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Carlos Montemayor, D.E.P.

28 February 2010

There is no Spanish equivalent for the English word pundit for one simple reason.  Whereas “pundit” (from the Hindi word for a religious teacher, “pandit”) was originally a humorous term for an figure who comments in the media on everything and anything, whether they have expertise or not, the public figures who comment on the news of the day here are true intellectuals.

A public intellectual, unlike a pundit is  not a recycled sportscasters (like Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann), or a news readerand disk-jockey marketed as an expert in areas about which they know nothing (like Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck and many, many others) or someone expert in one small area who is expected to pontificate on areas about which they really know little or nothing.  Not that some “pundits” aren’t well-educated people (like Rachel Maddow — a PhD in Public Health — or Charles Krauthamer — a physician), nor experts in certain areas, but pundits are a media creation, not an earned title of respect, as with the public intellectual.

A pundit, even though they may be right on occasion (or, more likely, we agree with them) seems to use ad hoc ergo propter hoc argumentation to present an opinion and attempts to sway public sentiment.  A public intellectual, a person of high cultural achievement doesn’t so much give you an opinion as the reasoning behind a given position.  Whether you agree or disagree with the public intellectual is less important than the fact that the public intellectual has presented a cogent understanding of an issue, based on research.  A former sportscaster isn’t likely to be a public intellectual. One must be a novelist, a researcher, a historian, a figure sought out by the political establishment (and the opposition) — or preferably all of the above — to qualify.

The late Carlos Montemayor (born 13 June, 1947 in Parral, Chihuahua) who died early Sunday morning of stomach cancer, more than earned the title of public intellectual.

Photo: El Universal

A musical prodigy who, as an adult, both sang opera and wrote librettos, enjoyed a particularly rich educational background.  He supplemented his law degree with a masters in Indigenous Languages and a later degree in Asian studies.  He spoke a number of indigenous Mexican languages, as well as Greek, Latin, Arabic (both classical and demotic), French, Italian, English and, of course, Spanish.  In recognition of his work as a linguist, he was elected to the Mexican Academy of Languages and was a corresponding member of the Spanish Royal Academy, and the Association of the 20th Century Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Archives.

Linguistics, however, was only a side-line to his career as a researcher of indigenous Mexican oral traditions.  Which led, in time, to his own involvement in Indigenous affairs, and his studies of rural guerrilla movements of the 1970s and of social movements (some of which he actively supported).  The latter was instrumental in Montemayor’s important government role as a trusted mediator between the state and the ERP. At the time of his death, he was working on a book about state violence in the State of Mexico.

If that was not enough for one lifetime, he wrote poetry and novels, founded and edited several magazines for the support of indigenous languages and wrote regularly for the popular press.  As well as appearing on talking head television shows, where — as a public intellectual — his voice mattered to discussions of public policy and cultural matters, and where he was not shouting an opinion, but presenting a nuanced, well-thought out, rational statement that could not be simply written off by those who might disagree.

There are fine obituaries in Jornada, El Universal and Milenio.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 March 2010 4:32 am

    In our place we call this kind of people as oppositions. They’re the ones who are always not contented with something and have to criticize every they think lack from something…

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