So the podcast has been out for about twelve weeks now, and I’ve gotten a couple of scattered comments and responses on two different subjects that I think, in the end, come to the same thing.
And I think they’re valid and I think they’re important.
So I’m going to talk about them.
The first suggestion is that I ought to make an effort, in the podcast, to avoid offending listeners who might come from somewhere further to the right on the political spectrum. And the second is that I ought to be getting more into why all this happened, why the government of the United States was somehow invested in these terrible goings-on in Guatemala. It’ll take a while for my responses to come back around and meet each other, but bear with me.
In response to the first thing, I guess I’d ask a question. Is it that the show is partisan? Or could it be that listeners are coming to the show with a pre-existing and implicitly partisan complaint?
Because the only way that the show could immediately turn you off is if you were under the impression that the US could do literally no wrong.
I could try to emphasize at the beginning of every episode that Democratic presidents were just as culpable as Republican ones or vice-versa, but that would put the show in the “fairness” business, and it’s not in the fairness business. It’s in the history business.
If the moralizing that I get up to in the asides on the show offends you, ask yourself, and I’m not being condescending or pedantic here, ask yourself, why? Sure, I’m a dyed in the wool leftist, but I keep a firewall between that and the history that I do, asides aside, and my politics aren’t where my morality comes from.
When a right-wing government does what it does in Guatemala in the 1960s and I mention it on the show, “right-wing” is a definition, not a judgement. When I leave the narrative to one side for a minute and speak more, well, from me, I’m not sermonizing about the political minutiae of policy decisions, I’m speaking about the consequences of that government’s activity and it’s moral fallout. My ethics emerges from somewhere deep in my primordial Catholic past, and it’s invested in the sanctity and dignity of human life, not whether that life is Left or Right or American or Other or anything else.
When I do what little I can to indict the successive right-wing governments of Guatemala and the US administrations that actively supported them, I’m not doing so because I disagree with the right-left sway of their politics but because their politics was murdering tens of thousands of innocents. Innocents might sound wrong to the turned-off listener, but the only way they’re not innocent is if the turned-off listener comes to the podcast with an ethics wherein being a liberal or a socialist or a communist is a death sentence. And I criticize the brutality of those administrations’ politics because my ethics compels me to be on the side of the innocents, no matter what greater purpose their deaths was supposedly serving.
That might sound sanctimonious to you. I mean, I read it back to myself and it sounds sanctimonious to me. But I don’t know what else I can say. I don’t care what government is doing which thing to who—if it’s killing them, I can be sure right off the bat that it’s not the right thing, without having any idea why they’re doing it or what political banner it falls under.
Which brings us to the why. What purpose was the massive state-sanctioned torture, rape, and murder of civilians and clergy in Guatemala serving? Part of the reason my answer to that question doesn’t appear so often in every episode so far is that it’s a difficult question to answer, maybe an impossible one, and a philosophical one, if you’ll let me get away with the word.
There are large, systemic answers: political science or international relations might hold that the US was in a [not so] cold war with the Soviet Union and was endeavoring to prevent a Soviet foothold in Guatemala. Even though Guatemalan communism had nothing to do with the Comintern, communists had little representation in Arbenz’s government, and US intervention is what actually sparked guerrilla movements in Guatemala (and the rest of Central America and Latin America and most of the rest of the world).
Economists might say that the US was trying to maintain its economic domination of its sphere of influence by shoring up anti-socialist and anti-communist governments, which would have striven to establish economic independence, with rightist ones, which did not.
A historian might contend that the US, like any great imperial power, was establishing its absolute authority in a buffer zone around its borders. Nationalist, left-leaning governments were unwilling to toe the line, so the US installed far-right governments that may have been anti-communist but whose primary characteristic was a willingness to bend to the will of the imperial power.
Those are all interesting answers, and they all have some bearing or some ability to model the shape of the large events that make up the joint history of the United States and Guatemala. But at some level, all of them fall apart for me when I go outside of the bounds of economic and political science, at least classically, and try to imagine the actual motivations of the actual people involved. See, in polisci and international relations, especially in realism, states are black boxes. You’re not looking at the motivations of individuals or even of individual administrations, but at states. And you can say, well, a power like the US will tend to do this, and a smaller power, like Guatemala, will tend to do this in response.
Great, fine. But I’m trying to answer, or at least explore, the moral consequences of what was going on in Guatemala and the rest of the world as the result of the action of the United States.
So we can say that the US was imperial or dominant economically or looking to enforce ideological conformity, but none of that explains sufficiently, at least to me, why two hundred thousand Guatemalans, the vast, vast, overwhelming majority of whom were non-combatants, had to die, often to acts of brutality so extreme that the mind shuts down and refuses to imagine them.
When we think about history or economics or political science, both as practitioners and as lay people, we tend to treat those large numbers as externalities. Either as unfortunate victims of an inevitable process or as a necessary evil in the pursuit of some greater goal. But I want to strip away that thinking, that self-styled mode of ‘seeing the big picture,’ and come back to human realities.
I want to ask, and to make it impossible for listeners of my podcast not to ask themselves, what could justify all this? What possible end goal could come close to justifying the deaths of that many people and the destruction of that country? If I can’t imagine anything that I’d like to achieve that would let me write off that much death and suffering, then I’m not sure I can let the government of Guatemala or of the United States off the hook, either.
Which, when we let go of the geopolitics and try to figure out why Eisenhower, why Dulles, why Kennedy and Kissinger and Carter and Reagan were not just willing but eager, determined to do what they did in Guatemala and Nicaragua and El Salvador and Iran and dozens of other ‘little’ countries, brings us back to a very philosophical question: Why do people, people who believe themselves to be good people, do bad things?
I don’t know. Do you?
Can you figure out why a man in the Oval Office, with more power to do good than anyone else in the world and more power and intelligence agencies at his fingertips to observe the consequences of his actions, would then do unspeakable evil? .
I don’t think the economic or political or historical answers come close. You’d have to get at something in the very heart of the human soul to figure that out. Hitler’s easy to understand. Hitler hated and feared and so he killed. Why Jimmy Carter fought during all of his four years to get the Congress to fund murderous regimes in Central America when the leftist opponents they were busily murdering had neither the intention nor the means to harm the US in any way?
That’s a tough one, and not one that I’m sure I have the capacity to answer.
Which is why I’m not shouting why this horrible shit is happening into the microphone every five minutes. If I knew, I would. But while I think the large answers are compelling, I don’t think that they’re sufficient, and while I think Jimmy Carter would be found a war criminal at Nuremberg beyond any reasonable doubt, I’m not sure I can say that he was an evil man.
What I want is for you to come over to my side, and to consider, before all of the great cocktail party theorizing about states and actors and imperatives, the simple sanctity of human life. Not because the person might grow up to be the next great something or because they’re the kid of some great somebody or because they were born under the same flag as you, but just because he or she is human and alive.
And I want to make it impossible for you to listen uncritically to anyone that’s telling you that something is necessary or unavoidable when it’s going to result in tragedy.
In the meantime, while we’re both trying to figure out the philosophical answer to the philosophical question, I’m going to keep cataloguing these disasters and their victims and their perpetrators. Because it’s important to bear witness.
Not because it’ll make you smarter or richer or more interesting, but because it’s the debt that we, the heirs of the victorious living, owe the defeated and the dead.