philosophers were branded by their neighbors, if not jailed or burned alive on the holy bonfire of good manners in the name of a common sense that represented the fantasies or realities of the Middle Ages.

The Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, still in the name of what his detractors could frivolously call “populism” – as if a dominant culture were not simultaneously populist and classist by definition; what is more demagogic than the consumer market? – critiqued the idea that the poet must repeat what the people says when “misery attempts to pass itself off as sobriety” (Tengo, 1964). Then he recalled something that turns out to be obvious and, therefore, easy to forget: the “common man” is an abstraction if not a class formed and deformed by the communication media: film, radio, the press, etc.

Perhaps common sense is the inability of that common man to see the world from provinces other than his own. The first time that a common man like Colombus – common for his ideas, not for his actions – saw a Caribean, he saw the scarcity of weapons of war. In his diary he reported that the conquest of that innocent people would be easy. It is no accident that the violent enterprise of the Castilian Reconquest would be continued in the Conquest of the other side of the Atlantic in 1492, the same year the former was completed. The Cortéses, the Pizarros and other “advanced” men were unable to see in the New World anything other than their own myths through the insatiable thirst for domination of old Europe.

The old chronicles recall a certain occasion when a group of conquistadors arrived at a humble village and the indigenous people came out to meet them with a banquet they had prepared. While they were eating, one of the soldiers took out his heavy sword and split open the head of a savage who was trying to serve him fresh fruits. The comrades of the noble knight, fearing a reaction from the savages, proceeded to imitate him until they retreated from that village leaving behind several hundred indians cut to pieces. After a brief investigation, the same conquistadors reported that the event had been justified given that a welcome such as the one they had witnessed could only be a trick. In this way they inaugurated – at least for the chronicles or as slander – the first preemptive action on behalf of civilization. The popular idea that “when the charity is great even the saint is suspicious,” makes heaven complicit in that miserable human condition.

In the same way, both science fiction and the plundering of resources by colonizing new planets are nothing more than the expression of the same aggressive mentality that doesn’t end up solving the conflicts it provokes at each step because it is already undertaking the expansion of its own convictions in the name of its own mental frontiers. The conquistadors (of any race, of any culture) can neither comprehend nor accept that supposedly more primitive beings (native Americans) as well as more evolved beings (possible extraterrestrials) might be capable of something more than a close-minded military conduct, aggressively exploitative of the barbarians who don’t speak our language.

That is to say, mass consumer science fiction – that innocent artistic expression, made popular by the disinterested market – is the expression of the most primitive side of humanity. The basic scheme consists of dominating or being dominated, killing or being exterminated, like our ancestors, the Cromagnons, exterminated the big-headed Neanderthals – later turned into the mythological ogres of the European forests – thirty thousand years ago. This genre could be understood especially in the Cold War, but it is as old as our culture’s thirst for colonization. It is not surprising, therefore, that the extraterrestrials, supposedly more evolved than us, would be out there playing hide and seek. It is quite probable, besides, that they know the case of the Nazarene who took the precaution of using metaphors to preach brotherly and universal love and was crucified anyway.

Presently, while conflicts and wars ravage the whole world, while the environment is in its most critical state, scientists are charged with finding life and water on other planets. NASA plans to use greenhouse gases – like carbon dioxide or methane – to raise the temperature of Mars, melting the frozen water at its poles and forming rivers and oceans. With this method – already tested on our own planet – we will stop buying bottled water from Switzerland or from Singapore in order to import it from Mars, at a slightly higher price.

We are not able to communicate with one another, we are not able to adequately conserve the most beautiful planet in the galactic neighborhood, and we will manage to colonize dead planets, discover water and encounter other beings who probably do not want to be found by intergalactic beasts like us.

Nor is it by accident that the objective of video games is almost always the annihilation of the adversary. Playing at killing is the common theme of these electronic caves filled with Cro-Magnon men and women. If indeed we could imagine a positive aspect, like the possibility that the exercise of playing at killing might substitute for the real practice, there still remains the question of whether violence is an invariable human quota (psychoanalytic version) or can be increased or decreased through a precise culture, through a psychological and spiritual evolution on the part of humanity. I believe that both are surviving hypotheses, but the second one is the only active hope, which is to say, an ideology that promotes an evolution of the conscience and not resignation in the face of what is. If ethical evolution does not exist, at least it is a convenient lie which prevents our cynical involution. The Romans also used to express their passions by watching two gladiators kill each other in the arena; some Spaniards also discharge the same passion by watching the torture and murder of a beast (I am referring to the bull). Perhaps the first replaced the imperial monstrosity with soccer; the second are in the process of doing so. A few weeks ago, a group of Spaniards marched through the streets carrying slogans like “Torture is not culture.” Protest is a valiant resistance to barbarism disguised as tradition. We are better off not noting that history shows that, in reality, torture is a culture with a millenarian tradition. A culture refined to the limits of barbarism and sustained by the cowardly refinement of hypocrisy.

