Over the summer, I read The President, a 1946 novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Miguel Angel Asturias. The novel is set in an unnamed nation usually read as Asturias’ native Guatemala, and it recounts the manoeuvres and psychological distress of citizens, under the rule of a despotic dictator, The President, in the aftermath of an officer’s murder.
Although the novel is set in a fictionalized Central American nation, over half a century ago, I was struck by the unsettling, contemporary familiarity of one particular detail: the rhetoric used in a “large printed notice” posted in a bar to campaign for The President’s “re-election” (which much else in the novel suggests is a fixed and foregone conclusion). Despite the incommensurate historical, political, and social differences between early 20th-century Guatemala and early 21st-century Canada, and despite some of the obvious creative license and exaggeration Asturias uses, I find it profoundly disturbing how familiar the language of fascism sounds now: the rhetoric of masculine strength; of law and “order”; of coded, Orwellian uses of “freedom” and vigilance (i.e. surveillance); of party loyalty as morality; of allegiance to other parties as treason; of populist morality and fear-mongering against an imagined hostile Other. I’ve excerpted the text of the fictional re-election poster below. Does any of this sound familiar to you too? Any of it sound like the rhetoric we’ve been hearing about “#BarbaricCulturalPractices”?
“Merely by uttering the name of the President of the Republic we shed light from the torch of Peace upon those sacred interests of a Nation which, under his wise rule, has conquered and will go on conquering the inestimable benefits of Progress in every sphere, and of Order in every form of Progress!!!! As free citizens, conscious of our obligation to watch over our own destiny (which is also that of the Nation) and as men of goodwill and enemies of Anarchy, we hereby proclaim!!! That the welfare of the Republic depends upon the RE-ELECTION OF OUR ILLUSTRIOUS MANDATORY AND ON NOTHING ELSE BUT HIS RE-ELECTION! Why hazard the ship of State in unknown waters, when we have at its head at present the most accomplished Statesman of our day, whom History will salute as a Great Man among Great men, a Wise Man among the Wise, a Liberal, a Thinker and a Democrat??? Even to imagine any other than Him in this high office amounts to an attempt upon the Destiny of the Nation (which is our own destiny); and whoever dares to do so — if any such there be — deserves to be shut up as a dangerous lunatic, or if he is not mad, tried as a traitor to his Country according to the law!!! FELLOW CITIZENS, THE BALLOT-BOXES ARE WAITING!!! VOTE!!! FOR!!! OUR!!! CANDIDATE!!! WHO!!! WILL!!! BE!!! RE-ELECTED!!! BY!!! THE!!! PEOPLE!!!” (254-55)
Asturias, Miguel Angel. The President (1946). Trans. Frances Parridge. Long Grove: Waveland P, 1997.