power, names, and words

For the first time since the Roman Empire, a single power dominates the globe. The United States of America has a deep-rooted democratic tradition on which I have always placed my final bets with respect to a nation that I admire and love for the quality of its people and culture. But it also has an imperial tradition, one that it has exercised most fully in Latin America, it’s back yard….”


by carlos fuentes


“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asks in Romeo and Juliet. George Orwell answers in 1984: Exactly the opposite of what we think. WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Since classical times, names have been the emblems of personality. To emphasize this, they have often been accompanied by qualifying epithets: Ulysses is “the prudent Ulysses”, and his wife Penelope shares that adjective as well. A wide range of monarchs are known by such qualifiers: Pepin the Short, Philip the Fair, and a whole cast of Charless: the Bald and the Well-Beloved of France, the Bold of Burgundy, the Bad of Navarre, the Lame of Sicily. In post-independence Latin America, these names-of-names have been heroic (Bolivar the Liberator, Juarez the Worthy), pejorative (Leonardo Marquez, the Tiger of Tacubaya; Manuel Lozada, the Tiger of Alica), definitive (Francia, El Supremo of Paraguay), or ridiculous (Santa Anna, His Serene Highness; Trujillo, Benefactor and Father of the New Fatherland). The totalitarian dictators of the twentieth century gave themselves heroic titles (Führer, Duce) or modest ones (First Secretary of the Party). What distinguishes them is not so much the name but the word, which brings us to another Shakespearean quotation, Hamlets “Words, words, words.” There on the terrain of words (Roman Jakobson’s parole, the surface of speech, its linear, irreversible, synchronic sequence), the language of the city (the language of politics) is like Ulysses on his return to Ithaca: It either shows itself or hides.

Despots Great and Small

There is a radical difference, to cite the supreme example, between the languages of Hitler and Stalin, the two bloodiest dictators of the twentieth century. Hitler never hid his political intentions with words. He not only revealed his intentions, but underlined them, converting words into action. “Judaism is a plague on the world,” he said from 1924 on, culminating in his order for the final solution, the Holocaust, in 1941: “We must destroy every Jew, without exception. If we dont succeed in exterminating the biological basis of Judaism, the Jews will destroy the German people some day.”

Stalin, on the other hand, took cover behind a social-humanist philosophy, Marxism, which he never fundamentally renounced, only seasoning it with a Leninist sauce. If communism was the proletariat in power (the final victory of the wretched of the earth), then the Party — Stalin claimed — was “the highest form of the proletariat.”

What neither dictator could give up, however, was the cult of personality. All the old Bolsheviks of the heroic era went to the scaffold in the name of Stalins power, some of them even declaring they had betrayed him. “If Stalin says I’m a traitor, I’ll believe it and call myself guilty,” Mikhail Kolstov declared. Josef Stalin, the paranoid criminal capable of saying, “One death is a tragedy. One million dead is a statistic. Death resolves all problems,” was also able to evoke nearly ecstatic enthusiasm, as demonstrated by these words of the writer Korney Chukovsky after he saw the Father of the Peoples at a congress in 1936: “Something extraordinary happened . . . I looked around me . . . All the faces radiated love and tenderness . . . For everyone, simply being able to see Stalin made us happy and reverent . . . “

Hitler’s need for adulation was no less. “Hitler is great and transcends us all,” declared Goebbels in 1932. Hess echoed him: “The Party is Hitler. Hitler is Germany. Germany is Hitler.” The Führer, always more brutal and direct than his lackeys, could proclaim the truth about the lie with exemplary cynicism: “The masses believe big lies more than small ones.”

The cold-war dictators of Latin America (Pinochet, Videla), having lesser powers than Hitler or Stalin, compensated through the intensity of their cruelty. Murders, tortures, disappearances — the list of the crimes of the Chilean and Argentinean dictatorships is endless. But here we encounter a new factor, frightful both in itself and in its effects. From Castillo Armas in Guatemala to Gualteri in Argentina, the Latin American satraps were interchangeable pieces in a larger mechanism, the strategic politics of the United States during the cold war. U.S. support authorized the end of the democratic governments of Arbenz in Guatemala and Allende in Chile, as well as the cruel charade that made the Argentine generals believe Reagan’s government would support them in the Malvinas war.

