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Democracy Interrupted?

30 June 2012

One of the main reasons I started this site was finding myself frustrated by the crappy reportage about Mexico that I read in the English-language press. I had some great fun picking out the “editorial filler” in news stories. the phrase “the teeming slums of…” found its way into nearly any Associated Press article filed from Mexico City, whether the incident reported on occurred in Tepito or Polanco or Milpa Alta… or even in some far flung rural area within the Mexico City Standard Metropolitan Area.

With the 2006 election, the key word was “fiery leftist” whenever a reference appeared to Ándres Manuel Lopez Obradór. Today, it’s a some mention of the “drug war”.

More than one foreign reporter I know has admitted that over the past five years, they are obligated to write on organized crime, and that their editors will only consider reportage somehow related to narcotics trafficking. With fewer and fewer media outlets even investing in foreign news, the correspondents and free-lancers have little choice.

Or, when media companies DO send reporters, especially the U.S. media, have been sending war correspondents. And when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The total absurdity of this kind of reportage was demonstrated recently by the New York Times, when it ran a long, blathering article by Randal C. Archibold and Damien Cave uncovering the fact that people in Juarez try to live normal lives. It took two reporters to figure out that Mexico is not Iraq?

So, by all means I have nothing but appreciation for Jo Tuckman’s reportage for The Guardian, and for The Guardian for having sent Jo Tuckman. It’s unusual enough that a newspaper still has correspondents at all, and Tuckman has done a excellent job, going beyond the “drug war” to talk about current affairs in a complex (and very large) country. Exposing the incestuous relationship between the PRI and Televisa is going to have long-range political and economic impact no matter which party and which candidate wins tomorrow’s election. The effects may be (and I don’t think I’m exaggerating) comparable to James Creelman’s March 1908 Pearson Magazine interview of Porfirio Diáz.

That said, the book she has just published (and one presumes that when a correspondent publishes their book on Mexico, it means they’re leaving the country), “Mexico:  Democracy Interrupted”, as reviewed in her own paper, shows the limitations of depending on news reporters for our understanding of a people and a culture.

Alan Knight, professor of the history of Latin America at St Antony’s College, Oxford, the author of  several books on Mexican History, reviewed Mexico: Democracy Interrupted in yesterday’s The Guardian:

… As reportage of breaking events it’s fine – reliable and informative. But as analysis, it is often thin and sometimes wrong. There are several problems: the first is the lack of historical depth. […]Tuckman has been an acute observer of Mexico over the last dozen years; but what went on before remains rather murky. For example, the Chinese did not bring narcotics to Mexico in the late 19th century, since Mexicans had smoked tobacco, chewed peyote and puffed marijuana for centuries (hence the lyrics of “La Cucuracha”). The Zapatista rebels of 1994 were not “the biggest group of rebel fighters since the revolution”, as their numbers, fire-power and impact were dwarfed by those of the Cristero – Catholic – insurgents of the 20s.

Perhaps these historical errors don’t matter much. After all, this is reportage. But two more problems arise.  The central theme of the book is Mexican democracy, and while Tuckman gives us abundant facts and illustrations, she offers no clear analytical framework, no general interpretation of current trends.

[…]

A more pertinent question is whether Mexican democratisation is for real and thus difficult to reverse, even if the PRI returns to office. […] Tuckman seems to have stuck to journalists and public intellectuals. She muddles up representative and “participatory” democracy; and she entertains inordinately high standards of what – liberal, representative – democracy should entail, standards few countries attain.

Being a non-academic historian, who has done some reporting,  I probably have to cut Tuckman some slack for — in the typical way of we English-speakers — for her hyperbole in considering the “drug war” as more important than the Cristero War (though I could have recommended an excellent non-academic book on Mexican History, written especially for those English-speakers who are planning to do any sort of business in this history-obsessed country… and something on the Cristero War as well!).  Journalists do deal with the here and now, and contexualizing the present in terms of the past in anything but the most superficial of ways is just not possible within the space of a newspaper or magazine article.

Professor Knight’s second criticism, that Tuckman “muddles up representative and “participatory” democracy; and she entertains inordinately high standards of what – liberal, representative – democracy should entail”  illustrates a more chronic problem with foreign writing about Mexican political culture.

I won’t go so far as to say the attitude is “imperialist” (especially about anyone working for a lefty touchstone like The Guardian), but it is looking at Mexico though what Nezua, the Unapologetic Mexican, once called “the white lens”:  the sense that things not done the way “we” do them is inferior, or wrong.

Not that we  “embedded foreigners” don’t often let our biases color our own perceptions and misread cultural and political events through our own “lens” (the late John Ross saw the Mexican Revolution as a “failure” for not following the rules laid out in the Book of Marx), but we are able to ask ourselves questions that may straighten out the distortion.  Why is a two-party state automatically preferable to a multi-party, or quasi-single party state when it comes to personal freedom?  Is the British surveillance state a democracy, or a police-state.  Are our inefficient police a sign of weakness, or a sign that the people look out for themselves?  Aren’t social movements and demonstrations a form of democracy,  and why don’t people in the United States take to the streets when a candidate loses by a close margin?  Do they fear the democratic process, or are they resigned to fraud?

I will be curious to see what Jo Tuckman says about our “interrupted democracy”, and — understanding she is not a historian, and is likely to make mistakes — what insights she gleaned from those “journalists and public intellectuals ” who — important as they are to our lives NOW — are only singular figures in a political and cultural  history measured in millenniums, and not in presidential administrations,and not in the tenure of even the most gifted of correspondents.

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