Sunday, December 30, 2007

Geography of Education and Truth

Mention an obscure painter or poet to a continental European and you'll get an elegant summation of the artist's work, the movement that inspired it and perhaps a word on its relevance to the world today. An American will frankly admit not knowing about the artist and probably ask a question; a Brit will offer a clever joke that changes the topic.

The differences in response do not necessarily mean the Continentals are more learned. It merely means they have been taught differently about the truth.

There may be many more systems of education in the world, but the two educational approaches to which I and people I know have been exposed might be labeled Anglo-American and Continental. They have fundamental epistemological differences, especially in those fields that are not empirical.

The Continentals, according to observations of mine and others, study humanities as a collection of facts subject to approved, taught interpretations. This novel is about X and its symbolism means Y; remember that for the exam and spew it back exactly as taught or fail the class.

In the past two weeks, for example, a French correspondent provided an unwitting example of this. A secondary school teacher who was exposing his students to the idea of colonization, offered them several quotes on the subject, then asked
1. Compare the arguments put forward in 1885 by Jules Ferry, a prime minister favoring French colonization of Indochina, and Georges Clemenceau, a member of the opposition.

2. How was European leadership being called into question at the beginning of the twentieth century?
So I asked what the students had replied, and my correspondent replied "I suppose what [the teacher] taught them." Such a response conveys the assumption that the teacher's role is to provide not merely facts, but also the "correct" interpretation of the events in question.

If the teacher is in a progressive secular school, I would expect the answers to lean toward describing Ferry as a retrograde racist and Clemenceau was a visionary and European "leadership" (quaint description of genocide, ecological rape and theft, but never mind) as a thing of the past well worth burying.

In a religious and conservative environment, on the other hand, one might lament the loss of the "wise" European stewardship of the world and note that Ferry might have had a point about the tutelage needed by the Third World.

In either case, education sets up the student as a parroter of the correct line of interpretation. The European who seems to opine about an obscure poet is likely repeating something learned in secondary school. By rote.

This is the system that Napoleon spread throughout continental Europe, alongside his famous legal code.

In the United States, Canada and Britain (and in British schools abroad) schooling, after 1945 at least, I would venture to say that in a similar situation, the students would be pointed to sources (as the French teacher did), then left to their own devices as to interpretation.

Because the Anglo-American student is not encouraged to imbibe opinions, but rather to consider and search for information, typically Anglo-American school systems cover less material than their Continental equivalents. Thus, it is more likely that Americans, Canadians and Brits may come across as "ignorant" and not know the obscure artist mentioned at the outset -- but if an opinion is ventured, it is more than likely that of the speaker, not of the speaker's high school teacher.

Anglo-American educators not only worship at the altar of open-ended inquiry, but also engage in a full-fledged debate concerning the canonical information to which students should be exposed. For example, there's the library of dead white men as opposed to multicultural readings that include women, people of color and sources that were not conventional 50 years ago. Textbook versus textbook-less.

Is one system better? Not necessarily.

The Anglo-American student typically has a narrower frame of reference tending toward specialization, depth and creativity. The European peer has the advantage of a broader base of basic information, yet also tendencies toward more conventional thinking, surface knowledge and generalization. The eclectic and the specialist complement can each other.

Socially, however, they speak of societies with different vocations and temptations.

European indoctrination aspires to develop renaissance men and women, yet it carries the temptation toward the totalitarian conformity of Fascism and Stalinism. Girded in philosophical absolutism traceable back to medieval, Catholic Europe, its insistence on one truth and one truth only, may spur the desire to uncover her. Once found, European Truth, like Reason during the French Revolution, risks becoming a worshipped statue.

Anglo-American inquiry hopes to develop free democratic citizens who insist on their own truths, yet it can yield unreasoning, over-confident zealotry. Undergirded in the Reformation epistemology according to which each Bible reader was to be seen as the sole legitimate interpreter of truth, under the influence of the more modern offshoots of rationalism and empiricism it can spur to develop scientific and technological marvels. However, these may become soulless and rudderless innovation for its own sake in a vast and stormy ocean of relativism, witness the hollow chatter one so often hears on cell phones.

In the end, I am torn. I like the European palaver, but I admire the Anglo-American thirst for knowledge. I wonder what you think.

Friday, December 28, 2007

An Education Dictator?

Back in 1996, Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander pledged to become the "education president," a promise George W. Bush stole for his pack of lies, I mean, his campaign. Surrounded by educators this week, I find myself wondering whether, since this has proven woefully inadequate, an education dictator would do better -- and what would such a potentate do.

The problems are well-known. Only half of all high school graduates go to postsecondary education. Their incomes and general well-being are stagnating. Only half of those who go to college complete four years. Yet all the future jobs demand higher and higher order skills.

Meanwhile, high percentages of youths go straight from dropping out to jail, at enormous social and fiscal cost.

Education would seem to be the natural ticket out of poverty and stagnation for such young people, yet the schools can't manage the job. Why?

Part of it is declining standards.

The New York Regents exams, once the hallmark ticket to a coveted high school diploma are no longer the obligatory for graduation in the Empire State. Students who don't make the grade, can go for a "local diploma," which community colleges accept. While the Regents require minimum scores of 65 percent to pass, the local diplomas accept 55 percent.

This is a way to pad the graduation rates, which fell precipitously during the 1980s, when a B-film actor presided over the first effort to bankrupt educational and social programs. I'm told that half the schools in New York would be closed if Regents were the only ticket to graduation, as they must graduate a certain percentage of the student body by law.

But it's not just that.

Kids who are hungry, who are brought up by guardians rather than parents in prison or imprisoned by addictions, who know no one who has a conventional job and thrives, who must toughen up before their time -- such kids are half defeated before they take their first step into a school.

Only a sustained, intensive, broad-based frontal campaign to address the entire network of social problems that are creating a permanent underclass -- and thus undoing the foundation of democracy -- can hope to succeed.

Here's where the ancient Roman notion of a dictator, someone drafted by the Senate during an emergency to literally dictate what everyone should do, seems a plausible answer. Not a tyrant, mind you, a dictator. Someone appointed as immovably as a federal judge, say, to see things through the resolution of the problems decisively, persistently, immune to fashion and citizen fatigue.

What should such a person do?

1. Federalize education. There is no rhyme or reason to the patchwork of 16,000 school districts, which operate as if the world of the mind stopped at the county, city or district line. No other advanced nation has as balkanized a system.

2. Consolidate bureaucracies so the bulk of the funds can be directed strategically at problems, so the doers in the system are left alone to do their best.

3. Connect educational systems to community and disciplined civilian work agencies and programs with modern apprenticeships and practice-based credentials.

4. Require all university students to serve for one year in literacy and educational support activities as a condition of graduation with a bachelor's degree.

5. Coordinate education with child welfare and family economic self-sufficiency programs, so that enrollment in school becomes the gateway to all necessary services to ensure the well-being of every American or immigrant from birth to 18.

Put together, the school districts, states and the small present federal contribution add up to more than $400 billion a year. These funds need only be better directed.

Don't have children? Think about whether you'd like the ambulance driver taking you to a hospital to be able to read street signs.

Education and social well-being is for all of us. Happiness spreads. When the poorest are reasonably cared for, the richest can sleep soundly.

Then, after 20 or 25 years, the dictator should be asked to resign and hand things over to elected and appointed officials, who will then have another 200 years to run amok.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Call for Glückenfreude

We all cheer for the underdog, the person who is depressed, who lost a job, who is ill. Secretly, we also occasionally cheer when someone we dislike experiences misfortune, deservedly we believe: schadenfreude. But perhaps the opposite is required somewhat more -- and is considerably nobler.

Schadenfreude, we all know, comes from the German Schaden (harm) and Freude (joy): joy in the misfortune of another.

Face it, you think you might not feel a teensy weensy bit of it if Bill and Melinda Gates got divorced? If Osama got cancer? You weren't secretly glad when Barry Bonds got caught using steroids, Hugh Grant was arrested for getting oral sex from a prostitute in a car, banks lost money due to shady loans, when Scooter Libby was convicted?

Good. Now it's out in the open. We all feel a little schadenfreude now and then. Now Let's consider the opposite.

Your pal gets a promotion or award while you're still stuck in the same old job. Your best friend falls madly in love and you can't get a first date to save your life. Your neighbors take that dream vacation you've always wanted and you haven't been to the next town in three years.

Don't these people make you mad?

For years I felt invidious irritation toward James Fallows. Although he is only three years older than I am, he was Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter, when I was an apprentice aide to the speechwriter of an international diplomat.

He glided from the White House to the Atlantic Monthly, NPR and endless books, essays and a generally placid and comfortable life with wife and, I believe, daughter. I was let go, later fired from another job and have since toiled obscurely on an economic publication that is revered in its field -- but let's face it, I'm no James Fallows.

