Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Say the Magic Words" on Iran

Responding to Republican criticisms of President Obama's response to the political crisis in Iran, and demands that the president get "tougher" or "lead" the international response, Democratic Indiana Senator Evan Bayh wondered on Chris Matthews' Hardball show last night, "What are the magic words that would satisfy them?" (the Republicans). (And although Bayh is well to the right of me and I don't agree with much of what he says, a good example of the American discussion is this surprisingly sophisticated discussion during his appearance on Fox News Sunday.) This is an excellent question on several levels.

First, just asking the question draws attention to a fundamental reality: there is nothing much more than rhetoric that anyone outside of Iran can offer. Military action is unthinkable; I'm assuming we don't need to spend much time discussing that. Economic and diplomatic sanctions of various kinds have been in place for many years, and tightening them (or even maintaining them as they are) is a bad idea for two reasons: they make things worse for ordinary Iranis who are already in difficult economic straits (this election was largely fought out over domestic economic policy, not foreign policy), and sanctions and other punitive actions change the subject from an internal Irani political struggle to a struggle with hostile outside powers: exactly the kind of narrative change that the hard-liners want.

Which leads to the second level of meaning of Bayh's question about "magic words": to whom would President Obama be speaking when he uttered these mysterious words that would satisfy his conservative critics in the US? To the Iranian regime? That would just be handing them ammunition for their demagoguery. To the Iranian people? Do US conservatives want the president to egg them on into more dangerous territory, without any ability to back them up? That has happened before. To the international community? The Europeans a) have made it clear that they are tired of, and hostile towards, US domination of international security politics and b) very badly need to prove to the world, to the US, and to themselves that they can indeed provide a real alternative to the US on security problems and get real results, and the US badly needs for them to develop this capacity as well.

So that leaves the president talking to the US. More precisely, the Republicans would like to get into a political football game with the administration and see if they can score some points. So they are appealing to the US public: "See, the Democratic president isn't tough enough. He's weak in his response to the crisis in Iran." This is their inevitable position, because their only goal is to regain political power. And that means that there are no magic words that would satisfy them. This is the card that they have to play, and they have to play it.

What Obama needs to do is not speak to the Iranians or to "the world," he needs to educate the American people. His speech in Cairo was truly extraordinary in any number of ways (showing respect for the Koran, for example), but one of the most important things he did was to simply state publicly that the US had helped to engineer the 1953 coup that ousted the democratically-elected Mohammed Moseddeq and installed "Shah" Reza Pahlevi, who ruled autocratically and without democratic process until the Islamic revolution of 1979. All this because Mosaddeq dared to challenge the monopoly of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British government's largest financial asset at the time. By simply acknowledging these events, President Obama probably did, in fact, contribute to the atmosphere of transformation now welling up from the young population of Iran. The Republicans, in their belligerence and willful obtuseness towards history, would push the Iranian mindset back to 1979; Obama is 2009.

An irony is that speaking in Cairo, with a speech that was listened to closely across the Muslim world, a large part of Obama's audience was already well aware of the Cold War history of US and British excesses in the region. But it is in the US that this needs to be understood, not just for reasons of principle, but for the very urgent practical reason that it explains the need for US reticence on current events in Iran. Any perception that the US is actively meddling in the events happening there now will play straight into the hands of the hard-liners. Obama understands this. Who are worse: the Republicans who don't understand this because they don't bother to know our history, or the Republicans who understand this perfectly well?

The tricky part for an American president is that he must never appear to be anything less than completely patriotic, making explicit lectures about past errors and misdeeds difficult. But I think that Obama should just lay it all out there. The Republican Party assumes that Americans are idiots (just the way they like it). What happens when one assumes that they're smart? I teach students for a living and I can answer that question: assume people are smart and they quickly reveal themselves to be just that.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sarah Palin is a Demagogue

A demagogue is someone who appeals to people's sense of victimization or to their simple prejudices in order to motivate them with feelings of anger, outrage or spite. In ancient Greece (the source of the word: demos, people, and agogos, leading), entrenched aristocracies were frequently overthrown by demagogues, the sense of the word at that time being "organizers of the common people." Greek conventional wisdom, however, took a negative view of this progression, as typically demogogues emerged as tyrants, meaning rulers who were governed by no law other than their own beliefs and desires.

