Eduardo Galeano’s Evolution

The writer didn’t turn right-wing; he developed a radical understanding of the world’s complexities.

Last spring, when the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano made some rueful comments about his classic anti-globalization, anti-imperialist history Open Veins of Latin America (1971), the Economist was delighted. At last there could be agreement that “capitalism is the only route to development in Latin America,” the magazine crowed. Galeano’s recantation could hardly have been more significant: “it was almost as if Jesus’s disciples had admitted that the New Testament was a big misunderstanding.”

Indeed, in the forty years since its publication Open Veins had achieved semi-mythic status. Uncompromising and accusatory, the book told of a centuries-long capitalist plunder operation, in which fruit companies, oil drillers, slave traders, and conquistadors collaborated to despoil the Americas. That story, containing more than a little truth, resonated with populist movements. The book became an international bestseller and the scourge of right-wing governments. It may have reached the height of its notoriety when Hugo Chavez gave Barack Obama a copy at the Summit of the Americas in 2009.

Hence the shockwaves when Galeano publicly recanted the work. Open Veins, he said, was badly dated. He found his leftist prose unreadable. The New York Times reported that Galeano’s disavowal “set off a vigorous regional debate, with the right doing some ‘we told you so’ gloating, and the left clinging to a dogged defensiveness.” Monthly Review’s Michael Yates dismissed Galeano as just another writer gone conservative in old age.

On April 13, Galeano died at the age of seventy-four. Already his legacy is crystallizing inobituaries that portray him as no more than a once-brash post-colonialist who lost his political fire and recently produced some fine writing on soccer. But this narrative is mistaken. It omits Galeano’s most important literary-political achievements: the beautiful new form of writing he crafted and the revealing lens through which he came to view human affairs.

v v v v

By the time Galeano published Open Veins in 1971, he had already gained some notoriety as a leftist journalist. But his signature style would come later. Beginning with 1978’s Days and Nights of Love and War, he developed an inimitable collage technique that he would deploy for the rest of his life.

The Galeano technique is difficult to precisely describe, but it is easy enough to read. The word most often applied is “fragmentary,” though the fragments are carefully arranged into unified wholes. Such works consist, usually, of brief stories, never much more than a page, each a snapshot of some moment in the life of a person, a country, the world. The subjects range from famous writers to dictators to nameless members of the underclass, all depicted in Galeano’s sparse, graceful prose. A sample from Mirrors (2009)

Reichstag, Berlin, May 1945.

Two soldiers raise the flag of the Soviet Union over the pinnacle of German power.

This photograph by Yevgeny Khaldei portrays the triumph of the nation that lost more sons in the war than any other.

The news agency TASS distributes the picture. But before doing so, it makes a correction.

The Russian soldier wearing two wristwatches now has only one. The warriors of the proletariat do not loot dead bodies.

The piece has all the hallmarks of Galeano’s late writing. He uses not a word more than necessary, yet the style feels poetic rather than skimpy. The sentences are terse, but emotional impact is never sacrificed for brevity. His former dogmatism has been displaced by a sense of the absurd that does not take predetermined sides. But his humanist sympathies are also clear. He views war as a colossal folly and expresses compassion for struggling people bound by circumstance.

Galeano collected thousands of these anecdotes, all poignant or ironic. He sifted the raw material of history, gathering not just the textbook turning points but also scores of ordinary human moments with something to convey. He lovingly escorts the reader through his vast gallery, a wise and captivating tour guide. The name of Scheherazade has understandably been invoked in describing Galeano; it is hard to think of anything in our time comparable to his magical trove of a thousand and one little tales.

Galeano’s greatest achievement is Memory of Fire (1982–86), a trilogy encompassing the entire history of the Americas, from creation myths to the publication of Memory of Fire itself. He wrote it out of his growing dissatisfaction with Open Veins. That book, he worried in 1983, “may reduce history to a single economic dimension” when life “sings with multiple voices.” Thus, over nearly a thousand pages, Galeano brings us not just the pillaging of mineral rights but a grand kaleidoscope of the Western Hemisphere.