Within the U.S. itself, the greatest threat to internal liberties was posed by the Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. That unstoppable and repugnant demagogue destroyed reputations, careers, individuals and families in cold blood. His ideology was anti-communism; his tactic was accusation. McCarthy converted accusation into destiny. To inform on others was the supreme proof of patriotism. To criticize such informers was seen as betrayal of the U.S.A.

The democratic reaction against McCarthy did not only end the pernicious career of the witch hunter. It also began a liberal political response (liberal being the U.S. term for leftist) which culminated in the movement for civil rights, against racial discrimination and against the war in Vietnam.

A Sole Model, a Single Power

I bring up these historical antecedents to voice a serious concern about the present. With the totalitarian dictatorships of the past century buried by their own manifold excesses and atrocious crimes, we may be encountering a much more insidious and modern form of authoritarianism (since Hobbess wolf is not easily put to rest). For the first time since the Roman Empire, a single power dominates the globe. The United States of America has a deep-rooted democratic tradition on which I have always placed my final bets with respect to a nation that I admire and love for the quality of its people and culture. But it also has an imperial tradition, one that it has exercised most fully in Latin America, its “back yard.”

Now, after September 11, 2001, Latin America is not even the back yard. Its the forgotten basement. By contrast, the absence of any countervailing power has allowed the extension of U.S. power throughout the world, as is amply demonstrated by a document issued to the Congress this past September 21 by President George W. Bush. That document does not exalt an individual, a fhrer or duce, but a whole nation. Hitler and Stalin made the mistake (embedded in the oldest authoritarian culture) of demanding personal homage greater that what their own nations deserved. They exalted their names. The circle now in power in Washington is infinitely more skillful. Their emblem is the Nation, to which they assign a value that is universal, total and exclusive. “The United States is the single surviving model of human progress,” Bush, Jr. has declared. His national security advisor, Condoleeza Rice, has put forward the corollary of this arrogant stance: The U.S. “must proceed from the firm ground of its national interest” and forget about “the interest of an illusory international community.”

What could be clearer? The U.S. considers itself the only model there is, and intends to impose this model, without reservations, on the rest of humanity — all of us, Latin Americans, Europeans, Asians, Africans — who constitute merely “an illusory international community.”

But that’s not all. The plot thickens. Just as Hitler acted in the name of the German Volk and Stalin in the name of the Proletariat, Bush claims to act in the name of the Northamerican people . . . “the single surviving model of human progress.” Such a declaration places us once again before the “big lie” that Hitler so astutely invoked. What’s the “big lie” of the Bush regime? In historical and cultural terms, it is the claim that Brazil or France, India or Japan, Morocco or Nigeria do not represent so many other valid models of human progress, with different traditions, goals and modalities equally deserving of respect. Whats so threatening about a declaration like that of Bush is that, subliminally and eventually in practice, it portends the extinction of any model of progress other than the Northamerican one. With all due respect to U.S. democratic qualities, that is what Hitler and Stalin thought about their respective models too.

The Power Behind the Power

That’s still not all. The current government of the U.S. is the political facade of quite evident economic interests. In these pages, and since the period leading up to the disputed election of November, 2000, I have been saying that the Bush-Cheney clique clearly represents economic interests tied to the oil industry. I have documented that assertion before. Now, I view it with alarm. Saudi Arabia, the leading world oil producer, has reserves equal to 262 billion barrels of the world production of black gold. Iraq is in second place, with reserves of 130 billion barrels. In fifth place, Iran with 90 billion. Simple arithmetic will show that, once in control of energy resources of Iraq, the U.S. would become the leading world oil power, reducing Russia, all of Europe, and Japan to the level of its client states or petrocolonies.

This is the true cunning behind the disturbing mix of arrogance, paternalism, and proclamation of human values which one finds Bush’s message to Congress. Thanks to patriotic or electoral factors, that message and U.S. public opinion could become the props of a new form of collective, impersonal, and insidious autocracy developing in the sole superpower.

