Catchier Than Zika

Jaime Diez

  El mosquito americano , José Guadalupe Posada (Mexican, 1851–1913), 1910, Metropolitan Museum, NYC.

El mosquito americano, José Guadalupe Posada (Mexican, 1851–1913), 1910, Metropolitan Museum, NYC.

I’ve been living in Colombia for the last year, so I know first-hand what everyone else knows only second-hand from the papers— that Colombia is crazy. The drugs, the violence, the beauty, the bloodlust. The madness.

Less known abroad is the Colombian fetish for a precise and priggish kind of sanity. I can’t think of any better way to put it.  And the sanity is everywhere, whereas most of the madness exists only by report. Take the work-ethic: white-collar workers at their desks by 7:30 AM, maids on the bus to their masters’ houses by 4:30 AM. A sort of magical parochialism swirls through the streets like mist. If you’re pushing a pen by 7:30 AM, you are virtuous. That’s in the air too, even if there is no-one who conceives of pen-pushing and table-setting in the very early morning as magical or parochial, as I still do. Doing those activities at those hours fulfills the tenets of a deeper ideal: being virtuous, common-sensical, decent, thoughtful, sane.

That said, I think a lot of Colombians know not so deep down that 7:30 AM is a lie, especially if they serve in the squadrons of Harvard men and women who run things here. You’ve run the regression and the regression has shown that having everyone at their desks by 7:30 AM doesn’t increase g, the total factor productivity growth rate. But, and it’s another but that you can’t unhear once you have been a child here, the only alternative to worshipping at the altar of g is madness and mediocrity:  general half-assery, specific corner-cutting, lynching, profiteering, killing, stealing, dreaming, sinning, dealing. And so you live as if g were actually correlated with 7:30 AM in the world of fact.

Fact: Colombia signed a free-trade agreement with the USA in 2012. Another fact: the main goods that Colombia can produce more cheaply than the USA are cut-flowers, coal, coffee-beans and cocaine. Take cocaine. Colombia is spilling over with cocaine know-how, expertise and goodwill towards all men and plants. Goodwill, as we learned at Harvard, is an intangible and imperishable asset. But let us return to the world of the tangible for a second. The woman who grows coca will make more money than the woman who grows coffee.

The hills are alive with the sound of coca plants in bloom. The hills, the flatlands and the jungle. Coca grows everywhere here. If you were a Harvard free-trader of sincere convictions—amoral, sane, regression-capable and fact-minded, you would have put cocaine top of the list of things you would trade freely with the US, the biggest market for cocaine in the world.

But that would have been unvirtuous, unheard-of. And wrong, whines the parochial voice, the colonized voice, the otherwise sane voice that lives just above the white-collar. So you didn’t say it. You knew what was true and you said the opposite. An existentialist would call that “bad faith.” But I think a simpler and more useful word for it is “irony.”

  El Mosquito Americano , José Guadalupe Posada (Mexican, 1851–1913), 1910, Metropolitan Museum, NYC.

El Mosquito Americano, José Guadalupe Posada (Mexican, 1851–1913), 1910, Metropolitan Museum, NYC.

It was irony because you said what you didn’t mean. You mouthed bullshit, ironic sentences. You did so in order to be a good subject of the USA, a good lackey, a grateful follower. Don’t forget that it was their guns that saved us from becoming a “failed state.” You weren’t making irony for the sake of art— you were making it for the sake of expedience. The facts that were to exist in the world were theirs. You yourself were secret in your opposition, irony, magic, fantasy, shame, parochialism, pettiness, dependence.

That was back in 2002. Now everything is different. The word is out that Colombia has gotten right with god and man: the country is suddenly decent and peaceful, sane. Now it is the gringos who are at war with themselves. Now it’s the gringos who are unstable, rhetorical, ultra-violent as never before. When Trump says he might have the GIs shoot Hondurans fording the Rio Grande, that is a sort of joke, the sort of joke that comes about when a deeply-held wish is briefly allowed to overcome a generally-known fact. Generally-known fact: the gringo army can only be deployed outside the US. Usually in brittle and disobedient places. Iraq, Afghanistan, Niger, Vietnam, Colombia. That is what makes the GIs sacred, in a way. Their powerful magic can only be visited on foreign places, far from where they were called into being as GIs, far from where they are also sons, daughters, debtors and creditors—humans, in short, and not gods.

Looking from Colombia at the USA now gives a man vertigo. What about the facts, what about pragmatism, what about the clear-eyed efficiency in commerce and philosophy that made the gringos strong?  Through the Colombian eyes I use on loan, I see a USA that is richer in imagination than we ever knew. A USA that is as ironic as it is pragmatic. A USA that is a funny man, not a straight man. A USA that is floating further away from the facts with every passing day, covering more eyes with more scales. A USA that is every bit as Baroque as Colombia has ever been.

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Jaime Diez is one of the most celebrated young poets currently working in Wellington, New Zealand.