Escaping the future with dignity intact

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A few days ago Carlos Malamud, senior researcher at the Elcano Institute, published a post in the Foro del Sur Foundation in which he reflected on the current tendency to tear down statues of dictators, genocides, slavers and conquerors, as well as the ways to put an end to the institutionalised propaganda of the countries and empires that sponsored these conquests, which, as if they were feats, were incorporated into the DNA of the genealogy of these nations. The reflection was prompted by reading Peio Riaño's recent book 'Decapitados. Una historia contra los monumentos a racistas, esclavistas e invasores'. Malamud takes a more or less recent look at the demolition of monuments that celebrated past misdeeds considered as deeds.

This intelligent survey is enlightening because it already raises the limits and difficulties of what such a revision can entail. If we review the history of slavery in the Americas, we find cases as dissimilar as those of Columbus and Pizarro, to give two examples, mixed with those of the southern slaveholders of the United States, including the enlightened George Washington, father of the American nation, who owned slaves in his possessions in Virginia, although I should add that the hero was aware of the contradiction he was incurring, insurmountable at the time, if he wanted to unite the southern states in the cause of independence. A similar case, Malamud cites, to that of Simón Bolívar, who also owned slaves. In Africa we have the bloody and cruel Belgian colonisation in the time of Leopold II, but not far behind are those of the British Empire, France and the Netherlands, exporters of a cruel racism which, unlike Spain, prohibited interracial marriages with the subjugated peoples.

Malamud, after reviewing other "falls of the giants", as he calls his article, from those of Lenin and Stalin after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to those of Perón after the Revolución Libertadora of 1955, concludes that "there are statues and statues and positive events alongside others that deserve condemnation and a critical reading of their actions. But both reactions must take two things into account: the interpretation of the past must not be ahistorical, and the current political agenda must not be confused with claims from other eras", a reflection that perhaps addresses the propagandistic revisionism of López Obrador in Mexico, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, or the Ortegas in Nicaragua, and their periodic outbursts against Spain, always reactive and motivated by diplomatic incidents that those leaders consider to be meddling by the old colonial power in their domestic affairs.

The reality, going to the heart of the debate, is that our whole contemporaneity today is more a redemption than a discovery or archaeology, a reordering that involves updating history through the various revisions of what are historical memories, and this effort is the true mandate of our time, radically decisive for our inner gaze and for any attempt to remake an honest and true sense of community, "in which our existence is looked at from everywhere", and from all the time that has passed, for it is now we who see ourselves, as subjects caught in the field of vision of the gaze of all past history, as Jacques Lacan advocated in his famous Seminar XI.

Whether it is a question of European colonialism or of the marginalised history of women, of the exclusion of LGTBI groups and other minorities, or of racism or slavery, or of the process of shaping the great states that excluded the regions, the first objective before us is to replace the old metaphors and to re-elect the new antecedents that will now be our own, the ones that we will pass on as witnesses to the following generations.

This is the message and the radical reading of the most postmodern of 20th century philosophers, Walter Benjamin, when he suggests that "we can change history". Thus, removing the fascist dictator Francisco Franco, Hitler's and Mussolini's friend, from his mausoleum is not an anecdotal part of this updating of history, but a necessary and exemplary reparatory action that finally puts us, if I may say so, on the good side, on the side of the victorious democracies in 1945. That is the relevant, closing fact, which should be taken on board by all.

For Benjamin, the possible revolution he calls nihilist would be a kind of redemption in which we should recover the whole of the past, redeeming what has been excluded and updating it, obviously, by means of new acts of exclusion, by means of new exercises of gazing. In this updating and recovery of Benjamin, there is also a very interesting, for us, reflection on the happiness of the mundane now, on that possible "secret rendezvous between the generations that were and ours..., and which should not be dismissed lightly", a sort of communion with the living dead, with the revenged, with the reborn to give with us this last reparatory battle.

This Benjaminian communion with the "living dead" or with defeated and vanquished peoples is in my view the crux of the debate about whether Spain or Portugal, France or the UK, Japan or China, the US or Russia or Turkey, should or can apologise for events of 500 years ago or 50 years ago. To remake and repair a shared sense of community is, as I say above, to remake the founding metaphors and background that have brought us here.

In the case of Spain, which is the one that concerns us, the last twelve years or so have seen the celebration of the bicentenaries of the independence of the various American republics, events that have caught Spain off guard, prey to its own inner ghosts: economic crisis, the process in Catalonia and now the mass epidemic, and therefore without a prepared discourse or elaborate argumentation. Ten years ago I published a Tribuna in the Cuarta of El País entitled 'La estrategia del Acompañamiento'  in which I criticised this strategy of taking a low profile in the face of the cascade of events to mark the 200th anniversary of Spain's emancipation from the metropolis.

At the time, Miguel Ángel Bastenier (1940-2017), a dear Americanist colleague in a Working Group set up by the Elcano Institute, praised the 'wise caution' of the then Minister Moratinos in 'only seeking to accompany the nations, sisters, cousins or nieces, without seeking any prominence'. However, in that Group, there were also others, with Malamud, who advocated the need for self-criticism and who thought that an opportunity was being lost to return to the discourse of Spanish and American enlightenment, linking the anniversaries of independence with the tradition of liberalism and the Constitution of 1812. And with the sincere efforts of 1992, when on the occasion of the V Centenary the emphasis of the emblematic date was placed not on the narrative of conquests, but on that of the meeting of peoples, a euphemism that urged a common future, based on a modern message of cooperation with those countries and the effective inclusion of the original peoples. Spain in 1992 felt closer to those who had drafted the Laws of the Indies than to the encomenderos who sought to break them.

Each generation revises its past, and each generation has the right to choose its antecedents, which is why Cornelius Tacitus, writing the Vita of his father-in-law, the conqueror of Britain, Cnaeus Julius Agricola, gives the highest praise that can be paid to anyone when he says: "he escaped the future with his dignity intact", that is, his deeds, reviewed by the following generation, were vindicated, because he triumphed not for those of his time, but for the time of those who were to come. Today, this is perhaps our most urgent task, which consists of metaphorically tearing down some of these statues of the so-called giants of the past, as an act of reparation and self-healing, as an enquiry into what we are and what we want to be, for what good will it do us today to heal our bodies without healing our spirits, recovering a sense of community shared with those who have gone, and with those who are to come.

José Tono Martínez is a writer, anthropologist and doctor in Philosophy, specialist in cultural management in Spain and exhibition curator. He has lived in several American countries