Sometimes I’m taken aback by the lack of self awareness shown by those at the top of social and political hierarchy. If any group is going to be a group of oppressors it is this demographic. However oppressors practically never understand that their direct actions subjugate people. Perhaps since the less privileged class are frequently not perceived as fully human.
The only time oppressors feel sympathy for the oppressed is when they begin to feel infringed upon themselves. This is painfully true in Bolivar’s “Letter from Jamaica”. While he demonstrates an understanding of the autonomy that many of us believe is owed to all human beings, he cannot fathom that anyone aside himself suffers. He considers himself to be deserving of rights by virtue of his humanity yet he can’t recognize the humanity of those over who he has dominion.
Entitlement rears its head again in the writing of Bolivar. He is used to being included in a political and social hierarchy. It is his natural condition to have his opinions carry weight. it also speaks to his expectation of the land he is inhabiting. He takes issue with such a vibrant, fruitful land remaining “passive”. This speaks first to his expectation of un-colonized land to be rudimentary and primitive. He sees the colonized lands as mold-able to his vision and sees it as a great injustice that he is not being given the power to change the landscape.
What Bolivar did not recognize is that he was a visitor in a land of people who possessed the same level of humanity as himself. It would have made much more logical sense to try to integrate into the existing power structures of the indigenous population. Instead he is attempting to overrule the existing dynamics and hijack the orders being given to him for his own purposes. Bolivar supposes he understands the climate and potential of his surroundings better than Spanish politicians considering he can give first hand accounts. Ironically he does not assume that the native inhabitants might have a better understanding of their home than he does.
Slavery is a condition abhorrent to the human condition. In possibly the most provocative section of his letter Bolivar describes himself and fellow colonialists-many of whom were slaveholders- as “lower than slaves”. He is able to do this because by grace of their diminished humanity, the enslaved non-Spanish population-in Bolivars eyes-can naturally and comfortably settle into the condition of slavery. Therefore, when he understands his own lack of power to be infringing on his inherent rights, he can quickly assume the position of the gravely oppressed.
5 Responses to Bolivar and Colonial Irony
Although I agree overall with the message that oppressors and people with social-political-economic privilege often don’t recognise the source of such privilege, I wish to play devil’s advocate with your argument. Namely, although it can be said that their actions may cause negative repercussions on other individuals and groups, it is often not the vision that they have in mind. Also, it is important to take into account that almost any account or decision with large-scale impact can be interpreted negatively. For instance, public policy or private economic policy often helps and hurts different groups of people. It is all a matter of perspective.
Additionally, although the oppressors might be oppressing certain groups, they may be liberating other groups through the same act. This is, to illustrate, often the result of armed revolutions, where the powerless or underrepresented take power, stripping it away from other groups, such as those in high economic positions, in academia, in government bureaucracy, in the military, or elsewhere.
I do agree with your statement overall, especially the part where you say oppressors only recognize oppression when it targets them. However, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that they feel sympathy towards oppressed people. As you said, Bolívar claimed that criollos were in a position lower than slaves while they were slave owners. He acknowledges that slaves were at the margin of society but doesn’t demonstrate compassion or solidarity towards them.
But that’s just my personal view on the subject.
I like your theory about the “less privileged class” was viewed in relation to how they were oppressed. I also enjoy that you made sure to point out that Bolivar was possibly blind to the needs of select groups, as I think this is crucial in the gaining of other perspectives of any leader and their ideas.
Thanks for sharing!
You choose a complicated topic and I commend the writing style you have in this piece. Good job!
Your post reminded me a lot of the Founding Fathers that I learned about when studying the American Revolution. They were in a very similar situation, complaining about lack of rights and preaching about freedom and liberty while enslaving an entire people. I think that they, and Bolivar, were aware of the hypocrisy of owning slaves while demanding human rights, and the only way for them to rationalize this was to dehumanize slaves as much as possible. To admit that slaves deserved rights would be to admit that they were just as bad as the people they were fighting against and claiming the moral high ground over. To acknowledge that the native inhabitants might have a better understanding of the land than him would also humanize them. I think that is why Bolivar ignores the topic so much; he wanted to get rid of Spain but leave the rest of the social order intact, and the only way to do that was to exclude slaves from the conversation entirely.