Skip to content

Response to Review no. 260

After some twenty years of teaching Latin American history and politics I reckon myself to have become quite nimble at hiding my own opinions from students, who often possess them by the cartload and require some smiling uncertainty to improve the scholarly defence of their convictions. Tony Kapcia’s very kind and careful appraisal of Warriors and Scribes shows that I have now succeeded in hiding some things from myself. I am both chastened and grateful to him for revealing my admiration for René Barrientos Ortuño, a military dictator usually vilified by liberals and left-wingers.

 

As a scribe from a family of warriors, I suppose I should not be surprised either at this or by my much more conscious aversion to the public hubris attached to the early career of Régis Debray, whose personal humour has largely failed to emerge in his written work. Anglo-Saxons often deprecate gallic glorification of public intellectuals when we have too few of them and too little civic imagination. There is, however, something genuinely chilling in the froideur with which radical ideas in the 60s were tested out on real usually poor and uncomprehending people with the same abandon as in a sunlit Oxbridge tutorial. Many thousands died and were duly forgotten over here in the “north” except as aggregate statistics, often tabulated in callow Cold War exercises of comparative (and competitive) oppression.

 

The Latin American left has arguably been defined by its failure to understand and outmanoeuvre the “populism” that has rarely been absent from the local political stage not even in the neo-liberal 1990s. Yet one of the least successful responses to this challenge lay in the radical recourse to Leninist schematising, which was firmly rooted in the cartesian vocation of the grandes lycées but decidedly deracinated in Latin America, even where a middle class was appreciable and university education had some influence (Uruguay, Argentina and Costa Rica, say).

 

This is perhaps one of the few convictions not elliptically or allusively presented in the essays, and it opens the much larger historical study Americana. The Americas in the World around 1850 which was being drafted alongside half of the pieces in the present collection. The deliberately multi-vocal and mobile style of that volume is, like some the passages here, based on the understanding that structuralist ideas and presumptions can usefully be appraised in post-structuralist form, that convictions can be tested by variegated doubt-seeding, and that high-mindedness deserves the occasional outing before the tribunal of playfulness, if not outright humour.

 

Of course, one is here only engaged in an endeavour, not proclaiming an achievement. But I think that enterprise is valid because something unnervingly similar can be spotted between the abstract formalism of the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and teaching Quality Audit (TQA), on the one hand, and that of Althusserian doctrine based on categories of ever-receding viability (and intelligibility), on the other. In both cases there is a bias against originality and innovation flowing strong under a skin of rectitude. On British campuses the result can hardly be said to be fatal, but neither is it to be shrugged off. Many of those peddling the new scholasticism are social scientists so mindlessly dedicated to “explanation” that they amply deserve the company of babbling po-mo relativists who would discursively efface all and any guarantees of knowledge.

 

Such is the intellectual and institutional context of the present essays, the first of which was submitted for the 1992 RAE, and I do apologise if the resulting fractured form has crowded out the simple substance. The fact that over the succeeding decade area studies in the UK has been so abysmally treated by bodies such as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has not as I hope to have shown in the piece on Latin American studies since 1965 yet constituted a death sentence. Indeed, one ardently hopes that in the wake of 11 September a more enlightened approach may be gestating on the outskirts of Swindon. It is possible that the ESRC might recognise that econometrics is not hugely useful for understanding the Taliban, for example. But the key is to fund research and teaching on people who are normally forgotten in Whitehall and inside the Beltway. In this instance such people happen to speak Pushtu and Dari, which the British and US governments did not deign, before they came under attack, to have taught and learned, whether in Estelle Morris’s putative “ivory towers” or in some other ostensibly profit-bearing sector of the New Labour imaginary universe.

 

The point, put bluntly, is that we are “forgetting” the poor of the wider world in a post-Cold War fashion but with all the short-termism, and arrogant carelessness that attended that ideological conflict. An appreciation of the apparently marginal and unimportant would be a good place to starting remedying this, and I would be more than happy to endure much blathering about “otherness” or artlessly circulated nostrums about empire and subalternity if they militate in favour of attention to that 4.5 billion-strong sector of humanity that is to get objective “sub-OECD” in terms of GDP. This is, of course, a political point, but it readily extends to most academic disciplines in that they cannot repose upon recycling the obvious, even if they must sometimes adopt Galileo-like stratagems for the purposes of keeping their funds.

