The 2008 Elections, by Ricardo Nirenberg .
“Know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: ‘Real men don’t think things through.’”
(Paul Krugman, The New York Times, August 8, 08).
Indeed. Unthinking brute force is behind common expressions such as “the War on Terrorism,” and then of course we have the ongoing wars on crime, on drugs, on disease, on depression. Few find it odd nowadays when we read in the obituaries that so-and-so lost his battle against cancer. A curious way to say he died. But we are all soldiers. John McCain just said it, too: “We are fighters!” Even very old people must fight a tough battle, hopefully the last one, against old age. And yes, indeed, nothing has more potential for undermining fast, decisive action than thinking things through. Thinking, especially critical thinking, may elicit questions, doubts, hesitations which may be fatal. Think of Hamlet.
The first election of which I have any memory happened in Argentina in 1946. The formula Perón-Quijano was running against the formula Tamborini-Mosca, and the Peronist slogan was, “Alpargatas sí, libros no.” Alpargatas were the cheapest footwear available, a sort of espadrilles, used by the poor classes; libros means books. The Peronists were, or were supposed to be, in favor of manual workers and their cheap footwear and against books. Well, not really against all books. A few years later, with the publication of the ghost-written La razón de mi vida by Eva Perón, first lady, flag-bearer of the humildes -the humble folk- and spiritual head of the nation (those were some of the titles bestowed on her), that book became mandatory reading in all Argentine schools. The reason or motive force of her life was General Perón: that’s what Evita told us, young boys and girls, in her book. We also learned other pearls of wisdom: “Para un peronista no hay nada mejor que otro peronista” — there’s nothing better for a Peronist than another Peronist.
The United States is usually considered to be a “developed country,” and Argentina either an “under-developed country” or a “country in the process of development.” Doubtless in some senses this is right, for example when it comes to miles of paved roads, or megawatts per capita, especially if one understands “development” by “more of that.” But in other senses Argentina seems to be the more advanced. Several times she went into a spending frenzy and then precipitously defaulted on her debt, the latest time five or six years ago, and that was the largest default in the history of the world. The United States seems to be headed, belatedly, that way. Another notable practice where Argentina has proved to be the more developed — the pioneer — is torture. The official practice of torturing prisoners to obtain information, or just for the fun of it, was well developed in Argentina long before September 11, 2001. And so was the official justification: “National security.” The “Argentine way of life” demanded, back in the 1970s and 80s, abundant exceptions to the law which to some may have appeared as evil excesses, just as now the same thing is happening with our “American way of life.”
To be sure, there are some differences. America’s working class, that is, the people who work mostly with their hands and feet, are not into alpargatas; their thing right now is Carhartt steel toe boots. Their despised enemy here are “the elitists,” those who try to think things through, while the Peronists’ enemy was called “the oligarchy,” the powerful few. In this sense, at least, the Argentines were more sensible. Thinking things through did not constitute a stigma like owning forty-thousand acres of fertile land, which made you one of the powerful few. Actually, Perón claimed to be a philosopher. In 1949, in the city of Mendoza (surely known to those Americans who enjoy Malbec wine), there was a world-wide convention of philosophers, the Congreso Internacional de Filosofía, and Perón gave the opening address. It lasted for more than two hours: the General reviewed all of Western philosophy from Thales and Anaximander on. His conclusion was that his Peronist regime, which he used to call “The New Argentina,” was the culmination and crown of two-and-a-half millennia of Western thought. J.-P. Sartre was the only well-known philosopher Perón did not mention in his speech, but he ended up referring to Sartre obliquely when he said, “In the New Argentina nausea is totally unknown.”
On the other hand when George W. Bush was asked by a sly reporter, who was his favorite philosopher (this back in 2000, when Bush was the Republican candidate for President), he replied: “Jesus Christ.” Now, Argentina may be less developed than the U.S., but I believe most people there would not have taken that for an answer, from Perón or from anybody else. They know that Jesus Christ was not a philosopher. Being a god, or the Son of God, is not the same thing as being a philosopher, and that much even the alpargatas-wearing peons of the Pampas know. In the U.S. that didn’t make any difference and I am convinced that the Democrats would not have dared take that up as an issue. Jesus Christ not a philosopher and Bush a bumbling idiot? Better don’t get near that can of worms. Can you hear the screaming from the fundamentalist Christians, and the booing against the elitists who know the names of Socrates or Plato? The bumbling idiot became, alas, the 43rd president of the U.S.A.
The major difference between Argentina and the U.S.A. is one of scale, of course. If Argentina’s default made a lot of people poorer, a U.S.A. default will have far larger consequences, impossible to predict. If Argentina’s war on terrorists in the 1970s and 80s left some thirty-thousand people “disappeared,” the U.S.A. war on terror may sink this country, and the whole world with it.
I am not sure what set me going on this comparison between Argentina’s recent past and the present situation in the U.S.A., which, I’m afraid, some may find uncalled-for, cockamamie and absurd. I think it was my watching Sarah Palin on TV. Her looks, her taut hair and thick make-up, her pandering to envy, resentment and all the baser passions, reminded me so strongly of Evita, I felt a nauseating déjà vu.
Ricardo Nirenberg is the publisher of Offcourse.
See also his article "Inescapable Torture" in Offcourse Issue #20, Summer 2004.
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