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.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

WOUNDED EGOS ON THE WORLD STAGE (reposted from Cafe Magazine-Chicago, Sep. 1, 2011)

Trying to understand our president’s projection and self chosen identity in the international stage as America’s atoner perhaps can only be done by looking at aspects of his own autobiography. His understanding that there is something to heal about America’s past, and he is the one called to do it (“For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months.”) fits the psychological profile of a man with a severely wounded ego as a boy and who grows to overcompensate.

In a way it's a version of the Napoleonic complex. But instead of making up for short stature they make up for incompletely developed egos, for lack of a healthy relationship with a father.

These are huge egos that become so from an over inflated sense of self-importance. They have the need to constantly having to prove themselves and their sense of self-worth, before themselves and before the world, by feats which bring them approval and adulation from others as surrogate fathers ("Look at me daddy, look at me! I can do it"). As if trying to reconcile their separated parents, these wounded egos seek to reconcile the world, often carrying on their shoulders guilt for sins that are no theirs.

They keep trying on various identities, or doing things in music, art, politics, until they find that which guarantees and satisfies the craved attention.

In the political arena these men could be dangerous. They are not true ideologues but use whatever ideology is popular and convenient at the moment to prop themselves up. This leads to the irrationality and the inflexibility of dictatorial tendencies. Any attack on their ideology or plans is a personal attack on them and their wounded egos. That ego is usually protected by an identity super structure, a suit of armor made of an alloy of inherited or self-tailored identities of race, nationality, culture, etc. Any criticism must be the result of some vast conspiracy, vast enough to match their egos. 

They are not truly original thinkers because their need to seek approval has led them to the creation of a mental collage of what is intellectually popularly available. The ideology or political plans they dress themselves with must be of necessity large in scope, utopian and capable of providing the space needed for their large plans. Large ideologies serve to reinforce in them the conviction that only they can make a reality the ideology, because only they are in possession of the quasi-messianic qualities necessary to bringing it to fruition.  

Among those feats which prove to them and reinforce their sense of self-worth and need for constant approval and adulation are long speeches, as for example in the UN in the case of politicians. The rhetorical content of their speeches is full of "I, me, I am" and so on (“I prohibited the use of torture. I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed”).

Benevolent examples of these egos and their sense of grandiosity may include Bill Clinton, or artists like Elton John. In all cases, the local stage, the local public square is not large enough. They need that largest one in which they cannot be upstaged: the world stage.

Examples of the non-benevolent kind in politics include Fidel Castro, Ghaddafi, Chavez, Ahmadenijad (Hitler being the classic). They also have in common claims to past grievances from which their countries need to heal. Certainly President Obama cannot be compared to them, but why do these same men continue to express their admiration and identification with President Obama?