restricted access Consent of the Damned: Ordinary Argentinians in the Dirty War by David M. K. Sheinin (review)
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Consent of the Damned: Ordinary Argentinians in the Dirty War. By David M. K. Sheinin. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012. Pp. 224. $64.95 cloth.

This book tackles the important topic of civil society's complicity with dictatorship and state terror. The author elucidates the importance of the politics of memory, both in shaping current Argentine human rights policy and in locating responsibility for the repression in state authority and civil society. Broader research suggests that civil societies acquiesce and even collaborate with state-sponsored repression due to a combination of interests, cultural constructions of security threat, economic decline and insecurity, and the boundaries of national identity. States mobilize moral panic and manipulate public understandings and sociopolitical vocabularies.

All dictatorships are sustained by bread and circuses as well as blood and iron. Sheinin usefully combines evidence of the dictatorship's "culture wars" as carried out through media, sport, and fictive notions of the rule of law. But he provides less evidence of how [End Page 123] these messages were received by ordinary Argentines; ironically, he is stronger in the presentation of international interpretations, which were at best mixed. For example, the early and continuous role of lawyers' associations opposing the dictatorship suggests that at least one sector of the Argentine bourgeoisie did not buy the military line. Sheinin also understates the ambiguity of Peronism vis-à-vis human rights, and the complex history of human rights abuse and resistance under prior military regimes. The Proceso, uniquely penetrating and modernizing, was nonetheless rooted in prior trends, which also influenced initial civic interpretations.

Sheinin's new evidence on the military's manipulation of indigenous peoples and the multiple facets of the dictatorship's diplomacy add a very valuable dimension to the historical record. His comprehensive and balanced exposition of the contradictions of Alfonsín-era policy is a salutary counterweight to the official story of regime change. The book is notable for bridging accounts of the evolution of domestic and international human rights policy under democracy, and tracing the connections using primary evidence. While the author uncovers a range of interesting new material, occasionally his coverage appears to be driven by the availability of data rather than its significance to the big picture. For example, he provides extensive coverage of Canada's limited trade relationship with Argentina and the Merengo death penalty case instead of examining other landmark decisions.

The book's analysis of the legacies of complicity for contemporary policy is incisive, albeit sometimes overdrawn. The author claims that a state-centric reading of dictatorship has limited the extension of rights beyond a liberal model, yet some Argentine rights movements have readily expanded to encompass economic and social rights, and tracked democratic-era police violence against socially marginal populations. More broadly, there is ample evidence of civic empowerment in Argentina's anti-globalization protests and occupations, as well as in contemporary women's and gay rights movements. Similarly, Sheinen's study is limited by its cutoff point (the end of the Menem administration) from considering the important new wave of trials commencing in 2010.

Consent of the Damned is an important contribution to the history of military dictatorship and state-society relations in Argentina, with implications for both the region and the transitional democracies beyond. While Sheinen's thorough account illuminates the dark side of civil society, the work of history—and historians worldwide—has begun to inspire some ordinary people to question the Dirty Wars perpetrated in their name.

Alison Brysk
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California