Sunday, September 30, 2018

Puritanism: What “Liberals” and “Conservatives” Have In Common?

America has still to come to terms with its Puritan past. When the founders of the USA thought they had accomplished separation of church and state they did not accomplish the disappearance of religion from the culture as a human factor and a sociological reality. Nor was that their intention. What they did pretend was to protect the new state from the institutional church, and the institutional church from the state. But what did happen was that the state almost became the church. 

The moral absolutes and standards of personal holiness that were once found in the church and its religion-based morals were transferred from the church to the state, and from the private life of the believer to the life of the public servant respectively. Some sociologists of religion call it the “migration of the holy” from the church to the nation-state. 

So “the church”, understood in Christian theology as the “assembly of the people of God”, became the “American people” assembled in the nation-state. The religious church became the secular church.  The “American people” assembled in Congress became the new church; which together with a priestly class residing in the Supreme Court (from whom all sanctity, personal holiness and orthodoxy are expected, lest they commit heresy in their pronouncements and guidance about the sacred texts of the state-church, i.e., the Constitution), the migration was complete.

The “migration of the holy”, from the sphere of the sacred to the sphere of the secular, created a secular church with two wings within one and the same religion ("liberals" and "conservatives") each with their own sense of mission of that church.  The two wings do not disagree on the religion, or its God (the nation-state "America"), but on what is the right way to obey that God.

But what is that American “religion” that divides America while at the same time holds it together?  Years ago, another sociologist called it “civil religion”.  But, then again, that is a reference to the secular or external expression of the religion.  In my view, the religion is “classical Liberalism” (capital “L”).  And no, I’m not talking about “liberals” alone but about the political philosophy expressed as two wings of that religion, “liberals” and “conservatives”. Classical Liberalism is the political philosophy coming from the Enlightenment whose central beliefs are liberty and equality, and their derivatives, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, free markets, individual property, individual freedom of conscience, representative democracy, individualism.  In America, “liberals” and “conservatives” are two wings of the secular religion “classical Liberalism”.

This is perhaps why great social moral issues (like “abortion”, “gun control”) although settled by courts and laws, will not be settled culturally anytime soon—because both sides claim to defend either the right to life or the right to choose, for example, from different sides of the civil religion spectrum; each side accusing the other of the contrary by way of their own self-definitions and by defining of the other, and do so both from moral claims (see liberals Lawrence Tribe and Ruth Ginsberg objections to Roe v. Wade).  This is what we have seen behind the recent drama about the nomination of judge Kavanaugh.

Both sides want the state to judge and regulate morality, one way or the other. To put it half-way jokingly, “conservatives” want the state to regulate who can people have in their beds, “liberals” want the state to regulate the price of the bed. Both sides either ignore, select or share inconsistencies in the practice of liberty and equality when both sides want to regulate or exclude the other from moral choices they don't approve.

But why America? Modern Europe is also the result of “classical Liberalism” and then some. The thing with America is its Puritan past. The missiology of America’s secular church is tied to the mission of its Puritan aspirations of becoming a “shining city on a hill.”  This theme has served at different times as a prophetic device in calling the country back to its exceptional aspirations when finding that at times the “shining city” has not shone for all. In times of crisis both sides call back to a time when America "was great", making it the moral imperative to make "America great again". In religious terms, "to get right with God" as a nation.

But the very emergence of the United States in world history was the revolutionary experience (ambivalently and contradictory as sometimes it is) that the American nation-state doesn’t come from hundreds of years of one single-ethnic-nation in search of a state (as the case of the nations of Europe), but from the belief that the nation-state known as the United States is a nation-state still in the process of forming a "nation". This aspiration is not based on ethnic exclusivity but on egalitarian civil aspirations, and a civil practice which recognizes its own limitations. I would rephrase it this way, contradictory as it may seem, the United States aspires to be the “anti-nation-nation-state” best expressed in its inclusionary and pluralistic motto “E pluribus Unum” (“Of the many, one”). This is not a call to ethnic unity but to political unity. 

What makes America great and keeps alive the hope of becoming “the shining city on a hill”, for us and the world, is not just the promise of ethnic and cultural diversity but most fundamentally important is its political pluralism. But as long as America does not realize that political pluralism goes beyond the gathering around of one’s ethnic, gender, or religious political tribes, we will still practice inconsistencies that are anti-liberty and anti-equality. And in the process we will be adding new lists of "social sins" and tests of ideological purity.  Dynamic, opposite poles necessary for democratic social progress will become unhealthy polarization. We will be engaging in political puritanism rather than political pluralism.  We will have continuous political witch hunts or ideological lynchings on each other, instead of the practice of democratic political pluralism and citizenship as the way out of the past.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Build the Beloved Community

One of the strangest things I cannot yet understand in my life is the knack for falling into the right place at the wrong time, or at the wrong place at the right time. Sometimes it feels like life mimics The Wizard of Oz.  At some point in our lives a storm comes and drops you on another place or moment. The colors change, perspective changes. Light becomes darkness, darkness become light.