Today the word demagogue means someone who capitalizes on the resentments or passions of some group of people, usually including the sense that the demagogue is exaggerating or misstating the facts, in order to use the target group as a means to power. Eva Peron, who represented herself as a common Argentine woman as opposed to the local Latin oligarchy, is one modern example of a demagogue. The most striking example of demagoguery in the 20th century was Hitler's use of the Jews, who he portrayed as sinister manipulators and not "authentic" or "pure" Germans, to focus and thus control and direct anger and violence that had in fact built up as a result of German defeats in World War I. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez are contemporary examples of demagogues: they are able to blame the United States for the sufferings of their own people and as an external threat that necessitates authoritarian rule.

Sarah Palin is a demagogue. Her rhetoric is strikingly consistent: she is a common person from humble origins (a victimized woman who may help herself to feminist rhetoric when convenient), motivated by a higher law than secular laws (Christianity), and angry and indignant about elite and less purely American forces that are active in sinister plans to deprive the volk of their political autonomy.

I don't think that Palin will ever again be on a national political ticket because I just don't think she's got the right stuff, and so I wasn't much interested in discussing her further, but the other night I saw on TV an extraordinary scene of protesters in front of David Letterman's studio in New York and I felt compelled to take a couple of minutes to spell this out. These people were whipped up into a frenzy. The history of demagogic success is full of tales of broad swathes of national populations who thought "it can't happen here." Sarah Palin understands as well as everyone else that Letterman was not referring to her fourteen-year-old daughter (I'm not going to bother with the ritual "His joke was tasteless but..." caveats). Without any doubt she despises feminists (by the way) behind closed doors as part of the Godless liberal left. She has no compunction about using her children and her family as chessmen in her rhetorical machinations. She saw an opportunity to demagogue an issue and she took it.

She traffics in anger, resentment, innuendo, exaggeration, provocation and distortion. She presided over political rallies where members of the crowd called the Democratic candidate a traitor, a terrorist, a communist, a Muslim, an Arab, a monkey and a nigger, routinely calling for his murder well within her earshot, and only took steps to clean up the perceptions of these rallies when it became politically necessary (in fact she scarcely bothered: it was McCain who took conspicuous steps to clean things up). She is a vicious, dangerous person. That is a plain fact.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Sotomayor Discussion on the Island

Some of my North American friends have asked me about the reaction to President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. I'm surprised that there has been such a muted reaction here on the island: not as much press coverage as I would have expected, and so far not a single Puerto Rican friend or colleague has mentioned it. Puerto Ricans have mixed feelings, not all of them attractive to contemplate. Sotomayor was born and raised in the Bronx: this means that a lot of the locals don't consider her to be a "real" Puerto Rican. This alienation between the approximately 4 million Puerto Ricans who live on the island and the approximately 4 million Puerto Ricans who live in the States has deep roots.

The initial large waves of immigration occurred during the Great Depression and during and after World War II, and many of these migrants were from the poorer and blacker sectors of the society. Puerto Ricans, who have a very complex genetic heritage and a society that is, relative to most societies worldwide, not very racist, nonetheless have deeply conflicted feelings about their African heritage. In the Caribbean racism takes the form of "whiter than, blacker than," rather than the one-or-the-other mythology of the North. So the islanders, many of whom are more similar in identity to middle-class people from other Latin American countries than they are to the US urban underclass, often look down on the "Nuyoricans." Depressingly, it is not hard to find people who say "She's not Puerto Rican."

Then there is the "status" issue, that is, the question of the formal relationship between Puerto Rico and the US. Many nationalists feel that Puerto Rican participation in US institutions is part of a creeping assimilation (the pejorative term here is "annexation"). These elements resisted the conducting of presidential primaries by the US parties here last year, primaries that I saw as a very positive development: the tension is between a farther-off goal of Puerto Rican independence (something I am not against and that I predict will eventually occur) and the nearer-term effort to enfranchise Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens but second-class ones who have no senators or congressmen, nor the right to vote for the president (this includes me, by the way: as an island resident, my civil status is exactly the same as all other residents). This while more than one out of ten US soldiers overseas is Puerto Rican: I take that to be an outrage against the US Constitution.

Finally there is an intensely willful insularity among islanders, a manifestation of the deeply ingrained instinct to passive resistance that has evolved over centuries of colonial domination. Ask a Puerto Rican on the street who the Vice-President is and the odds are high that they will have no idea. A paradox of Puerto Rican politics is that the lower the socio-economic status, the more likely that the individual will favor statehood: Uncle Sam protects them from the oligarchic Spaniards; and at the same time the lower classes are more likely not to speak English and to understand very little about US institutions and political life. (The haute bourgeois Puerto Rican professors at the university, who actively work to prevent the students from becoming proficient in English, are almost universally fluent English speakers themselves).

