Lecturas sobre el Imperio Español

Español: Estatuas de Cristobal Colón y los rey...

El Imperio Español

El siglo XV: nacimiento de una nación y de un espíritu

En su historia sobre El imperio español , Richard Konetzke nos dice que “España y Portugal fundaron, por primera vez, organismos estatales de tipo planetario […] En los Estados del rey de España, del monarca más grande de la tierra, el sol—se decía admirativamente—no se ponía nunca” (9) Éste sería, según el mismo autor, “una de las creaciones políticas más grandiosas de la humanidad europea, habiendo realizado en alta medida la misión cultural de Europa en el mundo” (10).

Los descubrimientos y conquistas ultramarinos serán la continuación natural de un proceso histórico medieval. “La peculiaridad de la Edad Media española radica en las guerras seculares contra los moros, en la ‘reconquista’ de la Península ibérica de la dominación de los árabes y bereberes […]” (11). En el siglo XIII, esta empresa religiosa y política se extenderá territorialmente hasta las costas del mar Mediterráneo, sobre todo bajo el reinado de Fernando III: en 1265 cayó Cádiz y en 1334 cayó Algeciras. Con la conquista de Granada, en 1492, desapareciera de la Península ibérica el último reino árabe.

Vilar está de acuerdo en este factor de continuidad, al cual agrega otro aspecto decisivo: la lentitud del mismo proceso en la formación del caráctr espiritual de España.

“The slow speed of the Reconquest is an important feature in itself. A rapid expulsion of the Infidel would have changed the fate of Spain.; it would have moulded her structure, her spirit and her customs as did a crusade of several centuries […] The pressure of necessity in a poor country with a rising population made the Reconquest everywhere into a continuous process of colonisation as well as a Holy War” (11).

Con los Reyes Católicos,  Isabel de Castilla y Fernando de Aragón, se puso fin a la guerra de sucesión, se redujo la rebelde nobleza y la monarquía alcanzó una fortaleza desconocida totalmente en el resto de Europa a finales de la Edad Media.

En este proceso de reconquista que duró siglos, nos dice Konetzke, se formaron “las cualidades bélicas del pueblo español […] aquellos siglos produjeron el tipo de caballero español que buscaba la lucha y la aventura […] Surgió así una clase dirigente noble en los hijosdalgo” (12).

Estas características psicológicas, espirituales e, incluso “raciales”, según Konetzke, fue la misma que “demostraron también los conquistadores de América […] Esta fortaleza del alma, en esta tenacidad acerada y estricta alimentan asimismo rasgos del carácter racial de los antiguos iberos” (12).

Sin embargo, la misma guerra de Reconquista absorbió gran parte de las energías económicas. “A ello se debe que en España no se desarrollara en igual medida que en otro países europeos una burguesía entregada a la industria y al comercio” (17).

Encontraremos, por otro lado, que esta guerra impulsó la construcción de barcos y el establecimiento de una marina más fuerte hasta que “los tres grandes Estados de la Reconquista, Castilla, Aragón-Cataluña y Portugal, se convirtieron en potencias navales en el curso de las guerras contra los árabes” (25). Incluso la piratería encontró una justificación en este proceso contra el enemigo: “se convirtió en aguas africanas una costumbre constante, encontrando su justificación ideológica en el espíritu de la Reconquista, es decir, en la lucha implacable contra los enemigos del país y de la fe” (33).

