Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Democracy Matters

A Farewell to Politics 2016
(Or an elections pre-post mortem?)

“What you DO, speaks so loud I cannot hear what you SAY.”
—Native American saying


Dear friends, consider this letter my farewell to politics, in the electoral sense.

About fifteen years ago I made the decision to abstain from voting.  So, right away, let me address the fallacy that claims that if one doesn’t vote one forfeits one’s right to freedom of speech, or the right to comment on politics or anything else.  This is false.  Most rights, except perhaps inalienable rights, do have an implied right of abstention.  And in some cases, it may actually be a duty dictated by conscience to abstain from the exercise of that right.  Such is the case with the “right to vote”.  The so-called “civic duty” to vote would be no more than a tyrannical imposition without the right of conscience to abstain. Therefore, a right to vote is also a right to abstain from voting.

In fact, as recognition of those facts, some countries offer “none of the above” as an option in their ballots, for those compelled to vote.

For further disclosure, I will state that my political sympathies for most of my life were on the side of the Democratic Party (having worked in that party for a Democrat president and “liberal” causes).  I am now a democrat, small “d”.  So why have I abstained and will abstain from voting? It is largely a professional decision.  As an analyst of international politics (American foreign policy to be exact) I’ve found that detachment from having to justify my thinking in light of my voting, or vice versa, have given me greater analytical freedom; as one of the greats of Greece believed, we humans are great “rationalizers” and self-deceivers.  Other reasons may include the deterioration of our politics into an “either/or”, “black and white” sense of politics that I find too shallow and actually “anti-politics” in the real sense of the political.  Party politics requires of the average voter to selectively deal with facts. I cannot do that because I deal in facts.  There’s more to real politics than just voting.

So even if I were to vote in these elections I would still have matters of conscience selecting either of the two presidential candidates, because moments like these demand more clarity and less passion, without sacrificing principles.  Hopefully, we have learned from the last few years that there are differences between slogans and reality. Whether they’d be “Hope and Change”, “Stronger Together” or “Make America Great Again” slogans are not going to solve our problems. 

I must also say that I am terribly disappointed and in some cases even somewhat hurt at the low level of political discourse we have descended to in the current elections.  It is especially painful to see it more so among friends.  It does not forebode well for the next years, regardless of who wins.

But it is especially disappointing to see how people in education, in the arts, in professional life, and because of that with a high degree of social responsibility, have fallen into it also.   So before I suffer any further disappointments, or even lose respect for some, I will not comment today or henceforth on the results of the elections.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing to see is the use of memes by intelligent and educated people, even when most of memes are totally illogical, incoherent falsehoods.  Memes have now replaced good manners and even basic logical thinking.  They have become the virtual “in your face” shouting, a forced “foot in the door” to our conversations.  They are used not only without serious paucity as for their accuracy, logic and truth but what is worse without any consideration to the beliefs and sentiments held by others in our circles of friends.

To see serious people, past and current academicians, fall for and so uncritically accept one-sided narratives, memes, scurrilous websites as if they were actual news sources and selectively ignore matters of hard facts, has been most disappointing.  Somehow the cyber space of social media has broken down what we used to think of as the basic functions of good manners, urbanity and conviviality.

Another disappointment is seeing how the “anti-establishment” generation became the establishment.   My generation once the anti-establishment generation has now become THE establishment, perhaps, more emblematically obvious in Bob Dylan awarded the Nobel in literature as the epitome, or should we call it as our “apotheosis” of that realization.  The hippies became yuppies and then became the establishment, nationally and internationally, and as corrupt as the generation it once criticized.

We have now come to accept a culture of lying, as long as the lying is done for “the greater good”, without any conscience over the great contradiction this entails. Lying for political purposes is now politically and morally correct.  If it was up to me I would issue a national apology to younger generations, especially the so-called “millenials” for what we are leaving behind for them. 

So where are we? 
We are in unusual elections where most voters, according to most polls and social media, are voting not “for” their candidate as much as voting “against” the other.  And they proudly proclaim so.

The leadership of both parties have parted ways with the bases of their parties and have demonstrated that they are one and the same party at the top of the elite of the country: members of the elite of the GOP supporting the Democrat candidate and opposing the choice of their party base, and on the other side, the Democratic DNC colluding with the campaign of one candidate against a candidate of their base.

What now passes for critical thinking is actual lack of critical thinking. The use of  the term “fascism”,  defined in old paradigms and symbolisms, while failing to see its true new form in the form of state capitalism through crony capitalism, and the marriage of a professional career class of politicians supported by trans-national interests and capital that includes influence over our press and other means of social communication, all in one-package,  is but one result of that lack of serious critical thinking.  Perhaps the true greatest scandal on these elections is not the salacious charges and counter charges between candidates, but the scandal of a free press not doing its job. Who polices the police?

