May 10, 2004

How do you really know what you think is true really is true?

The latest scandalet in Caracs, over the government's discovery of a group of alleged opposition paramilitaries brought from Colombia, is a fine example of the strange way Venezuelan political life now boils down to a debate over epistemology.

As soon as the government made its claims and showed its TV footage, the response was automatic, unthinking, pavlovian. Reactions are hardwired into the political rhetoric of each of the sides, so they were fully predictable. A journalist could've written them up without much listening to what each side said; we've been down this road so many times before. The government and its supporters accepted the allegations as unquestionably true while the opposition rejected them, equally mechanically, as self-evidently bogus. Meanwhile, the other third or so of the country presumably shakes its head in disgust.

In a democracy, it's natural and healthty for political interpretations and opinions to diverge. But for a democracy, it's unnatural and unhealthy for our understandings of the facts, of what actually happened, to start to diverge systematically as well. People who can't agree about what happened can hardly be expected to establish a meaningful political dialogue. And it's this divergence over the factual bases for political debate that is one of the most striking features of Venezuela in the Chavez era.

Why has Venezuela settled into this pattern? What are the forces that have pushed us into this epistemological blind alley, where the sides cannot even agree any longer on the factual bases of what it is they're arguing about? And how do you rebuild the possibility for some kind of civilized interchange between people who can't agree with you about the facts, about what happened, let alone over the much thornier and "inherently contested" issue of the political interpretation of those facts?

Part of the problem for someone in my position is that, while I think it's crucial to rebuild the shared-understandings about the world that can serve as the basis for a sane discussion, my Conspiracy Theorist Mind (CTM) can't quite buy it, because my CTM is quite convinced that negating the possibility of a cross-class dialogue and understanding is part of the government's strategy. This is not a big leap for anyone who's listened to Chavez's radical class-baiting rhetoric, I should say. So again and again I find myself caught in the contradiction between my third-sidist instinct and a government that has spent five years diligently undermining the possibility of third-sidist solutions.

Generating information like the Baruta Paramilitary hubbub and handing it off only to pro-Chavez media (RNV, Venpres, Channel 8) deepens the epistemological gulf. The government must realize at this point that its PR management strategy deepens both the unquestioning credulity of supporters and the furious, damn-the-facts-my-mind-is-made-up incredulity of opponents. And when the government pursues these kinds of strategies consistently, again and again, for over five years, it's easy to conclude that widening the epistemological gulf is, in fact, part of the government's overall plan.

Shielding events like this from proper sceptical journalists willing to ask proper sceptical questions turns it into just another ritual in the chavista liturgy, just another presidential assertion that must be believed on faith rather than investigated on evidence. It's another item in the drip, drip, drip of pressures that are driving Venezuelans to see each other in hyper-simplified terms, as cardboard cutouts or political strawmen rather than complete human beings. As the epistemological gulf widens, the preconditions for a violent outcome are put into place more and more fully. How do you stop this pattern at this point? I have no clue.

But I know that we will not have peace and stability until the entire country can agree on one version of what actually happened, until the epistemological gap is bridged. This is why countries that go through deeply traumatic historical periods need Truth and Reconciliation Commissions afterwards. It's where Venezuela will end up for sure.