Sin duda, uno de los hechos más importantes en el proceso de grandeza y decadencia de España lo fue el matrimonio de fernando e Isabel, el 19 de octubre de 1469, porque significó la unión de los dos reinos mayores de la península ibérica. Después de la muerte de Enrique IV, en 1474, es el nuevo matrimonio el que gobierna, haciéndose popular el dicho:

Tanto monta, monta tanto

Isabel como Fernando

Los conflictos y disputas en España fueron superados con una fuerte centralización judicial y administrativa de los “Reyes Católicos”. Se crea el primer ejército permanente de España (el hermano de Fernando fue el jefe). En 1496 los reyes impusieron el servicio militar obligatorio (un vecino cada doce). En el siglo XV ya podemos decir que había una conciencia de unidad de los reinos de España, basada principalmente en la necesidad política de la unión o uniformidad religiosa. Para ello se hizo uso de varios recursos, muchos de los cuales buscaban la “pureza” religiosa y étnica justificada en diferente tipo de discursos, muchos de los cuales podemos ver todavía reproducidos en la literatura del siglo XX:

Los asesinatos rituales, tales como los que les fueron atribuidos a los judíos, y uno de los cuales pudo ser probado jurídicamente, en 1491, aumentó el odio y encono de los cristianos, constituyendo la causa decisiva de que se llevara a cabo la expulsión de los judíos, proyectada ya por los Reyes Católicos desde 1483 (Konetzke, 82).

Según decreto de marzo de 1492, todos los judíos que no se convirtieran al cristianismo tenían que abandonar con sus familias España en un plazo de tres meses. Los judíos que volvieran al país después de la expulsión, serían castigados con pena de muerte.

En virtud de esta actitud en la cuestión judía y árabe, política y religión, Estado e Iglesia, se unieron, de la manera más íntima en el Estado fundado por los Reyes Católicos, mientras que, en la misma época, el Renacimiento independizaba al estado de las vinculaciones eclesiástico-religiosas, situándolo sobre una base puramente secular (83).

Los reyes católicos consiguieron en 1478 que el Papa permitiera la introducción de la Inquisición en Castilla, con el fin de vigilar la fe y la conducta de los nuevos conversos, especialmente de los judíos bautizados. Las guerras y la expansión de su política exterior habían hecho cada vez mayores y más urgentes las necesidades en dinero de los soberanos. La producción de oro y plata era insuficiente, y la falta de una balanza comercial equilibrada hacía disminuir las existencias en metálico del Estado (Konetzke, 90).

Los Reyes católicos gobernaban y manejaban la economía por decreto (“Real orden” o “cédula”), donde emitían prohibiciones y concesiones para comprar y vender. El consulado de Burgos se convirtió en el modelo de la “Casa de Contracción de Indias”, de Sevilla, casa comercial fundada en 1503, que iba a fomentar y regular, según los mismos principios, el tráfico mercantil con el Nuevo Mundo” (98). También la conquista de las islas Canarias fueron, para Fernando e Isabel, una prosecución de las guerras  contra los moros, y equipararon a los isleños con éstos (118). Para Vilar, “the ‘Conquest’ of the Indies, a natural consequence of the ‘Reconquest’ of the Middle Ages, was achieved by a social class whose only raison d’être was war” (12).

Siglo XVI: expansión colonial y decadencia social

Según Vilar, la cúspide del Imperio Español podría localizarse en el reinado de Carlos V, cuando “[he] married a Portuguese infanta and Philip II was able to unite under his sceptre the whole Peninsula together with the two greatest empires in the world. The year 1580 marks the climax of Peninsular history” (23).

Sin embargo, y al mismo tiempo, la monarquía española estaba en permanente inestabilidad debido no sólo a las rebeliones portuguesas sino también a los acreedores de la corona. En 1539 los banqueros Fugger, Welser, Schatz y Spinola eran fuertes acreedores del Estados español. En 1557 la monarquía estaba en virtual bancarrota.

One inevitable conclusion is that the Spanish colonial enterprise was a decisive factor in the economic change from which the modern world emerged. The enterprise created the first “world market” and offered to European productive capacity increasingly cheap monetary cover (Vilar, 37).

