Since the times of the Enlightenment, the idea of democratic political order has established that the state’s power over individuals is formally limited by the autonomous rights that the law grants to citizens. Republican constitutional order, in other words, limits the power of the government through the adoption of a Bill of Rights, the separation of powers, the implementation of rule of law and a participatory system of succession through elections with universal suffrage. But because the formal structure is not, nor can be, static or perfect, democratic states — and Puerto Rico is no exception — display internal contradictions and daily practices that significantly prevent the full exercise of freedom by citizens and social institutions. It should be noted, however, that the democratic ethos has also exalted the principles of eternal vigilance and citizen activism, the idea that civil freedom is eternally threatened by agents of the state, social hierarchies and, above all, by representatives of the market (the economy) and that the only way to defend social solidarity and individual freedom is through maintaining vigorous and critical public activity.

The contradictions in the history of modern constitutional democracy have generated a deep and continual political criticism, based on ethics, that is aimed at identifying these contradictions, evaluating their effects and discovering ideas and means of political action to correct them through transformational reforms. This criticism is not limited to the intellectual circles of the world of ideas. It has also penetrated the modern political culture and has stimulated a permanent internal dialogue about social and state institutions in current republican models, including in the United States.

British historian Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most lucid scholars of modern Western history, has concluded that one of the most important factors of the 20th century, especially since World War I and more recently with the Cold War, is the systematic use of social violence by the state. According to Hobsbawm, the habit of using violence against civil populations as a strategic resource — and not just against enemy combatants — is the product of the Western world since World War I, when humanistic values of the Age of Reason were displaced from the political arena. Before that era, wars were limited to combat between national armies and were limited to fields of battle, although on occasion there was collateral damage to civil populations due to new weapons that considerably expanded the radius of destruction. Until the 20th century, it was not part of military strategy, nor was it considered morally acceptable, to attack urban centers and civilian populations. The monumental, well known painting by Pablo Picasso, Guernica, is the result of an international feeling of horror caused by the bombardment of the Basque people by the rightist forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Through his art, Picasso gave witness to the barbaric dimension of this new strategy of total destruction. This historical process of barbarism is markedly different from the ethical policies that had dominated the world of international relations and military conduct throughout the 19th century while the Western world debated between the virtues of capitalist (and imperialist) progress and the critical and revolutionary conscience of republican and humanistic morals.

One of the most distinctive ideological characteristics of this trend toward barbarism was the abandonment by the state of Enlightenment values and the adoption of the habit of categorizing political enemies as subhuman, as racially and culturally inferior. The Nazis categorizing Jews as untermenschen (subhuman), the French army categorizing Algerians as savages (pied noir), U.S. soldiers referring to the Vietnamese as gooks during the Vietnam War, the Israelis calling Palestinians cockroaches and sand niggers, and more recently the tendency of many Westerners to consider Muslims as morally inferior and culturally underdeveloped, are all acts that justify state strategies of massive destruction against civil populations that are considered enemies. They also show a moral retreat from the Renaissance tradition of the natural dignity of human beings, replaced by official policies of systematic violence.

The habit of categorizing human beings and friends or enemies, and using denigrating language to refer to the latter, has penetrated the internal politics of contemporary states in the early 21st century. The most obvious example is the xenophobia that has spread in Western countries against immigrants from countries that are perceived as underdeveloped. A clear example was the book by U.S. academic Samuel Huntington, published early in the century, which argued that immigration to the United States by people from Latin America (including Puerto Rico), constitutes an imminent danger to the continuity and preservation of the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture and, therefore, the well being of the country. The solution, according to the author, is to adopt policies that limit the flow of immigrants and use selective deportation. The hostility toward Dominican immigrants in Puerto Rico, which has led to discriminatory practices and abuses of power by government agencies, is an example of the extent of this social ill.

Hostile attitudes based on class prejudices have also proliferated, supported by neoliberal thinking that the traditional social services policies of the welfare state are a waste of public resources. The less capable, according to this mentality, are losers who are incapable of being redeemed by handouts from the welfare state. Public policy of states today, according to this way of thinking, should distinguish between worthy citizens and those who, due to their nature, are condemned to an inferior quality of life. Puerto Rican writer Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá has coined the term guaynabitos to refer to those who have adopted this neoliberal denigrating posture (which in the United States has gathered under the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party). Rodríguez Juliá has criticized the fact that the spread of this classist mentality born in the business, professional and political circles of Puerto Rico has led to the adoption of reactionary public policies that inevitably lead to the degradation of moral (humanist) values and the constitutional democratic state.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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