Rousing myself from my post-Xmas torpor on Boxing Day morning for a brief survey of the news through a random I-Pad, my eyes were caught by an article in the Huffington Post from Conrad Black about Uruguay’s remarkable president José Mujica.
At first – and second – glance, these are not two names that one would expect to find together in any context. Black, or Lord Black of Crossharbour, as the Queen generously dubbed him in 2001 at Tony Blair’s behest, is a former newspaper tycoon and convicted fraudster, who has spent most of his life wallowing in money like a pig in shit.
Before he was sentenced by a US court in 2007 for embezzlement, His Lordship and Lady Black a.k.a Barbara Amiel, were famous for their opulent lifestyles and conspicuous consumption, which they once broadcast to the world at a Kensington Palace fancy dress party in 2000, where they dressed as Cardinal Richelieu and Marie Antoinette.
José Mujica, by contrast, is the world’s first and only national leader to voluntarily renounce 90 percent of his annual presidential salary, which he donates to various charities dedicated to the Uruguayan poor. A former member of the leftist Tupamaro ‘urban guerrilla’ organization, which was crushed in 1972 by the Uruguayan army, Mujica spent 14 years in one of the horrendous prisons which Uruguay’s military rulers designed specifically for imprisoned ‘Tupas’ and anyone else who attempted to step outside the fascistic box in which the armed forces enclosed the country for more than a decade.
Mujica appears in Heidi Specogna and Rainer Hoffman’s excellent – if somewhat rose-tinted – documentary Tupamaros (1997), which was made more than a decade before his election as president in 2009. Even then, he came across as a man from another era, still uncompromisingly committed to the ideals of social justice that had once inspired him to enter into the disastrous confrontation between the Tupas and the Uruguayan state in the early 1960s.
The film showed him setting off on his motorbike from his rundown farm outside Montevideo, where he and his wife made their living selling flowers, to campaign in elections that few people then believed he had much chance of winning. Today, at the age of 77, he still lives in the same farm rather than the luxurious state house normally occupied by Uruguayan presidents.
Mujica’s lifestyle – and his decision to renounce most of his salary – is not just a gesture of solidarity with the Uruguayan poor – it is also intended as a critique of a developmental model based on unlimited economic growth and what he calls ‘hyper- consumption’.
So what is it about all this that has moved the great embezzler, or ‘author and historian’ as his Huff Post bio kindly describes Black, to tap out a column on the subject of Mujica and the ‘Tupemaros’ (sic)? Few people will be surprised by His Lordship’s dismissal of Mujica’s objections to economic growth as ‘ rustically asinine.’
But what is this? Black goes on to argue that Mujica ‘ deserves emulation for his threadbare lifestyle’ and that ‘He seems to be one of that rare breed of sincere anti-materialists, who thinks that the pursuit of wealth beyond a minimum is sociopathic and the root of most evil in the world.’
Well excuse me while I choke on my cold Xmas pudding. Is this what post-modern means? That a convicted felon who once sold his Kensington townhouse for $26 million, can approve of a monastic, ethically-based lifestyle that Black has never come close to emulating – except when he was in prison?
I mean, we are talking about a man whose expenses for his high-maintenance wife in one year once included $2, 463 on handbags, $2,785 in opera tickets, and $140 on her Ladyship’s ‘jogging attire’. So what is the source of Black’s approval? Is it the fact that Mujica is a man of principle, something that Black believes himself to be and has continued to insist upon on since his release from prison last year?
We are not told. In fact, Black’s positive response to Mujica is somewhat qualified by his condescending characterization of the Uruguayan president as an eccentric irrelevance even in his own country. He describes him as ‘ more like the mascot than the president of the country’ whose example ‘ is not entirely replicable in the Ruritanian, pretended grandiosity of contemporary government leaders, especially in Latin America where chiefs of state normally disport themselves with great panache, even leftists like Fidel Castro.’
Black knows a lot about ‘pretended grandiosity’ and ‘disporting’ himself with ‘panache’ himself. Yet the Lordster/fraudster concludes that Mujica ’ is still a stirring example of down-to-earth government, and puts a determinedly human and amiable face on the Latin American far left that is generally better characterized by machine gun-happy violence addicts like Che Guevara and blood-stained terrorists who are ostentatiously indifferent to the human tragedy they wreak.’
So in Black’s estimation, Mujica may be a quaint and misguided fool on the hill, but better to have amiable dreamers like him in power than ‘machine gun-happy violence addicts and blood-stained terrorists’ like Che Guevara.
Now there are certainly criticisms that one could make about the strategy of provocation pursued by the Tupas, which inadvertently paved the way for Uruguayan fascism, and also of the adventurism of Che himself, which inspired so many people across Latin America to enter into doomed armed confrontations that they had no chance of winning and which acted as catalysts for military rule.
But Black is not the man to make them, and his characterisation of the Latin American left – and of Uruguayan history – is pure rightwing wind-baggery. And as for ‘violence addicts’, this is a man who – together with his wife – has been a persistent supporter of virtually any act of ‘counterterrorist’ violence by Israel and the West, from Reagan’s bombing of Tripoli in 1986 to what he recently called the ‘violent but measured reprisals’ adopted by Sharon in response to suicide bombings during the second Palestinian Intifada.
In the same article, Black celebrated the suicide bombing of the Syrian defence and deputy defence ministers carried out by Syrian rebels in Damascus, arguing that ‘the fact that the enemies of our enemies can turn the nastiest and most anti-civilized tactics on those who have been sanctimoniously employing them for years against the West is an objectively good phenomenon.’
Black argued that such methods should be extended not only in Syria, but also to Iran. So much for ‘blood-stained terrorists’ then.
So really, to hear this duplicitous buffoon preaching about humility and violence in Uruguay and Latin America is a bit fucking rich (so to speak), and objectively about as meaningful as Tony Blair talking about peace in the Middle East, or Alistair Campbell lecturing the British media on its lack of principle.
But such quirks are symptomatic of a world in which the media fascination with wealth and celebrity invariably triumph over everything else, and where what matters is not what is being said, but the fame of the person who makes them.
In such a world men like Lord Black of Coldharbour will always find space somewhere, to pontificate on subjects that they may know nothing about – and dispense condescension on those who, unlike them, attempt to actually live by their principles instead of merely proclaiming them as an extension of their own narcissism and self-importance.