Muchos han visto el tráfico de oro del siglo XVI-XVII como una revolución  económica producida en los dos continentes. Otros vieron ene el mismo hecho la razón de la decadencia de España. La España de Carlos V no fue tan próspera como se supone, ya que era pobre en infraestructuras.  “It has already been admitted that the geographical infrastructure and psychology had always blocked productive efforts within the peninsula” (Vilar, 38). Por el contrario, el crecimiento (geográfico y económico y poblacional) de España comenzó en el siglo XV y no fue debido a la colonización (39). Entre 1532 y 1552 Sevilla fue un centro financiero “Nevertheless the peak of industrial productions occur indisputably in the reign of Charles V.” (40).

Urban growth, according to the so-called “Tomás González” census, reveals a remarkable industrial and commercial vigorous together with a continuous demographic vitality; for, despite overseas emigration, there was no rural depopulation before 1565-75 (40).

Sin embargo, el proceso de desarrollo en tiempos de Carlos V fue menor que la importación de metales y valores de América (40).

El año 1640 es crucial, que es el año en que España pierde Portugal. Se pierden varios territorios en Europa (Luxemburgo, Gibraltar, y varias posesiones italianas) e Inglaterra domina los mares. Podemos apreciar una fuerte curva descendente desde 1580 hasta 1713 donde, según Vilar, se llega al punto más bajo. La inflación estimula al principio la economía pero termina arruinándola (tesis de Häbler and Stötbeer). Parte fundamental de esta decadencia es atribuída al mismo “espíritu” social que en otra época sirvió para la Reconquista: los “Hidaldos” no invirtieron en producción (desde un punto de vista capitalista) sino en comprar tierras y construir castillos (aún en América). “All the cities works for Madrid, but she works for no-one” (46).

El Siglo de oro y el siglo de Cobre

En 1600 la plaga provoca el  declive económico y las importaciones de metales de América comienzan a menguar. Se cambian las monedas de oro (y de plata) por las de cobre. Así se hace evidente para todos el fin de la “Edad de oro” y el comienzo de la “Edad de cobre” Paradójicamente, comienza el “Siglo de oro” (intelectual) (41).

We may begin with the mystic, prefaced by the first inventors of spiritual exercises—García de Cisneros, master of St. Ignatius, Ibáñez, confessors of St. Teresa, Alonso de Madrid, Juan de Avila, Pedro de Alcántara. At the lowest point of the line lies the gentle Fray Luis de León; at the highest, St. Teresa and John of the Cross, in whom the mystic life finds its perfect verbal expression (Vilar, 41).

Pese a este misticismo, “literature itself was not excempt with intellectual subtlety. Above all the in the seventeenth century, the passion of bitterness of Quevedo. The mysticism of Calderón and the poetic sensibility of Góngora took on a cerebral flavour—it is the very Spanish tradition of the conceit which extended even to Cervantes and St. Teresa (42). El espíritu predominante de la época tenía un fuerte componenete “naïve, but forceful psychological concepts of liberty, honour and morality of the cristiano viejo, strong enough to react violently against tyranny and appeal to the sovereign over local injustice. The advent of such geniuses as Lope de Vega [1], Cervantes and Velazquez made possible the synthesis of past tradition with mystic flavour and intellectual force (43). Probablemente, su genio más representativo, por muchoas razones, fue Cervantes, ya que “possessed a more ordered genius, and his own life was a synthesis of Spanish experience. A soldier at Lepanto, prisoner of Moors freed by a cofradía, a more or less scrupulous servant of the crown, a faithful believer but not a conformist (for he was a true son of Renaissance), he meditated upon his country and his times. Spiritual grandeur and nobility carried on an extreme, an inexhaustible fount of popular wisdom, a decaying fabric in a expanding world—these contrast take on life in Quixote-Sancho, ideal and reality, individual and society.” (43).

Don Quijote, según Vilar, buscaba soluciones medievales al mundo moderno. Fue una especie de símbolo de Felipe II y de la ineficiencia española, inadaptada a los tiempos en curso, con las armas del Quijote, personaje universal que presente (y representa)  “the same challenge to the bourgeois as Chaplin’s jacket does to the worker: these are historical turning points and at the same times eternal work of art.” (53).