Bertrand Russell used to say that the madness of the stadiums had sublimated the madness of war. Sometimes it is the other way around, but this is almost always true. It is not less true, of course, that the culture of violence carries with it two hidden purposes: 1) with the supposedly violent libido sublimated in sports, films and video games, the greater violence of social injustices (injustice, from a humanist and Enlightenment point of view) remain unchallenged by the exhausted and self-satisfied masses; 2) it is a form of anaesthesia, of moral habit-forming, in the periodic return of the brute, prehistoric violence of the electronic wars where one neither kills nor murders but suppresses, eliminates. This cybernetic primitivism seduces by its appearance of progress, of future, of spectacle, of technological exploits. Human ignorance is camouflaged in intelligence. Poor intelligence. But it continues to be ignorance, although more criminal than the simple ignorance of the cave-dweller who split open his neighbor’s head in order to avenge a theft or an offense. Modern wars, like the genre of science fiction, are more direct expressions of a race of cave-dwellers that has multiplied dangerously its power to split open its neighbor’s head but has not committed itself to the courageous enterprise of universal conscience. Instead, it defends itself against this utopia by taking recourse to its only dialectical weapon: mockery and insult.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

The Age of Barbaria


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La Era de Barbaria (Spanish)

The Humanist (USA)

The Age of Barbaria

Jorge Majfud

In the year of Barbaria began the annual trips to the year 33.  That year was selected because, according to surveys, Christ’s crucifixion drew the attention of most Westerners, and this social sector was important for economic reasons, since trips to the past were not organized, much less financed, by the government of any country, as had once happened with the first trips into space, but by a private company.  The financial group that made possible the marvel of traveling through time was Axa, at the request of the High Chief of Technology, who suggested infinite profits through the offering of “tourism services,” as it was called in its moment.  From then on, various groups of 30 people traveled to the year 33 in order to witness the death of the Nazarene, much as the tourist commoners used to do long ago when at each equinox they would gather at the foot of the pyramid of Chitchen-Itzá, in order to witness the formation of the serpent from the shadows cast down by the pyramid upon itself.

The greatest inconvenience encountered by Axa was the limited number of tourists who were able to attent the event at a time, which did not generate profits in accordance with the millions expected by the investors, for which reason that original number was gradually raised to 45, at the risk of attracting the attention of the ancient residents of Jerusalem.  Then the figure was maintained, at the request of one of the company’s principal stock-holders who argued, reasonably, that the conservation of that historic deed in its original state was the basis for the trips, and that if each group produced alterations in the facts, that could result in an abandonment of general interest in carrying out this kind of travel.

With time it was proven that each historical alteration of the facts, no matter how small, was nearly impossible to repair.  Which occurred whenever one of the travelers did not respect the rules of the game and attempted to take away some memento of the place.  As was the most well-known case of Adam Parcker who, with incredible dexterity, was able to cut out a triangular piece of the Nazarene’s red tunic, probably at the moment the latter collapses from fatigue.  The theft did not signify any change in the Holy Scriptures, but it served to make Parcker rich and famous, since the tiny piece of canvas came to be worth a fortune and not a few of the travelers who took on the trouble and expense of going back thousands of years did so to see where the Nazarene was missing “Parcker’s Triangle.”

A few had posed objections to this kind of travel which, they insist, will end up destroying history without us being able to notice.  In effect, so it is: for each change that is introduced on a given day, infinite changes are derived from it, century after century, gradually diluting or multiplying its effects.  In order to notice a minimal change in the year 33 it would be useless to turn to the Holy Scriptures, because all of the editions, equally, would reflect the blow and completely forget the original fact.  There might be a possibility of tracing each change by projecting other trips to years prior to the year of Barbaria, but nobody would be interested in such a project and there would be no way of financing it.

The discussion about whether history should remain as it is or can be legitimately modified also no longer matters.  But the latter is, in any case, dangerous, since it is impossible to foresee the resulting changes that would be produced by any particular alteration.  We know that any change could potentially not be catastrophic for the human species, but would be catastrophic for individuals: we might not be the ones who are alive now, but someone else instead.

