One of the main reasons today’s left is so impotent is that during the eighties and nineties many of its more important figures began to accept the premise–pushed ceaselessly by the right’s media and think-tank apparatus–that the movements of liberation they participated in during the 60s and 70s, and which changed the world in profound ways, were little more than exercises in excess and irresponsibility.
There were, of course, numerous instances of excess and irresponsibility in the sixties and early seventies.
But the larger question is this. What era of sweeping ideological and social change does not generate such things?
Can anyone who lived through the eighties–with its abundant lines of coke, silly shoulder pads, rampant herpes and general celebration of mindless hedonism–say otherwise? And that’s without even touching the civic devastation carried out by the era’s cruel and short-sighted social policies.
But the last time I checked there was no army of writers and media figures rolling around on the ground begging forgiveness for all the stupid and irresponsible things they did during this latter period.
But when it comes to the sixties and early seventies, it is a very different story. For some time now admitting to having been duped by the ideological and lifestyle excesses of this era, and apologizing for it, has been a veritable rite of passage for anyone wanting to be taken seriously as an opinion maker the US, and sad to say, an increasingly large part of Europe.
This all came to mind as I read Antonio Muñoz Molina’s column in last Saturday’s El Pais, Spain’s leading “liberal” newspaper.
Muñoz Molina made his name as a young novelist in the eighties by writing some innovative and timely books. In more recent years, he has settled into the role of the globe-trotting public intellectual, writing a weekly column in Babelia, the aforementioned paper’s Saturday cultural supplement.
There is much to like about Muñoz Molina in this role, his deep curiosity and unstinting sincerity–not inconsiderable traits–being the first among them. He is at his best when he tenderly shares his encounters with exceptional, if often relatively unknown, people, or when meditating on how contemporary culture may be changing us in ways we may not yet fully understand
He is much less impressive, however, when he tries to play the role of the “Spaniard in New York”, interpreting the Big Apple (where he lived for a number of years) and its culture for the rubes back home. There was a time in the not so recent past, when very few Spaniards could afford to travel to the US, when he and others could adopt this conceit and get away it.
Now, after twenty years of relative prosperity, in which armies of middle-class Spaniards have made the pilgrimage to Manhattan, and many thousands of their younger compatriots have studied in US high schools and universities, adopting this pose is no longer tenable.
He is similarly unimpressive when he tries to talk about the issue of the so-called “nationalities problem” within Spain. Like so many US liberals who claim to love peace but don’t think twice about snapping to attention when told to salute our “heroes in uniform”, Muñoz Molina frequently trumpets his love of the non-dominant cultures of the peninsula, but doesn’t think twice about portraying elements within these circles of culture as extreme or unreasonable when they talk about changing the subaltern role they have been assigned by the juridical and bureaucratic organs of the Spanish state.
And he is much less impressive still when he does what he did last Saturday: 1) apologize like a shamed Boy Scout for having thought, in the Franco-dominated 60s and 70s, that Soviet Communism might have something to offer humanity 2) suggest that there was a sort of moral equivalence between the life-trajectories of Spain’s long-time dictator, Francisco Franco, and the recently departed long-time leader of Spain’s Communist party, Santiago Carrillo.
Muñoz begins his exposition by saying something very true: “One of the 20th century’s most enduring and inexplicable mysteries is the mixture of willing credulity and overwhelming propaganda that turned a regime as tyrannical and incompetent as the Soviet Union into a universal model of human emancipation, social justice and economic development”.
After reading this passage, my heart leapt with anticipation. Surely, I thought, he will now challenge the reader to look around and see which of the things that are promoted today as universal models “human emancipation, social justice, and economic development” like say, the US military machine, consumer culture and so-called free market capitalism, might not be all that they seem.
But I soon realized that this would be too much to expect from an intellectual star within Spain’s most powerful media conglomerate.
Why ask hard questions about today that might implicate the magnates that pay you when you can sound superficially profound asking questions that have been raised thousands of times before (Are there really any educated Europeans or American that have not pondered the monstrous nature of Stalinism?) and, perhaps more importantly, that place the problem of evil safely in the past?
Why try and sift out the grains of noble human aspiration within the largely disastrous social experiment that was Soviet Communism –in the same way we regularly celebrate the fine wheat derived from the readily abundant chaff of so-called free market capitalism– when you can reassure powerful people by confessing–with the appropriate amount of head-bowed shame–to how you worshiped the false God of the USSR as a youth?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, why antagonize the many unrepentant authoritarians within Spanish political life when you can slyly insinuate (he is to clever enough to not say it bluntly) the essential verity of one of their most cherished talking points: that the horrors carried out by Franco and the Spanish Left of his time were essentially equivalent, and this being the case, there is really no purpose to talking any more about past injustices.
Let’s be clear. Santiago Carrillo was a Stalinist. And as a Stalinist, he gave his passive, and also probably active, assent—as an exile who attended important international meetings of the Party–to numerous atrocities. There is also some evidence that he ordered the elimination of rivals within the “family” of Spanish Communists. But for better or worse, Santiago Carrillo never had his hands on the apparatus of state control anywhere at any time.
Franco, in turn, controlled Spain with an iron grip for 36 years and ordered the assassination of hundreds of thousands of his perceived political enemies in the first decade of his regime alone.
Muñoz Molina knows this perfectly well. So why is he playing footsie with one of the most cherished tropes of the Spanish right?
Because he knows, like so many other ambitions “liberal” writers and politicians, that If you want to get ahead, you need to send constant signals which tell the powerful that you are embarrassed by the utopian dreams of justice you once had as a youth and that –beyond a few small matters of style and tone–you now share all the major presumptions of their “mature” way of looking at the world.
Call it the “The Lucrative Industry of Begging Forgiveness from Daddy”.
Thomas S. Harrington teaches in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College.