Jorge Majfud

_________________

Konetzke, Richard, El imperio español. Madrid, Ediciones Nueva Época, 1946.

Vilar, Pierre. Spain. A Brief History. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1967.


[1] Recordar la obra Fuente Ovejuna

 

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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

Propaganda and the Myth of Reconquest

Diego Rivera

Image via Wikipedia

Propaganda and the Myth of Reconquest


By Jorge Majfud

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Lashes Against Humanism

Erasmus in 1523, by Hans Holbein

Image via Wikipedia

Diez azotes contra el humanismo (Spanish)

Ten Lashes Against Humanism

 

Jorge Majfud

A minor tradition in conservative thought is the definition of the dialectical adversary as mentally deficient and lacking in morality. As this never constitutes an argument, the outburst is covered up with some fragmented and repetitious reasoning, proper to the postmodern thought of political propaganda. It is no accident that in Latin America other writers repeat the US experience, with books like Manual del perfecto idiota latinoamericano (Manual for the Perfect Latin American Idiot, 1996) or making up lists about Los diez estúpidos más estúpidos de América Latina (The Top Ten Stupid People in Latin America). A list that is usually headed up, with elegant indifference, by our friend, the phoenix Eduardo Galeano. They have killed him off so many times he has grown accustomed to being reborn.

As a general rule, the lists of the ten stupidest people in the United States tend to be headed up by intellectuals. The reason for this particularity was offered some time ago by a military officer of the last Argentine dictatorship (1976-1983) who complained to the television cameras about the protesters marching through the streets of Buenos Aires: “I am not so suspicious of the workers, because they are always busy with work; I am suspicious of the students because with too much free time they spend it thinking. And you know, Mr. Journalist, that too much thinking is dangerous.” Which was consistent with the previous project of General Onganía (1966-1970) of expelling all the intellectuals in order to fix Argentina’s problems.

Not long ago, Doug Hagin, in the image of the famous television program Dave’s Top Ten, concocted his own list of The Top Ten List of Stupid Leftist Ideals. If we attempt to de-simplify the problem by removing the political label, we will see that each accusation against the so-called US leftists is, in reality, an assault on various humanist principles.

10: Environmentalism. According to the author, leftists do not stop at a reasonable point of conservation.

Obviously the definition of what is reasonable or not, depends on the economic interests of the moment. Like any conservative, he holds fast to the idea that the theory of Global Warming is only a theory, like the theory of evolution: there are no proofs that God did not create the skeletons of dinosaurs and other species and strew them about, simply in order to confuse the scientists and thereby test their faith. The conservative mentality, heroically inalterable, could never imagine that the oceans might behave progressively, beyond a reasonable level.

9: It takes a village to raise a child. The author denies it: the problem is that leftists have always thought collectively. Since they don’t believe in individualism they trust that children’s education must be carried out in society.

 

In contrast, reactionary thought trusts more in islands, in social autism, than in suspect humanity. According to this reasoning of a medieval aristocrat, a rich man can be rich surrounded by misery, a child can become a moral man and ascend to heaven without contaminating himself with the sin of his society. Society, the masses, only serves to allow the moral man to demonstrate his compassion by donating to the needy what he has left over – and discounting it from his taxes.

8: Children are incapable of handling stress. For which reason they cannot be corrected by their teachers with red ink or cannot confront the cruel parts of history.

The author is correct in observing that seeing what is disagreeable as an infant prepares children for a world that is not pleasant. Nonetheless, some compassionate conservatives exaggerate a little by dressing their children in military uniforms and giving them toys that, even though they only shoot laser lights, look very much like weapons with laser lights that fire something else at similar targets (and at black people).

7: Competition is bad. For the author, no: the fact that some win means that others lose, but this dynamic leads us to greatness.

