December 9, 2009

Subverting Chavismo's Discursive Standard

Quico says: Judging from the reaction, rather a lot of you misinterpreted my last post as some kind of woolly call to hold a nice, reasonable debate with chavismo.

I want to be quite clear about my position here: no critical engagement with chavismo is possible. And, actually, that's the crux of my problem with the regime.

It's easy to mistake that for a rather shrill, impetuous stance; a kind of misplaced haughtiness masquerading as high principle. But lets be clear about this: it's not that I reject a debate with the people I oppose. It's that I oppose people who reject debate.

Obviously, a lot hinges on how you understand chavismo, how you interpret its discursive essence. Some people see Chávez's tendency to respond to any and every criticism with an ad hominem attack as a kind of curiosity, one trait in a broader political philosophy. Over the years, though, I've come to see it as the lynchpin of the intellectual edifice that is chavismo: a defining trait and organizing principle at the center of a strategy for crafting a totalizing worldview.

For Chávez, and for the cult-like political movement he has created around himself, the world is neatly divided between two sides. The good and the bad. The key thing to grasp - and I think there's a nearly limitless documentary evidence to illustrate this - is that for chavismo, the things that bad people believe are bad by virtue of the identity of the person believing them. Escualidos are not evil because they're wrong; they're wrong because they're evil.

Take, to choose one example out of a zillion simply because the clip is conveniently in English, this interaction between Chávez and a FoxNews journalist at this year's UN General Assembly meeting:

Notice what happens here. Chávez is asked a question that, through its own content, suggests that the questioner does not share his views. The question, in Chávez's hands, becomes merely a mechanism for identifying the questioner as a dissenter. That Chavez will not in engage with its substance goes almost without saying. Instead, the journalist expression of dissent serves as a springboard for an attack on him, on his motives and his affiliations, all by way of explaining - apparently self-evident to Chávez - that his identity as a journalist for a conservative provides all the evidence anybody could need of the evil that lurks in his heart, and exempts Chávez from any duty to account for his actions.

You don't have to be a fan of FoxNews to grasp the dire consequences of extending this mode of reasoning to every single interaction with a dissenting view a leader engages in.

The dirty little secret is that, within the ideology Chávez has stamped on his movement, the sorting mechanism that allows you to determine whether any thought, book, argument, documentary, bank, mural, film, newspaper, foreign leader, TV channel, multilateral institution or person is good or bad is, conveniently enough, whether he will submit to Chávez with unquestioning loyalty. In fact, from the totalizing standpoint chavista discursive standards creates, failing to snap unthinkingly into line is prima facie evidence that you belong to the Evil camp, and immediately voids your right to hold Chávez to critical scrutiny.

To take chavismo's worldview seriously is to see dissent itself as intrinsically evil. How evil? Evil enough to imperil the possibility of life on this planet. That evil.

This absolute sorting of the world into good and evil according to the single, totalizing criterion of loyalty to the boss seems to me both irreducibly authoritarian and absolutely central to the chavista system for organizing reality and making sense of the world. Manicheanism is not "an aspect of" chavismo; it is chavismo.

That there is no serious possibility of a frank and open exchange of views with people who hold on to such an ideology seems to me perfectly self-evident.

It's definitional, actually, because within the worldview chavismo espouses, the willingness to treat an idea that Chávez personally rejects as potentially valid is wholly incompatible with revolutionary principle. But real debate, genuine, free and open debate, can't accept such arbitrary exclusions. If you begin by sectioning off whole provinces of reality and declaring them out of bounds before you've critically engage them, what you are doing is not debating. It may look and feel like a debate, but it's not.

The hopelessly flattened discursive standards chavismo espouses - Chavista = good, dissident = evil - is not one we could engage through the practice of public reasoning, even if we were minded to. Instead, the habits of mind chavista ideology is built on are precisely that which we need to subvert through the practice of public reasoning.

When we hold the government to account, when we point out the absurdities of its exchange rate regime, when we rail against the injustice of its repressive actions, when we demand a justification of its spending priorities, we are doing it not to engage chavismo but to subvert it, because when you are facing a totalizing ideology, demanding an explanation is in itself a subversive act.

When we cultivate the habits of mind that allow people to think critically about the actions of those in power, to question them and demand they account for their decisions, we're keeping alive the possibility of democracy for future generations, because we're keeping alive the modes of interaction that we will need to sustain a discursive democracy at some point down the line.

The question, for me, is how we can exploit the particular characteristics of the internet to carry out this kind of subversive work. I think there's a ton to be done in this regard. And, personally, I intend to do it.