Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Adolfo Casais Monteiro Part II: a dictator has no other yearning than suppressing censorship

After Adolfo Casais Monteiro’s valiant defence of the First Portuguese Republic, let’s see him get deeper inside Salazar’s regime. Or better yet, let’s go outside the regime to look at it from another angle: the empire’s colonies. Portugal, if I’m not mistaken, was the last European empire to crumble, and only after a bloody war that lasted thirteen years. In 1961 the imperial remnants woke up and began to fight for their freedom, in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea. The war only ended in 1974, after the dictatorship fell and independence was granted to all the colonies. But there wasn’t fighting only in African jungles, there was also political, diplomatic fighting taking place at international organizations. For the most part, Casais Monteiro was disappointed with the “‘democratic’ assemblies that are the UN and NATO.” According to him, they did not do enough to emancipate the colonies, and in fact hindered their democratic aspirations. “Such organizations continue to serve interests, and not to defend principles – except when those don’t collide against interests.” For him it was bad enough the UN had accepted a country that disrespected the basic human rights enshrined in the UN charter. “How can they continue to keep their eyes shut, regarding the stubbornness with which mr. Salazar insists in compromising before the eyes of public opinion, making it clear they’re protecting the pure essence of intolerance, of tyranny and of oppression, feeding in their democratic midst the serpent of fanaticism, helping the use of fear and of violence as a way of government?” But it was NATO, and America behind it, that made his blood boil, having accepted Portugal’s membership because of Salazar’s anti-communist stance, ignoring his disrespect for civil liberties. But we’re all used to this, right?

But the colonies. After the Portuguese Empire reached its zenith in the 16th century, a slow decline imposed upon the nation, and it started losing bits of itself. By the end of the 19th century it had lost Brazil and its wondrous gold mines, and it was down to a few locations in India (Macau, Goa) and Africa. They meant more as a national symbol than for any genuine usefulness, not to mention Portugal never had enough people to properly populate them or the money to exploit its most valuable resources: diamonds, oil, etc. The colonies represented above all the delusion that Portugal was still a powerful nation, that stretched across the globe. It was propaganda for internal consumption, of course; but as Casais Monteiro notes, it was the lynchpin of the regime. “Contrarily to what happens with the political regimes of France and England, the colonial problem constitutes, for Portugal, a matter of life and death. Not for economic motives, but because a regime of strength cannot withstand the consequences of stepping back. Salazar cannot admit another solution other than the current situation; to compromise would be, for him, death. Negotiating would be the inevitable end of the dictatorship; to even accept an autonomous statute for these territories would be to abdicate of the supposed patriotism that stops him from accepting the simplest of evidences. At the same time, to discuss with the colonies’ enslaved peoples would be giving them more rights and more freedom than to the Portuguese. How could Salazar discuss with them, when he never discussed with his countrymen, nor granted them the right to disagree?”

It was because Salazar could not give up the colonies without ruining himself that he failed to see, or ignored altogether, the winds of change that swept Europe after World War II. The experiences of France and England with Algeria and India should have prepared Portugal for the colonial twilight, but instead it presumed to be exceptional and immune to the decadence of the other European empires. But this was more propaganda to reassure the flock in Portugal. “The truth is that we, Portuguese, had never thought about the colonial problem. We accepted a condition established as evident by itself. We were – we are still, woe betide us! – a politically immature people sentimentally solving difficulties, accepting the commodious traditional version of a paternalism that would make of the blacks sacrificed to colonialism a sort of children who wanted nothing but the white man’s ‘protection;’ we thought the other nations exploited the blacks – but not us!” And so one day the colonies became a big problem that forced Portugal, so used to secrecy and to solve everything indoor, preferably with lots of censorship to the mix, had to go wash its dirty laundry not only publicly but at the UN. But this also had its entertaining side, like when a literary critic was invited by Salazar to go to the UN Assembly regurgitate the same propaganda the regime spewed at home. “I’m amused to see the excellent literary critic Franco Nogueira being derailed into diplomacy in such an untimely moment, having no other option but to echo, from the UN’s tribune, the absurdities that in Portugal are uttered, which is not overly harmful – for it’s as if nobody heard them. But at the UN – poor Franco Nogueira! – in the face of all those ex-colonized and semi-colonized still, to utter the same things that are published in the dailies of Portugal to reassure the same people uttering them – it’s too ridiculous, besides being too regrettable. If the stones from the sidewalk don’t rise, it’s only because for every sidewalk stone there are two PIDE [secret police] agents.”

Adolfo Casais Monteiro was a passionate supporter of the colonies’ independence, and I’ll wrap this theme with this excellent meditation of the right to self-rule: “Indeed, if a people only has the right to self-rule AFTER it’s achieved maturity, we need a criterion for maturity: and who is going to establish it? how to define the ‘political, moral and economic capacity’ that would be necessary for such?
   Every dictator claims precisely, against the will of the people they oppress, this alleged lack of maturity. They suppress the instruments of democracy to save their nations from disorder and the chaos they’d fall into if their wise iron hand did not lead them. It must be asked: on what grounds can we deny to the African people the right to govern themselves, without falling back into the same attitude of dictators?” This could have been written about the Arab Spring two years ago.