He does not explain whether there exists here the “reasonable limit” of which he spoke before or whether he is referring to the hated theory of evolution which establishes the survival of the strongest in the savage world. Nor does he clarify to which greatness he refers, whether it is that of the slave on the prosperous cotton plantation or the size of the plantation. He does not take into account, of course, any kind of society based on solidarity and liberated from the neurosis of competition.

6: Health is a civil right. Not for the author: health is part of personal responsibility.

This argument is repeated by those who deny the need for a universal health system and, at the same time, do not propose privatizing the police, and much less the army. Nobody pays the police after calling 911, which is reasonable. If an attacker shoots us in the head, we will not pay anything for his capture, but if we are poor we will end up in bankruptcy so that a team of doctors can save our life. One deduces that, according to this logic, a thief who robs a house represents a social illness, but an epidemic is nothing more than a bunch of irresponsible individuals who do not affect the rest of society. What is never taken into account is that collective solidarity is one of the highest forms of individual responsibility.

5: Wealth is bad. According to the author, leftists want to penalize the success of the wealthy with taxes in order to give their wealth to the federal government so that it can be spent irresponsibly helping out those who are not so successful.

That is to say, workers owe their daily bread to the rich. Earning a living with the sweat of one’s brow is a punishment handed down by those successful people who have no need to work. There is a reason why physical beauty has been historically associated with the changing but always leisurely habits of the aristocracy. There is a reason why in the happy world of Walt Disney there are no workers; happiness is buried in some treasure filled with gold coins. For the same reason, it is necessary to not squander tax monies on education and on health. The millions spent on armies around the world are not a concern, because they are part of the investment that States responsibly make in order to maintain the success of the wealthy and the dream of glory for the poor.

4: There is an unbridled racism that will only be resolved with tolerance. No: leftists see race relations through the prism of pessimism. But race is not important for most of us, just for them.

That is to say, like in the fiction of global warming, if a conservative does not think about something or someone, that something or someone does not exist. De las Casas, Lincoln and Martin Luther King fought against racism ignorantly. If the humanists would stop thinking about the world, we would be happier because others’ suffering would not exist, and there would be no heartless thieves who steal from the compassionate rich.

3: Abortion. In order to avoid personal responsibility, leftists support the idea of murdering the unborn.

The mass murder of the already born is also part of individual responsibility, according to televised right-wing thought, even though sometimes it is called heroism and patriotism. Only when it benefits our island. If we make a mistake when suppressing a people we avoid responsibility by talking about abortion. A double moral transaction based on a double standard morality.

2: Guns are bad. Leftists hate guns and hate those who want to defend themselves. Leftists, in contrast, think that this defense should be done by the State. Once again they do not want to take responsibility for themselves.

That is to say, attackers, underage gang members, students who shoot up high schools, drug traffickers and other members of the syndicate exercise their right to defend their own interests as individuals and as corporations. Nobody distrusts the State and trusts in their own responsibility more than they do. It goes without saying that armies, according to this kind of reasoning, are the main part of that responsible defense carried out by the irresponsible State.

1: Placating evil ensures Peace. Leftists throughout history have wanted to appease the Nazis, dictators and terrorists.

The wisdom of the author does not extend to considering that many leftists have been consciously in favor of violence, and as an example it would be sufficient to remember Ernesto Che Guevara. Even though it might represent the violence of the slave, not the violence of the master. It is true, conservatives have not appeased dictators: at least in Latin America, they have nurtured them. In the end, the latter also have always been members of the Gun Club, and in fact were subject to very good deals in the name of security. Nazis, dictators and terrorists of every kind, with that tendency toward ideological simplification, would also agree with the final bit of reasoning on the list: “leftists do not undertand that sometimes violence is the only solution. Evil exists and should be erradicated.” And, finally: “We will kill it [the Evil], or it will kill us, it is that simple. We will kill Evil, or Evil will kill us; the only thing simpler than this is left-wing thought.”

Word of Power.

 

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