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The Myth of the Free World: Not Just Political

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Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, in Anthills of the Savannah , tells the following story:

Once upon a time the leopard who had been trying for a long time to catch the tortoise happened upon him on a solitary road. AHA, he said; at long last, prepare to die. And the tortoise said: Can I ask one favour before you kill me? The leopard saw no harm and granted it. But instead of standing still as the leopard expected the tortoise went into strange action on the road, scratching with hands and feet and throwing sand furiously in all directions. Why are you doing that? asked the puzzled leopard. The tortoise replied Because even after I am dead I want anyone passing by this spot to say, yes, a fellow and his match struggled here.

Achebe’s point is that more important than politics is control of the story. According to Achebe, there are some who rush to battle and some who tell the story afterwards. Some think it easy to control the story. But, he says, they are fools.

The tortoise doesn’t fight for his existence. The tortoise is not, after all, a match for the leopard, at least not in usual terms. He just creates conditions, raising a question. And when questions are raised, stories become possible. They become believable where they were not before because there was no need

Simón Bolívar raised a question two hundred years ago. It was about freedom. He admired European philosophers. But he doubted their story about freedom. As a young man, in Rome in 1805, Bolívar noted that “the great problem of human freedom seems to have been inconceivable [to the Europeans], a mystery that would only be made clear in the new World”.

Bolívar made scratches in the sand. And “strange action on the road” has continued in Latin America ever since. There has been no real victory. Not yet. But there should be questions. More and more reasons arise. Obama tells the Cubans about free speech, free discussion of ideas. Yet some ideas barely arise in his country, like the dependence of civil and political rights upon economic and social rights.

Bolívar understood this. So did Peruvian philosopher José Carlos Mariátequi who, like Bolívar, admired European ideas. Mariátequi doubted that “deliberation and votes” offered a way to real freedom because the “collective consciousness” could not support such freedom. He insisted Peruvians “pensar en América Latina”. But like Bolívar, he knew Latin Americanist thinking required economic, social and political transformation, even revolution.

The issue wasn’t just freedom. It was about knowing: How to know that which, according to social expectations, is not plausible. Freedom was implausible, but so was what Paulo Freire called “authentic humanity”. It wasn’t for nothing that the Montecristi Manifesto, initiating the 1895 war of independence from Spain, declared a goal of the Cuban Revolutionary Party to be the “nature of ideas”, in particular, how to know humanness. It is not automatic.

The question remains. A recent award-winning film, Even the Rain, shows how knowledgeable, progressive anti-imperialists fail to recognize the people they interact with as human. It can happen to any of us. It is about the limits of knowledge, and how discovering humanness, in a dehumanizing world, comes at a cost.

The film is about the crew of a low-budget film about Christopher Columbus. The Spanish film crew admires Dominican friars Antonio Montesino and Bartholomé de las Casas, who condemned the Spaniards’ treatment of the local Tainos. Speaking from his straw church in 1511, Montesino asked, week after week, “Are these not men? Do they not also have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves? “

The film crew admires Montesino. Yet they have no qualms about making the movie with Quechua Indians, not Tainos, as if all Indians are the same. And they are not embarrassed about paying the local actors a mere $2 a day.

As it happens, the film (within the film) coincides with the Cochabamba Water Wars (2000) in which Bolivians protested the privatization of municipal water supplies. The lead indigenous actor, Daniel, playing the part of Hatuey (a Taino who resisted the Spanish in Cuba), leads the protests. The European film crew don’t understand Daniel. They urge him to stay out of the protests. He refuses. “Without water, there is no life”, he says, “You don’t understand”.

Indeed, they don’t. And it is not surprising, which makes Even the Rain relevant and powerful. The film crew knows imperialism. They know history. But imperialism has a “logic”, described by Jean Paul Sartre in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth: If some people are considered non-persons, we can exploit them without embarrassment, without discomfort. Without knowing.

Bolívar understood. He argued for strong central government, to challenge such logic through social and political transformation. José Martí understood, and abandoned liberalism, philosophically as well as politically. He saw the connection between a seductive view of freedom and deadening, debilitating ignorance. Europeans talked about individual freedoms and choice without asking how we know individuals affected by our choices, if they happen to be outside our comfort zone.

Like Marx, Martí saw the acquiring of knowledge as dialectical. We live in a causal universe. When we act in the world, the world acts upon us. This how we discover what was previously unknown, including other human beings. But a dialectical causal process involves change, including to oneself. Europeans were talking about freedom as if it comes from “within”, as if the “within” is not a product of the “without”. Lenin called the view a confusion. Martí saw it as unscientific.

In Even the Rain, the Spanish film producer eventually understands. It is because of an emotional connection between Daniel, the indigenous actor, and himself. In a sense, he just identifies one person as human, like himself. But his recognition of shared humanity comes at a cost. It has to because of imperialist “logic”, which is pervasive. He gives up his film project. He now knows the story of Columbus’s racism toward indigenous populations is not a story about others in the past.

Martí considered liberalism a danger to Latin America because it ignored the dependence of individual thinking upon social, economic, political and cultural conditions. Marx saw human beings as “herd animals”, not because we live in communities, but because of how we think, dependent upon community for the concepts we employ. The point is uncontroversial now among philosophers of science. It is mostly ignored in (liberal) political philosophy.

It means we can’t have real human freedom without giving things up. This is because we cannot know human potential without transformation, at least not if that potential is previously unknown, as it will be in a systemically unjust world. Berta Cáceres told Beverley Bell that North Americans’ problem is our love of comfort. And Bell writes that Cáceres never lost her humility. The point is not about morality. Wise philosophers of many traditions have noted the connection between how we live and conceive of ourselves and what we can know.

Some Europeans saw this – Marx, for example. He told a different story about freedom and about knowing. But other philosophers and revolutionaries have also done so. It is not easy to control the story, as Achebe suggests. That is why, in Cuba at least, it is called a battle for ideas. Philosophical liberalism is deep-seated. But the scratches in the sand are compelling, in Latin America and elsewhere. A fellow and his match has struggled, and indeed still does. Obama should take note.

Susan Babbitt is author of Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014).

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