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‘Silence Is Health’: How Totalitarianism Arrives | by Uki Goñi | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books
"A nagging question that first popped into my head while I was a twenty-three-year-old reporter at the Buenos Aires Herald has returned to haunt me lately. What would happen if the US, the country where I was born and spent my childhood, spiraled down the kind of totalitarian vortex I was witnessing in Argentina back then? What if the most regressive elements in society gained the upper hand? Would they also lead a war against an abhorred pluralist democracy? The backlash in the US today against immigrants and refugees, legal abortion, even marriage equality, rekindles uncomfortable memories of the decay of democracy that preceded Argentina’s descent into repression and mass murder."



"This normalization of totalitarian undertones accelerated after my family moved back to Argentina when I was nineteen. To make myself better acquainted with Buenos Aires, I would take long walks through the capital. One day, in 1974, I found myself frozen in my steps on the broad 9 de Julio Avenue that divides Buenos Aires in half. In the middle of this avenue rises a tall white obelisk that is the city’s most conspicuous landmark, and in those days a revolving billboard had been suspended around it. Round and round turned the display and inscribed upon it in large blue letters on a plain white background was the slogan “Silence Is Health.”

With every turn, the billboard schooled Argentines in the total censorship and suppression of free speech that the dictatorship would soon impose. The billboard message was the brainchild of Oscar Ivanissevich, Argentina’s reactionary minister of education, ostensibly to caution motorists against excessive use of the horn. His other mission was an “ideological purge” of Argentina’s universities, which had become a hotbed of student activism. During an earlier ministerial term in 1949, Ivanissevich had led a bitter campaign against the “morbid… perverse… godless” trend of abstract art, recalling the Nazis’ invective against “degenerate” art. During that period, his sister and his nephew were both involved in smuggling Nazis into Argentina.

Ivanissevich’s Orwellian billboard made its appearance just as right-wing violence erupted in the buildup to the military coup. That same year, 1974, Ivanissevich had appointed as rector of Buenos Aires University a well-known admirer of Hitler’s, Alberto Ottalagano, who titled his later autobiography I’m a Fascist, So What? His job was to get rid of the kind of young left-wing protesters who gathered outside the Sheraton Hotel demanding that it be turned into a children’s hospital, and he warmed to the task of persecuting and expelling them. Being singled out by him was more than merely a matter of academic discipline; some fifteen of these students were murdered by right-wing death squads while Ottalagano was rector.

As a partial stranger in my own land, I noticed what those who had already been normalized could not: this was a population habituated to intolerance and violence. Two years later, Ivanissevich’s slogan made a macabre reappearance. In the basement of the dictatorship’s death camp based at the Navy Mechanics School (known as ESMA), where some 5,000 people were exterminated, officers hung two banners along the corridor that opened onto its torture cells. One read “Avenue of Happiness,” the other “Silence Is Health.”

*

To comprehend would-be totalitarians requires understanding their view of themselves as victims. And in a sense, they are victims—of their delusional fear of others, the nebulous, menacing others that haunt their febrile imaginations. This is something I saw repeated in the many interviews I carried out with both the perpetrators of Argentina’s dictatorship and the aging Nazis who had been smuggled to Argentina’s shores three decades earlier. (My interviews with the latter are archived at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.) Their fears were, in both cases, irrational given the unassailable dominance of the military in Argentina and of the Nazis in Germany, but that was of no account to my interviewees.

Because my method was to grant them the respect and patience to which they felt entitled (difficult though that was for me to do), they sometimes seemed briefly to be aware that they had become willing hosts to violent delusions. Getting them to admit that, fully and consciously, was another matter. The chimera of a powerfully malign enemy, responsible for all their perceived ills, made complex, ambiguous realities comprehensible by reducing them to Manichean simplicities. These people were totalitarians not only because they believed in absolute power, but also because their binary thought patterns admitted only total explanations.

