Arts and Entertainment | Books

Professor's book shows delicate relationship between love, honor, and politics

Nowadays, if someone like John Edwards has an extramarital affair with a campaign organizer, it has to be kept a secret. This was not the case in late 19th century Mexico—it was acceptable for politicians to have extramarital affairs. In 1894, a dispute between two men in public office over a woman’s love even escalated to a duel outside Mexico City.
Details of this story are recounted and analyzed in “The Tyranny of Opinion,” written by Pablo Piccato, an associate professor of history at Columbia.

Piccato was born in Argentina, studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the University of Texas, and is now director of the Institute of Latin America Studies at Columbia.

Hidden in “The Tyranny of Opinion” are stories of love affairs, student riots, and duels in dusty city outskirts. To understand how honor and reputation influenced the Mexican public sphere, Piccato studies the late 19th century and draws on a range of topics including defamation, journalism, protests, and legislation. “I guess it’s not your standard book about politics,” he explained. “What I wanted to do was understand the role of honor in politics. That forced me to look in all different areas.”

The book explains how, after a period of political turmoil, a romanticized but modern notion of honor emerged and played a key role in public culture. Honor legitimized political opinions, laid the groundwork for public communication, and delineated slander, free speech, and public opinion. It transcended social and economic boundaries and affected the interactions and attitudes of men and women, rich and poor, and those in and out of government.

Making frequent use of primary sources, “The Tyranny of Public Opinion” examines everything from court cases to poetry. “When you’re a historian, the best moment is when you find a document that tells you about a lot of things, not only about the specific case or the moment the document’s about but many other aspects of history that suddenly make sense,” Piccato said.

Piccato’s initial academic work focused on crime in Mexico, but also piqued his interest in honor. The more Piccato researched, the more he realized the importance of honor in criminal cases. When asked about future work, he expressed an interest in combining crime and honor and hypothesized that the public sphere influences how modern criminals operate. He hopes to “try to understand uses of violence as public expression.”

Though the book mainly deals with the 19th century, it remains relevant today. In the book, Piccato details how in 1884, as a matter of honor, the Mexican government felt that to be modern, it had to pay off national debts. Piccato added that the country currently deals with a similar struggle “justified by this honorable obligation to pay off the debts to foreign lenders” though they were incurred at “high interest and poorly negotiated.”

Columbia’s history department faculty, according to Piccato, helped place his work in a larger context. “Even though it is a book about Mexico and a short period, at least I was able to put it in dialogue with historians who work on other places.”

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