Power and the Intellectuals

A student once asked me: “If Latin America has always had so many good writers, why is it so poor?” The answer is multiple. First one would have to problematize a little something that seems obvious: what do we mean when we talk about poverty? What do we mean when we talk about success? I am certain that the concept assumed in both cases is the same one understood by Donald Duck and his uncle. As Ariel Dorfman observed, for the Disney characters there are only two possible forms of success: money and fame. The Disney characters neither work nor love: they conquer – if they are male – or seduce – if they are female. Which is why we never encounter among them workers or fathers or mothers.

Now, on the other hand we have to answer a rhetorical question: “And when in Latin America have the structures of power, the governments and private enterprises, ever paid any attention to the intellectuals?” The answer is again multiple. Yes, in the 19th century there were intellectual presidents, when they weren’t military men. In the following century the former became scarce and the latter abundant. Although I believe it would be better to listen a little to someone who has dedicated their life to study instead of listening to so many opinions about politics, economics and culture from soccer players and movie stars, I don’t believe we intellectuals should have a central voice in society or in the decisions about its future. It is curious that in these times the intellectuals don’t play soccer or displace the actors from the theater stage, and don’t take work from the politicians, and yet any sports figure, star of film or of “the real world' repeatedly exercises their right to publicly express their thoughts even though they might not be thoughts so much as spontaneous vibrations of the moment. An old man who has spent his life researching birds is a failure; but if Madonna or Maradona has an opinion about ornithology they are listened to and discussed on a mass scale.

In the 20th century intellectuals were systematically expelled or demoted by the power structures. According to César Milstein, when military leaders in Argentina took control of civilian power in the 1960s, they declared that our countries would be put in order as soon as all the intellectuals who were meddling in the region were expelled. In Brazil, the educator Paulo Freire was kicked out of the country for being ignorant, according to the organizers of the coup d’ etat of the moment. To cite just two of our many cases.

But this contempt that arises from a power installed in the social institutions and from the inferiority complex of its actors, is not a property of “underdeveloped” countries. In the United States they don’t listen to their intellectuals either. In fact, it is always the critical intellectuals, writers or artists who head the top-ten lists of the most stupid of the stupid in the country. Intellectuals are stupid, and those who make these lists, who are they? The same as always: prideful men and women with “common sense,” as if this distorted claim to realism were not heavily laden with fantasies and ideologies at the service of the status quo. “Common sense” is what the common men and women had who asserted that the Earth was flat like a table; Calvin was a man of “common sense” who ordered that Miguel de Servet be burned alive, after he tired of arguing about theology via correspondence with his adversary. It was men of “common sense” who obligated Galileo Galilei to retract his claims and shut his stupid mouth, as were those others who mocked the pretensions of a carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth.

A character from the novel Incident in Antares, by Érico Veríssimo, reflected: “During the Hitler era the German humanists emigrated. As a result, the technocrats were given free reign.”And later: “When President Truman and the generals of the Pentagon met, under the greatest secrecy, to decide whether or not to drop the first atomic bomb over a Japanese city… do you think they invited to that meeting a humanist, artist, scientist, writer or priest?”

--Translated by Bruce Campbell.