Argentina’s military and a large number of like-minded civilians were especially prone to fears of a loosely-defined but existential threat. The youth culture of the 1960s, the sexual revolution, the student protests of the 1970s, all struck alarm in their hearts. That a younger generation would question their strongly-held religious beliefs, challenge their hypocritical sexual mores, and propose alternative political solutions seemed positively blasphemous. The military set out to violently revert these trends and protect Argentina from the rising tide of modernity. To do so, they devised a plan of systematic annihilation that targeted especially young Argentines. It was not just an ideological struggle, but a generational war: about 83 percent of the dictatorship’s estimated 30,000 fatal victims were under thirty-five. (A disproportionate number also were Jewish.)"



"If you want to know what sustains totalitarian violence in a society, psychology is probably more useful than political analysis. Among the elite, support for the dictatorship was enthusiastic. “It was seen as kind of a social faux pas to talk about ‘desaparecidos’ or what was going on,” says Raymond McKay, a fellow journalist at the Buenos Aires Herald, in Messenger on a White Horse, a 2017 documentary about the newspaper. “It was seen as bad taste because the people didn’t want to know.”

Those who have lived their entire lives in functioning democracies may find it hard to grasp how easily minds can be won over to the totalitarian dark side. We assume such a passage would require slow, laborious persuasion. It does not. The transition from day to night is bewilderingly swift. Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released.

Lest there be any doubt of its intention, the dictatorship titled itself the “Process of National Reorganization.” Books were burned. Intellectuals went into exile. Like medieval Inquisitors, the dictatorship proclaimed itself—in fiery speeches that I hear echoed in the conspiracist rants of American populists and nationalists today—to be waging a war to save “Western and Christian civilization” from oblivion. Such a war by definition included the physical annihilation of infected minds, even if they had committed no crime.

Another horrifying characteristic of totalitarianism is how it picks on the weakest elements in society, immigrants and children. The Darré-inspired Lebensborn program seized Aryan-looking children from Nazi-occupied territories, separating them from their parents and raising them as “pure” Germans in Lebensborn homes. In 1970s Argentina, the military devised a similar program. There were a large number of pregnant women among the thousands of young captives in the dictatorship’s death camps. Killing them while carrying their babies was a crime that not even Argentina’s military could bring themselves to commit. Instead, they kept the women alive as human incubators, murdering them after they gave birth and handing their babies to God-fearing military couples to raise as their own. A society that separates children from their parents, for whatever reason, is a society that is already on the path to totalitarianism.

This heinous practice partly inspired Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale. “The generals in Argentina were dumping people out of airplanes,” Atwood said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times last year. “But if it was a pregnant woman, they would wait until she had the baby and then they gave the baby to somebody in their command system. And then they dumped the woman out of the airplane.”

This was the ultimate revenge of fearful older men upon a rebellious younger generation. Not only would they obliterate their perceived enemy, but the children of that enemy would be raised to become the model authority-obeying citizens against whom their biological parents had rebelled. It is estimated that some five hundred babies were taken from their murdered mothers this way, though so far only 128 have been found and identified via DNA testing. Not all of these have accepted reunification with their biological families."



"For many Argentines, then, the military represented not a subjugation to arbitrary rule, but a release from the frustrations, complexity, and compromises of representative government. A large part of society clasped with joy the extended hand of totalitarian certainty. Life was suddenly simplified by conformity to a single, uncontested power. For those who cherish democracy, it is necessary to comprehend the secret delight with which many greeted its passing. A quick fix to the insurgency seemed infinitely preferable to plodding investigations, piecemeal arrests, and case-by-case lawful trials. Whipped up by the irrational fear of a communist takeover, this impatience won the day. And once Argentina had accepted the necessity for a single, absolute solution, the killing could begin."
argentina  totalitarianism  fascism  history  2018  margaretatwood  nazis  wwii  ww2  hatred  antisemitism  germany  surveillance  trust  democracy  certainty  robertcox  ukigoñi  richardwaltherdarré  repressions  government  psychology  politics  christianity  catholicism  catholicchurch  antoniocaggiano  adolfeichmann  military  power  control  authoritarianism  patriarchy  paternalism  normalization  silence  resistance  censorship  dictatorship  oscarivanissevich  education  raymondmackay  juanperón  evita  communism  paranoia  juliomeinvielle  exile  generations 
november 2018 by robertogreco
Missionary, Go Home! | Lapham’s Quarterly
[referencing: https://pinboard.in/u:robertogreco/b:e3995e7d6a26 ]

"It has become a rite of passage for privileged young Americans to spend a year abroad doing service projects—installing toilets, teaching English, and purveying other rudiments of progress. For many of those embarking on such journeys, there is a further rite of passage: reading the text of a 1968 speech by Monsignor Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest. Illich’s speech usually appears under the title “To Hell with Good Intentions,” after one of its most telling passages. Illich’s argument was an assault on the idea that affluent Americans have any help worth offering poor people abroad—in this case, in Mexico. Attempts to help, said Illich, do more harm than good.

