Saturday, October 18, 2008

Never Say Never

A decade ago, a close friend and colleague of mine left Buenos Aires to accept a full scholarship to the master’s program at Columbia University’s famed School of Journalism in New York City. He was already in his late thirties at the time and a solid and proven intellectual in his own right. He had long been a professor in the journalism program at the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina’s largest and most venerable institution of higher learning) and was writing for some of the country's top publications under his own by-line, as well as working steadily in FM radio and cable TV. In fact, his first contact with Columbia was when he won the Citi Prize for journalistic excellence in the field of economics. He won the prize for an article that he wrote for a major mass-circulation daily in Buenos Aires and was rewarded with an all-expense-paid scholarship to a two-week seminar at the university’s prestigious J-school, prior to winning the master’s scholarship (one of only two given by the university each year) some time later.

We had worked closely together at a publishing company where we ran a special projects department and, quite frankly, we did a lot more talking about writers, literature and growing up in our two cultures (his urban Argentine, mine rural North American) than we did about special projects. I recall him thinking it odd that I should be as critical as I was of certain aspects of life in the United States.

“Why should that surprise you?" I asked him once. “I mean, you’re critical of Argentina, aren’t you?” This guy had a very loud laugh and when I said this, he laughed so loudly that the overhead light fixture in our cramped office rattled.

“Of course I criticize Argentina. Everybody criticizes Argentina. But you’re American!” he guffawed.

“Look, the United States isn’t perfect, no matter what anybody might tell you,” I said. “Not by a long shot. And anybody that thinks not being critical is the same as being helpful is simply wrong.”

We swapped literary heroes: He gave me Julio Cortázar. I traded him Henry Miller. After reading a lot of Miller and discussing him with me in detail, there came a day when we were arguing some point about US government. He was on Washington’s side, I was against. I can’t recall what it was about, but probably something to do with regulation of big business (in which I would have been pro and he con). Anyway, the debate got heated and at some point, he said: “You’re not representative. You’re like Miller. You’re an American that hates the United States!”

Now it was my turn to laugh. I said: “You’re wrong. I don’t hate the United States and neither did Miller. He loved it and so do I. That’s why we’re so disappointed to see some of the stupid things the government does and some of the utterly stupid ideas that it brainwashes its children into believing. The United States that I love is the town where I grew up in Ohio, the people that work hard and can be relied on, the people of my parent’s generation that survived wars and depression and kept on keeping on, so their children would have a better life. The United States I love is the one you see at breakfast time in the truck stops and coffee shops on the back roads into small towns any day of the week. It’s the United States that has precious little to do with Washington and its policies and its propaganda and its underhanded trickster ways. If the United States is, as it’s always claiming, the best country in the world, it’s the folks that make it that way, not its government or its big businesses, which are eternally greedy and often out of hand. People like Miller and me are not the ill-content liberals we’re made out to be. We’re conservatives...old-time conservatives...1776 revolutionary conservatives, because we still know what’s worth conserving.”

Some days later, my friend came into the office carrying a paperback book in his hand and grinning from ear to ear. He flopped down on the old green leather couch by the office door, red-faced and excited, with his overcoat still on, and started to read aloud:

“I am a patriot — of the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn, where I was raised. The rest of the United States doesn’t exist for me, except as idea, or history, or literature. At ten years of age I was uprooted from my native soil and removed to a cemetery, a Lutheran cemetery, where the tombstones were always in order and the wreaths never faded...

“But I was born and raised in the street...

“To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts that gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them. What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature...”

Then he sat there grinning and held up the cover of the book, as if that had been necessary. He had been reading from the first lines of Henry Miller’s Black Spring. He had done so purposefully, intentionally. He was telling me that he understood what I was talking about, comprehended that there was the United States that much of the world “bought”, the one that movies and TV and Ivy League schools and indoctrinated teachers and politicians and diplomats and big business sold like hawkers at a sideshow. And then there was the other one, the real one where people, real folks, lived and worked and loved and died and, in the meantime, tried their damnedest to be good citizens even in the face of all the hypocrisy and greed and cynicism and authoritarian designs at the top of the heap. And that that was the United States that I felt akin too and patriotic toward and obligated to protect and treasure and warn at every opportunity. He got it. He understood.

