Wednesday, April 30, 2008


The American echo chamber is so focused on selling everything from cars and cereal, to political sound bites and Bible verses, that a complex discourse underlying our society, such as that hinted at by the emergence of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, gets drowned out in the din, and the time needed to digest it overtaken by our rush to nowhere.

At the heart of Wright's affirmations lies one part of the American mosaic: a faith that developed in a quest to squeeze out meaning out of a lifetime of misery. Let's parse that for a moment.

Faith, quest, meaning, misery.

Faith is, of course, if not the opposite, at least the very distant cousin of knowledge. We believe there will be a tomorrow based on the experience of our yesterdays, but we do not know for a fact that tomorrow is really a day a way. Indeed, the Orphan Annie song is about the perennial American belief that if we can only hold on to the next morning, things will be better.

That's the American quest. In one version, it was to go beyond the ocean, to go beyond the Appalachians to the plains and beyond that, past the Rockies, where the pot of gold was once thought to be found. To leave Europe's prejudices, hatreds, injustices and perennially warring kings behind and instead claim the Promised Land.

Of course, the Indians -- ideological purists note: Indians call themselves "Indian" these days -- had done it before, crossing the Bering Strait about 25,000 years ago for reasons less well known, but happily settling in hunting grounds full of Buffalo.

Also, of course, the westward march of the northwest Europeans was met by Indians and the descendants of Spaniards who had reached the pot of gold at least a century before the English at Jamestown and the Puritans at Plymouth.

Then there's peculiar kidnapping and transport by American, British and Portuguese merchants of African men, women and children for generations of enslaved labor in concentration camps throughout the American South.

This gave birth to a quest directly in conflict with the ambitions of the Europeans, which raises the question of the meaning of all this questing. Why seek out a new life across a land bridge or an ocean? Why lay claim to freedom?

Perhaps because in Asia, Europe and the euphemistically named plantations there was misery and death. In America we dislike the d-word. People among us do not die, they "pass away." Yet ask any anthropologist and you will learn that we learn about the religions of the past through their burial grounds.

Less well known than Karl Marx's famous "opium of the masses" is his dictum that "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation."

The Rev. Wright is defending his people's sigh, much as immigrants did sacramentally in their Catholic ghettoes and the Calvinist unestablished denominations developed their individualistic, capitalist commonwealths -- and Indians mourned the destruction of the dwelling place of many spirits.

In the same vein, the sons and daughters of Abraham came to these shores reassured by George Washington's promise that "the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

To the Jewish people, faith is the conviction that the world is ordered by the laws of a covenant given to their forebears. To the Irish, German, Slavic, Italian and now Latin American immigrants, faith is the assertion that hope can become fleshed in community. To the Anglo-Saxon former colonists faith has seemed to be the Calvinist claim that God helps those who help themselves.

To the black culture, faith is saying "amen" to the claim that freedom is God-given, therefore inalienable. Amen.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

"I must not intervene in other countries"

It's a lesson that comes home to anyone who has observed U.S. foreign policy for long enough to see patterns, be it Asia, Latin America or even Europe: in every country our government has intervened politics have become hopelessly polarized. A blogger I've added to my regular reading, An Arab Woman Blues, tells it succinctly in a recent post on Iraq.

Layla, of whom I only know that she is "an Arab woman," that she is educated, multilingual, sometimes a tad frothy, a woman with anger to bristling to be "blues," as she titles them. I found her recent post, offering snippets of commentary from obviously middle or middle-upper class Iraqis in Baghdad full of items worth remembering about Iraq.

In particular, I was amused by the following:
Overall, most Baghdadis he met, both Sunnis and Shias are totally fed up with the Mullahs and their doctrines. Most Iraqis really want a "secular country" and a "secular government." (Well they had a secular country before their "liberation" - bunch of Idiots!)
According to my understanding, the Baathist Party (which flourished in Syria as well as Iraq), has been a pan-Arabist, secular, anti-Communist, social democratic and modernizing movement. This explains why Saddam Hussein brought about one of the most modern public-health systems in the Middle East, which earned him a UNESCO award.