How dare he show me up like this!

At first I comforted myself that his passage through Harvard and Oxford were mere perquisites of being born with a silver spoon. But no! He had the effrontery of coming from a working class background and winning scholarships on his own merit.

Surely he would divorce. Surely he would have children with disabilities. Get cancer. Turn out to be a plagiarizer. No, no, no.

People like James Fallows should be shot.

So imagine my shock when I discovered that other people felt similarly about me. Ten years ago I had the good fortune to manage a very leveraged buyout of the firm where I worked. I went to lunch with a dear friend, showed her my new business card with "President" on it. Her face was blank. I thought she didn't understand, so I told her.

"Oh, I have thought of starting a publication," she said. No "congratulations" or "I'm so happy for you," no matter how insincere. I chased her for another lunch over the next three months and it was clear she despised me for my good luck. At least, she was honest; she just couldn't deal with my admittedly modest success.

Since then, I have experienced moments in which I wanted to cry out for joy -- all amid the humdrum teeth-gritting reality in this vale of tears. Sons getting into prestigious universities and embarking upon challenging, make-a-Dad-proud careers.

I have gradually learned that no one is interested in my good fortune. Indeed, they'll likely get upset.

So beginning in this Winter Solstice season, I am calling for a new campaign of Glückenfreude -- joy in the happiness and good fortune of others.

Let me begin with James Fallows: I raise a toast to you, sir, I am honored to have read your marvelous prose, am delighted you have traveled well with your delightful family. If we ever meet, I admit, I will be starstruck, bask in your good fortune and consider it my own to have such a privilege.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is U.S. news about 9/11 (self-)censored?

You might think so after you learn about the arrest two weeks ago of a French journalist who in April 2007 reported that France's secret service knew minute details of Al-Qaeda's 9/11 plan as early as January 2001 and passed them to U.S. intelligence. Add to that the fact that neither the original French story, nor the reporter's arrest has appeared in a single major U.S. newspaper.

The story is very simple.

On April 16, 2007, the Paris daily Le Monde, which is France's top newspaper, ran a story by Guillaume Dasquié in which he describes a sheaf of 328 pages stamped "Confidential-Defense" and "Strictly National Usage," that he obtained from a source who had access to secret documents of the Direction générale des services extérieurs (General Directorate for Foreign Services).

These documents described Al-Qaeda detailed discussions concerning the hijacking of planes on U.S. soil, including the selection of American Airlines and United flights. All information available months before the attacks.

Moreover, a Jan. 5, 2001 DGSE memo on this subject was given to the Central Intelligence Agency's chief of station in Paris, Bill Murray. Not only did the French know, the CIA knew.

You can read the full story here.

Dasquié, who has also been writing controversial stories concerning French government corruption, was arrested Dec. 5 and charged with "publishing defense secrets" after refusing to name his sources or sources.

“We are troubled by the criminal probe against Guillaume Dasquié and his detention for two days by French security services who pressured him to reveal his sources,” the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists’ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Dasquié should not be prosecuted for serving the public’s right to know.”

The Associated Press picked up this story and the The Guardian of London ran it (see here). But is it anywhere in The New York Times or The Washington Post? Does it turn up in any U.S. newspaper or major media in a Google search?


The Times last mentioned Dasquié in 2002 in a book review. The Post appears never to have heard of him. Why? Has everyone in the newsrooms been so full of eggnog for the last two weeks that they couldn't be bothered?

As a journalist, I find this appalling. Frightening. We are about to have a presidential election and significant information that our government knew beforehand of the signal event of the present century is swept under the carpet.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What Elections?

It's not even the presidential election year and how many candidate debates have occurred? I've lost count. U.S. presidential elections last too long, cost too much and the results are unimpressive. There are solutions.

As regards timing, I like the 90-day campaigns under the system that prevails in much of the British Commonwealth. Granted, that's because elections are not fixed at four year intervals.

Also, there are no truly national elections under the parliamentary system: you vote for the candidates in your riding or constituency and cumulatively a party acquires a majority -- or not; thus, most voters have some personal knowledge of the person they are voting for -- or against.

The cost has amply been remarked elsewhere as a barrier to truly popular candidates and the inevitable end-result that presidents first enter the White House already hostage to the sources of cash that put them there.

The duration of the campaign is a factor in raising the cost, but there are silent partner in this: the uninformed voter and the relative secrecy in which decision-making occurs.

Every campaign involves debate of policy questions posed in overly simplified terms for citizens who have not attended to the duty of keeping up. Nothing struck me as more symptomatic of the problem than the question posed to President George H.W. Bush at an open forum by an individual who obviously did not know the difference between the federal deficit and the national debt. (Hint: the deficit is a negative annual balance, the debt is the cumulative borrowing to cover the deficits.)

The cost of the quadrennial education campaign -- or in many cases, the quadrennial play on people's ignorance and basest emotions (yes, Republicans, I mean you) -- is largely the result of poor citizenship. If we don't look after our interests, no one will.

Is it any surprise that the results are so unimpressive? Think about the notion that the electorate in 1980 chose an actor whose sole talent was the ability to read and declaim as if the words he was using were his own. Yes, of course, the current president also comes to mind among the disasters of the electoral system.

Hunter Thompson cannily remarked that up to the 1972 campaign neither major political party had put up a candidate that garnered less than 40 percent of the vote nationally.

Yet the percentage of eligible citizens who vote has been cumulatively declining from the 63 percent recorded in 1960 to the low of 49 percent in the 1996 election. The massive electoral fraud of the year 2000 changed that: in 2004, a full 56 percent of the eligible electorate actually voted.

So think about it. John F. Kennedy got a razor thin margin (49.7 percent of the popular vote), garnering in reality about 31 percent of all eligible citizens' votes. Even Lyndon Johnson, with his "landslide" 61 percent of the popular vote, really had the assent of 37.1 percent of eligible voters. The Ronald Reagan "landslide" of 1984 (58.8 percent) still only won 31.2 percent of all citizens eligible to vote.

So neither qualitatively nor quantitatively can anyone argue that two years of bombast achieves worthy results.

Thus, three remedies strike me as plausible incentives for change:

1. Set presidential campaigns to take no more than 180 days, with one national primary and one national election.

2. Establish a public fund to subsidize candidacies and bar any other source of funding.

3. Make voting mandatory, with periodic citizenship tests and penalties for failing to keep up with the basic decisions that we must make as a society.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Democracy in Latin America

The champagne must be flowing in the White House over the vote in Venezuela. The vote cheered me for very different reasons: to me, it shows that while Latin America wants systemic change, people no longer believe a strongman is needed to achieve that.

For as long as I've been politically aware -- and I started young -- I have known that the key political issue in the region was, and remains, the redistribution of income and wealth from the neofeudal socioeconomic structures that have persisted for half a millenium to ... something else.

What else, and how, has been a widely debated and hotly contested question.

In the 1930s, movements such as the APRA in Peru proposed a kind of socialism with autochtonous flavor and revindication for the peoples of the Inca Empire. In Nicaragua at that time a peasant rebel named Augusto César Sandino, who conceivably never read Marx, prompted the intervention of U.S. Marines.

During the 1940s an 50s individuals like Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina and Getúlio Vargas of Brazil offered a different way -- a right-wing form of anti-imperialism and labor power and redistributionism. It was an era of strongmen.

In the 1960s and 70s came César Augusto Pinochet's theory of "the national security state," which he proposed in a military journal in 1965, just as the Brazilian military regime that most successfully embodied it began to take shape. By the decade's end, with the connivance of the CIA-run "traffic school" torturers wearing military boots were in power in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago and other Latin American capitals.

With the 1980s democratization began. We are still in the democratic era. One in which almost all countries have tried wild and extreme laissez faire policies -- in Buenos Aires the municipality went so far as to privatize parks! -- and abandoned them.

Now Nestor Kirchner, soon his wife, in Argentina, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil along with others, represent a wave of social-democracy, expanding rights from the civic realm to social and economic arenas. These are reformist, pro-union, pro-worker leaders who nonetheless recognize the need to rule from consensus and compromise.

This is what people have long wanted. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, along with Evo Morales of Bolivia, represent the vanguard of Latin America's "new left" -- neither is too far apart from what solid majorities want. At least in their ideals.

What the Sunday vote in Venezuela showed, however, was a new maturity. Left-leaning majorities have learned that power foes not grow from the barrel of a gun, as Mao and a good number of guerrilla leaders have suggested. They have also learned not to trust even the greatest of saviors, such as Chávez.

In Sunday's plebiscite Venezuelan voters rejected by a 51 percent to 49 percent the proposal to expand Chávez's powers and accelerate his move to socialize the economy. The slim margin suggests that the country is deeply divided and that his program has not been resoundingly defeated.