Later, when he settled in and was studying at Columbia, my friend wrote me an e-mail in which he said that he had been thinking of me in one of his international studies classes. It seems that he and the professor had tangled over a question of semantics that quickly became a question of nationalism and learned beliefs. The argument erupted over some reference by the professor to the North American and South American continents. My friend had the innocence and audacity to point out to her that America was a single continent and this seems to have come, to her mind, as a totally novel and equally ridiculous postulation on his part.

To anyone who has lived anywhere else in the Americas, this would not come as a surprise. I quickly learned in my early days in Buenos Aires that when somebody asked me my nationality, the proper response was “North American”, not “American”. Because the inevitable comeback to the latter was going to be: “We’re all Americans. You’re North American, we’re South Americans.”

At first you think, “This is stupid. What’s the big deal? We call ourselves Americans. So what?” But in the end, it's a lack of awareness at best and a mark of blatant arrogance at worst. As in, “Yeah right, we’re all Americans, but we’re the only Americans that really count.”

Clearly, a great majority of Americans tend to think of North America as ending at the Río Grande. The current administration has even, despite NAFTA, sought to create its own “Berlin Wall” along that river to prove it. And if there were some way to turn “Anglo-America” (the United States and Canada — well, most of Canada) into a “continent” I’m sure you could find a group of politicians in Washington that would be glad to find funding for the “geographical research” — right down to finding a way to leave Quebec out of the “geographic” mix.

If that sounds cynical and unfair on my part, just look at how we’ve bent the meaning of the word continent to fit our ends. By the simplest of definitions, a continent is a large unbroken land mass completely surrounded by water. By this definition, my friend would have won the argument hands down, because before we dug the Panama Canal, somebody who wanted to sail from New York to San Francisco had no choice but to “round the Horn” at the southernmost tip of (South) America.

Now, a more modern, complex and pragmatic definition of what a continent is claims that: "Continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water." [Lewis, Martin W.; Kären E. Wigen (1997). The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 21 – emphasis mine]. This leaves a lot more wiggle room for ethno-political finagling, and in the end, the seven “continents” most commonly recognized in the English-speaking world are identified more by convention and convenience than by the ideal definition of one continent’s having to be separated from others by water.

Anyway, the discussion turned into a real shootout. My friend said that the professor’s argument was indefensible to anyone who could read a map. Clearly, the North and South American land masses were connected from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego and that any presumption of two separate continents was purely political (and perhaps ethnic) in nature. In the end, the professor, furious at having something she had been taught to believe all of her life from grade school on questioned, and clearly grasping at straws as she saw her authority at the head of the classroom fading, said something like: “Okay then, let me see you walk across the Panama Canal, if it’s all one continent.” My friend, whose intellectual arguments are always based on sound intellectual capital, was dumbstruck, and decided to let the issue ride. Obviously, if a professor at the head of a post-graduate level class in one of the most prestigious universities in the world was incapable of seeing the oh-so-obvious fallacy in such an argument, then conventional political indoctrination was evidently immune to almost any amount of education.

After my friend got his master’s degree from Columbia, he decided he wanted to stay on in New York. He got his immigration papers and toughed it out. For my part, as an American expatriate who prides himself on having a further-removed and often clearer view of my native land than many who actually live there, I found in this case that I too was more than capable of believing the hype. I mean, wouldn’t you expect a guy who had gotten a full scholarship to Columbia, who had abounding knowledge of international affairs, who speaks and writes both English and Spanish fluently, who was one of the top in his class and who already had vast teaching experience, to be a shoe-in, diploma in hand, to be placed on the faculty at his alma mater? Or wouldn’t you at least expect him to be immediately snapped up for a solid teaching position in some other school, if not for a high-paying job in journalism beyond the ivy-covered walls of his school. We tend to believe that that’s how it should and does work, because it’s what we’re told...Or we believe it because it’s the way things used to work back in the sixties and seventies when we were young. But not anymore.

So as I say, he stayed on and toughed it out teaching at underprivileged schools in underprivileged neighborhoods in New York while freelancing for papers back home in Argentina and, meanwhile, making all of the contacts he could, trying to fit in, trying to get an “in” into the system. And finally, after a decade of striving, he’s making some inroads. He’s not exactly living the American dream. But after a hard-fought decade, he's getting some better teaching opportunities, even some non-tenured teaching at Columbia...finally, and he's making something of a name for himself as a cultural figure in the Latino community. He's doing what the US immigrants of old did, keeping his shoulder to the wheel, staying in the barrio and making New York work, despite the words long-belied from “The Great Colossus” by Emma Lazarus engraved on a plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” And despite the fact that this was never my friend’s case and that he is among the best of immigrants that the United States could ever hope to import.

