Author Archive

Others’ Thoughts on The Economist’s Foolishness over History and Memory

September 16, 2014 Comments off

I wasn’t the only one who objected to the various arguments made in The Economist’s piece yesterday about how “Memory is not history.” There were several other thoughtful pieces that tackle the issue from different angles. Lillie deals with the false equivalency issue from a different perspective by highlighting the disparities in violence of the left and violence of the right under military regimes in Latin America. Likewise, Mike Allison makes a very important argument about the limits of Truth Commission reports and the periods they seek to “reconcile” even while providing a nuanced analysis that suggests the need to avoid romanticizing the left while condemning the more extreme violence of the right. Otto puts yesterday’s piece on memory in the broader context of The Economist’s often-problematic reporting on Latin America more generally. Steven Bodzin has an excellent piece up that draws on his interview with Ricardo Brodsky, the executive director of Chile’s Museu de la Memoria, that emphasizes both why the museums and memory projects are important historical sites even while they aren’t “history museums” per se. And Geoffrey Ramsey points out how The Economist manages to get the basic history of Uruguay wrong and ends up being “guilty of engaging in the kind of historical revisionism it claims to condemn.”

All are worth reading, and highlight just how many ways The Economist piece fails, be it in terms of history, journalism, politics, or human rights issues.

The Economist Is Wrong Again (Or, Why Memory Is History)

September 15, 2014 Comments off

First, The Economist published a book review a few weeks ago that criticized Edward Baptist’s book on slavery by saying that it was not “objective” because, according to the reviewer, “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains,” a review that was met with thoughtful rebuttal, understandable scorn and justified ridicule.

But that was two weeks ago, and things had died down, which probably explains why The Economist decided to stir the pot yet again by publishing an article claiming that “Memory is not history.”

But here’s the problem: yes, memory is history.

Because history is, at its essence, the study of the past as it relates to humans. And memory is a vital part of that process of relating the past to peoples both of the past and the present.

The article is problematic in any number of ways. It opens with the Museum of Memory in Chile, where “a map of Chile shows the 1,132 detention centres set up after the coup, each marked with a flashing light. In videotaped testimony, victims matter-of-factly describe the torture and sexual violence to which they were subjected.”

Yet the article then goes on to implicitly suggest that such memory-sites are engaging in “subjective and selective” practices in providing their own understanding of the past. This is highly problematic in any number of ways. First, most historians understand that the pretension to any true, “objective” history is a relic (one that, as The Economist’s review of Baptist’s book makes clear, The Economist itself seems to be entirely unaware of). Yes, there are dates and names (though even those can be subjective – are we using the Julian calendar, the Jewish calendar, the Islamic calendar, or indigenous calendars?), but dates and names aren’t history. History is the study of processes, of change over time, and how those processes affected and were affected by people and by historians. Given the multiplicity of worldviews, cultures, classes, experiences, etc., there cannot really be any non-subjective history, as each person understands and interprets the past (i.e., “does history”) in different ways.  That is not to say that different ways are equally valid – Holocaust deniers come to mind as a more obvious example of less-valid interpretations here – but history itself has been built on reconciling and interpreting the past based on differing accounts and views.

Just as problematic in the article’s implication that memory is “subjective” is the tacit suggestion that there can ever be an “objective” source. The author is likely thinking, in a very Rankean sense, that the written word is more “legitimate,” be it in the form of government data, official documents, or, in the case of Argentina, concrete numbers. Yet these themselves are highly problematic. The article cites the original Truth Commission’s findings, in the mid-1980s, that the Argentine military disappeared “only” 8,960 people, not the 30,000 that is usually cited. But this is problematic in that A) the Truth Commission itself did not happen in a vacuum, but took place in a fraught political climate where the military still had sway, B) forensics were not nearly as developed then as they are now, making tracking the disappeared more difficult, C) it left no room for the events in which entire families would have been disappeared, making it more difficult to know their fates, D) it left no room for people who had not been in contact with loved ones for years and who were disappeared, and E) understandings and analysis of both forensics and human rights have since pointed to 30,000 being closer to the “actual” number than the 8960. And in some ways, the exact number distracts from the main point, which is: the Argentine dictatorship killed (at least) thousands of its own citizens in a brutally repressive and efficient regime.