Instead, it seems clear to me that Venezuelans are quarreling mainly with the strategy. They want economic and social democracy. But without a strongman. Cuba without Fidel and one-party rule -- or perhaps merely Sweden.

To me, having watched decades of blood flowing in the streets to no good end, over strongmen and guerrilla strongmen-wannabes, over militaries and ideologies, it is heartening to see Latin Americans choosing, indeed forcing, peaceful debate and the ballot box on their own leader. Chávez looms greater also in my esteem for accepting the verdict.

Friday, November 30, 2007

After the Boomers

Looking ahead from the end of 2007 seems a gloomy exercise given war, recession, global warming. John Maynard Keynes had a snappy comeback for precisely sunny prognostications of better times further into the future: "In the long run we're all dead." That thought, precisely, is my point of departure today.

When all of us Boomers are dead, sometime in 2064 or thereabouts, or indeed 20 to 40 years earlier when someone pries our cloven hooves from our work, a huge bounty will open up to those born after 1964.

In the United States, the generations that follow us are smaller, even our own children, the Echo Boomers; yet we are roughly replacing ourselves. In Europe, population can be expected to decline by as much as 25%.

Meanwhile, economic resources continue to increase or at least remain constant. Imagine the coming boon.

First of all, of course, jobs at the top will empty out just in time for Gen-Xers and Echo Boomers, as will housing units built for nuclear families. More money, ample supply, will mean lower prices for a comfortable life.

Granted, hospitals and nursing homes will become crowded -- as will cemeteries -- but only for a while. After all, in the long run we Boomers, too, will all be dead. In fact, I predict that society will either find an affordable way to support and keep us healthy -- or we will be euthanized.

Good riddance, too. Who wants millions of useless, gray, wrinkled people who cannot do anything but consume? Hell, who wants to be one?

My only regret will be not living to see how humanity will overcome our challenges, how someone will find what will seem as the obvious solution to many of our problems -- yielding, of course, a new problematic paradigm. Hey, that's not my problem.

In the meantime, I suppose, I can only hope to be as productive as possible, as engaging, as amusing to convince those around me to put off the day I am asked to step into the Eu-machine for the one-way trip to Neverland. But I am ready.

Happy future, next generations!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Madding Crowd

Finding myself in church on Sunday, I realized that my problem with faith has to do with the sense that I -- along with the rest of humanity, including Christians especially -- am one of the crowd spitting at Jesus. I do not believe Jesus' words to the good thief "this day thou shalt be with me in paradise," suggesting that the drama of history will have a happy ending.

In fact, I perceive war Iraq and Afghanistan, corporate fraud and the exploitation of humans by humans -- or any of the million big and small misdeeds most of us do -- as part and parcel of a picture of reality askew. Where is the evidence otherwise?

It's the conflict described by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his poem "Christmas Bells," written in 1864 upon hearing that his son had been wounded in battle,
And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Cast an eye to the four-fifths of humanity living in benighted squalor and degradation and the conclusion is clear: God is dead and right does not prevail. The feast of Christ the King is a monarchist delusion.

Neither the deity, nor the man-god Son rules nor exerts sovereign power that anyone can tell. I ceased believing so when I realized that I was in the first ranks among the crowd whose lives mock all professions of faith.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Noose Media

Even a Hispanic-friendly editor to whom I pitch commentary on news of this nature seemed nervous about my writing a piece on the story of the Mexican-American Boston transit worker who was punished for wearing a Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead) costume to work on Halloween. The outfit was a black three-piece suit with a red noose around his neck -- but the noose was all people saw.

Jaime Garmendia, 27, was suspended by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for five days without pay, forced to write a letter of apology and undergo racial sensitivity training, the Boston Herald reported. A columnist in that paper even called the costume part of a "pagan ritual."

It was a knee-jerk reaction to a Hispanic custom by people who didn't know what it was about. The response did nothing to undo the wrongs against African Americans in Jena, Louisiana, or -- more to the point -- Boston itself.

Instead, race-obsessed Anglophones should be taking cultural sensitivity classes. After all, it was they who historically lynched African Americans -- not Mexicans or any other Hispanics.

Sure, prejudice exists in Latin America and in U.S. Hispanic communities, as everywhere. I don't condone it.

Yet history shows that Hispanic culture has been remarkably open to the mixing of peoples. In Latin America today there are millions of people of African, Asian, American native and European background ... all at once. Among Hispanics there never was anything so filled with racial contempt as a legally enforced separate drinking fountain, or restroom, or bus seat.

Besides, Halloween comes from England's "All Hallows' Eve," festivities approaching the Christian holiday of All Saints, Nov. 1st. The following day is the equally ancient, and inextricably linked, Christian feast of All Souls, the day on which traditionally the "faithful departed" are recalled. Nothing "pagan" or voodoo about that.

That's what the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities are all about. In small towns people dress up as skeletons and an informal parade takes place, led by a person in a "living corpse" costume -- presumably Garmendia's model. People throw oranges and other goodies at the "corpse," who gets to keep the loot, just like trick-or-treaters.

So, in fact, Garmendia's costume was actually a very canny cultural translation for Halloween. It was only his employer and the local press who displayed their cultural tin ears. Day of the Dead costumes, far from being about hate, are about love of life and love of those we recall fondly even after their death.

If anyone should apologize it's the MBTA -- and the noose media.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Never Intervene Again

It's astounding to learn that U.S. military commanders in Iraq are wringing their hands over what they describe as the "intransigence" of the Shiite-dominated government. What did they expect? Moderate European-style liberal democrats crawling out of the rubble they made?

The real fact of U.S. intervention since 1945 has been that whenever the United States has meddled in another country's politics, that country's ideological spectrum has polarized into two irreconcilable extremes and the centrist, compromising, moderate middle has fallen out.

Chile was a model democracy in the 1960s until the CIA, through the program of Jesuit Roger Vekemans, decided to intervene, destabilizing the centrist, moderate Christian-Democratic Party and ushering in first, in 1970, socialist Salvador Allende, who was never quite the Marxist-Leninist his successors painted him as, and then in 1973 the draconic right-wing regime of Gen. Cesar Augusto Pinochet.

In 1970 Cambodia was a neutralist peaceable country run by an ancient monarchic dynasty until the USA decided that it was time to plug up a supply line of the Viet Cong and bring the Vietnam war into its neighbor's territory. Prince Norodom Sihanouk was overthrown by a CIA-led military coup, in turn overthrown by the Khmer Rouge, who killed an estimate 2.5 million of their own people.

Much the same had happened with South Vietnam, which was run by a neutralist, Ngo Dihn Diem, overthrown in 1963 by the CIA simply because he was perceived as not being rightist enough, although he represented a moderate, Catholic elite that was Western-oriented. We all know how successful that turned out to be.

What did they expect in Iraq when they removed Saddam Hussein? After all, he was the only figure who -- through admitted utter ruthlessness -- held together the three major segments of the Mesopotamian territory dubbed Iraq by the British in the 1930s.

Of course, the Shiites are intransignet. Of course, the Sunnis would love to slit their throats. Of course, the Kurds would like independence. Of course, the middle class, secularist professionals have all fled, by the millions, to Jordan and elsewhere.

What did anyone expect?

Until the United States learns to be more subtle, more agreeable to compromise, more respectful of other nations, there's not a snowball's chance in hell that any U.S. intervention, however well-meant (and this one was not), will succeed at really contributing peace and stability to any other region of the world.

Perhaps we ought to make a national pledge: never again intervene. Never.

Monday, November 12, 2007

On Contributing to Poverty

"How did the United States contribute to the poverty in Latin America?" asks commenter and fellow-blogger Jen. The drum roll of military interventions and roster of investment companies and list of rebels killed springs to mind, but that is not her question. She asks something well worth pondering that doesn't often get addressed: how have we, collectively and individually contributed to poverty outside our immediate context?

Indeed, how does anyone contribute to poverty? How have we contributed to poverty around us? The short answer is that most of us who do not hold the major economic and political levers in our hands do so primarily by omission, inaction and neglect.

Things Undone

In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer there was a general confession recited in Morning Prayer that said, in part:
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
The idea is that we all know that we are born into a human society that is morally askew, whatever the reason and however it came to be.

In this sense, while it is true the U.S. did not systematically create poverty in Latin America (or elsewhere), it's a fair question to ask what our country, we collectively, have left "undone" that might have alleviated or diminished poverty.

As someone culturally with one foot in Latin America and one here in the USA, I have long struggled to understand how it was that, say, the United States, Perú, Argentina and Haiti started out more or less at the same starting line about 200 years ago, yet reached vastly different levels of socioeconomic and technological advancement and well-being.

