Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Last Chapter

In the last post I left Lévi-Strauss stranded in the Brazilian jungle.  In fact, he did not end his book there, but allowed himself a diversion in the last chapter to talking about the state of relations between France and its southern and eastern colonies in the mid-1950s.  He lamented the fact that French culture had not perceived the opportune moment for a thorough self-examination that might avert the looming international disasters of those times.  The suggestion made by Lévi-Strauss was that France should offer full, unrestricted citizenship to the 25 million people living under colonial administration.  To support his argument he cited the brave example of the U.S. which had opened its borders a century earlier to permit the entry of millions of the poorest, often uneducated masses of immigrants; and he pointed to the great benefits which such a decision had yielded.

With the wisdom of hindsight we can now look back to see that Lévi-Strauss' hopes were far too late in their expression.  By the mid-'50s there was no turning back possible in the face of the independence movements in Algeria and Vietnam.  Sadly, we can also now see clearly how the political leadership in the U.S. would show itself to be just as blind to the dangers as the French, abandoning its post-war recovery to pursue a disasterous rerun of the French colonial experience in Vietnam.  And, then, unbelievably, to go on to another decade of the same thing in Iraq.

And, now, Europe and the U.S. are again shutting their borders and ensuring more and bigger violent confrontations that some attention to history might have avoided.  No one can say we haven't been warned.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Long View

I am just finishing Tristes Tropiques by Claude  Lévi-Strauss.  The book is a memoir of the anthropologist's years of travel in Brazil's Mato Grosso during the 1930s when he was doing the field work that is the basis for much of current anthropological theory.  Lévi-Strauss opened new vistas on the nature of human society through a study of several tribal groups residing in the brushland and jungles of Brazil.  The inspiring message from his investigations was the amount of compassion, humanity and humor which he found among small groups of people living out their lifetimes in circumstances of extreme material poverty.  In most cases, the people he visited lived much of the year from hunting and gathering, and they possessed nothing which could not be carried with them on their backs.  In spite of that limitation, they generously shared what little they had with each other, and even with pets like small monkeys and birds which rode on their shoulders during their seasonal wanderings.

The terrible message from Lévi-Strauss' field work was that most of the traditional cultures of the Mato Grosso and the Amazon which had survived for thousands of years were in the final stages of extermination.  By that time only about ten percent of the aboriginal population extant at the arrival of the Europeans was in existance.  Introduced diseases and genocidal warfare killed a large portion of the native population, but most of the decimation can probably be attributed primarily to the cultural disruption caused by the overwhelming intrusion of an advanced industrial society.  Most traditional subsistance economies simply could not withstand the powerful technology and land-grabbing greed of the invaders.

There were examples of survival and rebound among some Native American groups with larger populations and traditions of resiliance and adaptability which permitted them to effectively resist the onslaught.  By the time Lévi-Strauss got around to writing his book in the 1950s some populations were growing again like the central Andean Quechua speakers  and the Diné of the Four Corners region in the U.S.  Those people found ways to meld traditional life styles with the demands of industrial-based economies.  Such survival came with a great price, of course, directly by sacrifice in the process of rebellion and more passively in peripheral losses to societal dysfunction like addiction, depression and suicide.  The struggle evolved through decades and centuries and the ulltimate outcome in terms of cultural integrity really has no guarantee.

A half century after the publication of Tristes Tropiques there is another message in the book for the present.  The cultural disruption which decimated Native American populations is still operating on many other groups around the world, but on a massively larger scale than that which affected the Americas in the past.  Millions of people now in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East have been displaced by war and economic collapse over the course of a few decades.  Displaced people stream in great columns toward hoped-for safe havens, but humanitarian assistance falls far short of needs, and the biggest share of the response by the advanced nations has been through the exercise of police and military power.  The main focus of such power exercises is an attempt to control the inevitable extremist ideologues which parasitize human suffering.  That seems clearly a battle which cannot be won while the greater societal disaster goes unaddressed and often unacknowledged.

Also unacknowledged is the urgency of Humanity's current crises.  Population pressure, environmental degradation, nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear storage vulnerabilities are all close to a tipping point.  The pace of change in those critical issues seems to have become exponential, and the latitude for mistaken, short-sighted policies has been reduced to near zero.  We clearly cannot afford to put people into positions of national and international leadership who lack the understanding and priorities needed to meet those great challenges.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Learn how to talk like Donald

I found a nice little tutorial on line recently.
I thought this panel particularly appropriate to the moment:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

20,000 sign petition to allow guns at Republican National Convention

The story is at USA Today.  Hard to find anything to say about this which really adds anything to the plain facts.  I do have a vision, though, of The Donald standing in front of a full-length mirror practicing his quick draw technique.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

gaps and bridges

Joseph E. Stiglitz has a nice little article today entitled The New Generation Gap in which he offers some explanation as to why the Sanders campaign has accumulated the overwhelming majority of the under-30 vote in the primary race.  I am not so sure the gap is a new one,  but I think it is probably right that it has widened.  As Stiglitz notes, the exponential draining of the middle class to fill the coffers of the 1% has had a particularly severe impact on the young who are faced with a difficult present and a glum future.  As a result, the young are well attuned to detecting political and economic bs and they are making their discontents known.

One bright spot in an otherwise dim and threatening landscape is the fact that the young own information technology.  It is hard to find an American under thirty these days who is not engrossed and proficient in the use of all kinds of modern communications tech.  My granddaughter was an expert tablet and pc user before she got to the first grade.

I understand the cynical view of many that a lot of high tech is a commercial cesspool and a distraction from engaging reality, but it also seems undeniable that it has been a great source of empowerment for the young.  Just compare the accessible sea of information being navigated by today's youth to the little ponds in which previous generations like mine swam. We had landline phones, tv stations fed by just three big networks, and scribbled notes exchanged furtively with classmates behind the teacher's back.

