September 17, 2014
BooksSunday, February 23, 2014
On the road with Sarmiento
For The Herald
DFS, as the Argentine author Hernán Iglesias Illa calls him (thus, we can call him HII), became enamoured of the US during an international tour he undertook in 1847. Sarmiento had doted on France — the nation embodying all the fine ideals and attitudes that his own country lacked, being ruled at the time by barbarous warlords. However, DFS became very disenchanted with France when he actually visited it. HII argues strongly that DFS then went into an emotional rebound; in his discovery of the US he showed every sign, not just of having found a new beacon, but of being smitten with a new love.
An interesting contrast, brought out by HII, is that between the views of capitalism that were arrived at by Sarmiento and by Marx at the same time — the Communist Manifesto lay just one year in the future. Where Marx saw capitalism enslaving and degrading the workers, Sarmiento saw it as a force bringing them more equality and wealth.
DFS wrote a book about his journey, and HII hit on the idea of writing one of his own as he retraced his subject’s steps (by the way, despite the wording of his title, the text is in Spanish). Constantly re-examining his own motives as well as Sarmiento’s, and comparing the impressions and attitudes of each, he has produced a book that — again, despite the title — isn’t about Sarmiento, but very much about the two of them. And yet, deep down, the title is accurate after all, because, over and over again, as Iglesias Illa winds up a section after ruminating about himself, he is leading up to a telling commentary about Sarmiento.
HII is at pains to be measured and balanced in his views, where DFS was always the sharply opinionated polemicist. HII sees DFS — and the US, where HII lives and which he basically likes — whole. So he chides his hero for having been so engrossed with the positive aspects of the United States that he turned a blind eye to some others, like the huge land grab against Mexico in those years, or what it was actually like to work in the factories DFS so admired, at a time when shifts lasted 12 to 14 hours. Iglesias Illa goes so far as to compare Sarmiento’s tour of industrial Lowell to “a visit today to Pyongyang guided by North Korean propagandists or a visit to Moscow in 1937 guided by Stalinist propagandists.”
HII’s opus also touches on DFS’s other writings and actions, and on earlier commentators who have written about Sarmiento and his travel book. In essence, HII complains that the latter writers have only seen DFS’s text through the prism of their own anti-US-ism. HII also has insights to offer about Perón.
Sarmiento, forged in the bitter fight in Argentina between Unitarians and Federalists, was an impassioned Unitarian. After seeing the US system in action, he came back a Federalist. Yes, but when HII brings this up, he might have emphasized further that the word meant wholly different things in the two contexts. In the Argentina of the time, the word’s sense of decentralized government was totally overlaid by another meaning, that of the already mentioned rule by brutal local warlords. (The US, for its part, still had to test the limits of decentralized rule in its own, bigger, more organized civil strife years later).
On one detail, small but not insignificant, Iglesias Illa is downright wrong. First he mentions that Sarmiento admired the fact that, while Europe spent a lot of money on its armies and wars, the US saved on that, and turned those “immense sums” into “means for prosperity.” Then HII says: “Now the US is the country that spends most on its armies, but at the time its advantage was the opposite one.” This overlooks the difference between absolute and relative spending: the US outspends others, but also generates more wealth. If one wants to consider the effect of military spending on an economy, it only makes sense to do so in terms of the money available in that economy. The country that, in proportion to its GDP, has the greatest military spending, is, far and away, North Korea. It’s followed, well back, by Saudi Arabia, and then other Middle Eastern and African states, all of them ahead of the US. An analysis of what the arms industry represents for the US economy that doesn’t realize this, skews the picture.
Speaking of pictures: it would have been useful if, when HII refers to DFS’s changing appearance over the years, the relevant illustrations had been included; pictures don’t need to be expensive glossies. On the other hand, the cover design is so adroit it deserves special mention: credit goes to Eduardo Ruiz.
American Sarmiento, by Hernán Iglesias Illa (Sudamericana); 288 pages, 149 pesos.