Illich delivered his address in Chicago at a regional meeting of the Conference on Interamerican Student Projects, which was populated by organizers from groups that sent young people abroad for service. They represented the spirit of benevolent expansionism that President Kennedy had promoted at the start of the decade through programs like the Peace Corps and, for Latin America in particular, the Alliance for Progress.

At the time, too, Illich’s Catholic Church was joining in the excitement. From the pope on down, there was an initiative underway for sending 40,000 foot soldiers—a full 10 percent of then-plentiful U.S. priests and nuns, along with lay volunteers—to serve their poorer and less well-catechized neighbors in Latin America. Missionaries would carry out charitable works while lovingly upgrading native religiosity with European doctrines and devotions. Such missionizing aligned neatly with the imperatives of the Cold War—a holy complement to the continuing dirty wars against godless communism.

Before his prepared remarks, Illich began by lamenting the “hypocrisy” he had observed at the conference among those now seated before him. He was impressed, he said, that the young people in the audience already knew, based on past expeditions, that their efforts would probably not be especially helpful, and that most well-intended volunteer activities result in nothing like their promises and ambitions for those they purport to serve. And yet his hearers were still planning to send more gringos south.

“I did not come here to argue,” Illich went on to say. “I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans.”

This rebuke—to the credit of the meeting’s planners—could not have been entirely unexpected. At the time Illich was among the Catholic Church’s most brilliant and irascible clergymen. He was the son of a Jewish mother and a Croatian father, an ancestry that compelled him to leave his home in Austria soon after the rise of Nazism. He studied in Rome for a career at the Vatican, but afterward moved to New York City and took a poor Puerto Rican parish in Washington Heights. His success there made him the church’s go-to man for tutoring American priests assigned to Spanish-speaking parishes. By the mid-1950s, he’d been dispatched to Puerto Rico to run an institute for that purpose.

At first, Illich held out hope for the church’s expansion of the missionary project. A 1956 speech, “Missionary Poverty,” described the vocation of the missionary as a worthy exercise in self-abnegation. A missionary “has to become indifferent to the cultural values of his home,” Illich said. “He has to become very poor in a very deep sense.” Even this modest, ascetic kind of optimism faded, however. Clashes with the Irish American bishops who governed the church in Puerto Rico caused him to flee and start a more radical teaching center in Cuernavaca, Mexico, which would eventually become the Centro Intercultural de Documentación.

According to an unpublished memoir by Father Paul Mayer, who knew Illich in New York and Cuernavaca, “Ivan believed that U.S. missionaries would (even unwittingly) be neo-colonialist emissaries and bring North American values, theology, ideology, and politics to the people of Latin America under the guise of preaching the Gospel.” In the last years of his life, Mayer—also a Jewish refugee from Nazism who became a troublesome Catholic priest—remembered Illich’s presence in his Cuernavaca seminars. “Although a good-hearted man by temperament, he did not hesitate to resort to ruthlessness in these dialogues,” he wrote.

Illich’s clash with Catholic missionary policy is the subject of a new book, The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West by historian Todd Hartch. It describes the process by which Illich leveraged his reputation as the Latin American church’s foremost educator of linguistic and cultural fluency for a kamikaze mission against the very effort he was supposed to be serving. In part thanks to his writing and teaching at Cuernavaca, the missionary initiative fell far short of its ambitions. His attacks on the missionary project came at a cost; by the end of the 1960s, his relationship with the Vatican had soured to the point that he renounced the public office of clergyman, even while remaining—privately, spiritually, and canonically—a priest.