But the point I want to make isn’t about immigration or about my friend. It’s about us. It’s about Americans and about the learning opportunity we have just been dealt by the government and big business. The opportunity is this: Stop believing the hype.

When people in Argentina woke up one morning at the beginning of this decade to find that the government in cahoots with the banks (mostly foreign banks and many of them American banks) had dilapidated their life savings overnight, any Americans whom I talked to about it back home seemed to glaze over. They just couldn't understand something like that happening and it just made them “so glad they lived in the good ol' USA where something like that would be impossible”. At the time, I wrote an article in which I said, among other things:

“ is probably safe to say that Americans living at home pretty much believe in the system and, in general, don't expect government action to wreak sudden havoc in their daily lives.

“So imagine, if you can, this scenario: After a full decade in which your country's prices and foreign exchange parity have been among the most stable in the world, in which yearly inflation has been single-digit and in which you have been able to freely invest your income at home and abroad — years in which you have come to depend on banks for every kind of financial service imaginable, in which you have entrusted your life savings to the financial system in the belief (backed by repeated assurances not only from your local government but also multilateral institutions) that you are living in a strong, emerging economy with bright prospects for the future — you wake up one morning to find that your world has gone completely crazy. Your bank accounts have been frozen and the government has just announced that the money you had been saving in the system is now worth 40% less than it was yesterday. Your international hard currency has been confiscated. Worse still, no matter how many thousands of dollars you have in your foreign exchange account, the government and the bank will only make $5,000 available to you — not in hard cash, but transferable at an unrealistic official exchange rate to your domestic account, where withdrawals are limited to 1,000 local currency units a month.

“It is, of course, a real stretch for Americans living at home within the stability of the most economically powerful nation on earth to imagine this kind of scenario, but this is precisely what has happened, practically overnight, to the people of Argentina last December.”

At the time, I couldn’t find a single buyer for that article among my journalism contacts in New York and Washington. Americans, it seemed, just couldn’t relate to what had happened in Argentina, even though American banking, the IMF and the Bush administration were involved. It was just too “way out there” for Americans to identify with it. What even I couldn’t foresee back then was that it wouldn’t be a stretch at all for Americans to identify with such a similar situation just seven years down the road.

The ever-increasing popularity of Barak Obama in the run-up to the general elections is not nearly as much a result of his own merit — although he is surely the most revolutionary candidate since John F. Kennedy — as it is of the anger and frustration of Americans who believed in the system and were duped by an administration that did absolutely nothing to protect them from the greed and arrogance of big business and big banking.

But despite the pain and hardship that this crisis has caused to millions of Americans, and indeed to the world economy, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from it. And the lesson is that we should never say never again: that such a thing “could never happen in the greatest nation on earth,” that our business and banking system is reliable and trustworthy beyond all doubt, that trickle-down works, that business can and should be self-regulating, that the US government looks out for its citizens. Perhaps this blow will sober us up and make us realize once and for all that greed and power make government and business do whatever they can get away with and that we ourselves, and our willingness to question and not fall for the hype are all that are standing between us and this kind of disaster.

The late Robert F. Kennedy once said: "The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country."

We would all do well to recall this every time an administration flashes its sardonic grin and says: "Trust me!"

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Panic Attack

At the root of the economic crisis currently facing the United States is some of the most shockingly negligent and shady governance in the history of the country.

In a singularly black week in which Americans went from being “the most powerful nation on earth” to feeling like one of its most destitute, teetering on the brink of its worst panic since the Great Depression, we saw valiant attempts by both of the presidential candidates – one of whose executive office will ultimately have to deal with this ungodly mess – seeking to reassure a stunned nation and to offer suggestions as to how their presidencies might handle it. Both rushed back to Washington to jumpstart bailout negotiations and both urged their parties to cooperate in finding a first-aid solution to keep the country from folding up like a house of cards.

Neither candidate, as it turns out, has wholeheartedly embraced the final result, even if they voted for it. Worse still, neither have most common everyday American folks, who, if they had their druthers, would probably rather drag the grossly overpaid corporate fat cats and their pampered government lackeys, who got filthy rich driving their companies and the country bankrupt, out into the street and toss them into a huge bonfire set ablaze with all of the worthless paper that they have generated and floated on the market in these first years of the new millennium.

