Josh Scheer: Welcome to Truthdig Radio. This is Josh Scheer and I’m speaking with Marguerite Feitlowitz, author of “A Lexicon of Terror,” newly revised and updated with a new epilogue. Thank you for joining us.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Josh Scheer: And then you did this new edition of this book because of the 35th anniversary of the dirty war in Argentina, did you not?
Marguerite Feitlowitz: Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. The publication actually came about because the history is so dynamic. Since the first publication in 1998, a lot of the really pressing issues were being looked at again—for example, the amnesty laws known as due obedience and punto final said it impeded the prosecutions of many, many, really thousands of participants in the last dictatorship were finally after a very, very long and grindingly difficult process annulled. So that was one huge reason that I wanted to revise this book, to bring it up to date. And because other things that happened as well that were tied to some of the ongoing researches that had over the years been animated by significant anniversaries but that more than anything had been animated and sustained by the passion and determination of the Argentine human rights communities.
Josh Scheer: I mean, yeah, even stories like missing children that have been adopted by military families. I think there are 600 that are missing and then they are still trying to find them.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: There are about 500 that are known to have been born in captivity. And the grandmothers at last count had recovered 105.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: And your book is not only … it’s a linguistic study because again you’re a professor of literature at Bennington College.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: Yes, I am. That’s absolutely right.
Josh Scheer: Oh! (Laughs) The book it’s not just … it’s a linguistic study in at least one chapter where there are new words that have been invented by this tragedy, and you can bring that up, but also by dramatic effects of personal interviews you did while in Argentina.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: Absolutely, I first began to be interested in the whole question of language through my work as a literary translator, and as one who had always been obsessed with language. And it was my work on certain Argentine writers such as Griselda Gambaro, who had always written about the theatricality of political violence, that really made me want to dig more deeply into what was going on. On the other side of the page, if you will, and the question of the perversion of the language, this was a dictatorship that was intensely, and I hate to say it, brilliantly verbal and very strategic when it came to language—the use of language, imposition of language, prohibition of language. There’s just … of course, a lexicon of terror and there is a formal lexicon in the book and the enterprise gives the book its title. It’s not just restricted to the one title chapter, it really flows through every chapter, even if it’s not explicitly mentioned so intense, so all encapsulating was the use of language by the dictatorship. But you’re absolutely right, the book was a work of primary investigation and over about seven years I did interviews, took testimony from hundreds of Argentines in every walk of life and from every part of the country. And one chapter for example, Chapter Four, takes place in the far interior in the northeast in the province of Corrientes and tells a story that no one had never told before about the agrarian leagues in that time and in that place, which is to say the organization of Tlacololeros, or tobacco farmers, who were sustenance farmers, extremely poor, and organized at first by the Catholic Church. This was a story that had not been told before or looked into, and this goes back to your question about why second edition. Well, that story actually became important because of some of the investigations, some of the prosecutions that are going on now and that had kind of underground links to what happened in this far away place. Specifically, there were two French nuns, Alice Domon and Leonie Duquet, who had worked with the mothers of the plaza as they were getting started, and Leonie had worked in Goya, which is where these tobacco farmers were working. She had helped to organize them under the liberation theology wing of the Catholic Church. And so in the ongoing trial, and the trial is going on as we speak in this very moment that has to do with Sister Leonie. Her connections to these peasants became something that was very important. So one of the other things that happened between the first and the second edition of the book is that stories that had seemed to be unrelated, if you will, in terms of geography, in terms of the cast of characters, in terms of the particular repressors that were involved, as the years have gone on and as we’ve learned more and more about what happened, the stories become more enmeshed and that’s significant just in itself and significant judicially, and of course significant in terms of the country of Argentina, of how it conceives of itself as a country. Bear in mind that 80 percent of the Argentine population lives in the greater Buenos Aires area. And in particularly in the years of the dictatorship and traditionally Buenos Aires and the interior was a very different world and had very little to do with one another. So I’m actually very gratified to see that one of the roles of the prosecution, so of course it wasn’t one of the objections, is that a lot of these cases have been brought to the attention … urban cases that have been brought better to the attention of the hinterland, and more importantly and I think, the hinterland brought more to the center.