However, if you examine Layla's admittedly unscientific sampling of opinions, you clearly get the idea that Iraq has gone from a strongman who was laying the foundational ground for progress, admittedly at some civic cost, to bands of extremist traditionalists.

In other words, all the U.S. invasion has achieved is the decapitation of a regime and its replacement with ... nothing. The middle class is fleeing, fled, or -- as Layla's relative found -- merely keeping their head down.

Nature, and politics, abhor a vacuum. Yet the U.S. diplomatic-military establishment keeps creating vacuums that suck in the worst of the worst. It was done in El Salvador, Vietnam, attempted in Chad and now in Iraq.

There are literally hundreds of other examples, which I pointed out before here and here in posts with themes depressingly similar to this one. So, Uncle Sam, you get to stay in detention this afternoon and write the title of this post on the blackboard 100 times.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Homer Simpson's Brazil, Capital of Buenos Aires

What's most bothersome to me, an Argentine-American, about the controversial dialogue among Homer Simpson's bar buddies regarding Juan Perón that has caused a stir in Argentina is what it says about how little each of my cultures grasps the other.

If you've missed the news, an episode of "The Simpsons" that mangles recent Argentine history has caused apoplexy in that nation's Congress and public opinion. The dialogue in question is the following:
Moe: "Who wants to abolish democracy forever? Show a hands!"
Carl: "I could really go for some kind of military dictator, like Juan Peron. When he 'disappeared' you, you stayed 'disappeared!' "
Lenny: "Plus his wife was Madonna."
To Argentine ears, the dialogue sounds something like this:
Marcelo: "Who wants to bring back slavery? Show of hands!"
Carlos: "I could really go for some kind of slaver, like Abraham Lincoln. When he enslaved you, you stayed a slave!"
Leonardo: "Plus, he was married to Vivien Leigh."
You remember, I trust, that Honest Abe was the author of the Emancipation Declaration and that Vivien Leigh was the English actress who played Civil War-era Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind.

Similarly, Juan Domingo Perón was a general who was cleanly elected to the presidency by landslides three times (1946, 1952 and 1973). He stood for unions, voting rights for women, the 8-hour day and almost every major social advance in Argentina in the 20th century.

The folks who, between 1976 and 1983, brought about a government campaign of kidnapping, torture and murder leading to the disappearance of an estimated 30,000 Argentines were rabidly right-wing military men who overthrew Perón's third wife, Isabel, from the presidency.

Madonna (born Madonna Louise Ciccone) played Peron's charismatic and still-revered second wife in the eponymous film musical Evita.

Sure, The Simpson's Moe, Carl and Lenny represent classic Average Joes you find in small-town or neighborhood bars anywhere venting hot air about things they know nothing about. The American me knows that these characters' mixups are supposed to be humorous.

Attributing the disappearances to the twice-widowed Perón is tantamount to blaming globalization on Karl Marx or saying that Adolf Hitler founded the State of Israel. Yet the Argentine me, who actually knew at least one disappeared person, finds the joke distasteful, perhaps as difficult as a Shoah victim's friend might find humor about Auschwitz.

The problem is not humor itself. Holocaust survivor Primo Levi's memoirs of his stay in the death camp "as a guest of the German government," as he facetiously put it, is full of humanizing humor that is perhaps the most effective testament to the absurdity of the Nazis.

Rather, the issue is how could one culture to which I belong know so little and be so callous about another culture to which I also belong?

I would be a billionaire by now if I had a dime for every time people who theoretically studied U.S. high school geography place Latin American countries within cities, as in "Brazil, capital of Buenos Aires." (Note to dropouts, or people whose diplomas should be recalled: Brazil is a country, Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina.)

How can we Americans have the audacity to claim economic and military global leadership of a world about which we know so pitifully little?

