For politicians, the hardest intellectual test is to not fall into boilerplate rhetoric — what Harold Innis called the “grooves of thought” always lurking to channel us down conventional, befuddling mental pathways. The opening session of the United Nations each September is a cesspool of that kind of speechifying. Everyone talks about how noble their country is and how vile their adversaries are.

For our side, Canadian ambassador Bob Rae and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly burbled about how evil Russia is and how virtuously feminist our policy is. None of that is wrong, but it’s oblique and self-congratulatory. It leaves out what we’ve failed at and where we should’ve done better. By this standard, even Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an effective speech. He pointed out the failings of the U.S. and NATO (rightly I’d say, for the most part) but omitted Russia’s execrable invasion of a sovereign Ukraine and the obscene destruction it has wreaked. So it goes.

Then came Colombia’s newly elected president Gustavo Petro. Like a leader dropped from another planet. He spoke from the heart, in literate, even literary words on unanticipated themes. He didn’t chug along the usual tracks.

“I come,” he said, “from a country of blood-soaked beauty.” How true. Colombia has seen continuing war for about 60 years: over 450,000 casualties, by some counts; 177,000 civilians killed. It dwarfs many better-known wars. All in the name of a war on drugs, on coca — “the sacred plant of the Incas,” said Petro.

But “the rainforest is not to blame. The culprit is your society educated in endless consumption, in the stupid confusion between consumption and happiness.” Petro referenced Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“yellow butterflies and magic”) and Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America” (“my wounded Latin America”). He deplored wars “that have served you as an excuse for not acting against the climate crisis,” naming them and their causes: oil, money.

At 17, Petro joined a guerrilla army. His pseudonym was Aureliano, a figure in Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” He was caught, tortured and jailed. Later, he moved to electoral politics and became Bogota’s mayor. He admired Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez but criticized his reliance on fossil fuels, those destroyers of the ecosystem, as he criticized Chavez’s successor for authoritarianism.

We in the rich world may be reluctant to speak this way, or sound as if we want to limit growth in poor countries. Coming from the south, Petro hasn’t those constraints. Rae and Joly should be so bold in calling out, say, Canadian mining companies in Colombia for their influence on mining laws — which the miners’ union leader (who’s been targeted for assassination by right-wing paramilitaries) called a “Canadian manipulation to benefit foreign companies.”

Whoops, is this a regression to Third Worldism, the romanticization of radical voices from subjugated countries? If so, it’s a noble tradition, reaching much farther back than a 1960s infatuation with Che and Fidel.

David Graeber and David Wengrow note in their recent work “The Dawn of Everything” that most of the brightest ideas of the European Enlightenment in the 18th century came from encounters with American (meaning Indigenous) leaders and thinkers. Those encounters injected critiques of European religious dogmatism, social inequality and crass materialism into “western” thought. Many books described the meetings. In the realm of democracy, they laid special emphasis on Aboriginal political systems in “New France” among peoples like the Huron or Iroquois.

This is a revisionist view, to be sure. At the time, the influence was widely acknowledged by figures like Rousseau or Voltaire, but has since been revoked in assertions of Eurocentric cultural superiority. Yet there was travel back and forth by “intellectuals” on both sides of the Atlantic. Everyone knew it, then.

We — the Euro side — desperately need to hear from “other” voices. We’re in a war in Ukraine that could probably have been avoided, which has completely sidelined the existential threat of climate disaster. Where are the sane speakers? Surprisingly, at the podium in the UN, alongside the usual ranters, liars and self-servers.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.