And it’s not like these regimes did not try to shape memory themselves; even they (unlike The Economist) acknowledged both implicitly and explicitly the importance of memory. That was one intention and effect of using disappearances – regimes could literally silence groups who disagreed with or opposed the regime’s own vision of history, effectively trying to monopolize both nation and history (hardly “objective” projects). Indeed, even as such regimes collapsed, they were well aware of the need to shape history in their own way, be it through the destruction of documents (an issue still at the heart of Brazil’s Truth Commission), or even in the destruction of physical sites, as Argentina’s government destroyed prison centers in order to “eliminate evidence” of their crimes. Some of these physical sites are gone, erased from history.

Or rather, they would be, if it weren’t for memory. Because through the memories of survivors of these regimes, they were able to not only recount the horrors of torture, but to help map and uncover sites of torture and disappearance. So if the regime happened to tear down a major torture center where thousands of disappeared passed through, and then built an overpass over it to “erase” it from history, through memory, we have been able to return such centers, and their victims’ stories, back to the historical narrative. How do I know? Because I’ve been to such sites. That’s exactly what happened at the Club Atletico torture center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, torn down and with an overpass built over it, but now an archaeological site where they have uncovered the remains of the building and turned the location into a memory site, effectively “rescuing” the site and its history of torture and returning it to historical narrative. How were they able to do this historical rescuing? Through memory.


The memory site at Club Atletico in Buenos Aires, under the overpass that the military built after tearing down the torture site.

Another major problem with the article is its reliance upon false equivalency, an argument that, as I and others have commented before, is extremely flawed. The article claims that “The historical truth silenced by “memory” is that the cold war in Latin America was fought by two equally authoritarian sides.” As Lillie notes, this is nonsense. Yes, leftist groups, often armed, sought revolution that would fundamentally transform society, and yes, such groups committed acts of violence against perceived “enemies.” But “equally authoritarian?” Even if armed lefts had taken power, we’ll never know if they would have committed violence on the level of the right-wing dictatorships, because the armed and revolutionary lefts did not take power. The right did. Thus, the article is effectively implying a counter-historical “what if” which, while an entertaining and occasionally useful thought exercise, actually is not history (unlike memory). Put another way, whether it was in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, or elsewhere, there was never an equality of violence. While armed leftist groups sometimes (but not always) committed acts of violence, they never had the apparatus of the state, the military institutions that could and did work en masse to repress, torture, and terrorize the population, or the bureaucracies that could cover up or elide the use of such repression. And that’s to say nothing of the systematic use of censorship and the stripping of individuals’ political rights that authoritarian regimes of the right did commit. Put another way: not all leftist groups were either armed or advocated violence, and even those that did neither theoretically envisioned regimes that used torture and terror against the population writ large, nor actually implemented such regimes. The right did. To suggest that “both sides were equally authoritarian” is nonsense, because in order to be authoritarian, you actually have to have access to the instruments and mechanisms of power that allow you to rule in an authoritarian fashion. The leftist movements, armed or unarmed, never did; the right-wing military dictatorships did.

Is memory alone history? Of course not. To rely on memory alone is equally methodologically problematic for historians, and that’s why we often use other sources, written, visual, or otherwise, as well. Yet memory is a part of history. Memory provides a way for people who are often ignored by the “official” sources to be heard, whether it be an illiterate worker who can leave no written record, indigenous peoples whose histories are passed down orally, or just marginalized groups who are finally given to speak beyond those “official” (yet far from “objective”) written sources. Likewise, the study of collective memory itself is increasingly important to historians, as it helps us understand the relationship between historical process, historical moment and context, and public memory – put another way, it helps us understand historically why we remember what we remember and, by implication, what we’ve forgotten (intentionally or unintentionally) and why.

