A few months ago, walking through Barranquilla, my city, I began to feel that a car was following me. As it was moving slowly on an empty street, I first thought that the driver was lost, or that he was looking for an address, or a place to park. But I turned the corner and the car followed behind; then closer, then next to me. I stopped and the car stopped. I thought, “He’s chasing me, he’s going to do something to me.” And I thought: “If I start running, he’s sure to speed up.” Then I walked faster, as if I had just remembered an unpostponable appointment, and the car accelerated as well. I stopped again and it stopped again. Then the driver lowered the window and shouted at me, “Sissy! You’re going to break your hip!” He honked, I couldn’t see his face. “Learn how to walk,” he kept shouting, already moving away. And at the end: “Faggot!” The guy left me with his insult, which brought back more insults from the past (more attempts to correct me). I won’t repeat any of them, each bad memory is a more or less violent and grotesque variation of the one I just described.
I mention that experience to begin a response to the column that, in recent days, the Bogota writer Carlos Granés, based in Madrid, published in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. I quote a first fragment: “I always harbored doubts about the rebelliousness of those who fought against abstractions. That is, those who opposed the system, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, the bourgeoisie or imperialism. Or let’s put it another way: it does not seem to me at all difficult or meritorious to confront these concepts or to use them as the target of a revolutionary diatribe. Neither the bourgeoisie nor imperialism is going to slap back. Abstractions are faceless, and when they receive the three stones from the rebel no one takes any notice. It is very different to say ‘no’ to a concrete person: to a dictator, to a gangster, to a Hollywood producer, to a businessman; they can return the offense”.
It seems to me important —urgent even— to distinguish what Granés calls “abstractions” from everything in this world that is structural or, in other words, from everything that is difficult or directly impossible to individualize —from everything that cannot and should not be reduced to that which “has a particular or unique face.” A system is not an abstraction, it is just that: a system, that is, a series of integrated and entangled elements, processes, dynamics, histories and politics. Thus, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, imperialism (and I would add: misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia) are not “abstractions” but historical processes and structural problems; concrete realities, far removed from the abstract, that have had and, of course, still have devastating, material effects on millions of flesh and blood people. I think Granés would agree with me.
So, that these terrible problems are long or difficult to explain, and that sometimes it is long and difficult to point out individually those responsible for so much crime —heteropatriarchy, colonialism, imperialism are criminal— does not imply, I insist, that we are dealing with an abstraction. And in fact, as Granés himself suggests, we know the faces and names of many of the people responsible for impoverishing or annihilating the lives of so many. But, again, being structural problems, their solution cannot always be limited to the rejection of specific leaders, even if they are symbols of all the problems already mentioned. It would happen, as they say, that the names and faces change, but the problems remain —I think quickly of Colombia: now, as things stand, if Alvaro Uribe were not around, Uribism would still continue. Confronting or removing leaders of the system from power is not always the point of arrival, but it is a great starting point for a profound transformation.
I go back to my incident. Every time I go over it, this becomes clear to me: the insult is not limited to the man who shouted at me, but it is something much bigger than the derogatory word, much bigger than that specific person. That his homophobia —yes, homophobia, which is not an abstraction, but a reality that is still concretized in different forms of discrimination and condescension; a form of exclusion and of killing not only perpetuated by specific individuals and leaders, but validated by a whole widespread way of being in the world— does not stay with himself. Need I say that, as broad and ungraspable as it may seem, homophobia, inseparable from heteropatriarchy (that abstraction, according to Granés), is something that all the time takes the form of unpleasant and fearful experiences, that it is something that has literally twisted my body, and broken the body and lives of many others like me? As the writer Juan Cárdenas says: “Abstractions cease to be abstractions when someone’s windpipe is crushed by a knee and he can’t breathe.”
Later in the column, Granés mentions Colombian film director Sergio Cabrera (whose life has been recreated by writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez in the novel Volver la vista atrás) and New York-based French author and financier Laurence Debray to say that both made “their own great revolution:” distancing themselves ideologically from their parents —breaking with concrete people, according to the author, who fought against abstractions such as “the bourgeoisie, imperialism and the capitalist system.” Granés writes: “Impossible not to think of Laurence Debray, the daughter of Régis Debray, Che’s companion in his Bolivian adventure, who did the same. She renounced her father’s causes to become his antithesis, an admirer of a king and a New York financier. There, in that gesture there is rebellion, because the father is the one who can return the worst slap, and not necessarily with his hand. It takes more courage to say ‘no’ to him than to confront an army, let alone defy imperialism or the bourgeoisie: there’s nothing easier than that.” And he adds: “In the challenge to the father stands out the crucial element of all rebellion: the rupture. The revolutionary is a person who has found a good reason to betray his environment, and that good reason is usually freedom. In some cases, individual freedom, in others, collective freedom. The fact is that freedom always means betraying convention, tradition, the status quo or the prevailing moral script. And all of this can be imposed by the family, the institution, the churches, the cliques, the government. Laurence Debray and Sergio Cabrera sent the Third World insurrection to hell, despite the fact that their parents embodied their myths and values. Becoming a bourgeois can sometimes be the most transcendent rebellion.”
I have long believed in the need —let’s also say urgency— to rethink the idea of “killing the father.” A father does not always represent power. A father is not always a patriarch. A father is not always a master or an oppressor. One kills the master —one breaks with the master—, one kills the oppressor, one kills the patriarch, but one does not kill the father for being a father. The father-son relationship is not always equivalent to the master-slave relationship. Sadly —and here I am not talking about the relationships mentioned by Granés since I do not know the details and the ins and outs of them—, I have very often seen children who present as an intellectual, depersonalized matter something that is clearly an affective tangle. And to go to a specific case and stop talking about this from an abstract point of view, I want to say that, on a personal level, I had many disagreements with my father (about the way I lived my life on a daily basis, for example), but I always admired —I still admire— the ideas and sensibilities that, with his truncated schooling, he had with respect to the radical inequality of our countries: a condemnatory look at the authoritarianisms he knew how to pass on to me without being authoritarian himself. It is a look that I treasure and that has never ceased to move me. It is up to me to solve the emotional tangles with him. And it is up to me that the attempt to sort out those tangles does not become a frivolous transgression: it would be terrible, shameful, unacceptable, that by wanting to “rebel” against him, I end up denying or, even worse, embracing and validating a system —yes, a concrete system that impoverished his life and impoverishes mine, ours: neoliberalism, the heteropatriarchy— just for disagreeing with him. That would be a false freedom.