Hartch faults Illich for not giving Catholic missionaries more of a chance to learn cultural sensitivity, to do real good abroad, and to bring their lessons home. He also challenges Illich for opposing a policy promulgated by the church, to which he always claimed allegiance. “Even the trickle of missionaries who did serve in Latin America has provided its share of critics of American culture, politics, and religion,” Hartch writes. “Imagine if there were a thousand more such people active in American life today.”

Illich, however, was not a patient or liberal reformer, and he never sought to be. Alongside his battles against missionizing, he published widely discussed tracts that took aim at the period’s favorite manifestations of progress—such as Deschooling Society, against compulsory education, and Medical Nemesis, against institutional medicine. His polemics displayed little interest in merely “moving the needle,” as philanthropists are apt to say nowadays. He refused to compromise with whatever appeared newer, bigger, richer, and better, and he sought to smash these in order that smaller and older forms might grow in the cracks. As a passionate educator and disciplined yoga practitioner, Illich was not opposed to structured learning or physical health as such; what distressed him was when the institutions meant to provide such things become so powerful that they deny people’s freedom to define what education means, or what health consists of, for themselves. So also with the church. A church for the poor, he thought, is no longer that when its missionaries are also ambassadors of American affluence.

“By becoming an ‘official’ agency of one kind of progress,” Illich wrote in 1967, “the Church ceases to speak for the underdog. We must acknowledge that missioners can be pawns in a world ideological struggle and that it is blasphemous to use the Gospel to prop up any social or political system.”

Illich’s outlook, among other neglected and worthy tendencies in the Catholic past, finds fresh vindication in the era of Pope Francis. Illich made efforts to cultivate theologies grown out of the distinct experience of Latin American Catholicism. In 1964, for instance, he organized a meeting in Brazil among theologians who would soon go on to become the framers of liberation theology. Notwithstanding a recent spate of claims in the conservative Catholic press that the movement was an invention of the KGB, this was a theology of Latin America, by Latin Americans. Francis, the first Latin American pope, recognizes liberation theology’s best impulses as such; one of those who attended Illich’s meeting in Brazil, Gustavo Gutiérrez, has recently been invited to speak at the Vatican after many years of disgrace. Since his tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires, the pope has insisted the church should learn from the devotional practices of the marginalized, not try to stamp them out.

The usual logic of philanthropy assumes that a person who has accumulated wealth and expertise is qualified to know what is best for others. Who could be better equipped than Mark Zuckerberg to decide how poor people use the Internet? Or Bill Clinton to promote democracy abroad? Sending affluent teenagers to developing countries helps accustom the givers and recipients alike to the resulting unidirectional flow of aid. This habit, and its corollaries, Illich sought to break.

Many of the Illich’s followers today are more secular than ostensibly Catholic. I once met a Mexican abortion provider, for instance, who cited him as an influence; an arts organization in Puerto Rico, Beta-Local, runs a school named after him. But Illich’s contempt toward the development agenda of the wealthy represents, it seems, an essentially Christian kind of faith that the meek should inherit the earth—and that we have more to learn from them than from the rich.

“Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers,” he said at the end of his 1968 speech in Chicago. “Come to study. But do not come to help.”"
ivanillich  servicelearning  nathanschneider  charitableindustrialcomplex  colonialism  imperialism  philanthropy  missions  whitesaviors  education  hypocrisy  catholicchurch  missionaries  toddhartch  popefrancis  latinamerica  mexico  beta-local  development  decolonization  1968  2016  1967  philanthropicindustrialcomplex  capitalism  power  control 
april 2016 by robertogreco
Interview with Sjón | The White Review
"Q: THE WHITE REVIEW — Where are you from? And how did you come to write?

A: SJÓN — I was born in Reykjavík in 1962. From the beginning I read everything, from children’s books to newspapers – whatever printed material came into the house. At the age of 8 I discovered Icelandic folk stories, which is when I truly started waking up to literature. A year later, I discovered poetry. In school we were given a big collection of poetry, which was to last us throughout our school years, and I started reading this book for pleasure at home. I was reading detective novels, Icelandic folk stories, and Icelandic romantic poetry from very early on. Early reading teaches you the different possibilities of text.

