Fabulists of the Political: An Epistolary Dialogue
Dear Carlitos Schmitt,
Citizens despairing of our Caribbean polis often repeat in variations —which though slight in content differ in the riotous colorations given by the Spanish language— a wellspring of satirical volleys dramatizing that there is no use, that the problem with Puerto Rico is that all issues, from the most puerile to the most earth-shaking, become wrapped up in the clashing colors of party politics. No sooner does a crisis —fiscal, ecological, you name it— emerge than it is branded with an insignia that assigns either blame or praise. Fingers and tongues do more wagging during an election year than tails during a pooch-laden penant.
For us, we who are too young to have lived through the lore of Muñoz or to remember the gold spun wisdom of Ferré’s distantly dusty cuatrienio, the end of the quarrels regarding the statuses and their quos becomes a future more faintly pictured than the sun’s eventual chill and the resulting ice age, cosmic in its caliber. Today’s present is as timeless as any in myth, as lacking in bookends as Borges’ library of Babel. The origins of our current political traditions are buried in folk tales that glaze the “naturalness” of other beloved cultural tropes. Just as most of us cannot imagine a Christmas unfestooned by the cyclically repeated bounty of pasteles and pernil, which are bound to it like the magi to Bethlehem´s star, we cannot envision a Puerto Rico free of partisan bickering except as an imaginary realm. But Boricuas —not being idle brooders over dreams defeated— become skeptical and gaze at the lot we’ve inherited only to laugh a long dry laugh.
So, like all citizens in any modern day democracy, we see politics as an arena where fights erupt and dissolve into an uneasy armistice every four years. It is true; we interrupt our disbelief, viva voce, with the sounds of univocal energy, the mob’s cacophonous refrain. More than fellow voters in Europe or North America, we cheer for the heavyweights as they enter the ring to tussle for the spoils that the previous champions left to be taken. However, when the short lived euphoria of election season wears off, we’re no more convinced than a diffident denizen of Madrid: His cigarette spewing an acrid smoke ring at a poster that blazons a photogenic candidate’s face onto a telephone pole, fully aware that the new administration and the new triumphant bearer of the sovereign’s mantle will reduce our land’s myriad bugbears to rubble.
While there have been governors who have claimed to be redeemers, to the delight of crowds, and others who have had a shimmering, messianic burden thrown upon them, it usually follows that this feverish delight, this collective imbibing from the flagon of populist punch, gives way to a long hangover studded by migraines and feelings of remorse. Collective clamor invariably surrenders to a collective headache or, at the very least, a collective sense of embarrassment that burrows its way into our thoughts when hit with the realization that the elected governor has lined his pockets with the people’s money, left over after buying the Armani suits attached to said pockets.
But have I done anything but proffer an apologia for the very pattern that fosters our skepticism? No. It is the healthiest response to have at this point. To be sempiternally optimistic even after repeated doses of disappointing candidates and the ceaseless merging of all issues into a simplistic well-worn battle of wills between expert shouters from either side of the political arena, would be childish and pigheaded.
We show our skepticism when we are given political answers to questions that are seemingly not ideological, the same way we betray our patriotic snobbery so tactlessly when were asked whether Don Q sates thirst as powerfully as does Bacardi. Skepticism is a sign of a democracy’s brute health. When a people continues to be unflagging in its enthusiastic support for a party or a personality long after the megaphones have been put away and the placards left to soak in the dark water gushing at a gutter, democracy is in great peril. A febrile excitement can couple with a utopian vision where this twosome then turns democracy into a medium towards its own eventual ruin. People, periodic placers of ballots, don’t usually mind much when the remains of the democratic process are first buried. It is only later, when a citizen caught in the timeless, time-devouring spell of idleness, channel surfs the airwaves in vain for a station free of the caudillo’s monotonous barking. He or she then realizes that political enthusiasm serves its population best when it remains as a brief jolt of visceral communal striving between prolonged bouts of grumbling and grouching.
So skepticism, you say, is a tonic that keeps the blood from boiling hot or spilling out into the streets of democracy? That may be true. But does a virile democracy —throbbing with hysterics every so often, but by and large dormant and indifferent to commitments— ensure what is best for us? What I mean to say is not that Puerto Ricans have nothing to gain from this most open of conversations, but that perhaps we are looking out too much for the good of this comely abstraction. Centuries have adorned this debate with the gilt set aside for all ideals, and we are neglecting the flesh and bone of our fellow men and women. Could it be that our democracy has fallen into a pattern too staid, like a song that loops on finding no fruition after tirelessly winding through verses and refrains?
I agree with you that it is a sign of our maturation as a people that we place little trust in the softheads that we elect to lead and that our expectations have humbled themselves into a perpetual lurch to meet the diminishing capacities of our rulers. However, I do not see this as a sustainable measure. Resignation is virtuous, even heroic, until it becomes the tactic of the unthinking and the complacent.
What we have are minor messiahs, prophets of the petty, men who need not be caricatured because they already remind us of the funnies and speak in effervescent clouds, empty as a mind molded by soap operas. What we need is a clasper of power, who can wield it with a steady grip. The man on the street agrees with me, dismayed by the dunder-headed doggerel rippling outward from the Capitol. Our present pretty-boy governor —immaculately coiffed, and perpetually the picture of weightless, carefree lassitude whether in summer comfort or the most itchifying business attire— has no friends among the wide world’s wanderers, schemers, blue collared stiffs, or stiff-collared, blazer-covered brokers of power.
When discontent topples the system and its cracks give way to ruin, I´ll be there, among the rabble, cheering for the victor and his electric vitality.
I believe we’ve missed each other’s points entirely. Perhaps the fragments of clarity we tried to send ashore, became dull specimens; drenched, blackened and tossed in a sea of verbiage.
That may be so. However, on the first count —whichever that was— it is my understanding, however vague, that I was right and that your argument —or the version I espied through the lens of my perception, covered by misapprehension’s thick film— was clearly lacking and did not need the refutation that I so generously proffered.