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 Slow Suicide of the West

Cover of "The Rage and the Pride: Interna...

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El lento suicidio de Occidente (Spanish)

The Slow Suicide of the West

Jorge Majfud

The West appears, suddenly, devoid of its greatest virtues, constructed century after century, preoccupied now only with reproducing its own defects and with copying the defects of others, such as authoritarianism and the preemptive persecution of innocents. Virtues like tolerance and self-criticism have never been a weakness, as some now pretend, but quite the opposite: it was because of them that progress, both ethical and material, were possible. Both the greatest hope and the greatest danger for the West can be found in its own heart. Those of us who hold neither “Rage” nor “Pride” for any race or culture feel nostalgia for times gone by, times that were never especially good, but were not so bad either.

Currently, some celebrities from back in the 20th century, demonstrating an irreversible decline into senility, have taken to propagating the famous ideology of the “clash of civilizations” – which was already plenty vulgar all by itself – basing their reasoning on their own conclusions, in the best style of classical theology. Such is the a priori and 19th century assertion that “Western culture is superior to all others.” And, if that were not enough, that it is a moral obligation to repeat it.

From this perspective of Western Superiority, the very famous Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote, recently, brilliant observations such as the following: “If in some countries the women are so stupid as to accept the chador and even the veil, so much the worse for them. (…) And if their husbands are so idiotic as to not drink wine or beer, idem.” Wow, that is what I call intellectual rigor. “How disgusting!” – she continued writing, first in the Corriere della Sera and later in her best seller The Rage and the Pride (Rizzoli International, 2002), referring to the Africans who had urinated in a plaza in Italy – “They piss for a long time these sons of Allah! A race of hypocrites.” “Even if they were absolutely innocent, even if there were not one among them who wished to destroy the Tower of Pisa or the Tower of Giotto, nobody who wished to make me wear the chador, nobody who wished to burn me on the bonfires of a new Inquisition, their presence alarms me. It makes me uneasy.” Summing up: even if these blacks were completely innocent, their presence makes her uneasy anyway. For Fallaci, this is not racism; it is “cold, lucid, rational rage.” And, if that were not enough, she offers another ingenious observation with reference to immigrants in general: “And besides, there is something else I don’t understand. If they are really so poor, who gives them the money for the trip on the planes or boats that bring them to Italy? Might Osama bin Laden be paying their way, at least in part?” …Poor Galileo, poor Camus, poor Simone de Beauvoir, poor Michel Foucault.

Incidentally, we should remember that, even though the lady writes without understanding – she said it herself – these words ended up in a book that has sold a half million copies, a book with no shortage of reasoning and common sense, as when she asserts “I am an atheist, thank God.” Nor does it lack in historical curiosities like the following: “How does one accept polygamy and the principle that women should not allow photographs to be taken of them? Because this is also in the Q’uran,” which means that in the 7th century Arabs were extremely advanced in the area of optics. Nor is the book lacking in repeated doses of humor, as with these weighty arguments: “And, besides, let’s admit it: our cathedrals are more beautiful than the mosques and synagogues, yes or no? Protestant churches are also more beautiful.” As Atilio says, she has the Shine of Brigitte Bardot. As if what we really needed was to get wrapped up in a discussion of which is more beautiful, the Tower of Pisa or the Taj Mahal. And once again that European tolerance: “I am telling you that, precisely because it has been well defined for centuries, our cultural identity cannot support a wave of immigration composed of people who, in one form or another, want to change our way of life. Our values. I am telling you that among us there is no room for muezzins, for minarets, for false abstinence, for their screwed up medieval ways, for their damned chador. And if there were, I would not give it to them.” And finally, concluding with a warning to her editor: “I warn you: do not ask me for anything else ever again. Least of all that I participate in vain polemics. What I needed to say I have said. My rage and pride have demanded it of me.” Something which had already been clear to us from the beginning and, as it happens, denies us one of the basic elements of both democracy and tolerance, dating to ancient Greece: polemics and the right to respond – the competition of arguments instead of insults.

