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.