Every year, when this date comes around I'm reminded of one of those "happenstance" moments; the privilege of acting as personal interpreter to Mrs. Coretta Scott King.* On one of those occasions, as I escorted her and her assistance to their car, she began to recall the moment she received the call notifying her that "Martin was dead." Just the three of us in an elevator. I will never forget it as long as I live. I will never forget her strength.

Our current political culture is ill. It will require strength to save it. The strength of love.

The problem with our political culture is not that we disagree but how we now disagree.  Disagreements appear to be not only about ideas. They have now become personal. The principle of civilly agreeing to disagree has been replaced with the personalizing and psychologizing of differences in opinions. It is no longer "I disagree", "I don't see it that way", but "you" are a bad person. Disagreements seem more based on "you" rather than on "if". Considering all the progress humans have made in means of personal and mass communication, in studies and discoveries about how best to communicate, we should be able to do better.

Everything has become politicized. Sports, entertainment, religious services, education, all have become politicized. Areas of life that exist for the purpose of allowing for different public and community spaces are now under threat of becoming not truly diverse and inclusive but the opposite, ideological camps. And yet, there can be no civility without the existence of these civil spaces. Now, it also seems we have also arrived at the dangerous zone of psychologizing and moralizing political differences at personal levels.

Social media has actually become anti-social, a sort of battlefield defined by political trenches. Take for example "the no-man's land" (in reference to the land space between the trenches of the Germans and the Allies in WWI) of Facebook. Whereas in the recent past we would meet people and introduce ourselves or were introduced by a common friend or acquaintance in a real social setting, now we take a chance on our reputations when we participate in social media with a friend and complete strangers attack us with word grenades from either side of those trenches.

Words have meaning and are valuable because of it. They are the coinage of our social interactions. Now, I'm afraid they are being misused as weapons. Socrates, one of Rev. King's object of admiration once said, the "misuse of words is not only troublesome in itself, but actually has a bad effect on the soul." ** And, as with the overuse of coins, with time they become worn and meaningless. Take for example the word "racism", which conceptualizes truly a vile belief among humans. Yet, perhaps even more vile is its misuse and abuse. To unjustly accuse anyone of being "racist" without any basis, other than a facile way to avoid dialogue, or to label others and discard them, is also truly vile. As with this and other terms, we should hold the accusation of racism to the higher tests of that condition before lobbing it around as a verbal grenade. Unfortunately, this has become a sort of new normal.

Dr. King's "dream to transform the discourse of our nation" may still be a dream, but it is still possible. It might depend on us. "Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives."

The command to "Love your enemies" is not easy, but it has a practical goal-oriented purpose. "There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community." If you love your enemies, they are no longer YOUR enemies.

But who are our, your enemies? If you love, YOU have no enemies. In other words, you do not consider others as enemies. Your enemies are those who think of us as THEIR enemies? Why? The reasons could be many.

Personally, I'm not afraid of social tension and tense interactions, tension is what makes a violin make music. But I do oppose violent tension, especially verbal violence. In that, I agree both with King and Socrates. King, "I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal.."

Unfortunately, it is often the case now that it is from those who should know better, those who advocate for peace, non-violence and so on, that some of our current incivility comes from.

So, if we can exchange goods in the market of goods, why shouldn't we be able to exchange ideas in the market of ideas, and in the spaces of social interaction?

One way out I propose to start to come out of our current polarization is the "principle of thinking small" or what I call "the ripple effect" of our words and actions in the community in which we live, and this, based on an ethics of care.  Start with building community with those closest and most immediately around us, your immediate community.

Long term, we need to think in terms of building "the beloved community". All parties in a conflict have at the very least one thing in common, to end the conflict and to satisfy their interests. Usually, those interests are based on a human commonality. Find out what they are. Violence whether physical or verbal will not help us in our search. Again King, "There are certain things we can say about this method that seeks justice without violence. It does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. I think that this is one of the points, one of the basic points, one of the basic distinguishing points between violence and non-violence. The ultimate end of violence is to defeat the opponent. The ultimate end of non-violence is to win the friendship of the opponent."

We need to "tune out" more and "tune in" less. Invite a friend home, or to coffee or dinner, who has different views and do not "argue" but try to understand or share the why of your points of views, the stories behind your views. We need to recover and practice the art of hospitality (which comes from hospital, where we go to heal). It is what we used to do when we had time to visit with each other before I-phone and "social" media, when we actually paid attention to each other.

We need to risk conversation and do less of the confrontation atmosphere of the anti-social model of "social" media. Yes, conversation is risky. It implies a two-way street of mutual discovery, but most risky of all it is the risk that involves openness to be "converted" to another point of view. But the fear that this openness creates may be minimized if we understand the differences between understanding another point of view and accepting it.

Build the community.

* (Bernice King was a classmate of mine)
**(words attributed to Socrates attributed by Plato in the "Phaedo")
Quotes about the "Beloved Community" by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Socrates in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

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".