Travel these countries' histories and you'll find a distant European exploration and colonization, with all the attendant tragedies of the meeting of newcomers and inhabitants, the importation of African slaves, the establishment of miniature European political and social structures, an often bloody war of independence, followed by conflicts in nation-building throughout the 19th century.

Compare the USA, Perú, Argentina and Haiti in 1861, when one of my grandfathers was born, and there really wasn't such a huge difference. Sure, DeTocqueville had predicted in 1836 that the United States and Russia would be the major powers of the 20th century, but that was based merely on their land mass and continental expansion.

From Baring Brothers to United Fruit

In 1861, all were agricultural countries in which land tenure had become largely hereditary and oligarchic. Although slavery had been abolished in all but the United States, the agricultural labor regime in all four countries had in common elements of medieval serfdom.

In 1907 it was not yet a sure bet that of the four the United States would become the richest, even though U.S. industrial development far outstripped that of the other three countries, it was early enough in industrialization to allow for a quick sprint by Perú or Argentina -- although probably not tiny Haiti -- to an equal spot. Certainly, Argentina had the resources.

One missing piece in this history is neocolonialism, the system by which one country controls another through economic, rather than political or military means. Early in the 19th century, George Canning, British under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, wrote that South America, freed from political bondage to Spain, would be "in our thrall" provided Britain managed its business with the new republics well.

Without firing a shot, British railroads and banks positioned their nation in a controlling role in many South American countries. In Central America, the British model began to be attempted by U.S. companies such as the infamous United Fruit Company (since 1984 Chiquita Brands International Inc.), which arranged the election and deposition of countless governments, along with multiple U.S. military interventions.

Still, some ask, how come foreign investment in the United States didn't wreak the havoc that it did in Latin America? The short answer is that, first of all, it did: the hated railroad men who spawned countless popular outlaws in the U.S. West worked for British and European investors. (Just wait until foreigners start dumping their U.S.-denominated investments -- coming soon to a financial market near you -- and see how you like foreign investors.)

Indeed, my grandfather participated in an 1890 popular uprising in Argentina to stop the government from paying what were deemed exorbitant interest fees to the Baring Brothers & Co. (now Barings Bank), which then went into its first bankruptcy, causing a European continent-wide financial panic. My father burned Union Jacks in the 1930s. (Of course, then I did them both the dishonor of being born in the United States, heir to perfidious Albion.)

The U.S. pre-eminence in the Western Hemisphere does not date back to 1823, when President James Monroe first claimed that "as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." The United States lacked the power to enforce the position -- and did not try in the most egregious and obvious example, Canada.


The real change was brought about by the Spanish-American war and the "hero" of San Juan Hill, Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1904 added to Monroe's position the view that
If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.
From this declaration, with loopholes and vagaries large enough to run a truck though them, sprang the bulk of the 150 U.S. military interventions in Latin America. From the 19th century bombardment of Nicaragua by the U.S. Navy for the effrontery of attempting to charge a fee on Cornelius Vanderbilt's yacht to the 20th century occupation by U.S. Marines leading to the execution of one Augusto Nicolás Calderón Sandino in 1934.

In every instance, U.S. troops, spies and influence conveyed not the alleged message of liberty and freedom for all, but the message of the freedom of the wealthy, of their corporate structures and of their local landowning oligarch allies to squeeze the last drop of labor from anyone as they please for as little as possible.

That's how the governments of the United States, my country, contributed to squelch every legitimate claim to human dignity in Latin America (and elsewhere), to support those who would deny the essentials of living to the majority.

And it's not history. In 2002 the Bush Administration attempted to overthrow President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

I won't claim that Chávez or Castro or the Sandinistas have the answer, or even an answer I would advocate. I know many Latin Americans feel the same way.

In fact, every time the United States has intervened, the political space for reasonable and balanced compromises has shrunk, in favor of the extremes of the (usually U.S.-supported) right and left. I explained how and why here. Want moderate answers to come from Latin America? Let's keep the hell out of their politics.

Discerning the path to socioeconomic fairness and prosperity in Latin America is not something to be handled in the boardrooms of Wall Street or the situation rooms of the White House or the Pentagon. It's something that, left to their own devices, Latin Americans are perfectly capable of figuring out on their own.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

United States of Brazil

The title of this essay was, in fact, the original legal name of the Estados Unidos do Brasil, just as Mexico is legally the Mexican United States (Estados Unidos Mexicanos). What I mean is not to evoke these countries but to suggest the general drift of the historical and socioeconomic current propelling the nation we know as the United States of America. We are slouching toward Brazil, or worse, Bolivia.

These are double-edged, complicated ideas for me. I have visited relatives in Brazil many times, counted among my personal acquaintances and friends a number of Bolivians, including one president. To me, these countries are not distant, abstract instances of Latin American stupidity or laziness or [throw in your pejorative here].

Rather, they are expressions of what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano called "el continente de despojo" (the continent of dispossession) in his famous work Open Veins of Latin America, which recounts the sad, sad tale of my parents' ancestral society in a continental context.

"Latin America," like "Hispanic," is an abstraction as seen from outside the reality. There is a common historical, linguistic, religious and to some extent ethnic heritage uniting the score of nations south of the Rio Grande. However, Latin Americans think of themselves as nationals of a country before they think of themselves as citizens of "la patria grande" (the larger homeland), Hispanic or Latin America.

Where all citizens of the region share an important commonality is in the sense of belonging in the Third World, a place where
  • telephones often malfunction (to the point of being a great excuse for not keeping in contact);
  • wages of government officials, technicians, and every kind of service worker a middle class person is likely to need, are so low that nothing gets done without greasing a palm;
  • middle class status itself is a privilege bestowed on a few, or often enough, a slide down the slippery Maypole of social stratification;
  • as few as one or two percent of the population owns and controls the overwhelming majority of the land and productive resources;
  • vast majorities live in a crushing, degrading poverty that makes the average U.S. slum look luxurious;
  • clear pluralities or majorities do not have regular access to electricity or running water, three meals a day, new clothes, an actual formal building for shelter or regular employment, let alone benefits such as health care;
  • governments, elected and not, are really committees formed by and for the top of society's heap;
  • reform has historically been crushed ruthlessly (since 1945, in some countries earlier) with ample U.S. aid and abetting; and
  • on and on and on ...
I have to stop to stop myself from becoming a crashing bore or become so angry I cannot write any more.

My point is that the Third World conditions that exist in Latin America are, in general, way below what most Americans would deem a normal part of life. Even so, Latin America offers among the best of the conditions affecting the four-fifths of humanity to which no one who is reading this even remotely belongs.

The keen observer will have noted already that many of these conditions are no longer entirely foreign to the United States, as they largely were during the second half of the 20th century. Our country is a place where:
  • telephones began to become erratic since the breakup of Ma Bell;
  • the average, inflation-adjusted wage in 2006 was 22 percent below that of 1973;
  • the middle class is stagnating, as indicated by declining median household incomes for the five years of this century;
  • unemployment duration is becoming lengthier and the safety net for those who slip out of the middle class are frayed to nonexistent;
  • the top 20 percent of households ($92,032 a year or higher) took home 51 percent of all income, while the bottom 20 percent ($20,035 annually or less) took home about 3.4 percent (2006 figures) -- and that's just income, on the wealth side, the top 1 percent of households owned 33.4 percent of all privately held wealth, with the next 19 percent owned 51 percent -- thus, the wealthiest 20 percent of the people owned 84 percent of all private property, leaving only 16 percent for the rest (2001 figures);
  • the increasing proportion of poor households in the USA experience food insecurity, lack of or spotty access to health care, inability to pay bills such as rent and other essentials, substandard housing, irregular employment, law wages, lack of career advancement prospects, poor education and more;
  • the current government came to power against the wishes of the majority in the year 2001 and has ruled to benefit a tiny, tiny elite; and
  • ask the Wobblies, the Molly Maguires, Sacco and Vanzetti and the Black Panthers if U.S. political repression is harsh, or ask the blacklisted people during McCarthyism, or those lynched in the 1930s ...
What disturbs me is not so much the U.S. reality, which has always meant that each social advance in our history is soaked in blood, but that the trend is now downsliding.

The poor are becoming poorer, the rich richer, the middle class is dwindling. With that comes a deterioration of an admittedly charmed style of life.

The telephones are bad? I just read about a lady of 75 in Virginia who went to the telephone company's offices with a hammer and started smashing computers after being utterly unable to get the attention of "customer service" staff for 3 months when her phone was mistakenly cut off. She's in jail when the telephone company executives who cut everything to the bone should be in irons.

They do it because investors demand profits? The investors' greed should be limited. By the government that shouldn't be in the pockets of the highest bidder.

Let things slide, work off frustrations with Comedy Central or the Fox network's over-the-top cartoon humor shows, chill ... and by the time you take a good look, there will be Brazilian favelas in New York, you will have to bribe the cable man, that is ... if you still have a respectable job with rapidly vanishing health insurance and pension benefits.