But I do not possess a name as famous as Fallaci – a fame well-deserved, we have no reason to doubt – and so I cannot settle for insults. Since I am native to an under-developed country and am not even as famous as Maradona, I have no other choice than to take recourse to the ancient custom of using arguments.

Let’s see. The very expression “Western culture” is just as mistaken as the terms “Eastern culture” or “Islamic culture,” because each one of them is made up of a diverse and often contradictory collection of other “cultures.” One need only think of the fact that within “Western culture” one can fit not only countries as different as the United States and Cuba, but also irreconcilable historical periods within the same geographic region, such as tiny Europe and the even tinier Germany, where Goethe and Adolf Hitler, Bach and the skin-heads, have all walked the earth. On the other hand, let’s not forget also that Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan (in the name of Christ and the White Race), Stalin (in the name of Reason and atheism), Pinochet (in the name of Democracy and Liberty), and Mussolini (in his own name), were typical recent products and representatives of the self-proclaimed “Western culture.” What is more Western than democracy and concentration camps? What could be more Western that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the dictatorships in Spain and Latin America, bloody and degenerate beyond the imagination? What is more Western than Christianity, which cured, saved and assassinated thanks to the Holy Office? What is more Western than the modern military academies or the ancient monasteries where the art of torture was taught, with the most refined sadism, and by the initiative of Pope Innocent IV and based on Roman Law? Or did Marco Polo bring all of that back from the Middle East? What could be more Western than the atomic bomb and the millions of dead and disappeared under the fascist, communist and, even, “democratic” regimes? What more Western than the military invasions and suppression of entire peoples under the so-called “preemptive bombings”?

All of this is the dark side of the West and there is no guarantee that we have escaped any of it, simply because we haven’t been able to communicate with our neighbors, who have been there for more than 1400 years, with the only difference that now the world has been globalized (the West has globalized it) and the neighbors possess the main source of energy that moves the world’s economy – at least for the moment – in addition to the same hatred and the same rencor as Oriana Fallaci. Let’s not forget that the Spanish Inquisition, more of a state-run affair than the others, originated from a hostility to the moors and jews and did not end with the Progress and Salvation of Spain but with the burning of thousands of human beings.

Nevertheless, the West also represents Democracy, Freedom, Human Rights and the struggle for women’s rights. At least the effort to attain them, and the most that humanity has achieved so far. And what has always been the basis of those four pillars, if not tolerance?

Fallaci would have us believe that “Western culture” is a unique and pure product, without the Other’s participation. But if anything characterizes the West, it has been precisely the opposite: we are the result of countless cultures, beginning with the Hebrew culture (to say nothing of Amenophis IV) and continuing through almost all the rest: through the Caldeans, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Hindus, the southern Africans, the northern Africans and the rest of the cultures that today are uniformly described as “Islamic.” Until recently, it would not have been necessary to remember that, while in Europe – in all of Europe – the Christian Church, in the name of Love, was persecuting, torturing and burning alive those who disagreed with the ecclesiastical authorities or committed the sin of engaging in some kind of research (or simply because they were single women, which is to say, witches), in the Islamic world the arts and sciences were being promoted, and not only those of the Islamic region but of the Chinese, Hindus, Jews and Greeks. And nor does this mean that butterflies flew and violins played everywhere. Between Baghdad and Córdoba the geographical distance was, at the time, almost astronomical.

But Oriana Fallacia not only denies the diverse and contradictory composition of any of the cultures in conflict, but also, in fact, refuses to acknowledge the Eastern counterpart as a culture at all. “It bothers me even to speak of two cultures,” she writes. And then she dispatches the matter with an incredible display of historical ignorance: “Placing them on the same level, as if they were parallel realities, of equal weight and equal measure. Because behind our civilization are Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Phidias, among many others. There is ancient Greece with its Parthenon and its discovery of Democracy. There is ancient Rome with its grandeur, its laws and its conception of the Law. With its sculpture, its literature and its architecture. Its palaces and its amphitheaters, its aqueducts, its bridges and its roads.”

