October 22, 2012 by Kate Savage
For several months now, whenever I hear about Mitt Romney, the image of Oscar Romero creeps in my brain. Sometimes it’s just the name: say Romney and I hear a shadow whisper of Romero. Tapping around in my head together, incessantly, this Mormon CEO-politician hybrid and a liberation-preaching priest. The man who has done quite well for himself and the man who got himself gunned down for caring too much about peasants.
How do I explain myself?
There is, of course, the sad historical intersection between the two men. The sentence which can connect them is a collision of economic adventurism and revolution. Back in the 80s, Mitt wants to make money. He wants to begin a new business. He takes start-up capital from central American oligarchs, many of whom are waging anti-democratic fights in their home countries, relentless battles of bodies and ideas. It is true that all of these disputes are nuanced, and nobody is completely innocent. It is also true that the fight was largely between wealthy, European-descended plantation and mine owners on the one side against peasants and workers on the other; the Realpolitik of plantation capitalism vs. that old dogged belief that a government can work to the benefit of the majority.
Anti-democratic fights usually mean death squads. They mean the paramilitaries that killed off whole villages. 75,000 violent deaths in El Salvador. But because massacres of villages are hard to hold in our heads, we try to find ‘representatives,’ individual traumas to stand in for mass-murder. In El Salvador, this means the death-squad murder of a popular Roman Catholic priest Oscar Romero, a figurehead who was seen as giving too much psychic aid to the resistance, by preaching a gospel which saw Jesus as a campesino, and took some least-of-these scriptures a little too literally.
Romero was killed the day after he called on soldiers to be Christians instead of mercenaries, to fulfill God’s will by no longer violating the human rights of the poor. Just as he lifted the blood-of-Christ chalice at the end of Eucharist, the death squad shot him up. 250,000 people attended his funeral a week later, and were again attacked, leaving at least 31 dead.
And the people who directed this to happen, the oligarchs, then got more money for more ammunition for more political repression through savvy investment in a young, bright Mormon’s start-up. There are links between key Romney investors like the de Sola and Salaverria families and the very people commanding the death squads that killed Romero. There is evidence that Mitt was aware that there was at least a high probability that he was taking funds from disreputable sources. I could analyze these, and lay out the argument that has convinced me that he made a morally indefensible decision.
But today I don’t want to draw out a ‘six-degrees-from-Mitt-to-Oscar’ game. Today I don’t have a sharp mind, for proving facts, I only have a dull, sorrowing heart. What I need to talk about is a deeper pain, about how capitalism colonizes minds, about the itch for wealth and power that gets roped up against the quest to be Christ-like. About the pro-business morality which masks an ugly money-lust, casting any decisions which are profitable as therefore pious.
I’m told that entrepreneurs deserve the high profits they make because they take risks. I wonder about the risks that Mitt Romney made in starting up Bain Capital, and about the risks Oscar Romero took to speak his sense of truth and care.
I think about the risks of Jean Donovan, another casualty of El Salvador death squads. Before coming as a lay missionary to El Salvador, she was a successful managing consultant with Arthur Anderson. Instead of further climbing the ladder, instead of amassing fortunes, she trashed her career and started burying the tortured corpses of another country. And then she was raped and murdered along with three nuns by death squads. Death squads which were funded by the ‘job creators’ who self-evidently deserved their strangle-hold of power over others because they took risks to become financially successful in the plantations of El Salvador and the stock exchanges of the U.S.
Jean writes this, in the last weeks of her life:
“The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave… Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
And two weeks before he died, Oscar Romero said this: “I am bound, as a pastor, by divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadoreans, even those who are going to kill me.”
As Jean herself says, this is not “the reasonable thing.” We could fashion our own fantasy debate: on one side these two and on the other the patron saint of “reasonableness,” Ayn Rand, whom Paul Ryan has touted as the best proponent of “the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism.”
Ayn Rand’s (and arguably Paul Ryan’s) moral code is best summed up in The Virtue of Selfishness, where she explains:
“The virtue of Pride [. . .] means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty. [. . .] Just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.”
As a woman from a conventional upbringing, where I’ve had to do learn a bit of pride in order to have space to do my own projects rather than constantly housewife others, of course I can feel a certain power in Rand’s words. But the difficulty is with the unnoticed rapidity with which we can mutter off that one little phrase in the quote — “nor sacrificing others to himself.” Rand’s ideology is based on a dream that we could just escape from a gift economy, scott-free. That we can cleanly amputate our individual self out from any obligation to others or infringement on them.
In the divisively analytic gaze of Ayn Rand, in the morality of capitalism expounded by the GOP and many Democrats, we’re easily separable and independent of the women who birth us and families that raise us, communities that educate us and give us meaningful activity, all the beings caring for us when we’re too young or old or wounded to do it ourselves, not to mention the workers the world over who provide for us, and the whole web of life that’s a stable ecosystem.
With this view, one wouldn’t ever suspect that a person can’t even do his little individualist task of building a personal fortune without the risk of sacrificing others to it.
None of this is an argument. I’m not clever enough right now for an argument. I only want to begin wondering if the Romney/Ryan “morality of individualism” is based on an ironically mutilated individuality, one which can only form depressing and small individuals, incapable of taking the risks of love and care required by a respect for the just-as-miraculous individuality of all the others around us. Even political responsibility, even economic responsibility. And even for — as the unreasonable Jean Donovan puts it — the “bruised victims of this insanity”.