Dangerous Nostalgias

Photo from Oakland Women's March showing Lake Merritt

Photo from Oakland Women’s March showing Lake Merritt

By: Gustavo Esteva

We are in a time of grave danger. We can’t close our eyes. But daring to open them demands being willing to acknowledge that we can be caught up in what threatens us.

A nostalgic belief today appears as a program of government. Mr. Trump expresses it in a spectacular and shameless way, prominent Republican Party leaders protect it… and millions of Americans share it. Among them, an idealized image of their country is deeply rooted, according to which they would be exceptional and a blessing to the world. It was formed throughout 200 years and seemed to be confirmed at the end of World War II, when the United States generated more than half of the world’s registered product, was universal creditor and had “the bomb,” while Europe and the Soviet Union suffered the consequences of the war and Japan was occupied. Its evident hegemonic condition was recognized in all the international institutions created in those years, from Bretton Woods to the United Nations.

Americans wanted something more. In order to stabilize their hegemony they conceived an emblem that even the anti-Yankees were able to accept, a paradigm that would convert their way of life into a universal and permanent ideal. On January 20, 1949, upon taking the oath of office, President Truman politically coined the word under-development and offered to share scientific and technological advances with “under-developed areas” so that they would be able to enjoy the “American way of life.” The proposal caught the general fantasy of the whole world. In Mexico it became a religion of the politicians and upper classes and caught on in almost all of the population.

In the years that followed the United States became the champion of national liberation and contributed to dismantling what was left of the European empires. This operation, combined with the Marshall Plan, the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps and many other legal or illegal devices, made a new type of imperial exercise possible. It almost never implied the territorial occupation through force of other countries.

To give viability and legitimacy to the endeavor, those who organized it shared a significant part of the “imperial pie” with broad groups of American workers, who thus enjoyed several decades of unprecedented prosperity. They were very broad groups… but they did not embrace the whole population. The design was put into effect with a racist and sexist tinge that characterized it from the beginning and was applied inside as well as outside the United States. The denunciation of its racist and sexist character was customarily scorned. Many Americans persist even today in denying it as a substantive feature of their society, although it has been inherent in it since its beginning.

The postwar scenario passed into history. The United States also won the Cold War, but the world of today is not like the world of yesterday. It will not be possible to march backwards in history. Nevertheless, millions of Americans, perhaps the majority, share the dream of recuperating the position that the country came to hold. Although it may lack realism, the attempt to recuperate it will cause immense damage; millions of Mexicans and Muslims and many others already suffer the consequences. It also provokes resistance. Those who will try to block that mad path are already mobilized, which has generated a profound polarization in American society. For their own interest and conviction, they could impede the shots-in-the-foot that Trump announced, and will try to stop his mad and inhumane policies.

Mexico will be able to do little to change things there. The apparent unity of the political classes, artificially constructed with the ritual use of the flag, will not last; it has popular appeal, but lacks a solid foundation. From below, on the other hand, we could confront the threats with organization and talent. We could, for example, offer the Mexicans abroad a successful reinsertion in Mexico. Millions of able, qualified people and workers would be a blessing for the country if we receive them in appropriate conditions. And we could become a worldwide example of the dignified way of treating the Central American and Caribbean migrants, if we organize to impede the national shame that represents the infamous treatment that criminals and functionaries give them. We could thus advance in the construction of a new society.

Trump believes, like many Americans, what the Mexican government has proclaimed since Carlos Salinas: that NAFTA was a great benefit to Mexico, achieved with astuteness versus the United States. No evidence of the disaster that it has meant for us will be able to convince him otherwise; he will try to get even more at the negotiating table. Nor will he change his belief, also widely shared, that Mexican immigrants are a problem and a danger to his country; he won’t be able to recognize how much they need them.

A century ago Proust observed that: “facts don’t penetrate in the world that our beliefs inhabit, and as they didn’t give them life they can’t kill them; they can constantly deny them without weakening them, and an avalanche of misfortunes or sicknesses that occur without interruption in a family doesn’t make them doubt the goodness of their gods or the talent of their doctor.” Neither the ‘real facts’ nor the ‘alternative facts’ matter for the case. No one will be able to modify that dangerous attitude that is taking a frightening course.

Machado said this convincingly: “Below what is thought is what is believed, as if they were in a deeper level of our spirit.” We must take into account the depth and extent of American superstitions about Mexicans as we strive to construct new hope, based on our own notion of what it is to live well.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Monday, January 30, 2016


Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee




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