The most radical religious groups find themselves on opposing sides.  Barbaria’s information services have recently discovered that a group of evangelists, belonging to the True Church of God, of Sao Pablo, will make a trip to the year 33.  Thanks to the charity of its faithful, the group has managed to gather together the sum of several million that Axa charges per ticket.  What no one has yet been able to confirm are the group’s intentions.  It has been said that they intend to blow up Golgotha and set fire to Jerusalem at the moment of the Crucifixion, so that we thus arrive at  the greatly anticipated End Times.  All of history would disappear; the whole world, including the Jews, would recognize their error, they would turn to Christianity in the year 33 and the entire world would live in the Kingdom of God, just as descrived in the Gospels.  Which is disputed by other people.

Others do not understand how the travelers can witness the crucifixion without trying to prevent it.  The theological answer is obvious, which is why those least interested in preventing the martyrdom of the Messiah are his own followers.  But or the rest, who are the majority, Axa has decreed its own ethical rules: “In the same manner in which we do not prevent the death of the slave between the claws of a lion, when we travel to Africa, neither must we prevent the apparent injustices that are committed with the Nazarene.  Our moral duty is to conserve nature and history as they are.”  The crucifixion is the common heritage of Humanity, but, above all, its rights have been acquired totally by Axa.

In fact,the changes will be increasingly inevitable.  After six years of trips to the year 33, one can see, at the foot of the cross, bottle caps and magic marker graffiti on the main beam, some of which pray: “I have faith in my lord,” and others just limit themselves to the name of who was there, along with the date of departure, so that future generations of travelers will remember them.  Of course, the company also began to yield in the face of pressure from dissatisfied clients, leading to a radical improvement in services.  For example, Barbaria just sent a technical representative to the year 26 to request the production of five thousand cubic meters of asphalt and to negotiate with Pontius Pilate the construction of a more comfortable corridor for the Via Dolorosa, which will make less tiresome the travelers’ route and, besides, would be a gesture of compassion for the Nazarene, who more than once broke his feet on stones that he did not see in his path.  It has been calculated that the improvement will not mean changes in the Holy Scriptures, since there is no special concern demonstrated there for the urbanism of the city.

With these measures, Axa hopes to shelter itself from the storm of complaints it has received due to alleged inadequacies in service, having to confront recently very costly law suits brought by client who have spent a fortune and have not returned satisfied.  The cause of these complaints is not always the intense heat of Jerusalem, or the congestion in which the city is entrapped on the day of the crucifixion.  Above all the cause is the unsatisfied expectations of the travelers.  The company defends itself by saying that the Holy Scriptures were not written under its quality control, but instead are only historical documents and, therefore, are exaggerated.  There where the Nazarene really dies, instead of there being a deep and horrifying night the sky is barely darkened by an excessive concentration of clouds, and nothing more.  The Catholics have declared that this fact, like all those referenced in the Gospels, should be understood in its symbolic meaning and not merely descriptively.  But most people were satisfied neither by Axa’s response nor by that of Pope John XXV, who came out in defense of the multinational corporation, thanks to which people can now be closer to God.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell is an Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN, where he is chair of the Latino/Latin American Studies program.  He is the author of Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis (University of Arizona, 2003); his scholarship centers on art, culture and politics in Latin America, and his work has appeared in publications such as the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies and XCP: Cross-cultural Poetics.  He serves as translator/editor for the «Southern Voices» project at, through which Spanish- and Portuguese-language opinion essays by Latin American authors are made available in English for the first time.


Lektionen der Geschichte

Just in case / Por si acaso

Image by . SantiMB . via Flickr

Die erste Todsünde

Lektionen der Geschichte

Jorge Majfud

Lincoln University

Übersetzt von  Isolda Bohler, überprüft von Fausto Giudice

Am selben Tag, an dem Christoph Kolumbus aus dem Hafen von Palos losfuhr, am 3. August 1492, lief die Frist für die Juden in Spanien ab, ihr Land, Spanien, zu verlassen,. Im Kopf des Admirals waren zumindest zwei mächtige Objekte, zwei unwiderlegbare Wahrheiten: Der materielle Reichtum von Asien und die vollkommene Religion Europas.

Mit ersterem dachte er, die Zurückeroberung Jerusalems zu finanzieren, mit der zweiten sollte die Beute legitimiert werden. Das Wort „Gold“ quoll aus seiner Feder, wie das göttliche und blutige Metall die Schiffe der ihm folgenden Eroberer überluden.