So we have set aside critical politics, radical politics, for identity politics.  We now vote “not for” but “against”.  And we are told we need to vote for X candidate because he/she is a member from Y identity group running for office for the first time as representative of that group. The next time we will have to vote for the first Hispanic because he/she is the first Hispanic to run for office; after that for the first Asian because he/she is the first Asian; after that for the first one-eyed pirate because…and on and on, until all identities are taken care of and satisfied.

Our political issues and candidates are now marketed to us like so many other products in a consumer society.  Issues?  What issues? So now we have the candidates we have.

How did we get here?  We got here by way of partisan complacency coming to a head.  “Old” and “new” moralities met in the partisan political field where each side attempted to legislate morality and control the social behavior and ethics of the other by recurring to the state as the arbiter of morality, and we called that “culture wars”.

We have the politicians we have because WE have made them. WE have tolerated them. WE have enabled them. WE have chosen partisanship over truth.

What we may end up with is state-capitalism not only at the expense of a shrinking middle class but at the expense of democracy itself.  We will have a government not of the people, by the people and for the people, but government at the service of a new class of rulers who will give us the appearance of democracy by the appropriation of populist language and political goodies.

At the beginning of the campaign we had two competing views: national capitalism (Trump and Sanders; Sanders' socialism depends on national capitalism) vs. globalist, trans-borders crony-capitalism (Hillary).  The better political debate in these elections, politically and sociologically speaking, would have been between Bernie Sanders (national socialism) vs. Trump (national capitalism).  What we have now is Hillary (crony capitalism in populist rhetoric) vs. Trump (national capitalism in popular resentment). 

Bernie and Trump represented the "outsider" politics that the bi-partisan elite is so afraid of because they cannot control it, and they didn't want to have that debate, while with Hillary they could control the narrative better.  Both Bernie and Trump are anti-globalists (they both, from their respective views are against big trans-national, trans-governance schemes). Hillary is tied to the Davos/globalist axis.  It should be no surprise why the globalist Wall Street/political elite is de facto one political party to stop Trump. They stopped and derailed Bernie already.  So now they have their shallow ping-pong partisan political game to entertain us with, where they have control. 

I really feel sorry for all those people who work so hard and sent their money to Bernie Sanders; all those young people, like my students, who were going to vote for the first time!! (It is hard to analyze how anybody who supported Bernie's anti-NAFTA, anti-TPP, also Trump’s position, could now vote for the globalist, banking industry, Wall Street, anti-American worker, open borders candidate who colluded with the DNC to derail his candidacy).

And of all things, now ironically, the left, especially the academic left, is on the side of international capitalism because gender trumps class and economics?  So excuse me for the mumbled cheap “pun”, but when a critique of the left cannot be made from the left, there is nothing left.  All is left is suds, self-popping, political rhetorical suds.  The lack of serious depth, analysis and real criticism from this sector is stunning.  Only applying class analysis to their own comfortable middle class interests can come close to beginning to understand their political transactions.

Can we expect most voters to understand these dynamics? NO. Not while the debate is about sex, whether from the double-standards of the left or the moral snobbery of the right.

In the last analysis, we (the rebels of the 60s and 70s) became the establishment. This gave us room and social stability as middle class to take on social causes (gender, environment, etc.) as radical politics over the radical basics of "bread and butter" issues that were once the political staple of the Democratic Party.  But it also left the field wide open for eventual working class discontent; fodder for populist, demagogic or people’s politics.  The intelligentsia on the left has nothing left to offer.  Our leadership in that party went from internationalists to globalists. They became not only the new establishment but also a new social class.

When the political process, of electing the highest officers of the land, is corrupted by the collusion between a complex web of corporate media/political party machine/foreign donors and one particular campaign to derail a candidate not of their preference, we no longer have a democracy but the makings of a totally corrupt almost totalitarian system.

But what seems acceptable to some of us at the moment because it benefits the candidate of our choice will, eventually, come to bite us all. 

We need new paradigms.  The new paradigms must be the “there are no easy paradigms”.  One thing we can, and must begin to do is to be aware of “operative identity narratives”, that is, efforts to co-opt and intertwine out of distinctive events or legitimate issues a created single fabric, for the purpose of political manipulation and political identity homogenization. 

The politics of political homogenization goes against the politics of pluralism and real diversity.  Therefore, I believe that we won’t be able to recover a true sense of politics, of nationhood, unless we start with recovering politics at the community level.

