October 16, 2017 · 8:34 pm
What was most impressive to me this week was the power that was given to the one article by the journalist, James Creelman, after his interview with Porfirio Diaz. Written in 1908, just two years before the Mexican Revolution, Creelman portrays Diaz in a reverent light, painting him as a saint-like figure who has single-handedly steered Mexico toward modernity. Diaz’s words, themselves, aid in cementing this heroic version of himself, and he speaks as though he is merely doing what the people have asked, sometimes unwillingly, and always with the advancement of the nation at the forefront of his thoughts. He speaks of the trust Mexico has in his leadership, and the points to an economic dip while he was ill to justify the benefit of his rule. He talks about this with modesty, stating that he must overcome his “personal inclination to retire to private life.” Like the nation will crumble if he if off work for a few days.
After the publication of the article, the political sphere went crazy. Diaz would retire! Those who had been given no way to enter office because of Diaz’s changes to laws against extended presidency finally saw an opening. Oppositions that had been percolating suddenly spoke out with hopes that finally Mexico would host a free and fair election. The glowing praise that Creelman showered upon Diaz, in hindsight, seems almost mocked by the legions of people whose hopes were kindled with the promise of an end to Diaz’s presidency, one that some described as a dictatorship. It is clear that Diaz believed he was leading his country toward modernity, order, and progress. It is clear, too, that Creelman believed him. It’s fascinating to read this article knowing what we know about Mexican history. And as Dawson points out, accounts like Creelman’s interview with Diaz teach us that no one can predict the future of a nation. No belief, no matter how strongly held or eloquently communicated, stands against the uncertainty of change.
Perhaps we can also consider how detrimental aesthetic modernity can be without simultaneously modernizing other aspects of a nation. Liberal democratic ideals must be explored if a nation wishes to enter into modernity. Simply building elegant structures and cobblestone boardwalks is meaningless if most of the people are suffering under such progress. The revolution of 1910 in Mexico seemed to burst out of decades of pressure. Diaz and Creelman seemed unable to feel that pressure from “the heights of Chapultepec Castle.”
October 10, 2017 · 9:45 pm
Propaganda, especially when presented by “respected” figures such as scholars and scientists, can effectively work against any gains that would have been made by recently emancipated groups. Individuals like the Cuban criminologist Fernando Ortiz attempted to block or even reverse the acquisition of rights for Afro-Cubans by spreading fear. Ortiz’s publications depicted Afro-Cubans and dangerous and incapable of being absorbed into Cuban society as free people. Coming from his place of prestige as a scholar, writer, and public official, he was able to sew the seeds of fear and doubt widely enough in the collective Cuban mindset, that he did not need to make an attempt to restrict Afro-Cuban’s rights in any way–his propaganda created enough distrust in the Cuban population that the resistance to Afro-Cuban rights was widespread. As Dawson points out, when Afro-Cubans were in a position to discuss their rights, their appeals only acted to accentuate their difference, to “highlight their blackness, and foment further white hysteria over the black threat.” Ortiz’s propaganda had done its work.
Similarly, European scientists such as Francis Galton worked to further entrench racist sentiments by presenting “scientific” evidence that certain races were superior. Again, this claim is advanced by a trusted individual and the effects of this propaganda presented as science are impossible to overcome. Rights-seeking groups are reduced to, at best, inferior, and at worst, dangerous. Though marginalized groups have made some progress since emancipation and a global shift toward basic human rights, propaganda is ubiquitous, and the voices of the marginalized remain whispers next to the powerful propaganda of privileged white men.
After reading the works on women’s rights, I am left wondering if the same attempts had been made to scientifically reduce women to being intellectually inferior, or was the propaganda at the time mostly religious and aesthetic in tone?
October 3, 2017 · 10:11 pm
Echeverria’s The Slaughterhouse was very hard to read. Not only was it told from the perspective of an elite with deeply rooted racist opinions, but the tone of the story is one of dejected acceptance of the inevitable loss of culture to “barbarism.” The depictions of, as Dawson puts it, the “dark skinned people of the countryside” are vile and unfair. They are presented as individuals capable of torture and murder, as completely lacking in social decency, and they repeatedly make a mockery of the revered Catholic church. In contrast, the light skinned European is pained as an innocent victim, destroyed by the barbarians. The text may offer us deeper insight into the mind of an elite in Latin America during this period, but at the same time, it is disturbing to read the embedded racism of the time in such stark language.
The emergence of the caudillos post-independence seems a natural progression. After decades of continued repression peasants, the indigenous, and the lowest classes, would certainly pounce on the opportunity to gain from the ineffectiveness of a weak state. Who wouldn’t rally behind a champion of the poor, after generations of oppression? If you happened to be a charismatic and militarily-minded man after independence, you were in a unique position to gain power and allegiance by forming relationships with the right people. And with an army of underprivileged, angry, non-elite people demanding an interlocutor to defend their interests, you could bolster your own might by appealing to them. It is difficult to ascertain the motives of these caudillos. Were they really championing human rights? Or were their actions driven by personal ambition? Either way, the political landscape of the region shifted away from the state and toward these, in a way, military powerhouses.
Of course, the rise of the state once again drove out these opportunists, or more appropriately, created infertile soil for the sort of domination caudillos practiced. With a move toward liberalism, as in the example of Mexico, the state gained stability and institutions appeared, but so did capitalism. And as Dawson points out, in the span of 50 years, 90% of Mexican land was owned by 1% of the population. Though I certainly support state intervention in the name of equality and aid for the poorest, I admit that I can understand the allure of a charismatic champion, fighting for the rights of the poor, despite that champion’s own motives.
How did the end of the caudillo era affect other states in Latin America?