Not only are today's youth able to communicate effortlessly with each other, they are also able to access a staggering range of information and opinions from throughout the world on every conceivable subject, and little of importance seems to go unnoticed or unrecorded.  Powerful statistical analyses are presented in ever more concise graphical formats, and machine translation of all the major languages has made great strides in unbuckling America's straightjacket of monolingualism.

To be sure, powerful control over media is exerted by the big money players, but people like Stiglitz and those of lesser stature are still able to reach vast audiences to express dissident views and interpretations.  Using modern communications technology as an organizing tool may not be the exclusive property of progressive youth, but the transparency of the medium seems likely to tilt the board in their favor.

(For an insider view of the use of communications tech and how it meshes with campaign organizing see the article at The Nation, How the Sanders Campaign Is Reinventing the Use of Tech in Politics.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Looking forward

It seems the majority of those who have bothered to vote so far in the primaries have concluded that the only viable alternatives are crony capitalism or fascism.  At the same time, the leading candidates in both parties  appear to be thoroughly disliked by an over-all majority.  I'm guessing that the upcoming primaries will reveal a substantial number of people that have a broader and more optimistic view of how the country's business might be conducted, though perhaps not enough to move things in that direction in the short run. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

political emetic

To: Tonight's Primary Voters

In preparation for voting,

1. Poke a finger down your throat (or)

2. Consider the following:

Clinton has accepted massive contributions from Wall Street, Big Pharma and private prison operators.
Clinton refuses to release the transcripts of speeches she made to the above.
Clinton counts Henry Kissinger as a friend and advisor on foreign policy issues.
Clinton's campaign and the kowtowing media  no longer bring up the issue of Bernie's electability.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

What now?

The Miami Democratic debate may be the last in this campaign cycle.  Most people, including the candidates will be relieved that part is over.  This last debate mostly showed again that it is a format which offers very little in the way of substance about policy.  The candidates jabbed at each other like a couple of tired boxers trying to worsen wounds opened earlier in the match.

The host questioners seemed mostly concerned with drawing attention to themselves by posing as advocates for Florida's immigrant communities.  Jorge Ramos badgered Clinton into making a promise not to deport immigrant children.  It was obviously a promise that she would be unable to keep, and it was posed primarily it seemed to give Ramos the opportunity to throw it in her face some time down the road if and when she makes it to the White House.

Clinton tried to associate Sanders with border-roaming bands of vigilante thugs.  It was stupid and disgraceful.  She continued to defend her acceptance of  massive Wall Street backing with the lame assertion that it is ok because Obama did it too.

Sanders was briefly challenged with a bit of video harking back to Cold War politics.  He mostly stayed on message and kept the focus on current issues like Puerto Rican bankruptsy, Central American immigration driven by crime and poverty, and normalization of relations with Cuba.

What all of this means in regard to the upcoming primary in Florida is hard to say.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Damage Control

There's no denying that watching the Republican candidates self-destruct has some entertainment value.  Also, it is clearly paying the rent for a lot of pundits.  What I haven't seen is any leaks about what the heavyweights in the Republican establishment are really thinking in regard to a Plan-B.  Romney's recent comments certainly don't qualify as they were clearly just spin with little thoughtful content.

Trump has already changed the landscape for Republicans in a way that may be irreversible.  Allowing him to actually step over the White House threshold would be unthinkable for them, not to mention the rest of us.  At the moment, that leaves them with Cruz, a man who seems able to inspire revulsion everywhere except in a small corner on the far right.  So, having quite likely written off Rubio, that leaves the R's looking for someone who can make reasonable sounding campaign promises, and who won't rock the boat excessively if they actually get into office.

It seems to me that the obvious choice for the Republicans is Hillary Clinton.  Listening to her answers in the Flint debate on fracking, on campaign finance reform and and on trade agreements, it is pretty clear that her plan is to chip away modestly at the status quo rather than to have a go at a serious revolution as Sanders proposes.  If she does make it to the Presidency, she will likely not entrain enough congressional victories to recapture a majority in either house, meaning that the Republicans will retain the capacity to block any kind of reforms at all.  And, of course, they will have the fun of casting the blame for government's failure on Hillary, just as they have done with Obama.  Seems like a no-brainer.

Friday, March 4, 2016

the supremes

Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803)
People are justly concerned at the moment about the danger of making the wrong choice to fill the presently vacant position on The Court.  An irritating aspect of this is the pretense that the constitutionalist position of the conservative block has any real justification.  Underlying that rigidity is the assumption that the creators of the Constitution made up the whole thing without relying on any historic antecedents.  That ahistorical perspective is seen among the same group in regard to the present day rejection of models of government and society which lie beyond our borders throughout the developed world.

I got to thinking about all of the above due to some recent reading.  Today, for instance, I came across a marvelous article in a sociolinguistics journal by Ingrid Piller about the "18th century educator, philosopher, theologian, translator and general polymath by the name of Herder".   Piller's main goal is to challenge some current orthodoxy in sociolinguistics about Johann Gottfried Herder, but she also provides a very nice overview of 18th Century European thought about society and governance.

Herder, for instance, has been portrayed as a proponent of monolingualism and nationalism, but Piller shows that he was neither, but rather a committed multiculturalist, an anti-imperialist, and a fervent supporter of the French Revolution at a time and place that was very inhospitable to such ideas.  Herder did not get his ideas about social justice from America, but from a long tradition of such thought in Europe.  It is possible to go back a century further and find similar gems about the nature of monarchy and oligarchy in the literature of those times such as Cervantes' Don Quijote.  The point being that while the framers of the Constitution were creative and courageous, they were also historically literate and open to learning by example.