 

I have purposefully strayed from a tight response to Tony Kapcia’s generous and scrupulous review out of a desire to meet his request for some plain speaking. I absolutely take his point about my over-estimation of the liberalism of US attitudes to Latin America as a result of Clinton’s “benign neglect”. That was a policy I confess to have supported in the early 1990s out of sheer apprehension about sub-Fukuyama “blue skies thinking” by policy wonks unhampered by the frighteners that the Kremlin had put on their dads during a generation of bi-polar deterrence. Now, a couple of years into the new century, we are experiencing an acutely imperial moment, in which prisoners are taken to a camp in Cuba shackled in the manner of Roman galley-slaves. (Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur could provide us with an ironic iconographical point here, but I shall respect Dr Kapcia’s stricture about filmic asides.)

 

More important for Latin America is the role of US Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, whose adhesion to dogma that neither Adam Smith nor Richard Cobden would have touched with the proverbial barge-pole, has meant that the Argentine people are to be well and truly hung out to dry with the inevitable deaths from suicide as well as infant dehydration in a way Clinton could not contemplate for Mexico in 1994-5. The revived Mexico is effectively treated by the Brazilian foreign ministry as an integral part of the USA as well as of North America, and as a vital denial of any such thing as “Latin America” a term invented by the French in the mid-nineteenth century for the purposes of cultural imperialism and now globalised beyond its sell-by date. Again, I would be prepared to countenance such a viewpoint which would in a trice abolish the identity of the Institute in which I work if it were to promote a genuine curiosity about the similarities as well as the differences throughout the continent as a whole (one of the purposes of Americana as well as the essay on O’Connor here).

 

Such curiosity might, I accept, be sustained by traditional procedures of exegesis, explanation and elucidation. I am, though, still inclined to think that an equally pertinent form is through plasticity of expression. This would more effectively challenge the deadening familiarity of those on the left, like Noam Chomsky, who have a strong but limited point and won’t look beyond it, and those on the right, like Howard Wiarda, who are serially incapable of translating crass but cogent beliefs into decent academic argumentation. When things are clear they should usually, but not always, be written about clearly.

 

Last but very far from least is the underlying issue of history-writing. This response began with mention of strong student opinion, which has, of course, constituted an eternal pedagogic challenge, even as we and our careers slip sedulously from one academic fashion to the next. A deeper knowledge of history, and a stronger confidence with it, improves students’ understanding of the world of their present be it in Provence or Paraguay and so refines their ideas and convictions. But such history has constantly to be “revised” in more ways than simply being rendered accessible to those with experiences distinct from those of (most of) their teachers.

 

If anybody today under the age of fifty is reading Michelet, it is probably through the agency of Roland Barthes, and with more concern for, say, the cultural history of sex than any residual responsibility to the dead for the management of their affairs. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they do strike me as becoming increasingly divergent, and to regressive effect. My own proclivity for anecdote and would-be biography noted by Dr Kapcia stems in good part from that common experience of historians who work in the archive the discovery of personality-in-the-paper and sympathetic recognition of similarity within the fundamental difference that exists between the living and the dead. However, I have also made a deliberate effort to find pertinence in personification without being iconoclastic in a field so liberally peppered with icons. Hence my concern with the “third man”, lurking Harry Lime-like in the shadows, rather than the two visible principals. That, if you like, is the quality-aspect of the same ethic mentioned above with respect to the “forgotten” of the world in quantum terms.

 

This is one the very few fora in which one can without embarrassment return to the 1890s for inspiration. I can barely imagine two more different types, but Acton and Martí provide guidance and stimulation in equal measure. The first began his inaugural at Cambridge in June 1895 by quoting Sir John Seeley: “Politics are vulgar when they are not liberalised by history, and history fades into mere literature when it loses sight of its relation to practical politics.” Acton then proceeds to tread the needle-line between ethics and technique:” It is by solidity of criticism, more than by the plenitude of erudition, that the study of history strengthens, and straightens, and extends the mind.a historian has to be treated as a witness, and not believed unless his sincerity is established.Ideas, which in religion and politics are truths, in history are forces.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper (ed.), Lord Acton. Lectures on Modern History, London 1960, pp.17; 30; 32.)

 

Writing some 15 months earlier, José Martí approached matters from another direction, but with equal application to the present day: “It matters not whether the reason is impatience for freedom or the fear of it, moral sloth or a laughable aristocracy, political idealism or a recently acquired ingenuity it is surely appropriate, and even urgent, to put before our America the entire American truth, about the Saxon as well as the Latin, so that much faith in foreign virtue will not weaken us in our formative years with an unmotivated and baneful distrust of what is ours.” (`The Truth about the United States’, Patria, New York, 23 March 1894, in Inside the Monster. Writings on the united States and American Imperialism, New York 1975, p.53.)