Is memory history? Not in and of itself, no. But memory is a part of history, and a vital one. In light of recent items published in The Economist, it’s unsurprising they fail to understand the basic practice or theory of history. Fortunately, we can remember their failings.

Categories: History, Memory Tags: ,

On Favela Tours (or, “I went so you don’t have to”)

I’ve long been a critic of favela tours, for any number of reasons, few of which are likely unique: it objectifies the poor; it is voyeuristic; it reinforces a so-called “First World”/“Third World” dichotomy that objectifies both the poor and those in “developing countries” (a term as loaded and barely better than “Third World”); it fails to connect local poverty to broader national and global issues and economics; it rarely provides tourists an opportunity to hear the voices of those who live in the favelas, instead relying on tour guides to “interpret”; and they fail to connect local poverty to broader national and global systems that allow for such poverty to exist and that often implicate and involve the tourists themselves, be it directly or indirectly.

In an attempt to perhaps placate and alleviate some of the guilt the (relatively wealthier) tourist may feel, some favela tours insist that the money made from the tours goes back into the community. However, they rarely provide any concrete data or evidence of such reinvestment, any long-term programs designed to address the fundamental socioeconomic inequalities that lead to favelas in the first place. The end result is you have a number of tourists who have likely spent thousands of dollars to travel to places like Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, or Mumbai in order to gaze upon people who likely don’t make that much in a year. The analogy to people going to the zoo to see animals is as obvious as it is uncomfortably fair.

It was for these reasons I had always insisted on never going on a favela tour, or on any other form of poverty tourism. So how did I end up on a favela tour?

In spite of my promises, I in fact reluctantly found myself on a favela tour last week as part of a school trip. It had been planned as part of the trip, and while my objections remained, I also thought it unfair to preemptively make that decision for the 22 students who were going on the trip. If push came to shove, I’d rather the students go see the tour themselves, and come to their own conclusions. Additionally, since the trip had already been paid for, I figured I’d go; I’d been critical enough of favela tours for theoretical reasons, but perhaps going would allow me to offer a more thorough understanding of the ways such tours operate.

The short version: my general critiques still stand, but with a more detailed understanding of both the more beguiling and subtle problems of favela tours, as well as some rather grotesque examples of the overt objectification and dehumanization of the poor that makes up poverty tourism.

It was rather problematic from the very beginning. Our group was split into two vans with sometimes-differing messages (more on that later). In my van, we were accompanied by a woman who did not live in the favelas, while a favela-resident drove us around. She talked, but not once did we get to hear his voice, his account of life in the favelas. Already, others were speaking on behalf of the favela residents, and it was clear that, no matter how closely her own interpretations and narration might hew to those who live in favelas, we would never have a way of knowing it.

As we drove to the first favela (Vilas Canoas), she insisted that favela residents “are poor, but they are happy people,” that “they work hard,” that “poverty isn’t misery,” and so on. Yet within five minutes, she also said that, as the younger generations begin to get a better education and gain access to better jobs, they are leaving the favelas. It seemed rather clear in the guide’s own narrative that, however “happy” and “hard-working” they may be, the broader social stigmas, the living conditions, and the ongoing lack of basic political rights in favelas (what Brodwyn Fischer has referred to as a “poverty of rights”) was leading many to leave. Some might see in this a sign of social mobility in Brazil, but the fact remains that favelas continue to grow, reflecting ongoing and wide socioeconomic disparities in Brazil.

Additionally, the narrative in the van of favela residents’ happiness and ability to work hard struck me. I’m not sure how many tourists would think they weren’t hard-working or happy. There is probably some tendency to associate poverty with misery and lack of agency, but in general, her narrative seemed in some way not to be designed so much to address our own concerns (we had very few opportunities for questions, something I think, perhaps cynically, was not an accident). Rather than directly addressing anything I’d heard students say, she seemed to be addressing views and attitudes that I had heard Brazilians say far too frequently in my year and a half of living in Rio de Janeiro. Put another way: she wasn’t necessarily addressing our concerns, but what she thought our concerns were, based on how other Brazilians often view and talk about favelas.