In that sense, I believe in “communitarianism".  And in that sense, “I am” also a democratic republican (small “d” and small “r”).  A healthy democracy needs both a left wing and a right wing. The absence of either one in the dynamic process of  “the polis” goes against the harnessing of all creative forces necessary for a truly progressive society.

If we agree to start conversations on issues from the basis of the principles we agree on we can overcome slogans, memes and other tools of those who wish to divide us or manipulate us, or both.  The building of the “polis” (the “city”, the community) is what real politics, in its most humanist sense, is all about.

Yet the greatest problem to our life in community is the current trend to isolate ourselves even within our community from those we don’t agree with on political or other matters that affect our community life at large.  This trend stems from the fact that we have come to equate character and virtue with political opinions. This is dangerous.  When this happens we label, classify, tag and discard people. In the process we become self-righteous and eventually zealots.  The step from there to becoming Madame Defarge, in Dicken’s “A Tale Of Two Cities” is not a long one.

The dangers of identity politics as partisan identities should be already clear for all to see.  There are differences between believing “I am a Democrat” or “I am Republican” and “I am a democrat” or “I am a republican”.  In the first, we make a party sympathy, party affiliation, a question of self-identity, an existential matter: “I am”.  In the second, we practice politics in the best sense, politics as virtue. In the first, we risk exclusion of others and isolation into political parcels; in the second, we practice inclusion and openness to the dynamics of true democratic politics.  In the first, different political opinions are a personal threat to our egos.  In the second, different political opinions are welcomed questions and challenges to our creativity.
The work of democracy is hard. It is the work of talking with each other, not the practice of shouting each other out. 

We need to recover and value the American tradition of civic tolerance.  It is perhaps the one single asset and reason why millions of people from all over the world, or all kinds of races, gender and religion have crossed oceans at great peril to become American citizens.

We need to practice politics at a more local community level.  The cyber communities in which we participate are after all are just fictitious communities.   In either case we need to make tolerance, conviviality and neighborliness the coins of our realm.  We need to visit with each other more.

Spend more time living in your real community than in virtual “communities”.  Support each other, uphold each other, listen to each other. Work for everything that builds your community. Watch against everything that destroys community.  Nobody said democracy would be easy.


Whichever candidate wins, I hope you have survival and coping plans. Don't let the "megachine" eat you. I will make no comments on any posting on the elections results regardless of who wins.

(For further reading, as if this has not being enough, I leave you with excerpts from “The Revolution of Hope” by Erich Fromm, where n 1968 he presciently prognosticated where we are now):
We are we now? 

It is difficult to locate our exact position on the historical trajectory leading from the eighteenth- and nineteenth century industrialism to the future. It is easier to say where we are not. We are not on the way to free enterprise, but we are moving away from it. We are not on the way to greater individualism, but we are becoming an increasingly manipulated mass civilization. We are not on the way to the places toward which our ideological maps tell us we are moving. We are marching in an entirely different direction. 

It is characterized by the fact not only that living energy has been replaced by mechanical energy, but that human thought is being replaced by the thinking of machines, Cybernetics and automation ('cybernation') make it possible to build machines that function much more precisely and much more quickly than the human brain… Cybernation is creating the possibility of a new kind of economic and social organization. 

A relatively small number mammoth enterprises has become the center of the economic machine and will rule it completely in the not-too-distant future. The enterprise, although legally the property of hundreds of thousands of stockholders, is managed (and for all practical purposes managed independently of the legal owners) by a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. The alliance between private business and government is becoming so close that the two components of this alliance become ever less distinguishable. 

If society could stand still — which it can do as little as an individual — things might not be as ominous as they are. But we are headed in the direction of a new kind of society and a new kind of human life, of which we now see only the beginning and which is rapidly accelerating.What is the kind of society and the kind of man we might find in the year 2000, provided nuclear war has not yet destroyed the human race before then?

If people knew the likely course which American society will take, many if not most of them would be so horrified that they might take adequate measures to permit changing course. If people are not aware of the direction in which they are going, they will awaken when it is too late and when their fate has been irrevocably sealed.  Unfortunately, the vast majority are not aware that the new society toward which they are moving is as radically different from Greek and Roman, medieval and traditional industrial societies as the agricultural society was from that of the food gatherers and hunters. Most people still think in the concepts of the society of the first Industrial Revolution.