Im selben Jahr war am 2. Januar 1492 die letzte arabische Bastion auf der Halbinsel, Granada, gefallen. 1492 war auch das Jahr der Veröffentlichung der ersten Grammatik in Castellano (die erste europäische in „vulgärer“ Sprache). Gemäß seines Autors, Antonio Nebrija, war die Sprache die „Genossin des Imperiums“. Die neue Großmacht setzte sofort die Wiedereroberung durch die Eroberung auf der anderen Seite des Atlantiks mit den gleichen Methoden und den selben Überzeugungen fort, um so die globale Berufung des ganzen Imperiums zu bestätigen. Im Machtzentrum sollte es eine Sprache, eine Religion und eine Rasse geben.

Der zukünftige spanische Nationalismus wurde so auf der Grundlage der Säuberung des Erinnerungsvermögens aufgebaut. Es ist wahr, dass acht Jahrhunderte zuvor Juden und arianische Westgoten die Mohammedaner gerufen hatten, die dann kamen und halfen, Roderich und die anderen westgotischen Könige, die für die gleiche Säuberung kämpften, zu ersetzen. Aber dies war nicht der Hauptgrund für die Verachtung, denn nicht das Erinnerungsvermögen war das Wichtige, sondern das Vergessen.

Die katholischen und nachfolgenden göttlichen Könige erledigten (oder wollten erledigen) das andere Spanien, das gemischtrassige, multikulturelle Spanien, in dem mehrere Sprachen gesprochen und mehrere Kulte ausgeübt wurden und mehrere Rassen sich vermischten. Das Spanien, das Zentrum der Kultur, der Künste und der Wissenschaften in einem von der Rückständigkeit, einem gewalttätigen Aberglauben und Provinzialismus des Mittelalters unterworfenen Europa war. Nach und nach schloss die Halbinsel den Anderen ihre Grenzen.

Mauren und Juden mussten das Land verlassen und nach Barbaria (Afrika) oder in den Rest Europas emigrieren, wo sie sich in die peripheren Nationen, die mit neuer sozialer, wirtschaftlicher und intellektueller Unruhe hervortraten, integrierten. Innerhalb der Grenzen blieben einige illegitime Kinder, afrikanische Sklaven, die in der offiziellen Geschichte fast nicht erwähnt wurden, aber die für die würdelosen häuslichen Arbeiten nötig waren.

Das neue und erfolgreiche Spanien schloss sich als eine konservative Bewegung ein (das Oxymoron sei mir erlaubt). Der Staat und die Religion verbanden sich strategisch zur besseren Kontrolle des Volkes in einem schizophrenen Prozess der Läuterung.

Einige Dissidenten wie Bartolomé de las Casas sahen sich in einem öffentlichen Prozess jenen gegenüber, die, wie Ginés de Sepúlveda, argumentierten, dass das Imperium das Recht auf Intervention und auf die Beherrschung des neuen Kontinents hatte, denn es stand in der Bibel geschrieben (Salomon 11:29), dass „der Dumme des Weisen von Herzen Knecht sein wird“. Die Anderen sind wegen ihres „stumpfsinnigen Verstandes und ihrer inhumanen und barbarischen Bräuche“ unterworfen.

Die Rede des berühmten und einflussreichen Theologen, besonnen wie jede offizielle Ansprache, proklamierte: „[die Eingeborenen] sind barbarische und unmenschliche Leute, dem Zivilleben und den friedlichen Sitten fremd und es wird immer richtig und mit dem natürlichen Recht konform sein, dass solche Personen sich dem Imperium der kultiviertesten und humansten Fürsten und Nationen unterwerfen, damit dank derer Tugenden und der Duldsamkeit ihrer Gesetze sie mit der Barbarei aufhören und sich auf ein menschliches Leben und der Pflege der Tugenden reduzieren“. Und in einem anderen Abschnitt: „[man muss] jene, die aus natürlichen Bedingungen Anderen gehorchen müssen, aber deren Imperium ablehnen, mit Waffen unterwerfen, wenn es auf andere Weise nicht möglich ist“.

Damals wurde nicht auf die Worte „Demokratie“ und „Freiheit“ zurückgegriffen, denn bis zum 19. Jahrhundert galten sie in Spanien als Attribute des humanistischen Chaos, der Anarchie und des Teufels. Aber jede imperiale Macht spielt in jedem Augenblick der Geschichte das gleiche Spiel mit unterschiedlichen Karten. Einige, wie man sieht, nicht so verschieden.