When I came into my teenage years I became a huge David Bowie fan. To be a David Bowie fan in Iceland you more or less had to teach yourself English – to translate the lyrics, to be able to read the interviews in NME. My infatuation with Bowie prepared me for my discovery of modernist poetry, first in translation. At the age of 15 I found a book of Icelandic modernists from the end of the Second World War. That’s when modernism came to Iceland – and they were very much influenced by the surrealists. Somehow, I was bitten by the bug. It simply fascinated me that you were allowed to use the Icelandic language in this way, to create these incredible images and metaphors, and to present such ideas with the Icelandic language. I felt like I should be a part of it. So I started writing poetry and in a few months time I had written enough poetry for a book. I published my first book of poetry the summer I turned 16.

Q: THE WHITE REVIEW — You speak of an early interest in the various kinds of text, and your own writing is not easily assimilated into any single textual mode. As a writer, lyricist and poet, you move in and out of these different formats. What do you classify yourself as first and foremost, if anything? How might this resistance to categorisation link in to your interest in surrealism?

A: SJÓN — I’m a novelist who occasionally writes poetry. I write librettos, lyrics and children’s books but these are all collaborations that I do in between working on novels and poetry. One of the wonders of the novel is how easily it absorbs diverse texts. Everything that is written, whether it is non-fiction, old archives, newspaper articles, lullabies – somehow it can always find its place in the novel, and for that reason the novel became more important to me than the poem.

The novel is encyclopaedic: all of the different manners of expressing oneself in words can find their place there. In the Eighties my friends and I formed a group of surrealist poets called Medusa. Surrealism brings so much with it and one of the first things I realised when I became excited by surrealism was its link with folk stories. Surrealism is always non-academic, always looking for the source of human activity, looking into the back alleys and the darkest clearing in the forest for excitement. Somehow it was always very natural for me to bring all these different things together in what I was doing.

Q: THE WHITE REVIEW — Your novels are hybrids – a crossbreed of narrative fiction, historical fact, myth, music…

A: SJÓN — I like my novels to be made up of different parts, realities, states of consciousness. I now see my work as realist because everything I write is grounded in at least the experience of the character, here, in earthly life. The strange things that happen in the books are what happens in people’s minds, what they experience as truth. That of course creates a hybrid, when your standard is something normalised and accepted as the only way to experience reality.

Q: THE WHITE REVIEW — Music is a great part of this assortment – you’ve mentioned Bowie as an influence, and you have collaborated with musicians such as Björk. Do you think that words can achieve the condition of music, which has a much greater immediacy and is far less freighted with multiple meanings?

A: SJÓN — I think it’s very important to be open to influence from diverse artistic forms and forms of expression. I have been very much influenced by music and one of the routes I took to literature was through the music of David Bowie. I have worked with musicians in all fields – contemporary composers, pop artists – and I’ve worked with very diverse styles of music. But there is a huge difference between words being sung, spoken or read. The emotion that the singing voice brings to the world when sung out loud is something you cannot recreate on paper. I don’t think you should even try.

Q: THE WHITE REVIEW — You have spoken of realising that ‘you could take the classical string quartet as a model for the composition of THE BLUE FOX’. How did you achieve this?

A: SJÓN — I think the fact that I can take the form of the string quartet and use it as the basis of a novel is another proof of how dynamic the novel is. I’m sure that a composer writing a string quartet can learn something from a movie or the structure of film. It was music that gave me the idea of constantly breaking up the narrative. THE BLUE FOX would be a completely different novel if it were chronological. In it, there are constant cliff-hangers and repeated refrains – I’m playing with the element of two melodies that come together but never fully, only in the end finding a solution. It was very interesting that the first people who commented on the book were composers. They said it was very clear to them that I was always playing with volume of information versus text, which is the same thing they do – volume of tones versus time. You can take a melody and stretch it over five minutes, or compress it down to three seconds. They were very much aware of how I was playing with text versus information.

Q: THE WHITE REVIEW — Does your involvement in the world of music, and the musicality of your novels, betray some sort of frustration with the limits of the written word?