He crosses the continents chronologically, drawing scenes from every sphere of life—high and low, transformative and quotidian. We visit Cuzco in 1523, Key West in 1895, Chile in 1973. With the Spanish colonist Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, we taste guavas, medlars, and pineapples. Among all the New World fruits, the pineapple is best: “Oviedo knows no words worthy of describing its virtues. It delights his eyes, his nose, his fingers, his tongue. This outdoes them all, as the feathers of the peacock outshine those of any bird.” In 1917 we stand on a hillside with Pancho Villa as he contemplates the retreat of General Pershing. Then it’s off to New Orleans to witness the invention of jazz.

Galeano reproduces classified ads selling slaves; vendors crying in the streets of Mexico City, 1840 (“Candies! Coconut candies! Merr-i-i-ingues!”); excerpts from revolutionary oratories; President William McKinley’s speech exhorting the United States to civilize the Philippines. The cast of characters is one of the grandest in all of literature, full of saints, devils, and rogues: José Martí, Augusto Pinochet, Simón Bolívar, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Pablo Neruda. Cantinflas and Leon Trotsky, Carmen Miranda and Eva Peron. Sergei Eisenstein shoots films in Mexico, and Enrique Santos Discépolo composes tangos in flea-ridden Argentine dressing rooms. We witness hurricanes, slave revolts, military coups, torture, bloodshed, romance, soccer. Occasionally, we find heroes. Bartolome de las Casas, champion of the Indians, tries to “halt the plunder that uses the cross as its excuse.” Far more common, though, are close-ups of the wars and abuses whose memories are so often buried with their victims. The Viceroy of New Spain watches as heretics are hanged in 1574; 380 years later, the CIA installs a repressive dictatorship in Guatemala.

Yet if Galeano focuses on memorializing suffering, he also depicts simple pleasures, as when Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin first perform together, in Limelight (1952). There are love affairs and dances and endless ordinary people fighting to preserve their dignity. Alongside folly, mishap, and travesty are painful beauty, coincidence, and wonder. Memory of Fire documents what it feels like to be alive at one’s moment in time.

In his subsequent books, Galeano continued to experiment with formats, concocting his singular brew of journalism, memoir, folktale, and history. Upside Down (1998) presents satirical lessons from a comically bizarre syllabus on the “inverted” world wrought by globalized capitalism. Quotes from Noam Chomsky join macabre woodcut drawings of skeletons, alligators, and aristocrats. In Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1995) he applies his method to sports, producing an acclaimed and eclectic history of the game.

For their inventiveness alone, Galeano’s books would be a treasure. But to truly appreciate their significance one must understand their author’s evolution. He was a propagandist who became an artist. Galeano realized that all-explaining stories, such as the Marxist story and the capitalist story, fail to capture the chaotic mosaic of human existence. He decided that we should never see our realities through the filter of our politics, but our politics should emerge from our realities. Thus he came to detest those “dogmatic versions of Marxism that proclaim the Only Truth and that divorce man from nature and reason from emotion.” The lack of overarching moral narratives, the abandonment of linear storytelling, the shattering of the text into hundreds of tiny shards—all reflected the growing sophistication and humility of Galeano’s thought.

But as he changed, Galeano never renounced his leftist economic analysis. He was enriching his commitments rather than discarding them. His later works are still full of references to capitalist robbery and U.S. imperialism. But he layered new insights atop these. Economics was not life; life was also ideas, geographies, cultures. Sometimes corporate predation destroyed people, and sometimes bureaucracy destroyed them. Sometimes they destroyed themselves. The important thing was to always be with the victims against the victimizers, to show boundless compassion, and to bear witness.

Galeano sought to gather up the overlooked injustices of history, to ensure that, whatever their lessons, they would never be lost. He insisted he was not a historian but “a writer obsessed with remembering.” In his words, forgetting is “the only death that really kills.” His way of serving the people he loved was to keep as many of them alive in his work as he could.

This was not the project of Open Veins. As Galeano admitted, that book is marred by its Marxist materialism. The best parts of it—the sensitive storytelling, the sense of monumental historical sweep, the moral clarity—would be deepened in subsequent writing. The parts that didn’t work—the communist orthodoxy, the mono-causal trajectories, the leaden economics—would be ditched.