They see that we have more and better machines than man had fifty years ago and mark this down as progress. They believe that lack of direct oppression is a manifestation of the achievement of personal freedom.  Their vision of the year 2000 is that it will be the full realization of the aspirations of man since the end of the Middle Ages, and they do not see that the year 2000 may be not the fulfillment and happy culmination of a period in which man struggled for freedom and happiness, but the beginning of a period in which man ceases to be human and becomes transformed into an unthinking and unfeeling machine.

It seems that great minds a hundred years ago saw what would happen today or tomorrow, while we to whom it is happening blind ourselves in order not to be disturbed in our daily routine.  It seems that liberals and conservatives are equally blind in this respect.  There are only few writers of vision who have cleary seen the monster to which we are giving birth.  It’s not Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’, but a Moloch, the all-destructive idol, to which human life is to be sacrificed.  This Moloch has been described most imaginatively by Orwell and Aldous Huxley, by a number of science-fiction writers who show more perspicacity than most professional sociologists and psychologists.

A profound and brilliant picture of the new society has been given recently by one of the most outstanding humanists of our age, Lewis Mumford.  Future historians, if there are any, will consider his work to be one of the prophetic warnings of our time.  Mumford gives new depth and perspective to the future by analyzing its roots in the past. The central phenomenon which connects past and future, as he sees it, he calls the “megamachine”.

The “megamachine” is the totally organized and homogenized social system in which a society functions like a machine and men like its parts. This kind of organization by total coordination, by “the constant increase of order, or power, predictability and above all control,” achieved almost miraculously technical results in early megamachines like the Egyptian and Mesopotamian societies, and it will find its fullest expression, with the help of modern technology, in the future of the technological society.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day Address 2016 (Hudsonville, Michigan)