Granted, we are not alone.

When I was in secondary school in Buenos Aires I delighted in responding to queries about the United States with tall stories, such as the one that all city buses had soda vending machines. No one ever became the wiser -- until they eventually came to visit me here in adulthood.

Therefore, I might conversely ask how Latin Americans can bear to hold as deep a grudge against the abuses of American power when there is so much about the United States that reflects their deepest dreams and aspirations.

These are the questions that bedevil a Hispanic man trapped between two cultures whenever the two collide, as they do all too often.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Argentina's "Farmers" Are Not Exactly Old MacDonald

Despite a 30-day "truce" in their "strike" involving roadblocks around the country, the "farmers" of Argentina have decided not to deny their fellow-citizens their daily beef -- not that they've ceased airing their own absurd and unpalatable beefs. Witness an open letter to President Cristina Fernández de Kirschner being circulated on the Internet by the daughter of one such "farmer."

In part, one Victoria Guazzone di Passalacqua, 22, from the town of Azul, province of Buenos Aires (about 150 miles south of the nation's capital, Buenos Aires), writes the following:
I am the daughter of an agricultural producer who has worked like a horse all his on the countryside. I am a daughter of a father who, to this day, rises every morning at 6 to be the first to go and talk to the peons working in the paddocks. I am a daughter of a father who had to go and live in Azul to be able to give my brothers and me life he wanted for us. I am a daughter of a producer who lost 75% of his crop to the storms last year. I am a daughter of a producer who had to give half the remaining 25% to the government and use the other half deal to pay taxes, in addition to fending for his family's decent living. Despite all this, I am as daughter of the land like any Argentine.

I did not live under the military governments that sickened our country in the 1970s. I do not have missing relatives nor do I have military men in my escutcheon. But I understand that yesterday [reference to a speech by the president, date unknown], instead of continuing to perpetuate the ideological conflicts into which our country plunged more than 30 years ago, it might have been better take inventory of the situation and appease the spirits of everyone. In a history book I once read that "if there is no balance on all the parties involved in a particular chapter of history, justice will be read as revenge" Don't you think, Madam President, that it might be time for you to honor the whip with which you rule on behalf of the interests of all of us and to stop dividing the country into the pitiful dichotomy of the oligarchy and the people?
Only in the Alice-in-Wonderland sociology of the Argentine Republic can one find a landowner's daughter who came of age in the 21st century speaking of her father's farm hands as "peons" (peones in Spanish). Yes, Virginia, it does have the serf-like connotation that you thought it did.

Not only that. Only in such a neo-feudal social structure could the daughter of the landowner, who is obviously not performing his serfs' backbreaking work, no matter how equine his labor, complain that a democratically elected labor-backed president is somehow effecting a social division between "oligarchs" and "people."

Might it not occur to Miss Victoria that any society in which a young woman feels perfectly comfortable referring to her father's employees as "peons" in a public, open letter to her president, already has the social divisions -- nay, canyons -- to which President Cristina Kirchner has merely alluded in response to the landowners absurd and false populism?

To be sure, to any Western eye the 45% levy (up from 35%) on certain agricultural exports will seem a tad high in a country known for its beef, its grains and in more recent years its fine Malbec wines, as well as its leather goods and woolens. But there's a story and a sound purpose behind the tax.

Argentina was once wealthy country (in 1908, its economy was the seventh in the world). Now a quarter of the population lives in poverty -- a proportion brought down from nearly half of the country as recently as 2003, by the policies of Kirchner's predecessor, her husband Nestor. Overwhelmingly, Argentines in the educated class evade personal income taxes massively and park assets overseas.

The levy on exports is one of the few iron-clad mechanisms the government has to raise revenue from wealthy landowners, in order to distribute it through public services to the less fortunate.

