Britain's first book blogger (November 2000). This Space is now a major motion picture, or something.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

From the lexicon of totalitarianism

A notable feature of Latin America over the past ten years has been the emergence of a new kind of left-wing populism, of the paragon is Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. His regime and other usually include some or all of the following ingredients: massive handouts to the poor from the revenue of commodity exports; substantial but selective nationalization not only of foreign, but also of locally owned, companies; the astute use of carrot and stick to keep the existing armed forces in line, along with the creation of an alternative, or "popular", armed force of revolutionary guards; virulent anti-Americanism; and, last but by no means least, a genius for occasioning constitutional change through constituent assemblies, which allow the president to be re-elected indefinitely.
This is the opening paragraph of David Gallagher's review of The Priest of Paraguay in the March 5th edition of The TLS.

Let's run through this sinister catalogue again: the people of these countries get to have a say in the companies that had previously been run from other countries, have an army to protect their democracy, and, like other democracies such as the UK, they're allowed to elect an executive leader more than twice. What's more, the profit from the work of ordinary people goes to ... ordinary people. Don't they also have bankers in desperate need?

And what of this charge of "virulent anti-Americanism"? In what ways are Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela not American? Perhaps David Gallagher means a particular kind of Americanism that is exclusive to one country and is practised by only one country. So, we might ask: have any of the American regimes Gallagher mentions invaded their American neighbours, overthrown an elected American government, installed and supported brutal American dictatorships that use American military power to enforce American anti-democratic industrial relations? Evidently not.

This isn't the first time Gallagher has stained Britain's foremost literary review. (I'm pleased to see Richard Gott respond in the same pages).

For more background, here's an unpacking of the term "anti-Americanism" by someone often accused of it:
The notion “anti-Americanism” is a revealing one. It is drawn from the lexicon of totalitarianism. Thus people who think that the US is the greatest country in the world are "anti-American" if they criticize the acts of the Holy State, or join the vast majority of the population in believing that the corporate sector has far too much influence over government policy, or regard private corporate institutions created by state power and granted extraordinary rights as "a return to feudalism" (to quote old-fashioned conservatives, a category that now scarcely exists). And so on.

In totalitarian societies, the usage is standard. In the former Soviet Union, for example, dissidents were condemned as "anti-Soviet" or "anti-Russian." Where a democratic culture prevails, the usage would be regarded as comical. If people who criticize Irish government policies were condemned as "anti-Irish," I suppose people would collapse in ridicule in the streets of Dublin. At least they should.

The notion has an interesting history. It traces back to King Ahab, the epitome of evil in the Bible, who denounced the Prophet Elijah as an “ocher Yisrael” (a proper translation, now used in Israel, is "hater of Israel"). His reason was that Elijah condemned the acts of the evil King, who, like totalitarians since, identified the state (himself) with the population, the culture, the society.

People are entitled to revere King Ahab and Soviet commissars, and to adopt the term "anti-American," on their model. But we should have no illusions about how they are choosing to identify themselves.

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