“The compulsion to silence others is as old as the urge to speak” affirms Eric Berkowitz* in an extraordinary study on censoreship. For nearly a century the post-Revolutionary Mexican government suppressed freedom of expression, engaged in all sorts of efforts to censure the media, controlled the conversation and curbed the entry into the country of “dangerous ideas” that could call into question the legitimacy of the governments emanating from the Revolution. As this author says so well, censorship does not annul the expression that perturbs the governors, but rather transfers it to other media, creating “black markets” saturated with discussion, information, misinformation, conspiracy theories and an infinity of jokes and memes. Symptomatic of our time is the fact that quips about the current Mexican president have been revived, just as happened in the seventies.
The matter of freedom of expression polarizes Mexican society. For some, beginning with the President, one now breathes an air of freedom without compare. And, of course, there is no doubt that President López Obrador employs and exploits his pulpit fully and freely. For others, however, the way that the President leads is nothing other than by the permanent intimidation of those whom he terms “adversaries.”
The polarization in this discussion is somewhat strange because we live in an era of the ubiquity of expression. The social networks permit every citizen to express themselves as they wish, with common sense or rare sense, with respect or irreverence, with correct spelling or not. More to the point, the defeat of the PRI in 2000 was accompanied by a radical change in the nature of the Mexican State, forever undermining the censorship troupes: irreconcilable enemies suddenly had access to all media, written and electronic, while the government not only lost the capacity of control, but also opted to not use it. Certainly, there was no lack of presidents and their “plumbers” who attempted to coax freedom of expression even after 2000, but the advent of social media rendered it impossible to return to the former age. Many of those proclaiming that freedom of expression suddenly appeared in 2018 are the very ones who inhabit the world of the networks where expressions, affronts and conversations predominate outside of all possibility of control. Whoever doubts this should ask Peña Nieto.
In contrast with other governments, the Mexican used to distinguish itself (almost always…) by the subtlety of its methods, but it was never shy about employing others, which were more direct when, in its estimation, the circumstances justified it. The Student Movement of 1968 is vivid testimony of one of those moments. The government strove to control the flow of information because the objective was preservation of the post-Revolutionary legitimacy for which it engaged on the building of hegemony (through television and textbooks), as well as censorship in periodicals and other spaces.
President López Obrador is not a champion of freedom of expression, but his true intent and purpose is control of the narrative. His early-morning press conferences seek to intimidate, but above all to procure leadership in the conversation, to inform his followers, to establish the legitimacy (and illegitimacy) of issues important to him and to construct an ideological hegemony. Very much in the spirit of the seventies, he claims that it is possible to abstract the national discussion from what is taking place in other latitudes or that the data he produces and manipulates are the only ones possible. The problem is not whether he can achieve this, but that he has within his reach the instruments of coercion and extortion that can easily become effective hindrances to freedom of expression.
The question is whether, beyond the interminable spate of insults and counter insults that this generates in the press conferences and social networks, all this makes any difference. Freedom of expression is an inherent part of the national culture, as illustrated in the Posada graphics and the El Ahuizote newspaper during the Porfirian era: indirect means for sidestepping the censorship that now aims to reinstall itself through intimidation and disqualification. Needless to say, there are nations, especially China, that have attained enormous economic success without freedom of expression, but that was possible for them, at least during the time of Deng Xiaoping, with mechanisms that generated certainty and trust in the governmental proceedings, which is what generally occurred in the 20th century post-revolutionary Mexico.
However, Mexico is not China, nor does it share its history and culture. In that context, without freedom and without sources of trust and certainty, the country cannot prosper. It is also not evident that the tactics of Xi Jinping of controlling everything, centralizing the power and perpetuating himself, are going to yield better results than Mao obtained during his epoch.
In an exchange at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, Lenin asked “Why should we bother to reply to Kautsky?… He would reply to us, and we would have to reply to his reply. There is no end to that. It will be quite enough for us to announce that Kautsky is a traitor to the working class, and everyone will understand everything.” That is the way of the current Mexican government: intimidate. Perhaps effective for control, but surely not for progress.