Indeed, one of the chief reasons this nation of 40 million overwhelmingly Catholic people of predominantly Spanish and Italian ancestry, whose its capital is at about the latitude of Cape Town, became impoverished was the lack of vision of the traditional landowning class.

From the 1880s through the 1920s, agricultural interests fought tooth and nail to saddle the nascent industrial sector with a taxation that guaranteed that the nation would always sell cattle and buy machinery. At a time when Canada, the United States and Europe were becoming industrial powerhouses, this amounted to national economic suicide.

The industrial entrepreneurs, moreover, took their economic model from the vast estates of the pampas. The greed of the landed elites and the industrialists brought about the revolt of the middle class in the 1920s and the arousal of an immigrant-led labor movement in the 1930s, which was quashed with military rule and fraudulent government through the early 1980s.

Only from 1946 to 1955, under the presidency of a labor-minded general of corporatist leanings, Juan Domingo Perón, did most of the social and economic advances we take for granted take place in Argentina: the women's right to vote, the 8-hour workday, the abolition of child labor and so on.

Cristina and Nestor Kirschner are modern, social democratic heirs of the Peronist tradition. In Argentina's political economy, the "farmers" who are "striking" really are the oligarchy (the ruling elite, from the Greek oligon, the few, and arko, rule), the few who live off the fat of the very rich, bountiful land worked upon by the underpaid and underworked peones.

Kirschner is no doubt far from perfect. Conversely, the landowners are probably not all wishing the generals would come back to torture la chusma, the rabble, into submission, as Kirschner has suggested -- but I'd wager that more than a few wouldn't mind a seeing some military boots goose-stepping once again.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Papa Nazinger Comes to Town

Journalists who have never sat in a room full of boozed up bishops trading off-color humor about deans sodomizing seminarians have cast the pope’s arrival to Washington in terms of pseudo-ecclesiastical agendas, when in fact, it is subtly about something entirely different.

The liberal Washington Post and the conservative Washington Times played true to the script.

The Post has long fixated on ecclesiastical politics within the Catholic Church that none of its editors have ever mastered, the opening salvo in the coverage of the papal visit focused on whether the local archbishop is an “ally” of the pontiff.

In my opinion, Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, is more open to dialogue than the pope. But let’s face it: the Vatican does not make a habit of selecting Luthers as bishops.

Memo to Post editors: pretty much all bishops can be presumed to be papal allies. No story there.

The Times, whose ownership is tied to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, has carefully avoided any overt reference to the denomination’s unusual theological hodgepodge of ideas, but staunchly sided with the Catholic right-wingers such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Not surprisingly, its curtain raiser, viewed the papal visit in terms of the institutional agenda of traditional-minded Catholics: please, Holy Father, save the Catholic schools!

Yet the history of Irish-American racial animosity towards African Americans and Hispanics even at the highest levels of the Catholic Church shows perfectly well that Catholic schools’ agony is the result of white flight to suburbs. When a traditional Catholic wants to save Catholic schools, the message is really: save the white schools.

Wuerl’s predecessor James Hickey, fought white suburban fellow Irish Catholics tooth and nail to keep subsidizing Catholic schools in the inner city, which in Washington, as in many other cities, essentially serve black non-Catholics. Such schools can claim successes such as Washington’s own former mayor Anthony Williams.

The real story of the papal visit is that it is nothing more than a quiet wink and nod to those who favor a certain mode of Catholicism.

When he was merely Joseph Ratzinger, theologian, the pope's view was that Christianity had lost relevancy in the Western world.

As pope he believes Christianity has all but vanished from the marketplace. He is right.

Keep in mind that his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, unequivocally stated that the invasion of Iraq failed to meet the criteria of a “just war.” Recall also that for the last century vigorous Church teaching on social justice has repeatedly criticized capitalism as unjust.

The world, and in particular, predominantly Protestant but unchurched, capitalist United States, does as it pleases without more than a few pious words in church, which have no weight once outside the door.

