In a public discussion forum entitled “Culture, politics and late capitalism,” sponsored by Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero on November 1, 2019, Argentina’s new president Alberto Angel Fernández referred to an earlier article he had written, in which he discussed his personal reflections regarding mechanisms of social control. As he spoke, he revealed himself, more and more, to be a humanist.
What follows here is a synthesis of what he said in that forum (recorded and published by Página 12 on YouTube).
It seems that the article he mentioned was never published, and as we say in Spanish, was “stored in a drawer on his desk.” In referring to the article, President Fernández touched on a wide range of topics. That does, after all, seem to be characteristic of very smart people, who detect connections that others miss.
One topic he reflected on was his earlier analysis of cartoons. He makes that the central topic, out of which he creates a narrative that threads through the hippies of the 1960s and their literature and musical expression, then the young people of today, until he reaches a masterful closing with his definition of a truly successful person.
Fernandez would have us think hard about cartoons and their structure and effects, with the intention of increasing our awareness of the inherent semiotic implications. For Fernández, cartoons are a notable social control mechanism, as are family, school and neighborhood social clubs.
Family, school, neighborhood clubs — they add a lot to life. But they are also social control mechanisms. The media are also powerful social control systems, says Fernández, with the cartoons of the twentieth century being a good example. Disney, a great moralist, confronted us with both pain and the reassurance that the good guys always win. Bambi, for example, kills those who hunted his mother, and then Bambi recovers from his mother’s murder and becomes the deer king in that forest. It is the triumph of good over the bad.
Fernández insists that one could find in Disney countless cases like this. Disney also did something unusual for the time, which was to anthropomorphize animals. For example, one day we discovered that a mouse (Mickey) had a dog (Pluto) — obviously unusual. Disney metaphors showed us our ordinary life with an underlying element that was always the triumph of the good over the bad.
However, as we follow Fernández ́s thought, he states that with the Warner Brothers cartoons, postmodernism began. Those cartoons — Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Elmer Fudd, Claudio Ruster— with all of these, there is a dispute between a fool and a crafty one, where the crafty always wins.
“Who has seen a greater scammer than Bugs Bunny?” Alberto Fernández asks the audience, which became the model for many children over many generations. In truth, it was a model of the promotion of individualism of the crafty that weighed over the other, where the fool is always in need. The Coyote needed to eat the Roadrunner, but the Roadrunner was crafty and exploited all conceivable traps for the Coyote. So Coyote was battered, and the RoadRunner went on to enjoy the fruits of his craftiness. What kind of role model was the Coyote, who was simply looking for food — or the RoadRunner, who enjoyed watching Coyote’s suffering?
Fernández tells us that, unfortunately, you watch the animated Warner Brothers cartoons and you see that it is full of messages of individualism, lacking in supportive messages. Full. And an entire generation was shaped on that. Then came Japanese anime, which injected the logic of violence and dispute into cartoons, and the resulting gang life. I have no doubt, asserts the new Argentina’s president, that the societal violence that developed had a lot to do with the underlying culture in those drawings.
Fernández emphasizes that all of this serves to inject us subliminally with a lot of data we do not even realize we are taking in. Nevertheless, all societies have moments of reaction. For example, hippie culture of the 60s reacted to the consumer society with a fierce pushback. The hippies were so mistreated by history — they were young people who simply said “let’s stop consuming, let’s live freely, love, enough of wars, long live peace.” And they lost. They went down in history as just crazy, long-haired and dirty. But they were a revolution at that time, which impacted young people around the world.
President Fernández says that he considers himself the result of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Walt Whitman, and all of that era. “I am a lover of the respect between peoples,” he says, “and of peaceful coexistence.” Already at ten years old, Fernández was reading magazines for hippies. He feels that the consumer society has made us lose all of that.
Then he speaks about Aristotle, who tells us that the object of life is the pursuit of happiness. The discussion then is “what is happiness?” Fernández would say that it’s being happy with what I have, and not tormenting myself for what I don’t have. Of course, that statement is difficult to understand in a time marked by postmodernism, marked by individualism, marked by aesthetics and not by ethics. But President Fernández identifies it as something to fight for, and for all of us to reflect upon it.
As an amateur musician, he also wanders into the subject of music and musicians in Argentina, citing in this case the great Alberto Spinetta. Spinetta wrote a song called “Elementales leches,” which in one stanza says: “What is and is not will be used to fulminate us.” It speaks directly to the consumer society. Of course he spoke out of a spiritual sense, and it is very true. Everything has changed so much as a consequence of consumerism that the humanly successful person is not the socially respected. But success is not fortune — rather, it is behavior. We have to recover that logic. The successful one is the one who knows how to act rightly. That person who determines to live with dignity.
Get out of individualism, and return to what Alfonsin called the ethics of solidarity, asserts Fernández. Who can live in peace, knowing that the one next door is suffering? The hungry are not a statistic — rather, they are people like us, forgotten and suffering. How can we be at peace with our conscience, knowing that there is someone in this situation next to or in front of us?
Fernández sees today’s youth as consumerist, with boys and girls more worried about the brand name than the human bottom line. And that is a call to reflection for all of us. It is true that we are always in conflict about having the newest cell phone with the most recent camera. Fernández acknowledges that he too celebrates technology — but that every year a new cell phone appears with something more that makes us buy it. And they do the same with cars, every year changing something small in the previous model that makes us run after the newer one. And the boys and girls run after the latest Nike shoes and the latest shirts. He insists, though, that he does not say that as a criticism, because he is also part of that generation and that reality. He offers it only to make us think about it.
Alberto Angel Fernández ends his talk by saying: Success is not winning money. Success is being loved by others. Success is that we leave this world and someone says: “That was a person who cared for others, who was supportive. Someone who gave something to others.”
That is what makes us rich — the love of people, the love of the other. Not fortune, which comes and goes.
I was astonished to hear that the thinking of Alberto Angel Fernández expressed concern with the needs of a new epoch. It is also now clear that Argentinian voters are aware of what Fernández means when he speaks pragmatically of furthering the common good — in other words, of the heritage of the humanist tradition.