As for the tour, upon arriving at Vilas Canoas, we walked through winding little pathways, no wider than 3 feet, between people’s homes. This was the first moment of direct discomfort, as we were walking past people just living their lives, able to see into many people’s homes, effectively ogling the impoverished “Other” without any chance to communicate with favela residents as people. For all of the negatives of favela tours, this was also perhaps the most “educational” element for me; it is one thing to read about the spontaneous, improvised, and close-knit space in favelas, but it is another thing to witness it. Being there, at least I was finally able to better understand favelas spatially.

In spite of a veneer of education, however, our presence did seem highly disruptive, whether we wanted it to be or not. Based on at least some residents’ faces, we were not entirely welcome there, and our tour guide confirmed this, pointing out that, while some thought the tours were good, others “do not like it,” a point that she seemed to brush off and never returned to. (In the other van, they were given a similar line, albeit delivered more aggressively, with the guide basically saying that some favela residents don’t like the tour, but too bad.) We then went to a “school,” which, while educational in function, was little more than two “classrooms,” one a small, poorly-lit room and the other, a covered alcove. This was particularly distressing, as we’d been told that the money from the favela tour went specifically to this “school”; again, there was no quantitative evidence to illustrate that, and it was hard to tell looking at the classrooms and the teaching materials exactly where the money went. Additionally, it was quite clear that we had interrupted the classroom, and one of the teachers seemed particularly annoyed as the students suddenly diverted their attention to us, performing for the tourists. We didn’t stay long, but I did not envy the teacher, who was trying unsuccessfully to restart the lesson that we had interrupted; as we left, it was clear he was going to have to further divert his lesson to try to settle down a room of about 5 now-very-energetic children.

From there, we went to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. As we drove from Vilas Canoas to Rocinha, the tour guide talked more about conditions in the favelas, why they were there, and why the problems persisted. In finding causes for the problems, she always came back to the same problem that Brazilians regularly turn to: politicians. Citing corruption and disinterest, according to her, the problems in the favelas could be traced back to politicians. Yet this again only frustrated me, for it failed to place poverty in its broader national context; with politicians the sole factors for favelas’ problems, it exculpated all other Brazilians. Politicians certainly have contributed to problems in some ways, but the ongoing social prejudice against favelas, the systemic forms of racism in Brazil, the widening gap between rich and poor during the military dictatorship, the dispossession of land and unemployment of peasants, and the effects of the “Green Revolution” all contributed to both the migration that led to favelas’ growth, and to the ongoing marginalization and “poverty of rights” that in no small part define favelas. Far too often I heard middle-class Brazilians speak in overtly racist and classist terms about the favelas; yet blaming “the politicians” for everything seemed to ignore society’s broader implicit involvement in the marginalization of the poor in urban Brazil.

In Rocinha, students got to see the hustle and bustle of the city’s largest favela – markets, people in the streets, construction workers. In other words: things that mark any part of any major city. Though my tour guide was not quite so crass, the tour guide for the other group apparently asked why students weren’t stopping and just taking pictures on a regular street in Rocinha, and this seemed to cut to the core of the problem with poverty tourism. Here we were, on a street that looked no different than any other part of the city in terms of its activity; and yet students were expected to take photos here, because it was a favela, and thus, “different.” The very nature of the tour was designed to highlight differences and to treat people living in one part of the city as something to be photographed, observed, remarked upon, over people in other parts of the city. In short: it was reifying differences and objectifying the poor without making any sincere effort to either undermine narratives of favelas as “other” or point to broader processes that may create socioeconomic inequalities.