Don't think it can't happen. In 1907, Argentina had the 7th economy in the world. "Rich as an Argentine" was a popular phrase in the United States, which was not yet the towering, all-powerful and super-rich nation we have known since 1945.

There is nothing divinely ordained about U.S. wealth or institutions that attempt to achieve greater socioeconomic equality. Both are severely at risk.

It is likely that, much as the 20th century was aptly dubbed "the American century" by Walter Lippmann, the 21st may be the Chinese century or -- my guess -- the European century. Very little can be done about that. What goes up, must come down.

Absent social and political forces to level not just the playing field but to some extent the scores of the game, however, the United States shows all the earmarks of drifting toward a Third World social structure. This need not happen.

When European nations lost their pre-eminence and vast colonial empires starting in 1945, they introduced the most generous "cradle to grave" systems of social insurance ever known in history. Some may need their sails trimmed a bit, but on the whole, these are viable and necessary systems that the USA, as an advanced nation, should have.

Else, welcome to Brazil.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Divining the Zeitgeist

Someday, 200 years from now, the era in which we are living will seem transparently about ... X. We know what the Quattrocento in Italy was about. I always imagined clarions with banners trumpeting the end of the Middle Ages the moment Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. It's harder with our own time: what are we all undergoing?

Let's first set the parameters. The current era, I'd say even the current historical century, began in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet sphere of superpower influence collapsed.

Globalization could only begin in earnest once there was one world without substantial barriers to the movement of capital, goods, services and labor. Even China's authoritarian government is subject to global rules and, in the long run, its battle for political insularity is a losing one.

Politically and militarily, of course, our era began on September 11, 2001. Or rather, that is when the conflicts and pressures of the new era became globalized. The one surviving superpower Gulliver confronted thousands of Lilliputians armed with unconventional weapons and tactics, seeking nothing more than to destabilize and destroy.

Do Osama and his cohorts have an alternative worldview and plan for the world? Not really. A global Muslim theocracy is a chimera, no more likely or feasible than global Stalinism was.

Of course, a new Dark Age is possible. The signs of one have been in evidence since 1968.

That year, to my mind, marked the end of a common, rationalist, empirical and apollinian perception of reality, regardless of ideology, essential to a civilization, ended with the dawning of a countervailing constellation of views that could be labeled Woodstock Nation, Aquarian or Marcusean -- the famous counterculture. From Paris to Peking, as the Chinese capital was then called, there arose a vaguely hallucinatory, intuitive, dionysian gestalt that rejected linear mental structures and their social expressions.

Indeed, in music, art and lifestyle there had gradually been a renaissance of interest in mediaeval notions, such as balladeering, mysticism, monasticism, bawdy revelry and brute authority. The empires of the day seemed doomed -- and they were.

Today, a new feudal structure, the multinational corporation, vies with roving bands of jihadists (the new Barbarians), a coterie of electronic brigands, all amid the menace of global warming and the inevitable detonation, somewhere and at some point, of a thermonuclear weapon by some apocalyptic gang wishing to leave its indelible graffito on the sands of time.

Let all that ripen and -- voilà -- instant second Middle Age. Yet everything tells me this is too facile.

"History does not repeat itself," Mark Twain reputedly said, "but it does rhyme a lot."

At the end of the present stanza -- 100 years from now? -- I dare say that what is happening now will make sense, will have an aura of inevitability, will so obviously have ushered the "solutions" that will create the problems of the next great era of crisis.

Then, if I were alive, I would slap my forehead and realize what I was missing in the grand transformation I sense, yet whose contours are hidden from my grasp.

A few predictions: Osama will be dimly remembered then, a new dark age will pass us by within a few inches of a hit and our children and grandchildren will show us up for the fools we really are.

Monday, October 29, 2007

American Evita?

In the U.S. coverage of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president-elect of Argentina, the fluffiness of the American mass media has been on embarrassing display: Does she wear too much makeup? Is she the Argentine Hillary Clinton? Nothing about whether she can tame inflation or her plan to reverse the ravages of globalization.

Of course, American reporters never ask whether Sen. Clinton wears too little makeup or speculate whether Hillary is the American Evita. That might suggest that the USA is not the epicenter of the world -- Zeus forbid!

In fact, the newly elected president of Argentina is a politician in her own right, unlike Hillary she has been a legislator for decades and a principled advocate even to the point of getting expelled from her party briefly for holding fast to her positions.

She has had to navigate immensely more difficult waters than Hillary.

Just take a look at her name Christina Fernández (maiden name) de (literally "of") Kirchner. It's the middle- to upper-class nomenclature in Argentina, less common today in Spain, denoting the woman as the consort of the paterfamilias (see here, starting with the 6th paragraph).

In Argentine common use, men will call their wife "mi mujer" (my woman) rather than "mi esposa" (my spouse). Perhaps it has to do with the other meaning of esposa, hand-cuff. No woman gets away with calling their husband "mi hombre" (my man).

Argentina thinks of itself as a cultural suburb of Paris, but at some level it remains locked in the mental corridors of old Spain's Escorial, Philip II's monastic palace, and in the magical archetypes of Italy, from which more than half of Argentina's population hail.

As to her challenges as president, they are many.

Since the implosion of the Argentine economy at the beginning of the decade, a catastrophe incumbent President Nestor Kirchner inherited four years ago, the country has gone from near Depression levels of unemployment back to its traditional underemployment, or actual shortage of skilled labor, heating up the economy.

The government says inflation runs at 8 percent annually, the Wall Street Journal predictably claims the "leftist" administration is halving the rate, the International Monetary Fund estimates 12 percent -- I'm sticking with the IMF figure. For a country whose inflation once ran in the hundreds of percentage points a year, surpassing even the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany, this is quite modest.

Let's also not forget the "leftist" baiting. President Kirchner, her husband, is widely hated for taking the side of the victims of the military dictatorship of 1976-83, which kidnapped, tortured and murdered an estimated 30,000 people and a precisely documented 8,900. (See here for the story of one I knew.)

He pushed for and sought the overturning of amnesty laws for military officers accused of torture and assassinations. On the 30th anniversary of the coup that launched the bloody regime, Kirchner toured the former places of torture with survivors.

Two years ago, in a spectacle typical of Peronism, Sen. Kirchner spoke at a rally commemorating Evita and asked, in the spirit of the cult of the late wife of the late Juan Domingo Perón, "What Would Evita Do?" in the face of globalization.

Can she fulfill the enormous expectations and meet the challenges? This is the question that American journalists should have explored.

Argentina, after all, has long competed with Brazil and Mexico for economic first place in Latin America and has a cultural and political influence all its own within the Southern Cone subregion.

From the pundits in Buenos Aires one can glean that this election may mark the beginning of new politics.

Cristina Kirchner's win (45 percent of the vote in a field of 14 candidates) was enough to secure the presidency in one ballot (Argentine law calls for a second round among the top two candidates when the plurality is smaller). But it's a bit of a squeaker for the undisputed majority party since 1946 when Himself was the candidate.

Still, she will pose a challenge to a fragmented opposition, which won largely in the big cities, Buenos Aires, Bahía Blanca, Mar del Plata, but lost nearly everywhere else. This represents a bit of a class divide between the educated urbanites and the poorer rural inhabitants who are still the majority.

All that lies in the future. For now, I toast to an attorney of seeming conviction and vigor, a woman who may yet show the way to her sister Hillary.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Who's to Blame?

Comments in response to Jen's heart-rending post on a homeless child, and a post by Julie that looks at related questions, prompt me to visit the crucial question of whom to blame for the worsening economic fortunes of the majority of Americans, which has a lot to do with what we do to reverse the situation.

Let me start also by noting that Americans are not the worst-off people on the planet. Most of us blogging are clearly not the worst off of Americans. However, the way the world is structured, a decline in socioeconomic equality in the United States has extremely high likelihood of spreading and worsening inequities elsewhere.

Let's also get rid of some bugaboos. Globalization is not a person and does not have a will of its own. Stop blaming globalization, corporations or even the Republican Party. Let's instead focus on the people behind these abstractions.

Start with the person in the mirror. Yes, you.

Like that cheap shirt, iPod, pair of sneakers, etc.? Like that 15%, 25% your mutual fund adds to your investment account? Guess where it all comes from? Low wages and widening income inequality, not just U.S. inequality but global.

The Indians are not becoming rich. The Chinese only contribute labor to most of the electronics made in the People's Republic and they get less than the U.S. licensing company from each sale.

Am I going too fast? My point -- borrowed heavily from Robert Reich's new book Supercapitalism -- is that as investors and consumers we are part of the skein that makes all this inequality yawn widely.