Josh Scheer: And in your book, I mean we talk about 17 years, it took 17 years until like 1998 until people to find out anything.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: In certain ways that’s really true. There was a trial in 1985 when the dictatorship ended in 1983, and Alfonsin was swept to the presidency on the promise of investigating what had happened during the dictatorship and bringing to justice those most responsible. There were public trials of the nine men who had fronted, who had headed the three juntas, the four juntas actually, in the dictatorship so there was a trial in 1985, but only the very cupable were tried. Hundreds and hundreds indeed thousands of men were not tried because of the laws we were talking about earlier: due obedience and punto final. Due obedience stipulated that lower-ranking officers could claim that they were only following orders, and so they could be exonerating from having committed illegal acts. Punto final, or final stop, simply put a date, Feb. 23, 1987, as the final point for all prosecutions. So while there were some prosecutions between 1985 and 1987, there were many fewer, thousands fewer than there should have been. But what you’re referring to, the 1988 date, is extremely important. That was the date when largely owing to the efforts of the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, or las abuelas, there was a legislation passed called “the right to know.” And the importance of this really can’t be overestimated and I’m delighted you brought it up, that stipulates that all individuals have the right to know their biological origin. Which is to say that people who suspect perhaps they are not the biological children of the parents who have raised them have a legal, constitutional right to know whence they come biologically. That is just extremely important judicially, morally, and ethnically and is part of a kind of Argentine social contract, if you will. And that actually was a kind of turning point for other ways of rolling back these prosecutions. Because if people have the right to know whence they come biologically that has all kinds of other ramifications, as you can imagine.
Josh Scheer: I just want to remind the audience we’re speaking with Marguerite Feitlowitz and her book is “A Lexicon of Terror,” available on Amazon; it’s the revised edition.
I just wanted to say because you’ve talked about them before about the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the mothers of Plaza de Mayo and also the nuns, and because your book is both tragic obviously because you’re going back and reliving an bunch of torture and terror but it’s also about obviously the people who stood up and had the courage, right? I mean the mothers of this Plaza de Mayo have been marching since I believe 1977.
Marguerite Feitlowitz: That’s exactly right, April of 1977. And they were 14 women to begin with. But yeah, to respond to your question, my book is not just a recitation of horror, it’s a tribute to those who, as you say, had the courage, the determination, the stamina to speak truth to power as is said, and to make the simple demands: Where are our children? Where are our husbands? Our loved ones? What has happened to them? And to put their bodies in public space to make those demands. The mothers were the only ones during the dictatorship who actually took to the streets and they made their silent round, as you know, in front of the presidential palace.
Josh Scheer: I want to come back to the idea of following orders because obviously there were armed guerrillas and the ERP and other groups, but there were a lot of people who were just taken away because they were practicing psychology, helping the poor, the Jews. I want to get into the Jews a little bit because I know your book deals with it, and how basically there is kind of an anti-Semitism that has been there for a long time in Argentina and it was kind of tolerated by Jews and I wanted to get into that a little bit.
Hold on, I’m going to find this page in your book right now. The Anti-Defamation League and one of their representatives coming there in 1979 and basically talking as a student in Berlin seeing Hitler going through his feelings and his saying “the clean streets, the orderly activity, the quiet kind of atmosphere is [like what] I remember [from] the first year of Adolph Hitler. Like Germany, this is a repression without accountability.”
Marguerite Feitlowitz: Right, you’re quoting Ben Epstein, who visited Argentina in 1979 who was then national direction of ADL or Anti-Defamation League, exactly right. Why don’t I take the first part of your question first. The dictatorship as you said set up what we could call “categories of guilt,” and “categories of guilt” where those who were obviously politically active who were confronting the dictatorship in obvious ways but also those who we would consider journalists, certain scholars, they also considered people who would occupy these “categories of guilt” as labor lawyers, human rights lawyers, lawyers who acted on behalf of the poor. Labor leaders were high on their list of guilty non-citizens, psychologists, teachers who taught modern math, who taught modern physics because it was believed that this contradicted Roman Catholic theology, homosexuals, and clerics who had taken preferential options to live with the poor, social workers, doctors and nurses and public health workers in the shantytowns, cultural workers in the shantytowns and of course the poor themselves who the dictatorship said were never content, looked ugly, dressed ugly and had ugly houses. The dictatorship was very big on outward beauty or their conception of outward beauty. Jews in Argentina tended to occupy these categories of guilt. They tended to be intellectuals, they tended to be progressive or lefty, they were very highly represented in journalism, and in the arts and in medicine so they just naturally fell into these categories of guilt. Jews at the time of the dictatorship in Argentina accounted for about 2 percent of the population they account for about 10 percent of the missing and I think it’s important to mark that the Argentine dictatorship was smart enough not to engage in a frontal Jew hunt to put it very crudely because they were trading partners with Israel and with the United States but, yes, as you mentioned, there was a long-standing tradition of anti-Semitism in Argentina, in fact there was a newspaper full of anti-Semitic diatribes even before the arrival of Jews—I’ve seen these. They were published in, say, the 1850s and ’60s, so that accounts in great measure for the discrepancy, if you will, between the percentage of Jewish desaparecidos, and the overall percentage of Jews and the overall population.
Josh Scheer: We were speaking with Marguerite Feitlowitz, author of “A Lexicon of Terror.” I suggest you pick it up. You can also hear more of this interview at Truthdig.com