If you’re an American, chances are that the mention of Colombia conjures up images of violence; and you imagine it to be a very dangerous place to visit. You might think of the decades-long civil conflict, and the drug trade. Well, the civil war ended in 2016. And while the cocaine business is still thriving, and its practitioners are still killing each other occasionally, ordinary citizens or tourists rarely have anything to fear from them.
Colombia does have its share of violence and crime like any country, but for the most part it’s a peaceful and safe place to visit. And it has absolutely gorgeous scenery, with one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world: deserts, mountains, jungles, beaches, you name it. Bogota, one of the largest cities in the world, is home to some 8 million souls, and of course has its share of crime. In the 1990’s it had a reputation as the most dangerous city in the world, when it (like much of the U.S.) had a high homicide rate (concurrent with the crack epidemic). But since then, the rate of crime, especially violent crime, has been reduced dramatically.
Colombia is a victim of what one might term residual impression: an image that is now obsolete (if it was ever accurate at all), but still persists in the public consciousness. Americans, heavily fed on visual shorthand and media stereotypes, sometimes hang onto mental images of other countries and cultures that have been outdated for decades, but still can be seen in widely circulated movies. If other countries perceive the U.S. in a similar fashion, they might think that most Americans ride horses and wear white hats.
For instance, the hit film Midnight Express gave many Americans a negative impression of Turkey, and especially of the Turkish penal and legal systems. But screenwriter Oliver Stone made significant departures from the book on which the film is based; and the book’s author, William Hayes, later admitted that his account was not quite truthful; in fact, it appears that he simply fabricated many details — let’s not forget that he was a drug smuggler. (It also appears that when he made his famous prison escape, the Turkish authorities knew he was going to attempt it, and simply let him go.) Stone later apologized to the Turkish people for the negative PR he had given them, but by then the damage was done.
But to be fair, it isn’t just Americans who are guilty of residual impression. There’s plenty of it here in Colombia and elsewhere in South America, too — though of a different variety. What I see a great deal of here is residual exaltation of religion –i.e., Catholicism — in a way that should have become obsolete ages ago.
In a nation where some 80 percent of the population is Catholic, the separation of church and state has been a long, slow process. Until 1991, Catholicism was the official state religion. Before a 2012 court ruling, Bible verses could be cited as the basis of law. And even after these official changes, the unofficial power of the church to influence government action remains quite strong. In 2016, after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos issued a manual, prepared by the Ministry Of Education and the United Nations, to combat the bullying of gay students, the Catholic Church howled in outrage, declaring it an attack on “Colombian values”. President Santos ultimately was compelled to withdraw the manual form circulation.
Religion is everywhere in Latin America. Schools indulge in classroom prayers, public facilities sometimes play religious music, and there are Catholic icons everywhere you turn. Streets and landmarks are named after Christian figures and tenets. Jesus, of course, is a common name for boys. Public calendars are packed with church holidays. At the central bus terminal in Bogota, I saw a religious statue (Virgin Mary?) at which passengers paused to make some sort of reverent tribute, apparently in hopes of currying some sort of favor.
This kind of behavior illustrates a residual concept of religion, and specifically of Christianity, that is founded on three obstinate myths. The first is that religious doctrines represent absolute truth. Thus, the tenacity of traditional fundamentalist convictions including, for instance, that homosexuality is both voluntary and perverted. Religion, for many people, does not lead them to the truth; it merely convinces them that they already have it.
The second myth is that religion is the ultimate moral authority. In reality, the morality of religion is a very mixed bag. On the one hand, we have religious individuals and organizations feeding the hungry and housing the homeless and tending the sick. On the other hand, we have a long history of them killing, torturing and persecuting people for the slightest reason, or no reason at all. Not to mention flying airplanes into buildings.
People may become religious because they are moral, but they do not become moral just because they are religious. In Colombia, devout Catholics have been among those involved in drug trafficking, gang warfare, and other atrocities. Some of the nation’s bloodiest decades occurred when an official national religion was still in effect. I’ve been told by Colombians I’ve met that it’s just standard practice to bribe a cop whenever you get stopped for something; and no doubt those who have accepted bribes go to mass on Sunday feeling they have nothing to confess. Religion doesn’t cause people to do the right thing; it just convinces them that whatever they’re doing is right.
And the third myth is that religion is a switchboard of providential preference — that the True Believer is entitled to divine intervention in daily affairs. Religious fanatics (at least of the fundamentalist sort) believe not only that miracles happen and happen constantly, but that they deserve to be the beneficiaries; and that they have a right to be always at the top of the pecking order. Religion doesn’t make miracles happen more often; it just convinces people that when they do get a break, it’s because they’re entitled to it.
And where did these misconceptions about religion come from? Well, from religion itself — or more accurately, from religious institutions. Traditionally, the church wielded more or less absolute authority over societies and their citizens. So it has worked hard to create and maintain the perception that such authority is both merited and necessary.
In the last century or so, civilization has been shedding these residual impressions like outworn snakeskins. But even more recently, there’s been a coordinated effort to stuff humanity back into that skin. The effort by “conservatives” to reestablish religious dogma as the foundation of public policy is more strongly coordinated than ever. Not coincidentally, this comes at the same time as a global resurgence in fascism. After all, one of the earmarks of fascism is a strong alliance between church and state. Other traits include the other “conservative” campaigns we’re seeing: domination of media, perversion of elections, militarism, homophobia, patriarchy, racism and xenophobia. The last two further strengthen the distorted conceptions, among North Americans, about Colombia and other nations.
Residual impression is a naturally occurring phenomenon, even under the best of circumstances. But it becomes even more misleading when certain interests deliberately endeavor to create and preserve it.