Words for everyone

May 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Buenos Aires is a city where words don’t stay in books or magazines. Slogans are graffitied on every street, from the Cathedral on the Plaza de Mayo to the back alleys of Constitución. Most are to do with football (‘Con River no se jode’, ‘San Telmo es de Boca’) or politics (‘Néstor vive’, ‘Basta de perseguir a Quebracho’). 

The defining line between the two is not particularly clear. In fact, after nearly ten months living here I’m still amazed by how quickly politics (and, inevitably, the president) become a part of almost any discussion. 

The latent presence of politics is so strong that some words or phrases are, for me at least, irretrievably associated with an idea or a person. One example would be the phrase ‘para todos’ (for everyone), which after a succession of government programmes (fútbol para todos, carne para todos) always makes me expect a new state initiative. After football and meat, what will be next? A quick Google search tells me that ‘fish for everyone’ is already in existence. 

This sort of political penetration reaches even more basic levels of language. I’ve never conducted this experiment, but I’d be willing to bet that if you asked an average Argentine the question: ‘Quién es “él”?’ (Who is ‘he’?), the answer would come quite easily: Néstor Kirchner. I’ve written here before about how President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner effectively invokes the memory of her dead husband without naming him, turning him into a powerful symbol for the successes of his (and her) administration. The comments on that post also show, incidentally, how complex politics in Argentina is.

Still, what I want to get at is the high level of consciousness here of the complex links between politics and language. I wonder whether an analysis like this one of the ‘philosophy of language’ of a political leader would make it into the opinion pages of a leading UK newspaper. 

I suspect that, at heart, this is nothing new. The novel I’m reading at the moment, Sobre héroes y tumbas by Ernesto Sábato, shows how the politics and history of identity can become tied up in language here.

But the linked article, by Beatriz Sarlo, makes an important point: the refusal of the president to admit questions in press conferences, along with the fact that almost no one else from her government speaks publicly, suggests a controlling attitude to discourse. 

An environment where the president’s is practically the only voice – and where all major announcements are transmitted simultaneously on all TV channels – allows the creation of a powerful political narrative. ‘Debate’ is not recognised by the government – as Sarlo says, ‘every contradiction becomes an attack, and every attack becomes personal’. Opposition media commentators are often dismissed as puppets of their evil corporate bosses. 

This is canny strategy, for sure.  But I’m not convinced that it guarantees the best solutions to Argentina’s problems.

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