Trotz einer ersten, mitleidigen Reaktion des Königs Karl V und der Neuen Gesetze, welche die Sklaverei der Eingeborenen Amerikaner (die Afrikaner galten nicht als Rechtssubjekte) verboten, fuhr das Imperium durch die Inhaber von encomiendas fort zu versklaven und diese Völker, „fremd dem friedlichen Leben“, im Namen der Errettung und der Humanisierung auszulöschen.

Um die schrecklichen aztekischen Rituale zu beenden, die so oft ihren heidnischen Göttern unschuldige Opfer darbrachten, folterte, vergewaltigte und mordete das Imperium massenweise im Namen des Gesetzes und des einzig wahrhaftigen Gottes. Laut Fray de las Casas bestand eine der Überzeugungsmethoden darin, die Wilden auf einem Rost festzubinden und sie lebend zu braten.

Aber nicht nur die Folter – körperlich und moralisch – und die Zwangsarbeit verheerten die einmal von Tausenden Menschen bewohnte Landstriche; sie verwendeten auch Massenvernichtungswaffen, genauer ausgedrückt, biologische Waffen. Die Grippe und die Pocken dezimierten ganze Bevölkerungen, manchmal unfreiwillig und andere Male präzise kalkuliert. Wie die Engländer im Norden entdeckt hatten, war die Wirkung von Sendungen verseuchter Geschenke, wie die Kleidung der Kranken oder hingeworfene, verpestende Leichen, manchmal verheerender als die Artillerie.

Jetzt aber, wer besiegte eines der größten Imperien der Geschichte, wie es das spanische war? Spanien.

Während sich eine durch alle sozialen Klassen ziehende konservative Mentalität am Glauben ihres göttlichen Schicksals, als „bewaffneter Arm Gottes“ (laut Menéndez Pelayo) festhielt, ging das Imperium an seiner eigenen Vergangenheit zugrunde. Seine Gesellschaft brach auseinander und der Reiche und Arme trennende Bruch wurde zur gleichen Zeit größer, in der sich das Imperium die Mineralvorkommen, die ihm zu funktionieren erlaubten, sicherte. Die Armen wurden zahlreicher und der Reichtum der Reichen, den sie im Namen Gottes und des Vaterlandes anhäuften, wurde größer.

Das Imperium musste Kriege finanzieren, die es außerhalb seiner Grenzen führte und das Finanzdefizit wuchs zu einem schwer beherrschbaren Monstrum. Die Steuerkürzungen begünstigten hauptsächlich die oberen Klassen so sehr, dass sie oftmals nicht einmal verpflichtet waren, sie zu bezahlen oder sie wurden davon befreit, wegen ihrer Schulden und Unterschlagungen ins Gefängnis zu gehen.

Der Staat brach mehrere Male zusammen. Die unerschöpfliche Quelle der aus ihren Kolonien, Nutznießer der Illuminierung des Evangeliums, stammenden Mineralen, waren auch nicht genug: Die Regierung gab mehr aus, als sie von diesen intervenierten Ländern erhielt und musste deshalb auf die italienischen Banken zurückgreifen.

Als sich viele Länder Amerikas (das heute sog. Lateinamerika) unabhängig machten, blieb auf diese Weise nichts weiter vom Imperium übrig als ihr schrecklicher Ruf. Fray Servando Teresa de Mier schrieb 1820, dass der Grund, warum Mexiko sich noch nicht unabhängig erklärt hatte an der Ignoranz seiner Leute liege, die immer noch nicht begriffen hätten, dass das spanische Imperium kein Imperium mehr sei, sondern der ärmste Winkel Europas.

Ein neues Imperium konsolidierte sich, das britische. Wie die vorhergehenden und die nachkommenden wird die Verbreitung seiner Sprache und Vorherrschaft seiner Kultur dann zu einem gemeinsamen Faktor. Ein anderer wird die öffentliche Werbung: England stürzt sich sofort auf die Chroniken von Fray de las Casas, um das alte Imperium im Namen einer höheren Moral zu diffamieren. Einer Moral, die keine Verbrechen und Vergewaltigungen verhinderte. Aber natürlich, was zählt, sind ihre guten Absichten: Das Gute, der Frieden, die Freiheit, der Fortschritt – und Gott, der seine Allgegenwart in allen Reden zeigt.

