Finally, just a few days before I was to leave Uruguay, I met up with my friend Eduardo in the Ciudad Vieja’s Cafe Brasilero, as we’ve done nearly every time I’ve visited since the beginning of the millennium. He’d been a bit sick recently, but was feeling okay, living as he usually does, taking his walks along the coast, giving readings, spending time with friends. I’d been enjoying the late spring, running here and there to see people and places I’d neglected in the past few months.
As time was short, he launched right in with questions about the U. S. presidential elections, of especial interest because of the Mormon candidate. I said that the attention on the church had been both welcome and unwelcome, sometimes perceptive, sometimes amiss; in any case, I’d voted for Barack Obama, yet, as my absentee ballot had gone to Utah, it was a soundless tree felled in a forest, a kick against the pricks, or for the pricks, who knows. In large part, it was Romney’s chauvinism that had turned us off, Eduardo and I agreed, his jingoistic talk of perpetuating the military overkill that the United States has become infamous for. Even Obama, Eduardo mused, broke all the records by accepting his Nobel Peace Prize with a speech threatening war.
Literature, according to one of the best definitions I’ve heard, wants to be immortal, not mired in local and timely topics, yet this essay must confront the horror of the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre, because that terrible happening still weighs so heavily on my mind, as it does on yours, no doubt, and because it immediately became a part of every substantial conversation I had with every Uruguayan I knew or met, and thus it came up with Eduardo, who also weeps with the mothers and fathers of those children, young and old.
He wants to know why the United States keeps producing these atrocities, and why we seem to care so little about them, why we have not made sweeping changes to our laws and society, why we tolerate such insanity, what benefit we believe we are getting from our guns, our culture of violence, our insatiable militarism, why we gladly spend a quarter of our national budget on weapons.
I had no answers to give him.
So I changed the subject, asking his opinion of the new Uruguayan government, comprised of former revolutionaries who, failing armed overthrow in the ’60s, had taken the long road to legitimate power and were governing, it seemed to me, much as their predecessors had done, much as governors do everywhere, with some success and some failure and a slew of complaints from the governed.
“One problem the left has failed to overcome is the garbage,” he said. “I bring friends with me to walk the coast and downtown, and I’m ashamed.”
I had noticed, I said.
“The government puts receptacles all around the city, but people leave their garbage lying in halos around the containers.”
“Not only that,” I countered. “You can put your trash in the bins, but then someone comes along afterward and takes it out, looking for something useful, leaving the bags ripped open and strewn about the street. And then the dogs…”
“Yes,” he agreed. “What kind of society are we, that we produce a situation in which people feel they have to rummage around in the garbage, looking for something to eat, or something to sell?”
This lament was both expected and unexpected, a surprise and an inevitability. My first reaction was silent dissent. How could he absolve the individuals whose direct actions led to the general filth of the city? Maybe they feel they have to pick through the garbage, but why not just put things back? Why leave the litter festering on the sidewalks? And why seek to blame the decent folks who pick up after themselves and put their garbage where it belongs? Doesn’t this argument patronize the poor, suppose that they are somehow less free, less able to govern their own actions?
I still remember well my own vehement denials about the ways (my professors said) culture and society had shaped me. The notions seemed then to deny my free will and disperse the credit I felt I had earned for my achievements. I was my own person, I was sure, not some unthinkingly influenced representative of the late-twentieth century United States.
For me, this time in college was a time of great growth, which has continued well beyond my degrees and into my way of seeing and living in the world. Eduardo, you should know, was a key thinker in shaking my self-righteous certainties.
“My certainties breakfast on doubts.” — Eduardo Galeano, from The Book of Embraces.
His books, pessimistically optimistic, full of beauty and ugliness, worked a kind of literary magic on my mind.
“What are books for, if not to change our lives?” — J. M. Coetzee, from Summertime.
The result being that I’m now comfortable abdicating some of my autonomy to the group, or seeing how I contribute to the benefit or detriment of others, and how I am largely the product of good provenance and providence. But I fear that some of my neighbors [I do not mean particularly the good people of Colón in Montevideo or the 35th Ward in Lehi, Utah] have remained in that immature belief, shouting down any suggestions of societal responsibility that might “limit their freedoms” or ask them to keep their brothers. They reason, for instance, that since they’ve never abused their guns, the government has no right to restrict them. Of course, the murderer’s mother seems never to have abused her guns either, yet their easy availability to her own son was the death of her and of twenty-six others who could never have seen it coming. Yet if we pull back our lens and allow for the hazy dispersion of location and timing, then we can see it coming again and again and again. We have, all of us, and those who came before us, created the conditions that essentially guarantee further massacres perpetrated by madmen with guns.
A fact not lost on Eduardo, who’s written pleadingly repeatedly about the worldwide military complex and the machinery of fear and death that rules our minds and lives, that mows down millions and convinces us to believe in its inevitability and unchangeability, makes us all complicit in its anti-humanism. This is what I came to understand, slowly—after we’d said our farewells and I rode the bus to my first-grade daughter’s end-of-school festival—from Eduardo’s comment about the society that leads to people rifling through the trash. He wasn’t exonerating the killer, just saying that the killer is a part of us, not apart from us. And it’s not that any particular individual is fated to be a garbage picker or a mass murderer, but given certain large-scale conditions, a society will produce its garbage pickers or mass murderers. Given certain large-scale understanding, too, a society might change its course to improve conditions for all. That, too, happens sometimes.
But “So many resources in this world are put toward destroying our fellow human beings,” Eduardo lamented, only he used the word prójimo — energy put toward destroying our prójimo — those who are near us, who are like us, prójimo, a word noteworthy because most Spanish Bible translators have placed it in Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer who’d tried to trap him.
“And who is my prójimo?” the lawyer challenged, thinking himself free of responsibility, no doubt.