The only people who can change this is the other side of us, the citizen side, the part of us that rejects a permanent state reflecting the U.S. reality that in 2006 the middle class lost ground, the poor stagnated and only the top 20% of earners gained ground, carving out more than half of all income for themselves.

We need to demand that Democrats stop being major wusses and sellouts -- or we have to look for Greens or something else. OK, not Republicans; they basically want a return to the gilded 1907 when there was still child labor, segregation and a myriad of social ills that made life very, very comfortable for those at the top at the expense of everyone else.

We need to focus on raising wages, lowering unemployment, making basic needs such as food and health care available to all people, just because they are people. We need to remember that silly social issues such as gay marriage are the adversary's way of baiting us into losing political debates.

The Larry Craigs (the men's room toe-tapping, partition glad handing GOP gay-bashing senator) will always make hay of the horrors of ... gasp ... homosexuality. Yet no one went hungry because there are gays and lesbians, any more than the divorce rate has anything to do with gays.

Let's also not vent on people who can't change things. The low-paid caseworker who seems insensitive, the teacher whose students never study and thus never learn, the cop who has to flash his presence amid open-air drug markets lest the poor drug dealers become entrapped. There are lots of government employees who lead quiet lives of desperation because the jobs they once took up with pride have been hollowed out by budget cuts, corruption and stupidity at the top.

So go ahead, get mad and say you won't take it any more. Encourage everyone you know to vote for change, to write letters to elected officials for change, to write letters to the editor, to blog for change.

Don't waste your time on economic processes, legal fictions (corporations, for example) or powerless people.

Let's instead work together to make representative decisionmaking in government really representative of the majority of us.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Outrageous Fortune

When my father first bought me Hamlet, he told me pointedly that I should memorize several of the soliloquies (Hamlet's, Polonious', etc.). No phrase seemed more vivid to me at 11 than "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and I return to it whenever I feel a rain of mishaps.

Imagine it. You're at the Battle of Hastings. Hundreds of arrows and slings cast into the air, they arch up until gravity exerts its pull, then turn downward, bound straight for you. You crouch and hold up your shield and hope to heaven that it is sturdy enough to protect you, so you can arise, run and attack the cursed Normans.

Misfortune doesn't seem to come unaccompanied. Not devastation, misfortune. Scraping my car while parking (and cracking the glass of the headlight), not being told one has cancer.

It falls like a fall shower, out of nowhere, with wind. You might get wet, lose you hat, get hit by a flying branch. Like Friday. (Fall comes late to Washington.)

You lose your peppy stride. You wonder what your next slip will be. You go lead a support group meeting and you nearly kill yourself and your passenger not once but three times. Because you just can't pay attention.

You're unshaven because you've had an office emergency and volunteer teaching and now this. You've had coffee but it was weak and you've never woken up.

You get home and resolve not to darken your doorway on the way out ever again! No socializing. No driving. No activity that requires good reflexes, self-control, patience, sanity.

That's when you know you've been hit by "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

Saturday, October 20, 2007


They probably don't remember the T-shirt that said, "No, Regina, you fool!" I have fallen in with a crowd of wicked 30-something Saskatchewanians (Schmutzie swears this is a word) and, ready or not (hell with milk money!) here I come ...

Regina, we all know (don't we?) was (is) the capital of the province of Saskatchewan.

Why the temporal doubt? Because, of course, Canada hasn't really existed since my trans-Canadian trip to Kamloops, B.C., in 1978. Has it?

Don't let the Web site fool you: all they do in Kamloops is drive drunk, steal from the till drunk, rape drunk and, oh yes, get drunk.

I had graduated from university in Quebec from a province increasingly hostile to speakers of the Queen's language and my best friend happened to be covering court as a local news reporter in Kamloops. What is a Kamloops? I have no idea.

All I know is that I spent three weeks experiencing its tawdry side in court. Court as theater.

But back to my dear Saska ... what was that word, Schmutzie? (I am falling in with bad Kamloopsians tonight.)

What is it about 30-something Canadian women? So unsure they know nothing save their own experience, when in fact ... they know a thing or three.

Call me smitten, a word I reserve for my own Elizabeth Bennet. I just wanted to call some attention to them. Give them the old Saskatchewanian cheer (just a little north of the Bronx one).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Midriffs and Breasts, Oh My!

Just a day after my fellow blogger Julie wrote about acceptable and unacceptable breasts, I found myself on the subway observing a young woman baring her midriff in a way that I found disturbing. Julie and the barer set me thinking: What is it about the baring of the female body that summons up complex, often contradictory feelings in all of us?

Allow me to explain that Julie compared reactions to a model's near nudity in a perfume ad with a bare breast feeding a baby on a parenting magazine's cover.

The subway barer in question was wearing unusually informal clothes for work: jeans with probably false rips, which probably cost a mint just for that studied "casual" look, along with a pink T-shirt a size too small emblazoned randomly, in silver, with the word "Breasts" and the names of European capitals.

How do I know she was underdressed for work? She was on a commuter line at quitting time, carrying a brief case and accompanied by a man who was very obviously from her office. She was flirting with him outrageously, grimacing seductively and performing a nearly lewd dance on a subway hand-pole, almost in the face of her office mate, who looked on with what seemed to me stolid -- and unwarranted -- disinterest. Perhaps he was very married.

What was disturbing? OK, I found her attention-seeking a bit much. But that's not it.

She was slim, attractive and had a tight, small body that could have been a model's. Except for the bare midriff, which showed a slightly protruding stomach. At first I wondered whether she was pregnant -- just barely showing, if so.

Then it hit me.

Julie's model stood naked in half light with a bowler hat covering her breasts. She was, in essence, promoting the notion that she possessed the equipment needed to perform what the nursing woman of the parenting magazine did with alacrity: nurture a child, be a mother. The advertiser is highjacking that message to proclaim that the perfume will allow its wearer to convey to a man the atavistic biopsychological message -- ingrained in us since we lived in caves -- that she is a desirable mate.

The woman on the subway was saying something similar: look, here's my uterus. I'm sure she would be horrified to hear this. She probably was flirting without quite intending to lay out such a graphic message to the public at large. Yet there it was.

I am of two minds in my reaction.

The Torquemada in me wants to banish and ban all this display of nudity. Pornography comes from the Greek pornographos. This word combines two ideas. First, porne "prostitute," a word rooted in a much earlier term meaning "something purchased," which probably referred in antiquity to female slaves sold for prostitution. Second, graphein, "to write."

In the modern meaning pornography conveys the notion of salacious writing or pictures that are deemed to be obscene, which itself means "offensive to the senses," from the French obscène, in turn probably derived from Latin obscenus (ob "onto" + cænum "filth").

Legally, in the United States we define obscene as material that "the average person, applying contemporary community standards" would regard as appealing to "a prurient interest," subject to many and changing refinements and qualifications -- all emanating from the need to balance social taste with the First Amendment.

Clearly, the obscene is not meant to be, or should not be, seen in public, according to society, and its subject matter often reduces women to objects, instead of thinking, feeling people. The model and the midriff barer could arguably be seen as promoting the objectification of women in a pornographic, obscene way.

But why -- speaks up my other mind -- am I getting my knickers in a twist?

When women choose freely (no one put a gun to Keira Knightley's head, did they?) to display physical attributes that are beautiful, they are performing art. Some day, the ad will be in a museum -- as all well-designed advertising will be -- alongside the Venus de Milo and her disturbing chopped off arms.

When the woman on the subway decided to bare her midriff I'm sure she never thought -- or did she? -- that she would prompt a little essay about her. I assume that, yes, she probably would plead guilty before a jury of her peers of premeditated, attempted seduction of the man with whom she traveled. So? All's fair in love.

Besides, I don't really wear knickers. (Real men don't wear knickers, right?)

In the end, call it art or call it obscenity, human nakedness calls out from us the most sublime and at the same time terrifying responsibilities and ideas: childbirth, commitment, bonding.

Childbirth, frightening enough, is at least a temporary experience, something women forget (else we would all be only children). Then think of trying to master the art of sharing daily life with another for, as the World War II phrase had it, "the duration." It's enough to make Peter Pans and Wendys out of all of us.

Yet nakedness also takes our breath away, expressing the possibility of nurturing and love, of unity and companionship, of beauty and solidarity. We are marvels to behold, with all our imperfections, and we can barely survive without one another.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

What Makes Pedophiles Look Good

The title is not a riddle, but perhaps it should be. The Buenos Aires Herald reports the sentencing to life imprisonment of a Catholic priest charged with participating, under the guise of providing spiritual assistance, in the torture and murder of prisoners during the 1976-83 Argentine military dictatorship that kidnapped an estimated 30,000 people.