Yet rather than change the way the message is conveyed so it might be heard -- as the Second Vatican Council recommended in the early 1960s -- Ratzinger, who served the council as a junior adviser, has long given up on what in Church parlance was once called “renewal.”

In serving as John Paul II’s theological hatchet man, Ratzinger opted to cut off all modernizing tendencies. He cut his student the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff at the knees and humiliated the Church’s foremost moral theologian, Bernard Häring, in petty proceedings entirely devoid of due process.

Now that he is pope, he is hunkering down in the catacombs in hopes of better times. He has patched up petty quarrels to his right flank, by re-opening up the use of Latin in church services, while remaining otherwise inflexible. His first encyclical letter was a rant against sex.

Significantly, he has kept the view of history that he likely learned in his Hitler Youth days. When he went to Auschwitz in 2006, he spoke of the “6 million Poles” and the “suffering” Germans and only finally, as an afterthought, oh yes, the Jews.

When the pope complains that Europe is the most secular continent on Earth, he is quietly bemoaning the demographic demise of whites in the cradle of the Caucasians.

Long ago, a prelate explained to me that Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical against birth control was designed to prevent “the suicide of the white race,” a thought I am certain was far from Papa Montini’s mind, but was and is not unthinkable in the hierarchy.

To whom will Papa Nazinger be addressing his message in the United States? To the white, conservative, most obedient Catholic “remnant.”

This is the other side of the coin. With 30 years of bishops appointed by John Paul II and the desertion of liberal or free thinking Catholics to the Episcopal Church and agnosticism, the U.S. Catholic Church offers a bride made in heaven for this pope.

American young women who yearn for the pre-Vatican II Church they never knew often go to church wearing mantilla, while young men who weigh whether to become priests speak boldly of the “ontological difference” that by right prevents the ordination of women.

Justice Scalia is a frequent attendee at events hosted by the ultrasecretive and ultraconservative group Opus Dei (Work of God) and forms with the likes of Chief Justice John Roberts, the visible peak of a phalanx of Catholics who have distinctive philosophical transformations in mind for the United States.

Scalia and Roberts belong to the growing school of “natural law” scholars, who define almost anything they dislike (think abortion and homosexuality, for starters) as against nature and therefore in principle unlawful.

Catholics make up 29 percent of Congress and are now about evenly split between Democrats who are heirs of the New Deal coalition and Republicans of the Scalia bent.

This is the pope’s base. This is the base that is willing to wage crusades against Muslims (note to militant Christian soldiers: the West lost the last crusades, consider using another term).

When Pope Benedict lands, he will be coming as the apostle to the most obedient of white Catholics. All others beware.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Respect the Boundary

Returning to my earlier ethical themes, I now turn to my VIth godless commandment: thou shalt respect the surroundings that sustain thee and thy fellows.

Biblical adultery, which was the object of the item at this location in Mosaic law, was ultimately about forbidding a woman's sexual liaisons in circumstances that might lead to questioned lineage of her children -- significant for the purposes of inheritance. The ancient biblical point was not about sexual morality, as in the dualist, Jansenist view of sex, but about property and the control of women.

In my new iteration of a decalogue based not on a supposed divine revelation, or inspiration, but on the ethical principle of human survival I transmuted the notion of control, a hierarchical view suitable for a theist conception into respect and the object of the verb into universally what sustains us.

Survival -- mine or yours -- is a cosmic thing, but also individual. Barring the spirit and afterlife, when my world ceases to exist, from were I sit, everything ends. My world begins with a sudden blurry light and ends in darkness. Inside that world I am me (and you, you), slowly distinguished from everything until the blurring toward death begins.

My existence and survival then, is rooted with the shifting, uncertain and largely imaginary lines between me and thee. Here I end, there you -- your personhood and identity -- begin.