Der Rassismus, die Diskriminierung, das Schließen der Grenzen, der religiöse Messianismus, die Kriege für den Frieden, die großen Steuerdefizite zu ihrer Finanzierung, der radikale Konservatismus verloren das Imperium. Aber all diese Sünden fassen sich in einer zusammen: dem Hochmut, denn er verhindert es einer Weltmacht, all die vorherigen Sünden zu erkennen. Oder er elaubt, sie zu sehen, aber so, als ob sie große Tugenden wären.

Fundaciones de la historia

Fundaciones de la historia


Oros y diamantes

Mirando una carta de póker nos detiene la pregunta. ¿Por qué el rombo es el símbolo del diamante? ¿Por qué cortar una piedra tan valiosa en una figura que deja tantos desperdicios? Esa forma conoidal multiplicaba los brillos en la corona de la piedra pulida. Para el ojo común, los brillos debían ser lo más importante de las piedras preciosas y ¿cuál más brillante y más dura que el diamante? Por siglos, el brillo, la alucinación del diamante no tuvo competencia. Solo el sol brillaba con más fuerza, pero esa piedra era demasiado popular y nadie podía poseerla ni guardarla en un cofre para la contemplación privada de los brahmanes, del emperador, del rey o del duque. Y algo que pertenece a todos, aunque la sociedad dependa de él, no tiene valor social porque no confiere poder a unos sobre otros.

Hoy en día casi todos pasan su mirada indiferente sobre los cuadros de Fray Angélico, pero en su tiempo esos primeros atisbos de perspectiva renacentista conmovían las sensibilidades desacostumbradas a cualquier sustituto de la naturaleza o de la arquitectura centenaria, que era como la naturaleza misma. Los visitantes se desmayaban ante tan conmovedor efecto que confundían con el arte o con una revelación divina. Algo parecido ocurrió con las primeras proyecciones de cine que hizo saltar a los espectadores de sus asientos.

Basta con imaginar una ínfima parte de esa antigua sensibilidad, construida en el tiempo lento de las sombras y las estrellas, de los espacios naturales y previsibles para comprender algo del asombro o la admiración que podía provocar la contemplación de las joyas, del brillo del diamante. Si bien el vidrio es tan antiguo como el código de Hammurabi, rara vez las técnicas disponibles lograban la claridad del agua. Cuando los cristales, como los de Bohemia o de Murano, lograron hacerlo se hicieron famosos. Y caros. Aunque de mayor utilidad que el diamante, la relativa facilidad de su producción lo hacía dudosamente escaso. Pero eran tiempos cuando los brillos artificiales no abundaban.

Hoy en día aburren a los jóvenes y a los viejos acostumbrados al vértigo y al brillo excesivo de las pantallas de plasma, de los aviones, de los ascensores panorámicos, de los automóviles bailando en los tréboles de autopistas y sumergiéndose a setenta millas por hora en los túneles de colores.

¿Cuánto valdría hoy un diamante si la humanidad lo hubiese descubierto a finales del siglo XX? Seguro no hubiese impresionado a muchos. Quizás no valdría gran cosa y sin duda valdría mucho menos de lo que vale hoy.


Hitos y mitos fundadores

Podemos pensar que la valoración de un objeto como el de una conducta, el valor material y el valor moral pueden ser variables y pueden depender de un tiempo histórico, pero lo más interesante es observar también opuesto: hay valores materiales y valores morales que han sido definidos y cristalizados, para bien o para mal, en un tiempo dado según las condiciones y el momento de desarrollo de la humanidad.

Por ejemplo, los textos sagrados como el Bhagavad Gita, la Biblia o el Corán. Desde una perspectiva laica, podríamos preguntarnos por qué algunos textos como algunos hechos históricos se levantan como hitos inmóviles y persisten, aún cuando las condiciones económicas, sociales, culturales y simbólicas han cambiado de forma radical y con frecuencia contradicen esa realidad, hasta el punto de adaptar la realidad a esos textos mediante la violencia física o ideológica o adaptar los textos a la realidad mediante el uso y abuso de la interpretación. Donde dice blanco quería decir negro, pero lo que dice sigue siendo sagrado.

Una vez impuesta o reconocida, la autoridad del texto como el valor del diamante persiste, de una forma o de otra, cruzando generaciones, avatares históricos, políticos y culturales; traspasando a veces civilizaciones y mentalidades. Aun asumiendo toda su variabilidad y relatividad de interpretaciones y contradicciones, la Biblia y el Corán establecieron un valor ético y sobre todo teológico que pesaría, modificaría y controlaría los movimientos de cientos de generaciones posteriores.