“There are no endless wars,” Susan Sontag writes bravely, “but there are declarations of the extension of power by a state that believes it cannot be challenged.” The words of this great liberal writer bring us back to the subject of civil liberties within the United States, dangerously vulnerable to the proposals for networks of informants, imprisonment without defense or trial, and secret deprivation of liberty announced by the Bush administration. To this threat I think the Northamerican people can and must react. Lincoln said they could be fooled some of the time but not all of the time, and some could be fooled but not all. They can and must react, with the goal of returning true meanings to names and words. Will they do so?

We have entered a new era in which an imperial government and its leaders no longer deserve historic or mythic epithets. Il Duce Bush, Zorro Cheney, Ashcroft the Jailer, Lady Condoleeza of the Potomac, Rumsfeld the Lone Ranger and Tonto Powell? Not necessary. Too much. We are dealing here with a power whose faces are changeable, changing, even disposable. They can be replaced without major surgery. Hitler and Stalin had permanent tenure in their positions. Bush and Cheney do not. Thats the hope: that the clique who have taken over the White House can be expelled in November of 2004. By then, however, they will have done all the damage that can be done by a power without external limits although (and this although signals the great change from imperial powers of the past) with serious internal democratic ones. Externally, there is no one to stand up to the government of the United States. Internally, there are the electorate (even as mediated by the power of money as elections have become), the information media (even intimidated as they can be by the power of patriotism), and the Congress and courts (insofar as they will stand up for their powers). All these have made the United States the first superpower of the globalized world — but they also make it the first global empire subject to potential internal controls.

What can we call a power so extensive, so intense, and so contradictory? What name can we give to its quasi-anonymous leaders? What fate shall we consign to the American nation? Expansion or explosion? Mysticism or criticism?

Whats in a Name?

So whats in a name, and whats in a word? “My name helped,” said Franco’s sister Pilar in a frank explanation of her small privileges. But a rose would smell as sweet by any other name, Shakespeare said, and “a rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein confirmed. In the end, as Carlos Pellicer wrote, “Roses are the most important things that happen here.”

What I have written so far makes one thing clear: we are not living in the best of all possible worlds. But if we have to live in the world that exists, then we must maintain the verbal creativity that no name and no word can lock up in a cell. This creativity is what gives our speech the free character, “unfinished and infinite,” to which Emilio Lledo refers when he considers Don Quijote.

As members of the Spanish-speaking community facing the dangers of today’s world, let us return to our greatest book, written in the midst of the Counter-Reformation, for its breath of freedom with respect to names. Its perspective puts all dogmas and absolute certainties in check. The name of the town in La Mancha? Uncertain. The name of the novels protagonist and his lady? Uncertain as well, and so is the authorship of the book itself. All thats sure is the freedom to cast authoritarian certainties into doubt — and to build, instead, a world whose contours are not fixed but may be modified by the freedom to say and to name.

Yes, there is a clash of civilizations. But not the kind that pits Islam against the West, North against South, or the U.S. (“single surviving model of human progress”) against all the rest (ourselves). Its the clash between authoritarian, ignorant, exclusive power born of brute force, and democratic, wise and inclusive power that springs from human creativity. Do we know how to resist? Do we know how to choose? War is not peace. Freedom is not slavery. Ignorance is not strength.


Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Four
February 2003


(art: troy dockins)

Originally published in and reprinted with the expressed written permission of the online journal www.autodafe.org.  Translated by Dick Cluster.

Carlos Fuentes was born in Mexico in 1928. In addition to exploring the possibilities of various literary forms, including novels, short stories, plays and literary and political essays, Fuentes has also been active in several cultural activities on the two American continents as well as writing for the European press. His novel, Terra Nostra, was awarded the Romulo Gallegos prize, the highest literary honor in Latin America. In 1987, Carlos Fuentes received the Cervantes prize for the whole of his works. Carlos Fuentes has also written for the cinema. He currently divides his time between Mexico and London.


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