Good morning Mayor Northrop, City Commissioners, Reverend Bosscher, distinguished guests, fellow veterans, fellow American citizens, ladies and gentlemen.  It is a privilege to be here this morning.
          It is expected that a professor of philosophy should start any reflection with a quotation from a philosopher. And, I will not disappoint.  I think that it is even more properly so during remarks about Memorial Day.  However, I will disappoint you on the fact that my beard has nothing to do with the stereotypical philosophy professor type but with the fact that I’m preparing for a role in a play whose character simply requires a beard; nothing deeper than that.
          Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher of language and logic famously once said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  In other words, “We shall not speak of that of which we know nothing or can be even expressed.”  
          There are certain moments and experiences in life, as we all know, for which sometimes there are no words.  And yet, we do have a need and desire to communicate to others those experiences and the sentiments or insights they give us.
          In the summer of 1968, as a youngster, the Vietnam War was something that happened in the news, that is, until an older cousin of mine was drafted and sent to Vietnam. Doing as most kids do during summers—the busy task of goofing around with my cousin’s younger brother of my same age—our nothingness was suddenly and shockingly interrupted by the delivery to his house of a telegram.  
          Telegrams were usually a good thing in our families. They usually meant that a relative from the other side of the island or from “the States” was suddenly coming to visit, but not this telegram. This telegram caused inconsolable tears.  This telegram was not delivered by the Western Union man in one its vans, but by the heavy, paused and slow cadence of a U.S. Army Sergeant in an ominous and official looking vehicle.  
          As we went inside the house hearing my aunt crying, we could see the instrument of the bad news in her hands, it said, “It is with great regret that the Secretary of the Army informs that since (a date was given) your son SPC Vladimiro Sierra has been Missing in Action in the Republic of Vietnam”; it continued, “As soon as further news about his status are confirmed all efforts will be made to communicate them to you.”
          Before evening came, my father, other uncles and relatives, flooded my cousin’s house.  The silence among the men—my father, my cousins’ father, and other uncles—was deafening and eloquent at the same time.  Veterans of WWII and the Korean War as they were, they knew what “missing in action” meant. It was official language, a government euphemism to convey a possible permanent lack of closure because not enough of a soldier was found to truly determine whether he had been killed in action or not.
          I realized years later that that kind of silence was probably what Wittgenstein was referring to with his famous dictum.
          Three days later, another telegram came. This time, the brisk walk of the same Sergeant was less foreboding but still ominous. “The Secretary of the Army wishes to inform you that the status of your son SPC Vladimiro Sierra has been determined as Wounded in Action.”  The Sergeant went quickly to further inform that my cousin had been moved to a hospital in Tokyo, Japan, and that his full recovery was expected.  My aunt’s ears of dread were transformed into tears of relief.
          My cousin had been in a sandbag-surrounded-foxhole with five other soldiers when an enemy mortar landed dead center in the middle of them. Three were killed instantly, while my cousin and a radio operator were badly wounded.  Being next to the radio operator, it was the radio itself that received most of the shrapnel, but still wounding my cousin severely enough to almost have lost an eye, the loss of a leg and placing him nearly three months in hospitals.
          Somewhere else in the U.S., three mothers, three fathers, three families did not get that second telegram.
          Why do we memorialize?  Why do we remember? Why MUST we remember?
          Much is being made in the last few years of a trend in the field of political history in the form of what is called “historic memory” studies.  In reality, it is selective memory, a new euphemism for selective historical revisionism.  It is a trend, especially within a population in the academic world that actually has no generational or institutional memory of their own.  But it is also a trend that often trickles down from the ivory tower to our daily political life.
          In the name of remembering forgotten victims of past atrocities, in reality this effort seeks to revive and judge the dead through a sort of historical grave digging. It seeks to pass judgment, to reassign culpability from the perspective of the unknown, on those who either can no longer speak for themselves or whose generation had, ironically, already achieved reconciliation with the past.
          It is rather quite a curious trend that seeks to rearrange indisputable facts of history by reassigning the roles of victims to that of perpetrators, and the role of perpetrators to that of victims.  And this is done not through the lenses of disciplined historical investigation but through the lenses of contemporary political goals.  The trend would be disturbing enough in the academic setting, but it is certainly more so when we see it expressed in the voice and actions of major political figures.
          That is why we need—we must—now, more than ever, to remember.
          The dead make no apologies for their decisions. Nor do they want us or expect from us to apologize for them. They made their peace. And spoke loud enough with their actions of the kind of courage that most of us will never experience or would have to exercise. We may never know what were their last thoughts, their last moments of agony, the memories that may have gone through their minds, or the heavy sense of loss as to what could have been of their lives; if they even had enough time for those thoughts.
          They speak to us today through their silence, yet loudly, through the fruits they left behind: the most prosperous, most generous country in history, that, although imperfect as it may be as all human projects are, it is still perfect in the hope that has given to the millions world over that still flock to its shores. Their descendants have not have to build walls to keep their fellow citizens from leaving the country, but in any case to manage the overwhelming numbers of people from every race, creed and nationality who still see this country as the place where they and their descendants can fully flourished as human beings. Even America’s former defeated enemies were transformed into prosperous countries thanks to America’s magnanimity in victory. Those who wish to transform this country into other than the land of that hope have never known what is like to come to this country from lands of hopelessness, and perhaps they should heed Wittgenstein’s advice.
          Those who, for personal or political agendas, dishonor the memory of those who cannot speak for themselves, not only do not speak for them but also dishonor themselves.  Those are their fruits.  On the other hand, the fruits of those who paid for freedom with their ultimate sacrifice are here for us to enjoy today.  Even for those who dishonor them.
          Why do we memorialize them today?  Because we are grateful and because we need heroes. Throughout history heroes represent the best virtues, the best qualities in us. They are our north.
          And for those reasons we memorialize today those that make us proud to be Americans.  And I am proud to be an American, and because of them I decided to become an American.  I look down at my feet, and my feet are exactly where I want them to be.
          There is an old Native American saying that says, “What you do speaks so loud, I cannot hear what you say.”  Native American wisdom was definitely ahead of Wittgenstein.  It reminds me of another saying that says, “And ye shall know them by their fruits.”
        Perhaps, when it comes to truly understand or explain to other generations the depth of the meaning of what it means to “have paid the ultimate sacrifice”, we should follow Wittgenstein’s advice, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  And yet, we can and must remember. And we shall do that as long as the United States of America is a free nation, and as long as we observe Memorial Day, because it is the freedom that we enjoy this day that is the best speech, that those who paid with their sacrifice deliver to us today, precisely about that of which we, the living, cannot speak.
Thank you very much. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Realists, idealists or a “value free, non-judgmental” foreign policy? (reposted here from WaMa Newsletter July 19, 2009)

Very few presidents, perhaps with the exception of his predecessor, face the challenges that President Obama faces in foreign policy. But these challenges are made more difficult not only due to their nature and variety but also because of their ramifications in domestic politics.

Presidents Jimmy Carter, for example, made the promotion and defense of human rights a central theme of his foreign policy; others like Nixon emphasized the reordering of world balance by opening relations with China and the end of an inherited conflict; from Truman to Bush ’41 the policy of containment was central; Reagan made it a mission to end the Cold War. For others, like Bush 43’ unexpected events led to a reassessment of America’s role in the world.

American presidents for the most part seem to, in the end, take the pragmatic realist road, albeit one adorned with idealistic aspirations or just rhetoric.