Open Veins took off because it gave readers what they most wanted: a straightforward explanation of why things are and how they came to be. Later, as Galeano’s sociological eye became more refined, he would realize that simple answers are cheap, that life takes forked paths, that the “thousand voices” of the earth are irreducible. Meaning, such as it can be found, cannot be imposed but must arise naturally from recurring patterns in the emergent composition. Galeano had once wanted to be a painter, and it was with a painter’s sensibility that he realized human beings were too intricate to be depicted in broad strokes.

There was a wry irony in Chavez’s gift to Obama. It could fit perfectly into one of Galeano’s collections of scraps: the story of one ruler giving another ruler a book opposing all rulers, a book neither of them would read. Those leaders didn’t understand Galeano, just as the Economist didn’t understand him, just as the Marxists who thought he had turned right wing didn’t understand him. Subtlety is unintelligible to the fanatical.

Through his evolution as an artist and a thinker, Galeano showed how to free oneself from the fanatics, how to remain radical in sympathy for the weak and hatred of tyranny while never sacrificing one’s integrity or independence of thought. He demonstrated not just a dynamic new way of writing, but also a way to form our ideas, to see ourselves in history, and, above all, to remember.

Remembering Jon Stewart’s Nasty Side

Instead of being venerated as one of television’s great hosts, the cruel, unpleasant Daily Show host should be reviled and forgotten.

To liberals, the voice of Jon Stewart was a presence of comfort and solidarity during the Bush years. As folly piled upon folly, Stewart’s program felt like an outpost of sanity for the left, a last refuge of judgment in a sea of political madness. Stewart’s personality, sarcastic but fueled by a deep moral indignation, felt like the sort of sensibility one could, above all, depend on to be outraged by the right things and compassionate toward the right people. In fact, to watch old Daily Show episodes, one notes the extent to which it is Stewart’s likable, sympathetic voice that creates the show’s watchability, rather than the quality of the writing or production.

So when Stewart signed off the air recently after a decade-and-a-half, he was lavished with gushing tributes and summings-up in the press. He was credited with creating a “cultural phenomenon” and for becoming “one of the nation’s most bracing cultural, political, and media critics.”

But as Stewart’s legacy is sealed, and his lasting impact on politics and comedy assessed, it is important to remember another side of Jon Stewart, a side carefully concealed by his self-effacing on-screen persona. For behind the scenes, Jon Stewart could be a cruel and tyrannical man, who made life a hell for some female and minority writers, and vented his “joyless” anger on anyone who crossed him.

For the entirety of Stewart’s tenure as host, The Daily Show was a well-oiled machine, and Stewart’s warm, humble persona as host a comforting presence to TV viewers. But when those who worked on the show have let their guard down in interviews, it has become clear that the familiar Stewart is far from the Stewart that exists backstage. As one former show executive put it, “there’s a huge discrepancy between the Jon Stewart who goes on TV every night and the Jon Stewart who runs The Daily Show with joyless rage.” Staffers have described him as “anything but warm and fuzzy,” a man whose anger has even exploded into throwing things at people.

Staffers helped conceal Stewart’s true nature from the public. Former correspondent Stacey Grenrok-Woods said that “I would never think of Jon Stewart as nice” but that fans of the show were so eager to think of Stewart as being a decent guy that she always told them “Yes, he’s very nice” whenever they would ask.

Yet the anecdotes about Stewart’s unpleasantness are easy enough to come by. Audience member Allison Kinney wrote for Salon about her bizarre and unsettling experience at a show taping. Stewart always performed a Q&A session with his audience. But when Kinney questioned Stewart over his warm-up act’s use of anti-Semitic and homophobic humor, Stewart blew up at her, swearing at and belittling her in front of the whole crowd. Kinney had expected Stewart to simply promise to look into the issue, but instead he went out of his way to make her feel as if she had ruined the show.