De no ser por estos hitos fundadores, deberíamos aplicar a rajatabla el precepto marxista según el cual las necesidades básicas, los métodos de producción, de sobrevivencia, en fin, todo aquello que conforma la base material de la vida humana son los únicos o los principales responsables de los valores morales y culturales. Aunque en esto ni Marx era tan marxista, lo que no invalida ni contradice sus descubrimientos sobre la evolución de la historia sino, quizás, lo complementa. Tendríamos así una suerte de psicoanálisis historicista según el cual hay momentos propicios y singulares de la historia donde —dadas las condiciones materiales, el número reducido de la población y la ausencia de una memoria histórica que relativice una experiencia “traumática”, significativa o conmovedora— un hecho o un texto se convierte en un capitulo fundador de toda una civilización.

Como el peso de la tradición simbólica en el valor del oro y del diamante, fijados como un trauma en una etapa X de la humanidad que aun pesa en los tiempos contemporáneos, así pesan ciertos textos, ciertos hechos, ciertos mitos o ciertas verdades en el inconmensurable universo de otras posibles verdades, de otras posibles manías, obsesiones y fijaciones que pudieron moldear a la humanidad de otra forma, ahora inimaginable.



Jorge Majfud

Lincoln University, mayo 2009.




La historia baja al pueblo


Con voz suave pero robótica, Heather dice: “dobla a la derecha y mantente sobre la izquierda”. Entonces doblo a la izquierda. Heather se sorprende: “recalculando posición”, dice, para inmediatamente insistir: “Conduce dos millas. Luego mantente sobre la derecha y toma la rampa a la derecha”. Heather tiene un objetivo fijo y no dejará de recalcular mi posición para volver a insistir. “When possible, make a U-turn”. Nadie hace mejor ese trabajo que ella. Con su visión satelital calcula y en fracciones de segundo determina el mejor camino hasta X. “Make a U-turn now!” Ella lo ve todo y, al mismo tiempo, no entiende lo que ve. “Make a U-turn now!” A veces juzga mal porque tiene una fuerte tendencia a elegir los caminos más rápidos y no entiende mis preferencias por las zonas pobladas en lugar de las autopistas y los túneles.

La imposición de Heather por llegar a X es relativa. “Recalculating…” Antes de salir de casa yo mismo le di la orden. En realidad X era mi objetivo inicial. ¿Pero qué pasaría si X fuese un objetivo erróneo o un objetivo decidido por la costumbre o por una falsa obligación? O peor: ¿qué ocurriría si desconozco cuál es mi destino final, que fue definido previamente por alguien más y, ante mi propia ignorancia o ceguera o simple incertidumbre decido obedecer a Heather, por miedo a perderme, por la casi siempre inútil y hasta perversa ansiedad de no perder tiempo, por miedo a romper un orden, por miedo al caos?

Nuestro presente está mucho más definido por nuestro futuro —por nuestra imprecisa visión del futuro— que por nuestro pasado. Pero no sabemos con certeza cuál es nuestro destino X al cual creemos dirigirnos. Nos movemos en varios niveles de conciencia por lo cual nunca podemos decir que estamos completamente despiertos. Para mantener la ilusión de que somos consientes de nuestra dirección hacia X, nos mantenemos dentro del marco de los mitos fundadores: como la voz robótica de Heather, el navegador, el mito fundador nos indica, con insistencia y precisión el camino a X.

La mañana siguiente al triunfo electoral de Barack Obama, vi por los pasillos de las oficinas un pequeño grupo de gente que se abrazaba y decía “estoy soñando”; “esto es realmente un sueño”. Los diarios del mundo relacionaron el famoso “Yo tengo un sueño” de Martin Luther King cuarenta años atrás con el “sueño realizado” de Obama. Como nunca antes en la historia de las elecciones de Estados Unidos, una apreciable proporción del mundo se alegró del resultado. Todos esperamos cambios del nuevo presidente; aunque no muchos ni radicales, cambios que no acentúen la pesadilla, cambios que no agraven nuestras decepciones por venir.