Is it really necessary to remind Fallaci that among all of that and all of us one finds the ancient Islamic Empire, without which everything would have burned – I am talking about the books and the people, not the Coliseum – thanks to centuries of ecclesiastical terrorism, quite European and quite Western? And with regard to the grandeur of Rome and “its conception of the Law” we will talk another day, because here there is indeed some black and white worth remembering. Let’s also set aside for the moment Islamic literature and architecture, which have nothing to envy in Fallaci’s Rome, as any half-way educated person knows.

Let’s see, and lastly? “Lastly – writes Fallaci – there is science. A science that has discovered many illnesses and cures them. I am alive today, for the time being, thanks to our science, not Mohammed’s. A science that has changed the face of this planet with electricity, the radio, the telephone, the television… Well then, let us ask now the fatal question: and behind the other culture, what is there?”

The fatal answer: behind our science one finds the Egyptians, the Caldeans, the Hindus, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Jews and the Africans. Or does Fallaci believe that everything arose through spontaneous generation in the last fifty years? She needs to be reminded that Pythagoras took his philosophy from Egypt and Caldea (Iraq) – including his famous mathematical formula, which we use not only in architecture but also in the proof of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity – as did that other wise man and mathematician Thales. Both of them traveled through the Middle East with their minds more open than Fallaci’s when she made the trip. The hypothetical-deductive method – the basis for scientific epistemology – originated among Egyptian priests (start with Klimovsky, please), zero and the extraction of square roots, as well as innumerable mathematical and astronomical discoveries, which we teach today in grade school, were born in India and Iraq; the alphabet was invented by the Phoenicians (ancient Lebanese), who were also responsible for the first form of globalization known to the world. The zero was not an invention of the Arabs, but of the Hindus, but it was the former who brought it to the West. By contrast, the advanced Roman Empire not only was unfamiliar with zero – without which it would be impossible to imagine modern mathematics and space travel – but in fact possessed an unwieldy system of counting and calculation that endured until the late Middle Ages. Through to the early Renaissance there were still businessmen who used the Roman system, refusing to exchange it for Arabic numerals, due to racial and religious prejudices, resulting in all kinds of mathematical errors and social disputes. Meanwhile, perhaps it is better to not even mention that the birth of the Modern Era began with European cultural contact – after long centuries of religious repression – first with Islamic culture and then with Greek culture. Or did anyone think that the rationalism of the Scholastics was a consequence of the practice of torture in the holy dungeons? In the early 12th century, the Englishman Adelard of Bath undertook an extensive voyage of study through the south of Europe, Syria and Palestine. Upon returning from his trip, Adelard introduced into under-developed England a paradigm that even today is upheld by famous scientists like Stephen Hawking: God had created Nature in such a way that it could be studied and explained without His intervention. (Behold the other pillar of the sciences, rejected historically by the Roman Church.) Indeed, Adelard reproached the thinkers of his time for having allowed themselves to be enthralled by the prestige of the authorities – beginning with Aristotle, clearly. Because of them he made use of the slogan “reason against authority,” and insisted he be called “modernus.” “I have learned from my Arab teachers to take reason as a guide – he wrote – but you only adhere to what authority says.” A compatriot of Fallaci, Gerardo de Cremona, introduced to Europe the writings of the “Iraqi” astronomer and mathematician Al-Jwarizmi, inventor of algebra, of algorithms, of Arabic and decimal calculus; translated Ptolemy from the Arabic – since even the astronomical theory of an official Greek like Ptolemy could not be found in Christian Europe – as well as dozens of medical treatises, like those of Ibn Sina and Irani al-Razi, author of the first scientific treatise on smallpox and measles, for which today he might have been the object of some kind of persecution.

We could continue listing examples such as these, which the Italian journalist ignores, but that would require an entire book and is not the most important thing at the moment.

What is at stake today is not only protecting the West against the terrorists, home-grown and foreign, but – and perhaps above all – protecting the West from itself. The reproduction of any one of its most monstrous events would be enough to lose everything that has been attained to date with respect to Human Rights. Beginning with respect for diversity. And it is highly probable that such a thing could occur in the next ten years, if we do not react in time.