Other than a declared intention to "sit down without preconditions" most students of foreign affairs haven't been able to detect a clear overarching theme in President Obama's foreign policy prior to his inauguration or after. At face value one can detect elements of idealism and realism in tension with a sense of pragmatism owing to domestic politics.

But is President Obama representing a new approach, or just one marked by the social sensibilities of his generation? Are we witnessing tensions between the Department of State and the White House which are not being made public? Or are we playing “good cop/bad cop” foreign policy? Are we witnessing an attempt at “value free nonjudgmental” foreign policy?

Apparent mixed reactions between the Executive and the White House to Iran's elections and the recent events in Honduras seem to point to tensions in interpreting those events.

During the recent visit to the White House by the President of Chile Michelle Bachalet, President Obama praised the Chilean economic model as the role model for Latin America to follow. Ironically, that model came as result of another “coup” which was a reaction to the implementation of a model contrary to the one President Obama praised. During that occasion a duly elected president attempted to use the democratic process to, with the intervention and “advice” from another country, Cuba, put and to the democratic process. In Honduras, history seemed about to be repeated, this time with the addition of Venezuela.

Approve of him or not, President Obama is a symbol of something new in America and around the world. For many around the world he represents the hopes of a new Americanism, at the very least of a renewal and a recommitment of America’s values and role in the world. In other moments in history other presidents, from Kennedy to Reagan, did as well. It is from the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain, and inspired by those presidents, where most pressure is being placed against Cuba’s Stalinist regime by way of the European Union’s foreign policy. 

Why is it then that President Obama and some around him seem to be caught between a rock and hard place interpreting who their natural political allies are in Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and other parts of the world? Is it by default just because other presidents held opposite interpretations? Or is he attempting a rhetorical balancing act between two audiences?

When issuing statements on foreign policy President Obama seems to be speaking to two audiences. For some in his domestic audience, still imbued in the domestic politics of the Cold War, apparently he still talks their language. Some in that generation proposed internationalism as the counter offer to a world divided in large national and ideological blocks. But there is today not only a post-Cold War generation in the US but also a “cyber-international” generation in the world, one that is popularly democratic, post-racial issues and trans-borders.  

From pro-democracy young bloggers in Cuba to street protests in Venezuela, and as we are witnessing now in Iran, a new generation of “international democrats” or “democratic inter-nationalists” (as opposed to the “internationalists” of the 1960s generation) is creating a new network of political solidarities. 

That generation seems to aspire to move from the rigid dogmatisms of the left and the right of the Cold War days. President Obama runs the risk of missing not only a worldwide historical moment but of also missing his role in leading it, if he doesn’t declare a vigorous defense of democracy and human rights as part of his foreign policy.

Latin America has had its share of military coup d'états, both from the left and the right. And the U.S. has had its share of knee-jerk reactions and missed opportunities, and to be fair, many occasions of impotence.  

Now a new generation of American foreign policy makers needs to move from old paradigms to correctly interpret who America’s democratic partners really are in the post-Cold War world.

In Latin America they need to identify who are those who represent the future and the real hopes for real economic and political democratization of a whole continent. For now, it seems the Department of State has taken the lead in the case of Honduras and has effectively taken away the lead from a bellicose, regional petro-demagogue in forging the narrative.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Obama, Cuba and Trickle-Down Democracy

Obama has missed yet another opportunity for historical greatness.  He came close. But his lack of understanding of what has been happening in Latin America shows. The opportunity to eliminate "Castroism" and the culture of "caudillismo" ("the military strongman politics") from the Latin American scene just went passed by right under his watch.

What may seem to him and to the academic left as a great achievement may be in fact a setback for Latin America.  But we must remember that for that academic left in the U.S. the Castro dictatorship is not Castro’s doing but the fault of the United States. Castro never had any other alternative but to be a dictator, so the leftist lore goes.

But this is where the shallow understanding of Cuba and Latin America shows.  On one hand, they have always denied that Cuba is a dictatorship, and on the other hand they accept that the Castro regime is a dictatorship, although not his fault. If the U.S. had not embargoed Cuba, Cuba would have been a democratic socialist paradise. It is the fault of the U.S. that socialism has failed to flourish to its maximum expression in Cuba. It was the U.S. who turned Castro into a dictator. On the other hand, Cuba’s socialist success cannot be possible without American capitalism; the irony is lost, somehow, that without the participation of the U.S. economy in Cuba, Cuba’s “socialist” experiment cannot be.

But if Obama said something truly correct about Cuba, buried in his speech, is the fact of the regime’s imminent collapse.  Yet, what Obama has done is save it from that collapse and in doing so it has given away the major negotiating advantage the U.S. had to demand clear and verifiable reforms and democratization in Cuba.