As we drove through Rocinha, the tour guide talked about the UPPs, or Pacifying Police Units. This led to another highly problematic narrative. In discussing the rise of the drug trade in the favelas, the tour guide said that it was because “there was no government” in the favelas, that the Brazilian state had failed to consolidate its presence in favelas. This is a narrative that has a particularly limited vision of “government.” Since the late 1960s, police operated as “death squads” in the favelas, going after alleged “criminals.” By the 1980s, the violence between drug gangs and police officers grew dramatically, and even when I lived in Rio in 2006-2008, headlines regularly told of “raids” in which police went into the favelas and killed 13 “traficantes” (“traffickers”), only to later learn that the victims were elderly women at the grocery store, children going to school, or other favela residents who often had nothing to do with the drug trade. Certainly, the police, both military and civil, are arms of the government; yet according to her narrative, it was only now, with the UPPs, that the government was trying to establish itself in the favelas. In short, the “government” had been in the favelas for over 40 years, but in a militaristic sense; yet this did not register in her narrative as “government” presence. She did not make the police pure heroes, pointing out that a few had been arrested recently for working on the side for drug gangs. However, when a student in my group asked if corrupt police were prosecuted in Brazil, she simply ignored his question, remaining silent until we got off the bus. Rather than get into the unequal justice system in Brazil, the ongoing culture of impunity among police forces that dates back to the military regime’s 1979 general amnesty and before, or society’s quiet willingness to tolerate police abuses against the poor, she simply stopped talking.

After that, it was a relatively mild denouement. We went to the top of Rocinha, where we were able to enjoy two rather spectacular views of the city from a top of a mountain. The tour guide pointed out how even those in the favelas had incredible views (though I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d trade it for greater incomes or greater rights as citizens). After a little time to take in the view, our favela tour ended.

I had gone on the tour in part because I wanted to better understand the mechanisms and particulars of how favela tours operated and what metanarratives they provided, but I also wanted to see what the students saw. Afterwards, we met with students, and to their credit, even going in “blind” about the broader questions of poverty tourism, many of them clearly felt uncomfortable with it. They offered their own cogent analyses, and if anything, came away with a better understanding of the issues of poverty tourism than with the issues behind poverty in Brazil itself.

I’m aware of the question of whether there can be an “ethical” form of poverty tourism. I’m still not certain, but one thing I kept thinking throughout the favela tour was how much I wanted to hear their voices, how, rather than having an interlocutor from a middle-class neighborhood, I wanted to hear what favela residents had to say about their own experiences, their own views, their own role in society. I’m still not certain there could be an “ethical” favela tour, but having one that was begun by those who live in favelas, letting them speak, and ensuring that the money does actually go back to the favela seems like it would at least be a better alternative than the way tours such as ours operate now.

Ultimately, there is probably little here that is new to overall critiques of favelas. There may be something to be said for personally experiencing one and understanding just how those critiques play out in practice, but if anybody is wondering if they should also go, I can’t help but think: there are far better and more productive ways to address inequality in the world.

Jenny McCarthy – Bad for Latin America

April 28, 2014 1 comment

The anti-vaccination foolishness in the US has repercussions that go far beyond a dramatic increase in entirely-preventable diseases in the US. To wit:

Brazil’s immunization program is one of the most impressive in the world. The government makes most of its own vaccines in the country and distributes them cheaply and universally, which led to a steep decline in infant mortality and deaths from infectious diseases after the national vaccination program started in the 1970s – one chart illustrating polio infection rates shows a complete drop-off a few years after national immunization campaigns. Now, though, Brazil is seeing small outbreaks of diseases like measles. But they aren’t homegrown – they’re reportedlycoming in from Europe and the United States, thanks to anti-vaxxers.

In many ways, Brazil is a model for how national vaccination programs can work, and how vaccines can accelerate a country’s development, health and growth. The country’s implementation of widespread affordable vaccinations, coupled with an expanding public health system, caused infant mortality to plummet and contributed to a higher standard of living, a healthier populace and a more robust economy. But today, Brazilian pubic health officials are newly concerned that some of the richest, most developed nations on the planet threaten their success

The idea that this movement (and its entirely-unnecessary and damaging fallout) is limited to the US is clearly nonsense. Given the nature of global travel, refusal to prevent awful diseases is not just some fringe issue in the US, but a matter of global health. That a small subset of ill-informed individuals in the US can have (and are having) a dramatic effect on populations even where vaccination programs are strong and successful reveals just how dangerous the anti-vaccine crowd is.