So all in all, I have to report that the reaction is distinctly depressing, considering that Sotomayor's mother was born in Lajas, an area on the southwest coast about a half-hour's drive from where I'm sitting, and that Sonia Sotomayor herself is a native Spanish speaker whose father never learned to speak English. But the circumstances of Puerto Rican political life are both tragic and complex. The marginalized are always turned against each other.

There is some good news to report, however, at least good from a Democratic partisan perspective. In yesterday's El Nuevo Dia, one of the biggest papers on the island (maybe the biggest) and one that could fairly be described as center-right politically, I found an article on page 20 (I'm always on the lookout for any Sotomayor coverage). "Espadas en alto por Sotomayor" was the headline: "Swords raised for Sotomayor." It was a short piece consisting of interviews with two Puerto Rican politicians.

The first was Ramon Luis Rivera, the alcalde of Bayamon, a large municipio that comprises part of the greater San Juan metropolitan area and that consists mostly of large, dense working-class neighborhoods (five of my mother-in-law's six sisters live there). Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipios, which are a cross between cities and states: "alcalde" translates literally as "mayor," and the head of state of the island is called the governor, but the alcalde is a sort of mini-governor of a geographical region, usually centered around a city of the same name. Bayamon is one of the largest municipios on the island in terms of population and is as I said part of the San Juan urban area, making Sr. Rivera the political equivalent of somewhere between mayor of Newark and governor of New Jersey.

Rivera has been affiliated for many years with the US Republican Party. Many higher-level island politicians affiliate with one or the other US parties, for reasons of political expediancy. But the discussion in the US about the nomination of Sotomayor is turning him around. "Me han sorprendido declaraciones fuera de lugar de varios lideres republicanos": "I have been surprised by the statements coming from various Republican leaders." He singled out comments by Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who have both accused Sotomayor of being a racist. "Sotomayor no solo tiene todas las calificaciones de su capacidad juridica y profesional, sino que tambien le daria un balance filosofico al Tribunal Supremo de Estados Unidos": "Sotomayor not only has all the judicial and professional qualifications, but she will also give philosophical balance to the Supreme Court." Exactly the point that the right-wing Republicans are attacking. He goes on to mention Republican opposition to President Obama's stimulus plans, and unlike the Sotomayor nomination, the issue of stimulus money is on the lips of Puerto Ricans everywhere one goes. The economic situation here is much more desperate than in the States. He concludes that he has been a Republican "hasta ahora," but now he has "la carpeta abierta," that is, the issue is open.

The other politician mentioned in this article was Jose Enrique "Quiquito" Melendez, like Rivera a member of the Partido Nuevo Progresista Popular, the pro-statehood party that is generally viewed as the most conservative party (although that is another complicated discussion; some of the PNP's leaders are affiliated with the Democrats, and their main rival the PPD, the "Populares," also represents some conservative elements such as the Catholic vote etc.: a discussion for another time). Melendez is the PNP's candidate for an upcoming Puerto Rican Senate vacancy, and he was recently dispatched to Washington to meet with the (extremely conservative) Republican senators Don Young of Alaska and Dan Burton of Indiana, who is certainly one of the most right-wing senators today. The original agenda was the legislation on yet another plebiscite on statehood sponsered by Young and Burton, but Melendez also raised the issue of the Sotomayor nomination, urging the Republicans to support it.
His reaction to that conversation was along the same lines as the comments by Rivera: "El Partido Republicano no puede ponerle trabas innecesarias a una candidata que tiene todas las calificaciones": "The Republican Party cannot put unnecessary conditions on a candidate who has all of the qualifications."

The reason all of this is significant is that Luis Fortuno, the young and recently-elected governor, has been very clear about his ideological allegiance to the Republican Party as well as to statehood. Now, however, he is scrambling to deal with a budget in free-fall, quite possibly ruining his chances of re-election by announcing over the past two weeks that he will cut the public payroll by some 30,000 people, and sending out last Monday the first 7,816 dismissal slips in the mail: the kind of thing that is the kiss of death in Puerto Rico's traditional patronage politics. To reform and rehabilitate Puerto Rico's finances he will need every ounce of help he can get from Democratic-controlled Washington. Now the Sotomayor nomination is throwing a major wrench into his plans: perceived Republican prejudice may pull the domestic political rug out from under him.

Thanks a lot, Newt and Rush.