The imperative here is to respect the line, keep it as a buffer, pull back if by chance or mistake we trespass it. To respect is to pause, to bow reverentially and utter India's Sanskrit greeting "Namaste" (I bow to you), to genuflect, to step back and behold the beauty of the other and the world.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Believing and Doing

In writing about the importance of upholding one's convictions (see February 22), I neglected to mention those who, perhaps simply bored by the curlicues of creeds and ideologies, lead quiet kindly lives for seemingly no good reason, or for reasons they find obvious.

Always a philosophical Torquemada, I'm not one of them. In fact, I instantly suspect anyone who seems to be one. ("Hmm ... I wonder what she meant by 'Have a good day!' ")

My assumption, my philosophy, my observation, my life have all led me to conclude that the homo sapiens is quintessentially selfish. Spiro Agnew worked for bribes, GIs go to Iraq for lack of better job prospects and even Mother Theresa worked with the poor and sick of Calcutta just to get her own cloud and harp up by the Pearly Gates.

We're a "what's in it for me?" species. Beliefs are usually little more than idealized versions of who we might like to be if it were only convenient enough. Or a justification for the way we are.

Think of the wars of religion. Think, if you are familiar with the religious world, of the continuing strife between fellow believers in almost any tradition.

On the other hand, consider the attentive person who notices that the host's dishes need doing or that the young mother needs someone to look after her two-year-old for a while or that the unique blood type needs to be shared.

Simple things, all -- perhaps worth focusing on to a greater extent than the reasons that might justify them.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Kick the Dog

Following a harangue by a school superintendent about the damage to families wrought by sexually explicit media and rock-and-roll, I once heard a very eloquent retort: "You could run pornography on television 24 hours a day without inflicting the damage to families of a 1 point increase in the unemployment rate."

On this very day we're a third of the way there: national unemployment jumped 0.3 percentage point to 5.1 percent -- the highest it's been in two-and-a-half years. That's low by most standards -- unless you happen to be one of the 7.8 million people looking for a job.

Imagine a scene in millions of families.

He comes back from work, worried about making a living, terrified of being laid off, angry at his boss, hoping to find solace in his home, his castle. She has either been at a paid job as well -- similar worries and doubts, plus guilt about leaving children at day care -- or she has been home all day handling children.

Then the spillover of work and home takes place with an argument, a fight, a dismissal of children. The kids go out to the yard and spot the dog. One of them vents his frustration by kicking the animal.

That's the kick-the-dog game.

It's inspired by a system and a society that thrives on anxiety, pressure, competition -- note the canine motif: dog eat dog. The sweat greases the gears of business, spurs innovation ("necessity is the mother of invention"), expansion, consumption, profits.

The perspiration comes from fear, annoyance, anger, hatred. It spreads to homes, schools, little league games and ultimately to armies and "contractors" hired to torture perceived enemies.

This is not the "natural" way. It's the purposely contrived way called capitalism.

If we could, for a moment, all lay down our offensive weapons -- our arrogance, our edge, whatever we use to one-up our colleagues, neighbors and those with whom we are close -- all in unison -- 1, 2, 3, now! -- couldn't we envision a society based on cooperation, solidarity with one another, mutual helpfulness, voluntarism ... even love?

This would require a revolution. Not the taking up of arms against a government, of course, but a laying down of fears and apprehensions, an abandonment of seriousness for laughter, a loosening of desire for things for which we do not really hunger.

It would require the flowering of compassion for the pathetic figures in board rooms who are enmeshed in their own greed and for the politicians and yes-men in government palaces caught in their machinations for more power and even for the angry, often bearded visionaries in guerrilla camps seeking to terrify those in power through destruction.

We need to pet the dog, let the dog lick us, go embrace our moms and dads, let them kiss one another and bring enough joy to the workplace to plant the seed of a smile on the boss' lips.

Then companies would pay fair shares in taxes to build schools and libraries and vehicles with clean renewable energy. Then our country could counter Al Qaeda by dropping food and books and blankets and construction materials from our Air Force planes.

Then everybody would love us and we would love everyone. And the dog would wag its tail.