The incident with Kinney fits a pattern of gender problems at the show. Female ex-staffers have reported an exclusionary “boys club” atmosphere at the show, and Stewart allegedly banned his female executive producer from the show’s Emmy acceptance. And while a number of female Daily Show staff have insisted they are well-treated, the show’s record on diversity is undeniably abysmal, with the guests being overwhelmingly male and up to 96% white. All of this is grossly ironic considering Stewart’s constant on-air reaffirmations of his commitment to progressive feminism.

Even Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane has expressed shock at Stewart’s abrasiveness and hostility. In 2007, when the Writers Guild of America went on strike, Stewart crossed the picket line to continue hosting his show. MacFarlane ribbed Stewart for the act of hypocrisy: Stewart publicly insisted he supported the strike, yet undermined his fellow writers by continuing to work. Stewart became furious with MacFarlane over the criticism, and mercilessly berated him in a profane hour-long phone call. MacFarlane has even said he has tried not to talk about the incident, for fear of being publicly “crucified” by Stewart. Criticize Stewart’s betrayal of the writers and one could expect to become the show’s next target.

But the most telling illustration of Stewart’s underlying nastiness is his deplorable treatment of Wyatt Cenac, which only came to light last month. In 2012, Cenac was serving as the show’s only black writer. When he gently expressed concern to Stewart that Stewart’s Herman Cain impression resembled an inappropriate racial caricature, Stewart became enraged. He repeatedly screamed at Cenac to “fuck off,” and said he was “done with” Cenac, leading Cenac to believe he was fired.

The abuse was so intense that Cenac had an emotional breakdown. Cenac describes how he left the studio and burst into tears, overcome with loneliness. Stewart also continued to perform the impression, in defiance of Cenac’s warning that it bordered on being an offensive Amos n’ Andy routine. Cenac would leave the show a year later, alienated and miserable.

Stewart’s behavior toward Cenac not only reveals him to be a bully, but shows something far darker: Stewart was uninterested in removing bigotry from the show and was intentionally hostile toward his only black writer over race issues. The liberal values Stewart professed night after night were flatly contradicted by his actions backstage, where he harangued minority staffers for daring to suggest he consider the racial implications of his material.

Jon Stewart has spent many years beloved by young progressives, as a voice of moderation in an age of extremes. Former Daily Show contributor Lewis Black recently compared Stewart to Walter Cronkite, and the parallel is true: as a reassuring, authoritative voice of reason on television, Stewart did play the Cronkite role for millions of people. Television is a machine for disguising the truth, however, and “Jon Stewart” was as much of a carefully-constructed fictional character as Stephen Colbert’s exaggerated “Stephen Colbert.” The real Jon Stewart appears as something very different: an often humorless, angry, and egotistical man.

One might consider this immaterial to his legacy; many great performers have hideous personality defects. It becomes important, though, because women and minorities so often bore the brunt of Stewart’s unkindness, whether they were in the audience or the writer’s room. That kind of ugliness makes Stewart a traitor to his professed egalitarian values, and a poor role model for progressives. Stewart was the definition of a hypocrite, a man who convinced the public of his righteousness while treating those around him abysmally.

Now, Stewart is gone, his tenure generally looked back on positively. But it’s worth reflecting on his darker aspects, both for the sake of preserving the truth, and because it’s an illustrative case of just how much our public figures can depart privately from their popular personas. That may seeme elementary and universally-accepted, but while everyone affirms it, in practice they all remain credulous. No matter how many times we see the mask slip, from Christian Bale’s abusive rant toward his subordinatess on the set to (at the extreme end) Bill Cosby’s multi-decade serial rapes, it never quite sinks in that well-known personalities aren’t quite who they appear to be.

The talk show host Dick Cavett once wrote that he found it astonishing how insincere someone could seem when he talked to them in the studio, yet how affable they came across on the screen. Cavett noted that:   

“…people who are experienced with the camera, notably actors and politicians, will develop a false geniuneness that is indistinguishable from the real thing. Many is the time I have sat on stage and thought ‘Everybody will see through this guy’s act, then sat at home and found that what I saw while doing the show had gotten lost somewhere between the man and the camera.”

Therefore never trust a voice on television, not even one so apparently sincere as that of the self-deprecating, affable truth-teller Jon Stewart.