As with U.S. pedophile priests, I had heard for years that there was muck in the ranks of the Argentine Catholic clergy that would one day come to light. No one who spent as many years as I have reading the Catholic hierarchy's tea leaves and observing the peculiar sociology of Argentina could have remained oblivious to the obvious existence for generations of "funny" priests and fascists in Roman collar.

My wonder is that it has taken so long for the first of the Argentine latter to find himself in richly deserved prison.

My astonishment is compounded by the operetta name worthy of The Producers of convicted priest Christian Federico von Wernich, whom I almost expect to leap up into a high-kicking stage parade to the tune of "Springtime for Hitler in Germany." I couldn't have made him up if I had tried.

That he is not being executed is a tribute to the absence of a capital penalty in Argentina -- a legal nicety that did not deter the military goons of the last dictatorship.

Time in prison will afford the former police chaplain the solitude needed to confront the heinous nature of his deeds.
Von Wernich approached him and, standing up, offered his left hand. The prisoner took it with his two hands and clung to it, pleading: “Father, Father, please, I do not want to die, I do not want to die.” The priest watched him with a mix of pity and disdain, and soon enough he offered a solution: "Son, you know that the lives of the men who are inside here depend on God and the cooperation they can offer. If you want to continue living, you already know what you have to do."

-- my translation of an extract from Maldito Tú Eres: Iglesia y Represión Ilegal (Cursed Thou Art: Church and Illegal Repression) by Hernán Brienza
The testimony of tens of survivors from the clandestine detention centers set up by the military regime certainly has not chastened the priest's lawyer, Juan Martín Cerolini, who told La Nación that: "There's disparity in the treatment of the victims who died unjustly in the 1970s. There's a closeness to one sector, which is subsidized, financed and placed in public office, while toward the other victims there is neither warmth nor concern. Each time that there has been a public act of remembrance of those killed by subversion they have been minimized."

He added: "We're not fatuous. We recognize that tortures, kidnappings and murders in that terrible time were committed in the name of the State, but we cannot accept the application of cosmetics to the past. That's not history but propaganda, just like what the Nazis disseminated."

Of course, where would we be without an application of Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies? To boot, by the party most analogous to dear old Adolf's cronies.

Somewhat greater circumspection has come from Von Wernich's bishop, who asked vaguely for forgiveness and even suggested that some canonical action might be taken. Don't hold your breath on even that loophole-riddled pseudo-promise.

Surprised? Von Wernich is still technically a priest in good standing.

Given that the Vatican is hiding the chief child-rapist hider from Boston, one Bernard Cardinal Law, from the reach of U.S. law, what chance is there that they're going to throw out a priest who helped anti-Communists, no matter how murderously? I've got a nice bridge in Brooklyn for those who expect decency from the Catholic hierarchy.

What makes pedophiles look good? Father Christian Federico von Wernich.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Electronic Emotions

For years people have been telling me that they can't tell emotions from e-mail and now The New York Times is enabling them. I beg to differ.

The writer in this case, Daniel Goleman, author of the best-seller Emotional Intelligence, is completely wrong. The problem with communication via e-mail is not that it lacks a voice, "body language" (now there's a bogus notion!) or visual cues. The real unspoken problem is that most people know neither how to read nor how to write.

This is exasperating to me, as someone who communicates most comfortably through the written word.

Oh, sure, everybody can write a shopping list and the simplest of declarative sentences: See Spot run. Run, Spot, run! But beyond that, the vast majority of people are lost.

Punctuation is a lost art.

When people want to pause they insert ellipses (...) because they're never sure about the function of the comma and the semi-colon. When they hold two adjectives in their mind and can't decide which should be used, they toss out a slash: "I am so happy/sad." Then there are emoticons. (:-P) Please!

Of course we don't understand one another: most people can't write. Yet that's only half of the equation. Because most can't read, either.

We read e-mails -- and blogs -- all too quickly. We scan because they are often poorly written. We make mistakes because we miss a crucial word.

Some readers invest their e-mail with sentiments that the words simply do not express. Many people will not settle for the plain meaning of words if they can imbue them with hidden meanings the average writer is not imaginative enough to have considered.

Others are faced with nonsense whose meaning is undecipherable. Who can blame them if they guess?

In the end, we think we can't communicate.

Horsefeathers! To assume that it is impossible to communicate unless words are accompanied by inflection and gestures is to suggest that we start burning every John Cheever short story, every Cervantes novel, every line ever written by Geoffrey Chaucer. These authors are all dead and there is not the slightest chance that anyone will ever get to "read" their body language.

Yet who has read Tess of the D'Urbervilles without becoming breathlessly overcome at the key rustling leaves scene that hints at (very offstage) lovemaking? Victorians were shocked by even Thomas Hardy's mild suggestion.

Language can be implicitly so clear that Moses Maimonides' Masoretes were able to insert vowel notations in Hebrew texts written thousands of years before their own time.

We need not grunt and signal what we want. We have language. Words and punctuation, the suggestion of sound and visual form. We are not animals.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Unsecured World

Few things concentrate the mind, security-wise, than traveling the threatened U.S. skies during a "code orange" alert, as I did this weekend. After duly presenting government-issued ID, taking off shoes and watch and dropping coins into bins, I began to wonder about the security of the world one enters after leaving the airplane bubble and why there is no security check to allow people back in.

It may be fallacious reasoning, as I've been told by my younger son, but indulge me.

Is it we who are outside Guantánamo and Fort Leavenworth, or who were outside Long Kesh, the prisoners, or is it they who are inside? After all, how easy is it, really, to escape being in the general "free" population, in the society outside the prison walls and airport security scanners?

Aren't prisoners more consistently fed and clothed and even cared for medically than we are? Isn't the airborne population more carefree of drug-crazed crime, prostitution, slum lords and fetid smells than the rest of us?

Perhaps we should at least be debriefed upon deplaning and walking out beyond the air-travel security bubble, along the lines of the following:
Ladies and gentlemen, you are now returning to the real world, full of speculators and shysters, crystal meth addicts and undereducated people, bureaucrats and people who overuse sirens, people, people, people, most of whom seem unable to avoid, prevent or bring an end to war and pestilence and famine.

You will need to lock doors, luggage, cars. To secure your names and details about your identities and even your computers. To drink water if you give blood. To mind the gap. To avoid stapling, folding or mutilating.

We are sorry, but you are very much on your own beyond the security perimeter.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Where Do I Belong?

The title question was crucial to me through my adolescence and young adulthood. In response to Chani's post of a few days ago, I'm willing to do a little archeology of the soul -- the Greek ψυχή (psyché), not the Latin anima -- in public.

Because my father happened to leap in the 1940s from political prisoner to government official, in one of those tales that was all too common for Latin Americans of his generation, I am the most accidental of native New Yorkers.

Thereafter I grew up in a number of countries. By the age of 8 I had been exposed to five languages, of which I now speak and write two indistinguishably, two more with many grammar and pronunciation mistakes and one, German, just to enough to ask for the bathroom, sing Deutschland Über Alles and occasionally to answer the phone in a faux command tone, "Achtung!" (It sure throws off the sales callers.)

"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse," the Belgian-born Charles the V of Germany and I of Spain is reputed to have remarked on the subject of languages.

Growing up with many languages has its drawbacks as well as advantages. A boyhood friend whose mother was Latin American and father Czech ceased talking altogether at about the age of five. He only began again once his family followed the advice of a psychologist to speak to him only in one language, English, since they were in the United States.

Of course, Czech is an utterly baffling language that looks Western but has no obvious cognates -- taxi, restaurant, etc. -- to the speaker of Western European languages. No wonder my friend had this problem. My sons grew up monolingual, due in part to my recollection of that experience.

Another side of languages is that you're always translating and making puns across linguistic barriers so that only childhood trilingual friends can get your jokes. Adding Latin and Greek to the melange makes meaning come together. Words carry customs and history. You can guess at the meaning of almost any Western word.

From about the age of 7 to 10 or 12 I could barely finish a sentence in one language before switching somewhere in the middle, so that I really spoke in macaronic until monolingual teachers browbeat me into speaking one language per mental paragraph at least. Now I do this habitually, switching only when my interlocutor switches -- or for fun, verstehen Sie? The same goes for manners, foods, customs, national perspectives and so forth.

Somewhere in the middle of my adolescence, however, I found myself feeling stranded in many ways that are beside the point here, in another country. In my journals I spoke of myself as an "exile."

Gradually, I became convinced that my life would only come together when I moved back to New York City, where I would be met with open arms by my childhood friends, a Henry Mancini film score playing in the background as the yellow cab went from JFK to Manhattan. Add the closing-circle transition to the end title. The End. Das Ende. Fine.

Naturally, you guessed, it didn't work. Life is what happens when you had other plans, isn't it? This is how I ended up going to university in Canada -- which became my country, in the sense that I alone in my family "discovered" it.

