José Saramago
Original publication:
Translation: Amanda Hopkinson, Daniel Hahn, Roderic Day

The Acid Test (2008)

4 minutes | English Português

Lightly modified translation [1] from VersoBooks’s edition of José Saramago’s famous late-life blog. [2]

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, or to attacks upon his honor and reputation.” And further, “Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” That’s what it says. The piece of paper shows, among others, the signature of the representative of the United States, which thereby acknowledged the commitment of the United States to the effective fulfillment of the articles contained in this Declaration; however, to their shame and our own, these articles are worthless, especially when the very law that is supposed to protect us not only does not do so but is used to justify the most senseless acts, including those that this same Article 12 condemns.

To the United States, any person, whether an immigrant or a simple tourist, and regardless of his profession, is a potential delinquent who is obliged, like Kafka’s hero, to prove his innocence without knowing the charge of which he stands accused. Honor, dignity, reputation — these are words that provoke nothing but laughter from the Cerberuses who guard the entrances to the country. We already know this, we have already experienced it in deliberately humiliating interrogations, we’ve already been looked at by the official in charge as if we were the most repulsive of worms. In short, we have already become used to being mistreated.

But something new is happening now, a further turn of the oppressor’s screw. The White House, which houses the most powerful man on the planet, as journalists are prone to say when suffering from a crisis of inspiration — the White House, I say again, has authorized officers of the border police to inspect and scrutinize the documents of any foreign citizen or North American, even if they have no reason to suspect this person of any intention of participating in a crime. Such documents will be retained “for a reasonable period of time” in a vast library where all manner of personal data are kept, from simple address books to supposedly confidential e-mails. There, too, will be kept an incalculable quantity of copies of hard disks from our computers each time we present ourselves at any of the borders of the United States. With all their contents: scientific, technological, or creative research work, academic theses, simple love poems. “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy,” says poor old Article 12. To which we say, see how little the signature of a president of the most powerful democracy in the world is worth.

So there it is. We have subjected the United States to the infallible acid test, and this is what we have ascertained: it is not merely not passing it, it is absolutely failing it.

[1] The Hopkinson and Hahn translation of the title “The Cotton Test” as “The Whiteness Test” seemed a bit off to me, very given to a wrong interpretation in terms of race relations due to dealing with immigration, when really the idiom refers to cleanliness-product advertisements in Spain — see “prueba del algodón” in Españ [web] The intended meaning is something much closer to the “acid test” — “gauging a person’s character or evaluating a product’s performance … testing against known fineness.” [web] 

[2] Usula K. LeGuin, “A Note at the Beginning” (October 2010). [web]