But that American academic left has always lived in denial that in Cuba exists a Stalinist style regime. They have denied and ignored the existence of political prisoners, many, if not most, Afro-Cubans. So perhaps, there is no rush to accept those facts, even now.

Why? It could be because for that American academic left Cuba has always represented the model for Latin America (and the U.S.) to follow; the model for socialized medicine, socialized education, etc.  That left cannot contemplate the Castros ending like Ceaușescu in Romania.

At a time when Latin American is searching for a new footing, reexamining its economic and political thinking, turning away from statist and populist caudillo politics, President Obama has given the Castro dictatorship a new lease on life and still a place and role on the hemispheric stage.  In granting full diplomatic recognition to the Castros, without any democratic concessions in return, Obama has validated a Latin American military dictatorship.

The total and formal elimination of the embargo is in the hands of Congress. It’s in the hands of Congress now to implement the “stick and carrots” steps necessary to extract concessions from the Castros and at the same time avoid a catastrophic collapse of the regime.  Meanwhile, what Obama has done with his unilateral give-away is insured the legitimation and consolidation of everything the Castros and their generals have appropriated for themselves and their progeny.

Could there be a silver lining in all this?  Perhaps. Albeit, unintended, we may see some trickle-down economy for all Cubans coming down from the new state-capitalist elite in Cuba.  And who knows, we might even see some trickle-down democracy.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Has the Nobel Peace Prize gone "pop"?

Has the Nobel Peace Prize become the world's sophisticated version of "American Idol" or "Britain's Got Talent"?

According to Nobel requirements the peace prize is to be awarded to the person "who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses".

But lately it has been awarded to someone for a fraudulent video about the environment, to a tree hugger and to someone for reading a teleprompter well. People who have actually done something closer to the requirements of the price were looked over: Carter for the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Reagan for rapprochement between the U.S. and the USSR.

Admittedly, some of the work of recent recipients could be stretched to fit into "best work for fraternity between nations", but the stretch would be a very, very long stretch. Nothing in the requirements can be interpreted as "for doing good things" within one's own nation.

So it seems that the award is now given to send a message of support for likeable or popular causes or personalities rather than for the specifics of the award. At this rate, is the award for chemistry going to be awarded to actors for "best chemistry on screen"?

There were years that nobody met the requirements so the award was not given. And there have been times when the award went to people who were supporters of political violence or military action, Arafat and Teddy Roosevelt come to mind. But they were recipients of the award for specific actions, not for being hippies or candidates for sainthood. The award is not a "life time achievement" award or a Mr. Rogers "nice person" award.

Unfortunately, there is no "humanitarian award" in the Nobel awards. If there was many of the Peace Prize recipients, certainly many of the recent ones, would certainly qualify for it. Others would have qualified for nothing except for most likeable "image of the year".

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Just Because? (reposted from La Voz, September 30, 2004)

In elementary school we awaited with happy anticipation for "Field Day", a day just for silly fun. We competed in sack races and bobbing for apples contests. Teams were divided in colors, the blue team, the red, the yellow and so on. No reasons for that order of things existed, except for the need to have different teams. All one had to do was cheer and defend one's team. Why? "Just because."

Now we come to another "Field Day" of sorts with higher stakes, the presidential elections. One of the issues pressed for in the presidential debates is the issue of illegal immigration; let's be frank, Hispanic illegal immigration. It is expected that Hispanics choose a team. It is assumed that Hispanics will choose the donkey team. Yet, Hispanics should be first in rejecting those assumptions since all assumptions about the Hispanic electorate are misleading.

Hispanics have grown increasingly tired of being either ignored or taken for granted by politicians who try to get their votes every few years using Mexican sombreros and taco-eating photo-ops on the electoral stage. So, Hispanics should move to a new stage, from claiming a right to be Hispanic or accepting the designation of Hispanics imposed on them by cultural elites to demanding and accepting an American identity. To be Hispanic is to be American. And to be American is to be Hispanic. Hispanic culture is American culture. Hispanic values are American values.

One of the most valuable of American cultural values is respect and appreciation for the rule of law. Illegal immigration breaks the law and breaks that bond of common values. Calling illegal immigration something else by use of euphemisms is harmful to the Hispanic community in its relations and aspirations with the rest of the community as a whole. If one comes from another country and does not have proper legal rights and documentation, one is here illegally, not just "undocumented." 