Let’s move on to censorship and propaganda. These two instruments are essential for the survival of the regime. Propaganda because it creates the illusion the regime is stronger than it looks. One idea Casais Monteiro likes to repeat is that dictatorships are less strong than they seem. “Indeed, tyranny has nothing virile. It’s craven in its own essence. It claims to be strong – but it lacks strength to accept fighting face to face. It needs crowds dragged by whatever means, bought by whatever means, or simply forced. Of crowds absolutely devoid of personality, good only for taking pictures, in order to use that democratic reason to convince the world that the regime of force… expresses the popular will.” And then censorship, not only to silence dissent, but to protect its own supporters. “It’s not only its adversaries that the Estado Novo wants to shut up – I’d almost say: it’s the actual consciousnesses of its flock that it needs to hide the truth from, the tremendous truth: the total insubstantiality of power, secured only by force. And wouldn’t force, without the censorship, start to wobble?” Censorship is one of his favourite targets, and it gives him occasion to dissect the mind of the dictatorship with his usual mordant wit:

   A dictator has no other yearning than suppressing censorship. I know a country where they’re elaborating a media law for years now… to replace it. This moving ingenuity hasn’t yet succeeded, of course, in reaching its goal because the most industrious lawmen can’t find a way of making a media law from whose articles they can obtain the same results a censorship committee does. How to make a law with articles like this: ‘It’s forbidden to denounce any theft or abuse when these are committed by the State?!’ Or else: ‘The press cannot say that there is hunger, that there are people in prisons, that the police beats up political prisoners?!’
   The dictator’s wish for legality even becomes touching. His greatest desire is to be, like the Tsar of all Russias, the “little father.” And on that behalf he does everything: he fires teachers, he closes down schools, he opens up always more jails, he always steals more money, everything in the hope that, paying here, exonerating here, one reaches at least the ‘union of the national family,’ his much intended goal. His greatest surprise is when, for instance, forced by international circumstances to ‘open the faucets’ for a few days, for an electoral simulacrum, suddenly there is, from every direction, the terrible voice of public opinion shouting: We don’t want this regime! Then the Boss, tears in his voice, speaks his bitterness for seeing that, after so many years in that ideal regime, it seems there are some who are in disagreement with him.

And so it’s time for Salazar to make his big entrance. Casais Monteiro, like the decent human being he is, can’t hide his absolute repulsion for Salazar. Thankfully he channelled that nausea into fascinating analyses of how dictators think. Let’s begin with this apt analogy that I think is original to him:

   Dictators speak, to their countrymen, in the same language that occupation troops use with citizens of a foreign country. More concretely: Salazar, and any of his minions, addresses his people in the same style used by Hitler’s generals in proclamations directed at French or Italians. Summing up, and even more concretely: in the same way the occupation authorities began by giving sweet advices, and making mellifluous declarations of love, spontaneously asking for cooperation, to end up making (and performing) the most horrifying threats, so does our little tyrant lack any other note in his musical sheet: he directly goes from asking love to offering a beating.
   I speak metaphorically. Salazar does not ask love, for he doesn’t know what that is; and he doesn’t offer a beating, because that would be a sincere declaration, a thing which he admittedly rejects.

And from this he extracts what may be the best definition of a dictator ever: “Tyrants are, in truth, an occupational force.”

Casais Monteiro gets more specific. He points out Salazar’s quiet sadism and the joy he has in making people quake in fear of him, and why it’s so satisfying for him to reduce his enemies to silence. “Yes, the crime is to have an opinion, or better yet: it’s to challenge the never satisfied vanity of mr. Salazar, for whom the chorus of his grovellers is not enough. What he wants is the silence of his adversaries, it’s to rule over a cemetery from which no voice rises anymore. But I’m not being precise: I fully know that mr. Salazar’s pleasure is knowing that his adversary is alive, but gagged; knowing that he has a voice, but can’t speak, it’s to trundle through a people, and knowing it suffers.” He also has something to say about the perennial myth that Salazar, whatever flaws he had, was a man of honour. Casais Monteiro is very succinct on that point: “If dictatorships kept their word… they wouldn’t be dictatorships. If mr. Salazar kept his word today he’d still only be a Professor of Finances in the Faculty of Law in Coimbra (…). Wherever there’s a dictator, ‘keeping one’s word’ is an expression that has stopped making any sense.” And yet his apologists continue to insist in this remarkable virtue. Another topic very dear to his defenders, which I’ve mentioned before, is that some people take umbrage at him being called a fascist. Salazar was not a fascist! His regime was something totally different than Fascism and Nazism; for God’s sake, look at the evidence, he was a Christian and everybody knows Mussolini and Hitler were atheists! No, really, this argument is used. Casais Monteiro concedes the fact that Salazar was a one-of-a-kind fascist. “Salazar is not a dictator who shouts the supposed virility of force to the four winds; in that regard he’s distinguished himself from Hitler and Mussolini, and even Franco. Salazar never ordered anyone to be shot – but many people have been “allowed to die” by him. Portugal had and has its death camps, but he never ‘sentenced’ his opponents to one of them. When the police shoot someone dead, it’s as if by personal inspiration, or by ‘excessive zeal.’ Salazar likes a “proactive slap” and this gives him the look of a professor accused of hitting his students, who smiles mercifully when he’s accused, as if to say that boys need to be treated like that, in order to respect the authority of the master…”

In the third and final part Adolfo Casais Monteiro discusses intellectuals and Sartre’s engagement.

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