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Repression By Any Other Name

February 7, 2014

From “Repression By Any Other Name” by Ariel Dorfman in Guernica:

Of course, the U.S. government will continue to spy, no matter what limited and cosmetic restrictions may henceforth be enacted, and of course the criminalization of journalists who question or inform about these activities and methods is bound to increase as leaks and whistleblowers proliferate. And yet, almost every time I bring up the cautionary example of Chile, I tend to be harangued with something approaching flippancy: Hey, not to worry, what happened there can’t happen here.

A warning for those who bask in the glow of that self-congratulatory phrase, “It can’t happen here.” We also chanted those words in the streets of Santiago and from the hills of Valparaíso before the coup swept our lives away. We also labored under the delusion that our oh-so-stable democracy was exempt from the savagery of history and the depredations of an unbridled government. We also were targeted by a regime that defined dissidents as terrorists. We also consented to the degradation of our speech. And we have also realized that, of the many crimes tyrants commit against their own people, the most persistent and enduring crime of all may be the one committed against language. Even today in Chile, more than twenty years after we reconquered democracy and seven years after the death of Pinochet, most people are wary of using the word “dictatorship” to refer to the past, preferring the more neutral “régimen militar.” I could multiply examples of this toxic avoidance of significance and, therefore, of reality. Instead of “torture,” for instance, we have “excesses.” Instead of “crimes,” we have “mistakes.” Instead of “golpe militar,” we are tendered “pronunciamiento,” as if this had been a matter of words pronounced rather than virulence delivered. “Golpe” is a violent blow; “pronunciamiento” means that the soldiers have given vent to an idea, the need to change the government.

Surveillance, in any land where it is ubiquitous and inescapable, generates distrust and divisions among its citizens, curbs their readiness to speak freely to each other, and diminishes their willingness to even dare to think freely.

It can always happen here. It can happen anywhere.

Hat tip to Judith Ayers.

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