Friday, December 01, 2006

"Las ideas no se matan!"

I was asked recently about a quote I reference in the "About Me" section of my web site. Someone wanted to know what the quote meant and why I referenced it. This is understandable, the person quoted is Fidel Castro Ruz, the current leader of Cuba and great ideological foe of the United States. The quote is from a speech delivered by Fidel Castro in 1999 to a group of students in Caracas Venezuela, a very long speech, touching on issues of core ideological difference with the free market West. Fidel Castro Ruz, “Una Revolución solo puede ser hija de la cultura y law ideas,” Discurso pronunciado por el Presidente del Consejo de Estado de la República de Cuba, Fidel Castro Ruz, en el Aula Magna de la Universidad Central de Venezuela, el 3 de febrero de 1999.

Near the end of the speech, Castro reminisced about a now famous episode the occured a moment that provided him with a great insight, a moment in which in the mountains of Cuba, he faced the certainty of death, which he reduced to its essence--"las ideas no se matan."

Ahora, podemos decir, como me dijo un teniente que me hizo prisionero en un bosque, al amanecer, en las inmediaciones de Santiago de Cuba, varios días después del asalto a la fortaleza del Moncada. Habíamos cometido el error —siempre hay un error—, cansados de tener que reposar sobre piedras y raíces, de dormir en un pequeño varaentierra cubierto de hojas de palma que estaba por allí, y nos despertaron con los fusiles sobre el pecho, un teniente casualmente negro, por suerte, y unos soldados que tenían las arterias hinchadas, sedientos de sangre, y sin saber ni quiénes éramos. No habíamos sido identificados. En el primer momento no nos identificaron, nos preguntaron los nombres, yo di uno cualquiera: ¡prudencia, eh! (Risas), astucia, ¿no? (Aplausos), quizás intuición, instinto. . . . .

Pero aquel teniente, ¡qué cosa increíble! —esto nunca lo había contado en detalle públicamente—, está calmando a los soldados, y ya casi no podía. En el momento en que buscando por los alrededores encuentran las armas de los demás compañeros, se pusieron superfuriosos. Nos tenían amarrados y apuntándonos con los fusiles cargados; pero no, aquel teniente se movía de un lado a otro, calmándolos y repitiendo en voz baja: "Las ideas no se matan, las ideas no se matan." ¿Qué le dio a aquel hombre por decir aquello?

. . . . .

Como dijo aquel Teniente, las ideas no se matan (Aplausos), nuestras ideas no murieron, nadie pudo matarlas; y las ideas que sembramos y desarrollamos a lo largo de esos treinta y tantos años, hasta 1991, más o menos, cuando se inicia el período especial, fueron las que nos dieron la fuerza para resistir. Sin esos años que dispusimos para educar, sembrar ideas, conciencia, sentimientos de profunda solidaridad en el seno del pueblo y un generoso espíritu internacionalista, nuestro pueblo no habría tenido fuerzas para resistir. Id.
Here is a basic English translation of this passage provided by the Cuban government::

Now we can say the same thing a lieutenant said who took me prisoner in a forest near Santiago de Cuba in the early hours of dawn several days after the attack against the Moncada army garrison. We had made a mistake, there is always a mistake. We were tired of sleeping on the ground, over roots and stones, so we fell asleep in a makeshift hut covered with palm fronds. Then, we woke up with rifles pointed against our chests. It was a lieutenant, a black man, with a group of unmistakably bloodthirsty soldiers who did not know who we were. We had not been identified. At first, they did not identify us. They asked us our names. I gave a false name. Prudence, huh? (LAUGHTER) Shrewdness? (APPLAUSE) Perhaps it was intuition or maybe instinct. . . . . .

But that lieutenant, what an incredible thing! I have never told this story in detail publicly. This lieutenant was trying to calm down the soldiers but he could hardly stop them anymore. When they found the other comrades’ weapons while searching the surroundings, they were infuriated. They had us tied up with their loaded rifles pointing at us. But the lieutenant moved around calming them down and repeating in a low voice: "You cannot kill ideas, you cannot kill ideas". What made this man say that?

. . . . .

As that lieutenant said, ideas cannot be killed. (APPLAUSE) Our ideas did not die, no one could kill them. And the ideas we sowed and developed during those thirty odd years until 1991 more or less, when the special period began, were what gave us the strength to resist. Without those years we had to educate, sow ideas, build awareness, instill feelings of solidarity and a generous internationalist spirit, our people would not have had the strength to resist. Id.

The perhaps necessarily breezy translation provided by the Cuban state apparatus hides a bit of subtlety of meaning. Castro hints at some of the subtlety in that portion of the speech quoted above. But the phrase itself is worth a bit of deeper exploration. The quote, "las ideas no se matan" means "literally"-- ideas can't be killed-but it also carries some overtones-it can be a form of indirect command (don't kill ideas)-or it serves as a reference to the basic set of normative and universal truths which are beyond human power to alter, or to the actual person who holds these ideas and seeks to spread them. This last insight was the focus of the use of the phrase in the context of the "founding story" of his capture by the forces of Batista, the then current dictator of Cuba, and the ciritcal intervention by the officer. The argument that saved Castro's life, then becomes the founding myth of the Cuban revolution, conflating Castro as a person, Castro as the proxy for the ideas and system he was fighting for in Cuba, and ultimately for ideas in general.

Castro's use of the event, and the quote, "las ideas no se matan," is narrowly pointed --to the defense of the founding ideology of the Cuban Revolution against that of the United States and its global ideology. But there is irony here as well. Freed of its peculiarly Cuban context, the insight cuts in all sorts of directions. The larger truths embedded in this quote serve to complicate the simple elegance of its exposition by any advocate of a system of ideas. Ideas do not disappear. Ideas cannot be defeated. Ideas do not cease to exist. Ideas, principles, norms, values, appear and reappear. Ideas cannot be defeated. They cannot be erased. No level of human consensus can eradictae, trasnform or suppress ideas for any appreciable length of time. To seek a complete and eternal victory of one idea over others is to engage in a fool’s game. Or perhaps, is the stuff of Messianism--the forward thinking of hope for the advaocates of particular idea systems. More irony--the early Christians understood this well as they embraced the cultural values of the peoples Christian missionaries sought to convert. Elements of modern Hinduism attempt a similar feat—attempting to embed Buddhism and Sikhism within their own systems. Modern American Religion Clause jurisprudence is remarkable for its ability to produce wave after wave of older ideas, repackaged and recalculated, sometimes long after it appeared to have been utterly rejected. While it is possible to manage the power of ideas to control larger segments of human societys, it appears to be virtually impossible to suppress or extinguish the expression of the idea itself.

This is not to suggest that there is no truth, or that all values are relative or the usual related nonsense spewed by those who are comfortable in the false belief that their knowledge is sufficient to definitively judge ideas. Logos may well be perfection, but no one of us is Logos. Nor does it appear that Logos is a picky as some of us are with respect to its content. Ideas cannot be killed, and especially, it seems, thos eideas that stand to remind us that we may embrace only partial and imcomplete knowledge. Perhaps this is a way of understanding the rewification of ideas, Logos, as divine, as beyond the human ability to produce or control. Ultimately, it suggests that humility is the gateway to knowledge, and knowledge to the understanding of the nature of ideas that may not be killed. Humility in this context requires us to remember that even the best of us possess only a partial and subjective knowledge, truth. Ideas cannot be killed because we continue to strive for a perfection of knowledge, a perfection that will elude us for some time yet.

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