When I was in college many many years ago Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile as a democratic socialist. The Sound of Silence was at the top of the music charts. Richard Nixon was the U.S. President and Henry Kissinger was Nixon’s National Security Advisor. The United States secretly pursued a policy of destabilization that ultimately led to Allende’s death followed by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The dictatorship lasted 17 years during which time thousands of Chileans were tortured, murdered, and disappeared. Chile regained its democracy in 1990 and recently elected a new young President, Gabriel Boric, who says: Democracy cannot be taken for granted.
Click to watch video: Boric Interview
Fast-forward to today. Over the last four years, leftist candidates have won presidential elections in one Latin American country after the other: Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Colombia … Now Brazil has cemented the trend. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Sunday means the left will soon control six of the region’s seven largest economies. See [Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro may have wanted to pull a Donald Trump. Here’s why he couldn’t].
In Europe populists (mostly on the right) either control the government or are surging in popularity. Left, right … it’s complicated. Inequality, economic woes, immigration, globalization, culture shock.
In the United States we are in the middle of the 2022 midterm election and while no one can predict the results, the polls are leaning right. Election deniers, conspiracy theorists, social conservatives and the “antis” (anti-choice, anti-immigrant, anti-government) seem likely to take control of Congress. Sadly, Americans seem angrier and more divided than ever.
Is our democracy in jeopardy? Could we end up like Chile in 1973 with a dictatorship and all the evils that go with it?
To get some perspective we recently revisited Roberto Bolaño’s short novel By Night In Chile. The book consists of one long paragraph of 130 pages followed by a single haunting sentence. The book is a justification (or is it a confession) by the protagonist, Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, who claims to be dying and who wishes to set the record straight about his actions (or his lack of action) throughout his life.
One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences.
Urrutia then tries to justify himself by saying: “I am responsible in every way. My silences are immaculate.”
Part of the reason we read Bolaño in America is that his life experiences, and his literary errands, gave him enormous insight into how fascism lurks in a society. This is a subject that has long fascinated Americans—think of the popularity of Upton Sinclair’s 1935 novel about a fascist president, It Can’t Happen Here, as well as Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winner All the King’s Men, George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Philip Roth’s massively bestselling The Plot Against America.
We won’t summarize the book. It has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere. Giles Harvey in The New Yorker says:
The narrator of “By Night In Chile,” for example, one of the most morally execrable characters in the Bolaño oeuvre, sits out the great political struggles of his time—Allende’s experiment in socialism and Pinochet’s ensuing coup—and instead devotes himself to rereading the Greeks.
The narrator of this novella, part prose poem, part dramatic monologue, is Father Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest and literary critic. He is dying. He has done something terrible, or has been accused of doing something terrible, and is determined to clear his name. Instead, without Lacroix realizing it, the book becomes one of the most excruciating self-incriminations in literature, a kind of distended “Tell-Tale Heart.” By the end we realize very clearly that damnation is just as much a secular as a religious category.
[In The Labyrinth: A Users Guide To Bolaño by Giles Harvey, The New Yorker, January 18, 2012]
Silence is the villain in Bolaño’s book. The lesson is “speak up” “speak out” when you witness evil. Don’t put your hands over your ears and eyes. Simon and Garfunkel capture this perfectly in their iconic song.
“The Sound of Silence” shows how hard it is to shatter the silence and how easily people can fall into habits that are hard to break. Again it is a criticism of the modern world, where we let injustice happen just because it is easier to be silent than to speak out against such things. Soon enough, this silence and apathy become a habit that we cannot get rid of while the silence kills the best parts in us. Hence, the silence carries a sound, giving meaning to the oxymoron that is the title of the song. The sound of unspoken thoughts and words remains trapped, making the silence louder. All the while humans become incapable of empathy and compassion, merely living like machines functioning according to the ways they were programmed.
There is another lesson to be learned especially today and especially in America. We must learn to agree to disagree in a civil manner with mutual respect. Somehow we have managed this throughout the ups and downs of our history.
“A lady asked Dr. Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy – A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.
If we can keep it indeed. One day at a time.