One of the little pleasures I have in life is waiting for the Saturday mail to bring The New Yorker to my door. Reading the magazine gives me a couple hours of escape; it is well-written and I can never predict the direction its conversations will take.
For instance, this week (Jan 16, 2012) the Inquiring Minds section reviews “The Spanish Inquisition.” The article is introduced by a Monty Python sketch where one of the members of the group, Michael Palin, announces “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”
The author Adam Gopnik explores the history of the institution, relating the lessons to today; taking it from “Torquemada[i] to Dick Cheney, and from Guantánamo to Rome,” asking where were the others “when Giordano Bruno is burned to death…”[ii]
The theme of the Gopnik piece is that society always looks to the past for symbols of cruelty which inevitably are based on “surprise, fear…and fanatical devotion.” The gestapo, the K.G.B., the Stasi share similar profiles. Gopnik includes Guantánamo and the “more than twelve hundred government organizations [in the U.S. that] focus on national-security concerns…they have a forebear in Torquemada and the men in the red hats.” Like in the past, today’s torturers always act with surprise, fear and fanaticism, covering their actions with excuses of regret and necessity.
Gopnik is not an apologist for the Inquisition, commenting on the work of a revisionist historian, he writes, “his mordant point is not so much that the Inquisition doesn’t deserve its reputation for cruelty as that its victims don’t deserve theirs for moral courage.” There is always complicity with cruelty in the name orthodoxy such as in the case of Arizona.
Anti-Semitism, racism, and fanatical nationalism are imbedded in the oppressors’ culture. “The Spanish Inquisition didn’t have any real interest in saving the Jews’ soul; they just wanted their houses and their money.” Thus, the purpose of the Inquisition was not to erase Jewish identity (or that of the Moslems) but to remove them as competitors.
This treachery can be compared to the abolishment of the Mexican Studies program in Tucson – civic leaders really don’t care if Mexicans go to school, just as long as they keep on making money off them and they learn what they want them to learn. Anti-Mexican feelings, racism and fanatical nationalism are imbedded in Tucson’s Torquemada culture. The truth be told, Latino identity a barrier to the inquisitors ends.
Acts of surprise, fear and fanaticism are hidden under the cover of regret and necessity. “The point of an inquisition is to reduce its victims to abstractions, and abandoning the effort to call their pain back to particular life…” Bruno’s sin was that he included a plurality of worlds with equal weight.
Even to this day the Pope says he is sorry that the Inquisition occurred. That is not acceptable to critics who want the Pope to say he is ashamed. Likewise it is not enough for society to say that it is sorry for slavery, and the lynching of blacks, browns and Asians. It is not enough to be sorry for keeping blacks and browns uneducated, society should be ashamed of it, just the same as Americans should be ashamed of Abu Ghraib, the pissing on the bodies of dead soldiers, the abolishment of the Tucson Mexican American Studies program, and the censorship of books.
In typical Torquemada fashion Tucson Unified School District inquisitors, Mark Stegeman, Michael Hicks, Miguel Cuevas and Alexandre Borges Sugiyama abolished the district’s highly successful Mexican American Studies program at the direction of the lord inquisitors in Phoenix. Now they are banning books.
Among the censored books are Leslie Marmon Silko, Rethinking Columbus, William Shakespeare's The Tempest, Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Rodolfo Acuña's Occupied America, Arturo Rosales' Chicano!: The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement and Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic's, Critical Race Theory, in addition to a dozen other books.
Thus far, there has been no comment from the American Civil Liberties Union or progressives in the United States. Apparently they do not see the parallel in what is happening in Tucson, and what happened in South Africa under apartheid, the burning of the books by the Spaniards in Middle America, or, for that matter, Germany in the1920s and 30s.
Censorship is criminal. We live in a world of knowledge; books and education give us access to that knowledge; if we are deprived of it, the inquisitors deny us the right to make rational choices.
Arizona schools have abandoned its mission to educate students; they have intentionally denied Mexican American students access to knowledge. Consequently the Arizona bureaucracy has deliberately kept them in the fields, the mines and the prisons, hoping to deny them alternatives.
The purpose of critical thinking is to give students alternatives and to dispel myths and repel blind allegiance to those who deny them alternatives.
According to the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “Censorship reflects society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.”
The motivation of the TUSD Trustees cannot be explained in terms of greed alone. It cannot be rationalized by culture alone. Money and personal gain play a role. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” but it’s there.
Of the Tucson gaggle the only honest one is Hicks, who is openly a racist and limited intelligence. The failed scholar Stegeman is stuck on the promotion ladder. He’ll never make it to full professor without support of politicos. Sugiyama is a bad scholar and a worse teacher; his only chance for a full time position is to sell his posterior. The pitiful Cuevas just wants acceptance from rich white people in the city.
Monty Python and others can laugh at the fanaticism of the past; however, it is hard to laugh at today’s inquisitors. It is easier to turn the other way, La zorra nunca se ve la cola (The Skunk Doesn’t See Its Tail).
So, what can we do? We have no choice but to “Fight Back!”
[i] Tomás de Torquemada was the first Grand Inquisitor of Spain, appointed by the pope in 1483.
[ii] Giordano Bruno was an Italian 16th century Dominican friar who the Roman Inquisition found guilty of heresy for writing that the sun was not only the center of the universe but a star in a universe of other inhabited planets. Bruno was burnt at the stake.