In fact, I recall listening to the radio in Montreal, watching the snow come down -- what else? -- as Helen Reddy belted out "I Am Woman." I was so convinced she was balladeering about Canada -- at the time, separation between Quebec and the anglophone provinces seemed imminent -- that I heard "I Am One," as if she were riffing on Gordon Lightfoot's "Nous Vivons Ensemble."

OK, Canadians, enjoy this. Picture the Beaver, the Maple Leaf and a bottle of Labatt (I preferred Brador), then think of the following words describing your country:
Oh yes I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am O-o-o-o-ne
Apologies to Helen Reddy, wherever she is. O Canada! Terre de nos aïeux ...

All this, in sum, goes to say that I'm agnostic concerning the idea that living in a particular country makes you happy. At least it's not my experience.

True: because of my choice of the United States, I was spared horrifying political and economic times endured by many with whom I went to secondary school in my parents' homeland. I also find North American English to be an economical, precise tongue in which I can more or less organize my craziness. Spanish is less so, certainly not a good language in which to philosophize.

I feel I am in every sense a U.S. American, although I am a little Canadian and European and Latin American, too.

But I also lost a whole emotional range that is not understood in the anglophone world as anything but insane. A couple of years ago I fell madly in love with a woman from Argentina because I felt a part of me touched that had never been touched before. It was a temporary fever. Yet it spoke to the existence of a whole personal subcontinent.

U.S. Americans sometimes see a "Latin" in me and Latin Americans see a Yanqui. I know I am really neither -- and both. I am a citizen of the republic of me, a nation without a territory, much the way many Jews found themselves until 1948.

What if I had ended up elsewhere? I did live abroad as an adult. It didn't make much of a difference. I always carried me and my neuroses with me.

So it really doesn't matter where you are. It only matters who you are. Sometimes only the state of your liver matters.

Monday, October 01, 2007


Few things are more irritating to one who has lived outside the anglophone world than its shibboleth that it is somehow unseemly to be the object of pity. What is so wrong with the emotion that stirred Michelangelo to sculpt the Pietà?

Of course, and thank you Max Weber, the opposition to pity is all part of the Calvinist-capitalist construction that your own good fortune is the fruit of your virtue and God's wise finger in selecting you as one of the select few. Should you fall from grace, it's your own damned fault -- so goes the theory, which settles on evidence of those it calls utterly "undeserving" poor (essentially all poor people).

The corollary to "if you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" is "if your poor, it's your own stupid fault."

This is one of the absurdities that remind me of George Bernard Shaw on patriotism.

But there's more. Ever since the end of romanticism in art and society, and I'll place the moment the last nail was driven into its coffin as the fall of 1914, every effort has been made to squelch every possible emotion as hollow, mawkish sentimentality -- except to sell war bonds or long-distance telephone fees.

Feelings, however, are a lot of what make us human -- even if they all come from a chemical compound in the brain. Altruism and humanitarianism is based on the feeling of empathy.

This is what allows me to see that, even though your skin is a different color, or you are of a different sex, if I pinch you, it hurts. I know because if you pinch me it hurts me. You are like me; when you suffer, a measure of your suffering spills onto me -- if I am humane and allow myself to feel.

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls," said John Donne in reference to the death knell, "it tolls for thee."

But what if I am the dead or the dying, physically, emotionally or in any of the myriad of ways in which we die before our body becomes stone cold dead? Am I not worthy of my fellows' empathy?

Might I not expect a respectful removal of the hat when my casket passes by? Or a kind word when I am in pain, even if that word is only inspired by pity, because the other person cannot remove my pain?

Given that we are not, ultimately, in charge of every element of our destiny, even though we are responsible, for a few decades, for some aspects of our behavior, do we not all deserve and need pity? Isn't pity a gift, to be received gracefully and gratefully?

Imagine our desire to banish pity come true. We wake up shivering, dazed, stiff-jointed and uncomfortable, on a sidewalk grate and passers by let us know we are pitied by no one. A few mutter, "Get a job!"

Luckily, right now I do not feel in any way in need of my fellow humans' pity. But the day I stumble, the day my energies begin to flag, the day I am poor and hungry. That day, please, pity me!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


My older son, as some of his generation have, opted to take on some form of service, in his case as a teacher in an impoverished urban pocket, when he came out of college. He came out of that experience hating the educational bureaucracy. It was enlightening, therefore, to hear from a teacher who "could be their mother" talk about these young people, their promise and their challenges.

Like her, although I am not yet in the oldest generation, I am in the position of possibly being the parent of the younger teachers of today's children. It's that stage of life in which you are at the top of the hill: you can see clearly birth, youth, adolescence and young adult striving; and you can also see, through the travails of parents and other older relatives, the journey involved in what I have begun to call "growing down."

You know a lot of things merely from having been around the block a few times. A Spanish saying captures it best: Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo (the devil is wise because he is old, rather than because he is diabolic).

There's always the temptation of the more grizzled generation to criticized the callow one.
Young people today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for older people, and talk nonsense when they should work. Young people do not stand up any longer when adults enter the room. They contradict their parents, talk too much in company, guzzle their food, lay their legs on the table, and tyrannize their elders.
The words first came to my attention when I was a teenager, sick of my parents' generation's criticisms. They are attributed to Socrates.

So imagine how refreshing it was to hear first the positive, then criticisms that sounded all the more valid, given the context. Clever, gracious or probably both. The young teachers, the experienced educator said, have fresh ideas. They are open to trying everything.

"Some things I wouldn't have thought of myself," she admitted. Of course, others fell quite flat for predictable reasons. That's where the valid criticism arises. As she put it, "They feel entitled to be heard, without having to listen."

What else would children of Boomers be? If Boomers felt entitled, imagine children raised by Boomers in rooms full of trophies given out because "everyone is special."

A week ago, I encountered this mixture of promise and challenge while covering an event at which Kaya Henderson, Vice Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, was presented as an alumna of national service. Like my son, she taught in the public schools of South Bronx.

Henderson is part of a new wave of municipal leadership in Washington. Without going into details of only local interest, she serves Mayor Adrian Fenty, a recently elected young man in a hurry, who in turn appointed her boss, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, as part of Fenty's attempt to make his own mark: to fix the D.C. public schools.

The schools are in disrepair for the majority. However, both my sons went through them and were admitted to top universities where they did not struggle unduly. Still, the D.C. educational bureaucracy seems as dysfunctional in Washington as in New York.

Henderson and Rhee bring energy. As Henderson explained it, for the first time making clear to me what their strategy is, Rhee and Henderson are trying to bring about change by populating the top levels of the school bureaucracy with peers who are national service movement veterans in hopes of shaking up the system with their zest.

Time will tell whether this is the hubris of Generation X (born in the United States between 1965 and 1976) or, as my teacher friend said, one of those new ideas worth trying.

For the moment, Henderson impressed me as a can-do person. One who seems to have her heart in the right place without the Boomer ideological baggage.

"In the back and forth between [President] Clinton and [House Speaker] Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004," wrote Barack Obama of Boomer politicians, "I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation -- a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago -- played out on the national stage."

Unapologetically, in my blogging hobby and personal life, I am quite ideological. To my mind, ideologies are what you develop when you organize what you experience and learn in a systematic way. Ideologies shouldn't be dogma -- which is the real unmentionable Achilles' heel of my generation, many of us are way too categorical, even about being laid back.

In this, the Gen-Xers are freed. Those who are not the reputed slackers of social lore make a virtue out of eclecticism.

Still further, there are the younger youths, the 76 million people of Generation Y or Echo Boomers or Millenials or the Internet Generation, born since 1976 up to about 2004. These are the teachers of whom my friend could have been a parent, the generation of my sons.

It is too early to say very much about them, but they inspire in me a lot of hope. Their tastes tend toward multinational and multiethnic fusions. They seem best represented to me in the French film L'Auberge Espagnole.

They may seem a bit over-entitled, I agree (you could also read it as having very high expectations). They also come across as overly cautious, forever carrying a bottle of water lest they ... gasp! ... dehydrate. I actually almost died of dehydration and I don't carry around a bottle of water.

But they are freed from prejudices that still dog my generation. To them, to be gay is something like preferring blueberry to chocolate mocha at the ice-cream store. They don't see skin color. Men and women are just about the same, although we'll find out what happens when they get married and begin to have kids in large numbers.

I still find their taste in music unpleasant. I'll never genuinely like or understand hip-hop. However, I have taken a shine to some songs -- the quieter ones -- by alternative rock groups, such as the Canadian group Barenaked Ladies, the Irish Cranberries, and the American Five for Fighting and Counting Crows.

Most of all, behind the air of jadedness there's an earnest desire to do better than their parents. We've left them plenty of room for that.

When I finally begin coasting down the other side of the hill, I feel, the world will be left in good, if occasionally picky, somewhat overconfident, hands.