Monday 3 September 2012

Clash of cultures

Aung San Suu Kyi in the burmese parliament on May 2, 2012. (Photo taken from

I have been thinking about fear and the way it imprisons us, it restricts us, it makes us constantly accept compromises, it stops us from dreaming, it keeps us where we are, turning us into mediocre and ‘small’ human beings; the way and the reasons it is being cultivated. The culture of fear.

I ´ve recently read the book Freedom from Fear, a collection of texts and public speeches by Aung San Suu Kyi, the burmese activist, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who spent a number of years under house arrest, but who´s recently become a member of the burmese parliament. This meant a lot to me. The first petition I ever signed, I was 19-20 years old, was a petition of the International Amnesty for the liberation of Suu. One of the speeches I now read in the book started like this: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."

With this sentence, my thoughts flew from Burma once again to the countries of the Arab Spring. I confess that, since all this started, I never looked at them as if they were countries which are now, ‘finally’, joining us – the ‘countries-guardians of democracy’, the ‘free’ west. On the contrary, following the developments of the Arab Spring and everything that followed, I felt that we should be paying a lot of attention, because there are a number of lessons here for us. What I saw in this revolution were people who joined forces to overcome the fear, who acted as one for the common good, who fought for democracy – for the rights it grants, but taking on the obligations as well. I´ve read articles in newspapers, texts in blogs, I´ve talked to some people who come from those countries and what I´ve encountered are citizens who feel responsible for maintaining the ideals which guided this action, who are perfectly conscious that the struggle is not over and that they must be on constant alert in order not to go back. Knowing the course we took, is it a total utopia to wish that they may remain like this? And that this actually works? Because I do confess that there were moments I felt ashamed: for the things we take for granted; for being part of the vicious circle of the culture of fear – sometimes in the position of those who wield it, other times subject to it -, unconscious of the ideals and values we have sacrificed on the way, or rather conscious, but acquitting ourselves with such excuses as “these are the rules of the game”, “it´s beyond me” or “I am following orders”. The words of Wassyla Tamzali, an algerian writer and activist who participated in a debate in Lisbon on the Arab Spring, sound extremely relevant, for all of us. Tamzali quoted Michel Foucault, who said that “Revolution is to say ‘no’ to the king”, and added: “In Algeria there was not this magic junction [as in Tunisia] among all elements of society. [In Tunisia] there had always been resistance, resistence to the ruler had always existed and within various social categories (the artists, the intellectuals, women, judges, miners...), but never had there been this junction of all categories. There is a revolution only when all social categories come together and take a stand.”  

In this context, the interview of the portuguese Secretary of State for Culture (SEC) to the french newspaper Le Monde last month caused me some consternation. Although he did not give the interview in his capacity as SEC, it is not possible to separate the man from the role, especially since his statements are deeply related to issues concerning a people´s culture.

Francisco José Viegas said: “(...) I belong to a generation which at a certain moment must answer ‘yes’. And accept compromises. When our country is going through a terrible crisis, writing in newspapers and blogs about what culture and society should be, how to help cinema overcome stagnation or save the libraries, is not enough anymore. (...) And he added: “We live in a society which has lost its dreams. The portuguese are afraid of the future, of speaking. And this is happening after the Inquisition, which was 300 years ago, and 50 years of Salazar´s fascist regime. Today, with the crisis, it´s still going on. It´s terrible.” (read the interview here).

It´s true, the Inquisition was 300 years ago and the country went through 50 years of a fascist regime. But there have also been 40 years of ‘democratic’ regime. What have they produced? A culture of fear; a culture of yes men; a culture of compromise, which makes even some heads which are sticking out to bend, to align with mediocrity, in order to survive (it´s very much worth reading an article by greek journalist Nikos Demou, The alliance of the lesser; the ‘democratic’ regime has nurtured similar attitudes in countries like Greece, with a different historic and political background from that of Portugal, which makes one think that the Inquisition and Salazar might not be the only ones to be held responsible). 

It might not be enough to write in newspapers and blogs about what culture and society should be. But it is, undoubtedly, enough to be governed and manipulated, at all levels and in all environments, by those who belong to the SEC´s ‘generation’, the ‘generation’ (which actually embraces different generations, including the younger ones) which nurtures the culture of fear, which thinks that it must say ‘yes’ and accept compromises. Is it not time, also here, in our ‘countries-guardians of democracy’, to confront the culture of fear by recovering our culture of democratic thinking and practice? Is it not time to say ‘no’ to the kings and their courts and to declare certain compromises to be unacceptable, intolerable? Is it not time to dream of something more than mediocrity? To educate citizens who are attentive, sensitive, tolerant, demanding and critical, who are involved in the affairs of the polis, who may express their opinion freely and with a sense of responsibility, without being afraid of getting punished for it? To nurture the imagination, to support creativity, to reward effort and merit? To expect those whom we trust with an executive power to be accountable and all of us, as citizens, to take on the right and obligation to demand it? Especially because, as the SEC reminded us, this country (as others) is going through a terrible crisis, one that is not just financial. And this is also a question of Culture.

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