Les états unis n’ont pas eu lieu

Quico says: So there’s this kid, Amar Bakshi, who somehow managed to persuade the Washington Post to send him all over the place to find out “how the world sees America.” (Rest assured, I’ve already fired off the inevitable email complaining about gringo appropriation of the word.) Anyway, he’s in Venezuela this week, writing up more or less what you’d expect, at least as far as chavistas are concerned.

I wrote him an email the other day with pretty much my standard rant about the way Chávez leverages anti-US rhetoric strategically as a mechanism of political control. Bush whacking is his one stop shop for political legitimation: it’s where he goes to cast off blame for every single one of his failures at the same time he impugns dissident’s patriotism. I think that’s pretty much the consensus view by now, at least among the non-KoolAid drinking sections of the commentariat, and on a political level I think it accounts for 99% of the antigringoism we keep hearing.

I was going to leave it at that, but something was bugging me about my response. It’s not that it isn’t right…it’s that, on a cultural level, it’s not really enough. Why? Because it doesn’t really answer the question. I mean, if the question is “how do Venezuelans see the US?” the only honest answer is: we don’t.

I don’t mean that we don’t talk about the US. Heavens knows, with a guy like Chávez in power, hardly a day goes by without him banging on about it. What I mean is that the entity that goes by the name “USA” in Venezuelan political discourse (whether chavista or anti) has precious little in common with the actual chunk of territory between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel or the people who live there. We talk about it, sure, but we don’t really see it.

This is clearest, of course, in Chavista discourse, where what’s passed off as “El Imperio” is a monstruous caricature, one so deliriously two-dimensional only a bona fide zealot could recognize it. For all intents and purposes, Chavez uses “the US” as a synonym for “pure evil.”

What gets me is that it’s a weirdly essentialist take. As far as chavista discourse is concerned, the US does bad things not in an attempt to advance some strategic goal, but merely to instantiate its inner nature. It’s not that it does bad things, it’s that it is bad…so bad, indeed, that whenever anything bad happens in Venezuela it is the presumptive culprit. There’s something circular, almost tautological about this: when evil things happen, they are explained by the presence of evil.

It’s this essentialism that accounts for chavista anti-Americanism’s all encompassing nature, for its versatility, for its ability to convincingly (in the chavista mind) explain any and every bad thing that happens, whether it’s a dengue outbreak, a milk shortage, or a bus drivers’ strike.

As, I think, any marginally well informed person will realize, the disconnect between this Disney villain version of the US and the strategic and military calculations that underpin Washington’s decisionmaking is pretty much total. But the opposition too tends to have wildly unrealistic views of the pulchritude of American institutions, the purity of its ideological commitment to democracy, the scale of its technological sophistication and the might of its armed forces.

In either case, the US as it exists in Venezuelan public discourse has really almost nothing in common with the US as it actually is. We talk about the US, but we don’t see the US…instead we use it as a screen, a kind of cultural space we can use to fight out a symbolic strugggle over Venezuelan identity, our own little psychodrama about who we are and what we are and what makes us us rather than them.

So that’s the first thing: it’s crucial to get clear about what it is we’re really talking about when we’re talking about the US. For the most part, we let that label, “United States” stand in for a set of symbolic associations around which we’re fighting a society wide battle for self definition. It’s our own little tropical culture war.

Superficially, this is a battle between Capitalism and Socialism, but I think that doesn’t really get you very far. What it’s really about is about whether Venezuela does or does not belong within the cultural sphere of the Western rationalist tradition.

We equate this mysterious entity, “the US”, with the whole philosophical tradition of enlightenment rationalism: the 18th century view of a calculating human agent able to leverage its capacity to reason calmly and instrumentally as a way of extending its dominion over nature. This is a view with an almost interminable set of consequences in areas as diverse as science, technology, capitalism, art, environmental management…the entire organization of social life, really.

The opposition tends to see instrumental rationality as the only road to any hafway plausible development strategy and so we champion it. The government sees it as a cover for dehumanizing exploitation and so it furiously condemns it. The US-as-it-actually-is really has nothing to do with it: this is our fight.

Trouble is, “instrumental rationality” is a really clunky, abstract concept. It gets no one’s blood pumping. Only academics talk that way. To really get our juices flowing, we need to embody the idea, we need to ascribe that nexus of associations to a far more resonant object. We need to pour our associations into a more strongly branded vessel, if you like. Somehow, tacitly, we’ve agreed that “the US” will be that vessel.

When Venezuelans argue about “the US” we’re basically just talking about ourselves. The fears chavistas express about a “US invasion” really have to be read laterally, almost psychoanalytically, as expressions of a deep, underlying rejection of the project of enlightenment rationalism, a visceral rejection of the coldly calculating view of human relations it seems to imply. Opposition hopes for deliverance from Chavez through US intervention really have to be read as expressions of hope that the superior power of reasoned thinking may be able to deliver us from an onslaught of obscurantism. The “real US” never enters into it.

Of course, Venezuelans are hardly unique in this respect. It strikes me that in “talking about Venezuela”, gringos perform almost exactly the same operation, but in reverse. A left wing fringe projects its deep frustration with the current state of affairs in the US on the Venezuelan screen, seeing in it the promise of deliverance from everything they think is wrong with their own society. The right sees in Chávez’s buffoonery the confirmation of their own deeply held beliefs about the lunacy of the left’s take on the world. And the “debate” ends up using a version of “Venezuela” that’s every bit as reductionist and removed from the real country as the version of “the US” we use in our debates.

Sometimes I wonder if any country ever actually manages to see across its own borders. Think back on the whole dadaist charade over France and “Freedom Fries”: the actual France was entirely absent from a debate that was really by gringos, of gringos and for gringos. Look at the way Venezuelan public opinion has reacted to the current diplomatic crisis with Colombia, the way the Uribe-FARC split maps precisely onto the Chavismo-Opposition split. Or the way Russia looks at Britain, or China at Japan, or North Korea at the rest of the world and, well, you get the sense that all anybody is really interested in talking about is themselves, their own identities, their own position in whatever little symbolic battles they are invested in.

After all, it doesn’t matter where you are: “abroad” is always an abstraction, and a uniquely useful abstraction at that. By definition, “abroad” is always far and always vague…far enough and vague enough to be assimilated into the categories of any national psychodrama.

“Abroad” is too tempting a target not to press into symbolic service: as sociologists have realized since Durkheim, any definition of who you are is, by implication, also a definition of who you are not…so much so that it’s always tempting to try to define who you are through the expedient of ascribing the traits you reject to the outgroup and defining the ingroup in opposition to it.

In other words: Who are We? We are Not Them. And who are They? They are the opposite of Us.

Culturally speaking, that is the role US bashing plays in chavista discourse: it’s a mechanism for establishing an identity. First, Chavez sets up a series of binary oppositions and then associates Us to one trait and Gringos to its opposite. Gringos are greedy, we are solidary. Gringos are aggressive, we are peace loving. Gringos are coldly calculating, we are socially sensitive. Gringos are capitalists, we are socialists. Gringos are bad, we are good.

As for the actual US? We just don’t see it.