En otros ensayos anotamos que el reciente cambio político en Estados Unidos, así como el cambio geopolítico del mundo en los últimos años, aparentemente apuntaban a la misma dirección y sentido trazado por la revolución del pensamiento humanista del Renacimiento. Las reacciones contrarias de las últimas décadas, en gran medida representadas por las ideologías conservadoras del imperialismo postcolonial del último tercio del siglo XX habrían sido un “desvío” en esa hoja de ruta, una violenta ralentización de la historia, una confirmación de que la verdad es una permanente reconstrucción del poder ideológico-militar del momento, de que la fuerza de la razón no tiene ninguna posibilidad ante la razón de la fuerza, que el único poder procede del músculo, no de la sabiduría ni mucho menos de la justicia, tal como puede entenderla un humanista. ¿Pero cómo saber si un desvío que dura décadas y un objetivo X que aparece como inalcanzable, pueden ser ralamente considerados desvío uno y objetivo el otro?

Hay una diferencia radical. El navegador GPS es sólo un instrumento de nuestros propósitos. Para los mitos sociales, en cambio, somos nosotros los instrumentos de sus propósitos. Los mitos sociales pueden funcionar como un obsesivo navegador que, sin importar el inesperado rumbo de nuestro camino, permanentemente están buscando un nuevo camino para llegar al mismo punto y tienen la fuerza de imponerlo. Justificar una masacre en nombre de la libertad y poner todo el tradicional aparataje mediático para hacerlo creíble, sino incuestionable al menos posible, es sólo un mínimo ejemplo. Llamar terrorista a un asesino que mata niños y a otro que hace el mismo trabajo honrarlo como héroe, aquél porque calcula sus barbaridades y éste  porque calcula sus errores inevitables, es sólo parte de la narratura social que consolida el mismo mito. Esta idea enquistada en el inconsciente colectivo, a veces estimulada por el miedo o la autocomplacencia, fue observada ya por el español Ángel Gavinet hace 101 años:

“Un ejército que lucha con armas de mucho alcance, con ametralladoras de tiro rápido y con cañones de grueso calibre, aunque deja el campo sembrado de cadáveres, es un ejército glorioso; y si los cadáveres son de raza negra, entonces se dice que no hay tales cadáveres. Un soldado que lucha cuerpo a cuerpo y que mata a su enemigo de un bayonetazo, empieza a parecernos brutal; un hombre vestido de paisano, que lucha y mata, nos parece un asesino. No nos fijamos en el hecho. Nos fijamos en la apariencia” (Idearium, 1897).

Pero esta percepción no es producto de una mera “naturaleza psicológica” sino del laborioso trabajo del poder social a lo largo de los siglos.

Los mitos fundadores preexisten a cualquier cambio político, a cualquier decisión individual e incluso colectiva. De ahí las eternas frustraciones ante los cambios políticos. Sin embargo, si echamos una mirada general a la historia, podemos sospechar que hay algo más fuerte que cualquier mito social: los grandes movimientos de la historia —los más imperceptibles—, las ideas sobre la justicia y el poder, sobre la libertad y la esclavitud, sobre la rebelión de los pueblos y la fuerza arrogante de los césares, persisten o se radicalizan.

Hay un cambio sensible en nuestra época que es congruente con ese movimiento general de la historia de los últimos siglos, que significa la continuación de los valores humanistas que, si bien no han sido los valores dominantes, sí han sido los más persistentes y aquellos que más se han legitimado desde la caída intelectual de las teocracias europeas de la Edad Media. En nuestro tiempo ese signo es la progresiva separación de las creencias populares de los poderes imperiales. Si a mediados del siglo XX “imperio” seguía siendo una palabra que llenaba de orgullo a quien lo representaba —por ejemplo, el imperio británico, brutal como cualquier otro— desde los sesenta ya se ha confirmado como signo de agresión y opresión injustificable. Si a mediados del mismo siglo la narratura social todavía estaba en manos de una minoría propietaria de los medios de comunicación y entretenimiento —dos ideoléxicos paradójicos— hoy en día la voz mayoritaria de quienes no tienen nada de ese poder han descubierto un nuevo poder.

Esa voz ha probado ser todavía inmadura e irresponsable. Esa nueva conciencia todavía no es consciente de su poder o lo usa para distraerse e, incluso, para la autodestrucción. Podemos conjeturar, no sin un alto riesgo de equivocarnos, que gran parte de la antigua masa —esa que despreciaba Ortega y Gasset— aún no ha dejado de ser rebaño y todavía se guía por los antiguos mitos sociales que la oprimen. Pero esa gente, esa humanidad, está creando poco a poco una nueva cultura, una nueva conciencia y una silenciosa pero imparable rebeldía ante la histórica agresión de los césares, de los negreros, de los antiguos dueños del mundo. O quizás confundimos deseo con realidad.

“Recalculating… Take ramp ahead”.


Jorge Majfud

Lincoln University, enero 2009.