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Democratic Vistas: of Sicilia, Shelley and Elvis

9 May 2011

When, exactly, does a historical event happen?

Depending on who you read (and what their biases are), the political reforms in Mexico began with Vicente Fox’s 2000 election to the Presidency, with the first opposition Congress in 1994, with the founding of the PRD in 1989, with Cuauhtémoc Cardenas’ campaign in 1988, with the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, with Tlatelolco in 1968, or… as I hinted in Gods, Gachupines and Gringos,  in 1958 when:

… UNAM students had staged noisy street protests over a canceled showing of the new Elvis Presley film, “Jailhouse Rock”.  It was a minor incident and quickly settled (the Party and the theaters arranged for extra showings and student discount tickets, but it was the start of something bigger.  Elvis’ role as the nonconformist, lower-class Vince Everett had resonated with the students, even the middle and upper-class students, the beneficiaries of the Institutional Revolution.  Ironically, because of the successes of the Institutional Revolution, the students had access to the wider world and as Mexicans, saw themselves as active participants in that world.

I can’t say which of these events (or any combination of them) is, by itself, the starting point for what we tend to define as  the “democratic” process, which provides the fodder for so much of the blogswampia’s content:  inter-party and intra-party squabbling in a multi-party political system.

That, of course, is narrowly defining democracy by the delivery system.  There have been any number of ways of delivering democracy — as a product — over the last couple of millenia, but for the last two centuries, the basic delivery system has been relatively standard:  self-identified elites identify  possible choices from which a portion (and perhaps a very large portion) of the people within a geographic region can chose a representative (usually from the elites) to rule over them.

But, democracy itself — rule by the will of the people (however “the people” is defined)—  isn’t the same thing as the system.  Ever since Harmodius and Aristogeiton accidentally invented democracy back in 514 BCE when their protests over sexual harassment led to murder and rioting, making the will of the people known has been a messy, noisy and often brutal, process, as at Tlatelolco in 1968.  Or, seemingly beneath serious notice, as in the Jailhouse Rock protests of 1958, but signalling a radical change in our political and social landscape.

In posts leading up to yesterday’s anti-violence protests, I was struck by how many of my fellow foreign commentators (if they mentioned it at all) downplayed the radicalism of the protesters’ demands, not being in the form of political party platforms, or legislative proposals or executive policy decisions.  The commentators seem to be lost when the movement is led, not by a political figure, but by a poet.

Poets may be, as Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but as the figurehead of a radical call to transform Mexican politics, Javier Sicilia is an unlikely choice.  He is a metaphysical Catholic poet, a throwback to the rarified traditon of St. John of the Cross (who was no slouch when it came to reforms within the narrower realm of Spanish monastic life of the 16th century).  But then, Francisco I. Madero, with his ouiji board and half-understood Hinduism, was an unlikely champion of radical reform in 1910 as well.

Madero’s reforms (and the movement he had the personal misfortune to be considered the leader of) was initially about the election process.

Sicilia’s movement (as likely as Madero’s to broaden and morph into something else) brings in Catholics, Zapatistas, some of the left, intellectuals, and is gathering youth groups and union support.  It begins with the premise that the system is broken.  Certainly, orderly elections, from slates selected by political parties, are going to remain the most common form of delivering democracy … but when the “consumers” don’t feel they are receiving their packages as promised, then they can’t be faulted for considering either a change in their delivery system, or a change in supplier.

While platforms and proposals and policy decisions  are a likely outcome (or, at least, lip service given to them), if in self-defense of the system if nothing else, what I think is overlooked is that the protests demonstrate a re-emergence, or a recovery, of democracy itself. While the media headlines focus on a systemic act (calling for the resignation of National Security Secretary Genaro García Luna), or the political reactions (from the PRI, from Felipe Calderón, from the leftist coalition, and others), what is overlooked is what a movement — not an individual poet — is seeking:

Truth and justice; the arrest and trial of the intellectual authors of crimes; an end to the  militarized anti-crime strategy and a focus on public security; action against corruption and political impunity; a focus instead on the economic roots of crime; and recovery of the rights of the people for a democratic representative democracy and a democratic media.

Read in who you will for Mexico in 2011 for  King George III in Shelley’s England in 1819 (where the President is sometimes called tlatoani, the title given to the Aztec sovereign), but who knows what glorious phantom may burst forth from the poet’s call for a new democracy?:

An old, mad, blind, despis’d, and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn–mud from a muddy spring,
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starv’d and stabb’d in the untill’d field,
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edg’d sword to all who wield,
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay,
Religion Christless, Godless–a book seal’d,
A Senate–Time’s worst statute unrepeal’d,
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

One Comment leave one →
  1. La Carcel permalink
    9 May 2011 10:50 pm

    “acion against corruption and political impunity”

    There are not enough jail cells in the world to hold all the corruptos in Mexico.

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