October 31, 2008


Quico says: One nice thing about living in Holland is that I'm close enough to England to pick up the BBC's radio and TV broadcasts.

It's a balm. With its fixation on high production values, its fanatical refusal to take any BS from politicians, ever, its parallel dedication to very silly comedy and devil-make-care-if-this-comes-across-as-elitist cultural programing and (of course), David Attenborough, the BBC really is a kind of shining beacon on a hill, a day-by-day demonstration of what can be done with public sector broadcasting when professional standards are continuously tended to and political independence jealously guarded.

These days, as the crazy US presidential race lures me back to more and more US-American news sites, the contrast between the two broadcasting cultures has hit me upside the head all over again. Seriously, a few years of dedicated beeb listening left me totally unprepared for the tsunami of nattering idiocy that passes for political coverage in the US.

(Not, of course, that the BBC doesn't step on its own testicle every now-and-then, witness this furious row-cum-editorial pogrom over some deliriously bad-taste prank calls to Andrew Sachs (a.k.a., Manuel from Fawlty Towers) about his granddaughter's pulchritude...but I digress...)

The reason I bring up the BBC is that yesterday, in one of its signature we-don't-actually-care-if-this-is-too-high-fallutin'-for-you radio programs, the beeb ran a forty minute crash course on Simón Bolívar on its History of Ideas series, In our Time. Like most things on Radio 4, it's well worth a listen.

I've long had this feeling that the Real Bolívar is oddly inaccessible for present day Venezuelans. Mythologized and re-mythologized and then mythologized s'more by 178 years' worth of hucksters, dictators and wannabes of the left-right-and-center, the actual flesh and blood man behind the avenida, the plaza, the bank note, the bank and, hell, the name of the damn country, has more or less vanished.

Sucked dry by the legitimacy-vampirism of Guzmán Blanco, of Gómez, of Betancourt and of él que te conté, Bolívar-the-man has entered a weird kind of cultural netherspace. We know nothing about the person they're meant to all agree personifies our nation. The average Venezuelan probably hears the word "Bolívar" (or its derivatives - Bolivia, bolivarian, bolibourgeois, etc.) fifty times a day - often enough for the referent to fade entirely out of sight.

In Venezuela, Bolívar is the ultimate Empty Signifier.

When the historical Bolívar is acknowledged, it is almost always in vague, reverential (if not deifying) tones. Critical appraisal is limited to a broad acknowledgement of the inhumanity of his War onto Death decree and the execution of Piar, themselves highly ritualized as "safe" territory for Bolívar criticism. It is criticism within the cult; criticism divorced from insight.

Which is why, paradoxically, in order to gain some sense of the man behind the myth, you're almost forced to go outside Venezuela, and why this BBC show is so valuable. How often have you heard it acknowledged that Bolívar stayed in his room sulking rather than actually attending Napoleon's coronation? How often have you heard the Monte Sacro Vow placed in the strategic context of great power competition around Spain's ongoing war with England? Or that some of the British volunteers in the Campaña Admirable were so disgusted with his leadership they preferred indentured servitude in the Caribbean to continuing to fight for him? As Manuel himself might say...¿Qué!?

These facts fall outside the heroic arc of the official Bolívar narrative, they've been written out of the myth. They do not feature in our consciousness of the man, and couldn't. Paradoxically, it takes escaping to a foreign source, an English-language source, for these things to become sayable. Which is why this In Our Time show is worth listening to.

(Hat tip: Paul)