The seed is there and it only requires a little water. I have heard dozens of times the following expression: “the only good thing that Hitler did was kill all those Jews.” Nothing more and nothing less. And I have not heard it from the mouth of any Muslim – perhaps because I live in a country where they practically do not exist – nor even from anyone of Arab descent. I have heard it from neutral creoles and from people of European descent. Each time I hear it I need only respond in the following manner in order to silence my interlocutor: “What is your last name? Gutiérrez, Pauletti, Wilson, Marceau… Then, sir, you are not German, much less a pure Aryan. Which means that long before Hitler would have finished off the Jews he would have started by killing your grandparents and everyone else with a profile and skin color like yours.” We run the same risk today: if we set about persecuting Arabs or Muslims we will not only be proving that we have learned nothing, but we will also wind up persecuting those like them: Bedouins, North Africans, Gypsies, Southern Spaniards, Spanish Jews, Latin American Jews, Central Americans, Southern Mexicans, Northern Mormons, Hawaiians, Chinese, Hindus, and so on.

Not long ago another Italian, Umberto Eco, summed up a sage piece of advice thusly: “We are a plural civilization because we permit mosques to be built in our countries, and we cannot renounce them simply because in Kabul they throw Christian propagandists in jail […] We believe that our culture is mature because it knows how to tolerate diversity, and members of our culture who don’t tolerate it are barbarians.”

As Freud and Jung used to say, that act which nobody would desire to commit is never the object of a prohibition; and as Boudrillard said, rights are established when they have been lost. The Islamic terrorists have achieved what they wanted, twice over. The West appears, suddenly, devoid of its greatest virtues, constructed century after century, preoccupied now only with reproducing its own defects and with copying the defects of others, such as authoritarianism and the preemptive persecution of innocents. So much time imposing its culture on the other regions of the planet, to allow itself now to impose a morality that in its better moments was not even its own. Virtues like tolerance and self-criticism never represented its weakness, as some would now have it, but quite the opposite: only because of them was any kind of progress possible, whether ethical or material. Democracy and Science never developed out of the narcissistic reverence for its own culture but from critical opposition within it. And in this enterprise were engaged, until recently, not only the “damned intellectuals” but many activist and social resistance groups, like the bourgeoisie in the 18th century, the unions in the 20th century, investigative journalism until a short time ago, now replaced by propaganda in these miserable times of ours. Even the rapid destruction of privacy is another symptom of that moral colonization. Only instead of religious control we will be controlled by Military Security. The Big Brother who hears all and sees all will end up forcing upon us masks similar to those we see in the East, with the sole objective of not being recognized when we walk down the street or when we make love.

The struggle is not – nor should it be – between Easterners and Westerners; the struggle is between tolerance and imposition, between diversity and homogenization, between respect for the other and scorn and his annihilation. Writings like Fallaci’s The Rage and the Pride are not a defense of Western culture but a cunning attack, an insulting broadside against the best of what Western culture has to offer. Proof of this is that it would be sufficient to swap the word Eastern for Western, and a geographical locale or two, in order to recognize the position of a Taliban fanatic. Those of us who have neither Rage nor Pride for any particular race or culture are nostalgic for times gone by, which were never especially good or especially bad.

A few years ago I was in the United States and I saw there a beautiful mural in the United Nations building in New York, if I remember correctly, where men and women from distinct races and religions were visually represented – I think the composition was based on a somewhat arbitrary pyramid, but that is neither here nor there. Below, with gilded letters, one could read a commandment taught by Confucius in China and repeated for millennia by men and women throughout the East, until it came to constitute a Western principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In English it sounds musical, and even those who do not know the language sense that it refers to a certain reciprocity between oneself and others. I do not understand why we should scratch that commandment from our walls – founding principle for any democracy and for the rule of law, founding principle for the best dreams of the West – simply because others have suddenly forgotten it. Or they have exchanged it for an ancient biblical principle that Christ took it upon himself to abolish: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Which at present translates as an inversion of the Confucian maxim, something like: do unto others everything that they have done to you – the well-known, endless story.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

Jorge Majfud,

Originally publish in La República, Montevideo, January 8, 2003