A: SJÓN — No. I am in the position where I can move between those different ways of writing. For me, it is a celebration of the many possibilities given to an author. I play no instruments, my only involvement with music is in collaborations with people who know how to do it. It is a privilege to be working with these musicians and to be allowed to bring my words to their work. To hear the words sung is a wonderful present from these people."



"This view actually went against everything that I had been taught in school. The Reformation is presented in Icelandic history books as something very benevolent and it was convenient to ignore that in the first decade after the Reformation life was very difficult for the common man and for scholars. The Methodist church became very dogmatic, and everything that had to do with the old Nordic religion, with old wisdom or old medicine, was banished as sorcery. He is the only historical voice that we have speaking against this. It was an opportunity to put a seed inside somebody’s skull, and take a walk through those times with his eyes."



"The reason that I felt it right to enter this world, this state of complaint against a world going to pieces, is because he lived through the period when the Catholic Church, the only socially responsible institution, was all of a sudden taken away. In Iceland, it is a fact that the Catholic Church was the only welfare structure in the country – we had no king, no dukes, we had no one to take over the social responsibilities when the Catholic Church vanished overnight. All the monasteries were closed down, all the orphanages, the old people’s shelters – everything, overnight. And the duty that the rich had – to keep the livestock alive on behalf of the religious priests who fed the poor – that vanished too.

Jón Guðmundsson is unique in that he is the only one who wrote about this. He bore witness to a world in which man had been relieved of his duty to show charity to his fellow men. This is very much what the last decade has felt like, at least in Iceland, if not many parts of the West. With the deregulation of the economic system, social responsibility was thrown out of the window and all of a sudden the rich became richer and they had no duties any more. This is something that happened with the fall of the Eastern Bloc – the message that we were told then was that capitalism had won and communism was the dark art. The Left lost its voice, at least in Iceland. The centre Left – the social democrats – they decided to start playing along with the capitalists, which is what you would call New Labour here. The real Left was all of a sudden presented as the losers of history, even though these people had been in opposition to the totalitarian regimes in the East for decades. All of a sudden everything that began with the word ‘social’ was a dirty word. The social contract that was established in most of the West after the Second World War, was dealt the final blow."



"In times where grand narratives are needed we look to the grand narratives of our culture. In our case it is the great myths, and sometimes it is to give name to something like the panic after September 11. Myth always puts man down to size, and man realises he is just this tiny figure moving from one meal to another on his way to the grave.

Q: THE WHITE REVIEW — Oral tradition is very much a part of myth. Is this something that can still exist today?

A: SJÓN — You have a whole continent, Africa, which has so many languages that have still not found a written form. There are places that have an unbroken tradition, stretching thousands of years back, of telling the same stories over and over again. Mostly here in the West we have lost the ability to protect our culture orally, and maybe we are in danger. What will happen when all the books have flared up and all the Kindles lost their battery power?

Q: THE WHITE REVIEW — Literary translation and the rise of world … [more]
sjón  2012  interviews  iceland  poems  poetry  novels  literature  writing  music  björk  reality  collaboration  surrealism  existence  humans  storytelling  davidbowie  mogenrukov  dogme95  life  living  perspective  curiosity  translation  africa  diversity  myths  myth  mythology  charity  catholicism  history  capitalism  economics  society  collectivism  interdependence  individualism  insignificance  folklore  nature  reformation  religion  magic  mysticism  enlightenment  catholicchurch  9/11  oraltradition  ebooks  books  words  coldwar  socialism  communism  jónguðmundsson  sorcery  songs  posthumanism 
december 2014 by robertogreco
Teresa Forcades, the radical Catalan nun on a mission - video | World news | guardian.co.uk
"Sister Teresa Forcades is one of Catalonia's foremost political figures, but uniquely for a faith-led figure in Spain, her ideology is feminist and left-wing. Against a backdrop of continued economic contraction and austerity, she spoke to the Guardian about the need for an alternative to capitalism and criticised the misogyny of the Catholic church."
teresaforcades  2013  spain  españa  catholicchurch  catholicism  religion  politics  catalonia  cataluña  feminism  left  economics  capitalism  independence  diversity  culturaldiversity  culture  homogenization  misogyny  pope  power  women  gender 
may 2013 by robertogreco

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