Thoughts on Letting Brazil’s Military Investigate Itself for Past Abuses during the Dictatorship

April 4, 2014 1 comment

This week, Brazil’s Truth Commission finally managed to get the Ministry of Defense to accede to requests to investigate the military and sites of torture during Brazil’s military dictatorship of 1964-1985.

I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, this absolutely is a major victory in terms of efforts to confront the military’s repressive past. Military archives and records have often long been off-limits for historians and human rights activists, with the military alternately denying such archives and records exist or insisting they were already destroyed (and even sometimes contradictorily making both claims at the same time). Opening up centers where torture took place will not only allow for the forced recognition of the past; it will also help improve our mapping and understandings of the mechanisms of torture and repression in Brazil.

On the other hand, the military itself will be responsible for conducting these investigations, with internal “inquiry units” rather than external agents probing the past. Letting the military be in charge of its own policing on the past is troubling for a few reasons, and not just because it was the military that originally gave itself an amnesty in 1979, an amnesty it has stood behind and that seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. The fact that there remain both within the military and outside of it many people who continue to defend the military and its actions during the dictatorship, and there is certainly the potential that internal pressure from above within a system predicated on strict hierarchies could limit the findings. And it is not like there is a strong history of the military being fully transparent even in times of democracy. A culture of impunity (itself a major legacy of the dictatorship) continues to reign in much of Brazil both in its armed forces and in police forces, and rarely do military or police officials face punishment or even inquiries into their roles in human rights violations in Brazil’s cities or countryside. It is not unfair to wonder whether or how an investigation into past crimes will be any different.

To be clear, this is not to say that the investigations are doomed to failure, or that the military cannot directly and transparently confront its past, and the fact that it has finally agreed to participate in investigations, even internally led ones, is encouraging. At the same time, it will be worth watching to see how these investigations occur and what their findings are. Hopefully they provide full, frank, and honest accounts of the regime that further add to our understandings of repression under military rule, but given the recent trends in the armed forces and the contentious nature over Brazil’s military dictatorship today, questions will remain until the investigations can be (and hopefully are) brought to completion and published.

Dictatorship Apologists, 50 Years On

April 2, 2014 Comments off

Yesterday, Brazil’s Congress marked the 50th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew constitutional president João Goulart and ushered in a 21-year military dictatorship that killed hundreds of its own citizens and tortured thousands others.  In 1964, Congress was directly implicit in the coup and the subsequent military dictatorship: Congress proclaimed the presidency vacant even while Goulart remained in Brazil and declared Chamber of Deputies leader Ranieri Mazzilli as the acting President of Brazil for the second time in his life (he’d also assumed the role in the wake of Jânio Quadros’s abrupt resignation in 1961). Mazzilli was president in name only, as a military junta, led by Artur Costa e Silva, established control before Congress selected Humberto Castelo Branco as the country’s new president. By contrast, yesterday’s commemoration was to be a more solemn affair, recognizing the setbacks that human rights and democracy both suffered under Brazil’s military regime.

Of course, that did not mean all were willing to cooperate with such a dignified approach. Ultra-right wing congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a dictatorship apologist, decided to use the event to celebrate the military in his speech, with various other representatives turning their backs on him. Meanwhile, his supporters unfurled a banner thanking the military, through whose efforts “Brazil is not Cuba,” according to Bolsonaro, while another Bolsonaro supporter shouted to others, “I do not want communism in my Country.” Ultimately, the ceremony ended up being delayed for over an hour. Yet the event reminds us of the degree to which Brazil’s dictatorship continues to appear in politics even while torturers are publicly named but remain unpunished, something that seems unlikely to change anytime soon, given the reluctance of President Rousseff (herself a political prisoner and torture victim during the dictatorship) to review the 1979 amnesty that pardoned all those in the military regime who committed torture and murder.

The Anniversary of Brazil’s Military Coup

April 1, 2014 Comments off

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,404 other followers