Yes, we are aware that we do not want to diminish the character or person of the illegal immigrant who comes looking for better opportunities. But that is not the point. The point is that American born Hispanics, and Americans of Hispanic heritage, should see this problem as Americans and not as politically bipolar persons.

Hispanics do not need to struggle between two identities, nor do they need to have a separate identity either. To have two identities in one is the American Hispanic experience. Although this seems to contradict all previously said, it is the only way to affirm the real identity that needs to be affirmed, and that is, the American identity.

At a recent university forum on immigration a member of the audience asked one those questions that seek self-affirmation, and through which it was declared that the proposal of President Bush was “just another way to exploit the undocumented workers whom are already exploited.” This is typical of the debate which assumes that all work is exploitation and that all illegal immigrants are just passive victims. While we do have illegal immigrants that are being used by employers that break the law, those illegal workers come for and accept those jobs voluntarily.

And yet, it should be recognized by all Americans, that the problem of illegal immigration is the problem of the border, and that border has a history of mutual illegal two-way immigration. Failure to recognize this fact is simply a state of denial, or worse yet, a form of intellectual dishonesty.

Being anti-Bush for its own sake should not blind “immigrant advocates” to the fact that his immigration proposal is a step, if not in the right direction, at least to promote the conversation that is not taking place. And if it is to be criticized it should be criticized from the perspective of being an American. Why should an American of Hispanic descent or a naturalized Hispanic American be defending illegal immigration is beyond explanation. It is only understandable from the perspective of advocacy propaganda or a militant mentality.

From a liberal perspective, any step toward the betterment of their legal status should be seen as a step toward the betterment of their condition in general. The fact is that illegal immigration, as it is today, is a mutually beneficial and hypocritical situation. Any step toward some formal and legal recognition is a step toward the moral liberation of both sides from an impossible situation, and toward the voluntary betterment of the present conditions in its social implications and for national security. To discard, without consideration or dialogue, President Bush’s proposal just because it comes from President Bush, or a Republican, is to do so “just because.”

Hispanics need not feel trapped in the middle of this important issue, yet they could be a bridge. Not a bridge to bring people together superficially but to make us aware that we are together in this boat of economic interdependence, like it or not.

The story of America is a story of conflict, negation and affirmation, accommodation and commitment. Yes, commitment. In the end that is what makes of anyone an American, not provenance but a commitment to American values. A common task ahead of us is the preservation of the American entity; one that is neither a nihilistic competition on the contributions of one demographic group over others, nor the establishment of moral superiority of a particular group over all others. The future of America is guaranteed in the preservation and transmission of its values, not in the affirmation of separate demographic entities.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A firm foundation for an American foreign policy decision?

This is the bind President Obama has put himself and the country into (see below). McCain has said it best. And yet what McCain thinks we should do based on that, in my view, would be an even major disaster. It would compound a bad decision, bad enough already.

Ironically, President Obama trying to avoid sounding "Bushy", the "un-cowboy", took a rhetorical approach to the Syrian situation by drawing lines in the sand, lines which kept moving, threatening American action based on transgression of those lines. The final line was crossed by the Assad regime with the use of chemical weapons (supposedly, evidence yet to be determined).

Now, we are told, President Obama should act with military action, if not American credibility and prestige would be on the line because President Obama's policy led us here. So we are to get into deeper trouble just because we are already in trouble.

“A vote against that resolution by Congress,” McCain said, “I think would be catastrophic,” adding that such a move would “undermine the credibility of the United States.”

Both McCain and Graham stressed that the goal of any military action should be to “degrade Assad’s capabilities” and “upgrade” the resources of the Syrian opposition.

And they both leveled criticism at Obama, charging him with failing to “articulate” a clear case for intervention as violence rages in Syria."

Contrary to McCain's opinion, I believe the best it can happen is for Congress not to approve of the military intervention. To engage in military action with no clear strategic, military or political, goals in mind would be not only highly irresponsible but a dangerous guessing game as far as unpredictable consequences are concerned.

If President Obama acts against Congress perhaps impeachment should be seriously considered. To press for military action under these circumstances would be a case to save face for an individual in the name of saving face for the country. Does that sound like a firm foundation for a major American foreign policy decision?

"Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry told House Democrats on Monday that they face a “Munich moment” as they weigh authorizing military strikes against Assad’s regime, two sources with knowledge of the call told NBC News."

Mind you, this is the same John Kerry who supported Assad and assured us he would be a reformer. I find very ironic that Kerry would be comparing himself now with Chamberlain.

The world feels pressured to "do something" if it is true that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. But why just because of chemical weapons when thousands have been killed by other means is a question many have. The question is not just why "something" must be done but what and by whom.