From the people who should have been actively doing something to stave off this catastrophe, what we mostly have gotten is finger-pointing, blame-laying, excuse-making and justification of the utterly indefensible. More specifically, President Bush’s speech to the nation regarding the crisis was way too little, way too late and sounded, as usual, like a weak-kneed apology for the appalling behavior of his big friends in big business and sorry excuses for his proposed golden-parachute bailout that, even in its post-Congress modified form, promises to mortage the future of Americans for years to come, after leaving their hard-earned savings dilapidated, when their only fault was believing in their country and its economy instead of burying their money in a tin box in the backyard, where it surely would have been safer. The president’s 13-minute speech was more of a brief resume of nearly a decade of irresponsible and ignominious behavior that he sought to palm off as an unexpected turn of events. What it was, in fact, and in twenty-twenty hindsight, was a highly predictable debacle. That is, if anybody had been watching, or if those who were watching would have let the public at large in on what has clearly been this administration’s best kept secret: namely, that big banking and big business, in the free-wheeling years of the Bush administration, have run “the most powerful nation on earth” bankrupt and taken the life savings of its people and their promise for the future with it.

More disgusting still than the president’s own lack of sincere apology for his administration's complete and disastrous failure to warn the citizens that it is sworn to defend of the impending disaster that unchecked speculation and greed have brought to the country was the rapid move by emblematic Republicans to shift the blame elsewere. We had to sit by and listen to them claim that it all began with Bill Clinton’s attempts to ensure that the vast numbers of American homeless were brought in out of the cold, or that a Democratic Congress had tied the president’s hands, when the truth is that the Bush administration stood by and did nothing, and moreover, aided and abetted the perpetrators of the crash by self-righteously invoking liberal, free-market policy as an excuse for doing nothing, or for doing everything it could to give the impression that the economy was basically strong when, in fact, it was crumbling beneath our very feet.

Even former Speaker of the House and conservative icon Newt Gingrich, while admitting that he was “embarrassed” that this could happen with a Republican in the White House, suggested that perhaps a lot of it was the fault of Mr. Clinton and other Democrats for getting the banks to lend mortgage money to people who couldn’t afford a home. When asked why the president had failed to warn Americans that huge firms like Lehman and AIG were broke and about to topple, he made the ludicrous suggestion that he “didn’t think the president knew”. Did Mr. Gingrich forget that he was talking about the president of the United States, the most powerful and highly informed leader on earth, or does he just think the rest of us are obtuse and will fall for such an obvious untruth? Or if not, does he, just perhaps, think that the president is stupid? Or, still another possibility, is Mr. Gingrich himself, perhaps, a mental midget? Whatever the case might be, such answers are not merely ingenuous, but downright fatuous and singularly irritating coming from a long-ranking Republican like himself.

Whatever “sins” the Clinton administration may have committed were, to begin with, “presidential sins”, redeemable by the president who followed. If this had happened at the outset of the Bush administration, then perhaps Republicans could have blamed it on the Democratics that came before them. But it has come to a head now, on the very eve of the end of the two-term George W. Bush era. It comes at the end of the eight years in office of one of the most power-grabbing regime’s Washington has ever known. It comes following an administration that has constantly touted its war-time status and dangerously courted authoritarian designs. Who could possibly believe that an administration like Mr. Bush’s – which has always danced cheek-to-cheek with big business and big oil and which has enjoyed a level of power and consent beyond the wildest dreams of any executive in living memory – could be unaware of the impending chaos?

The United States could not have reached this point of panicstriken chaos without the knowledge of the nation’s leaders and particularly of its chief executive and the presidential cabinet. Just saying that the president might not have known what was going on in what amounts to an issue of utmost national security like the speculative undermining of the entire economy to the point of plunging the country into national bankruptcy is tantamount to admitting that the entire administration including the president was not just caught napping but was surprised in an absolutely comatose state on its watch. Wouldn't this, then, be a much more monumentally grave case of ethical laxitude than the private-life, sexual misconduct of President Clinton that Mr. Gingrich was so quick to denounce as worthy of impeachment back in the days of Democratic rule? And if so, why isn't the former Speaker turned author and TV pundit now clamoring for heads to roll in the Bush administration, instead of simply blushing with puerile shame? I mean, other, that is, than because he and Mr. Bush both have elephants tatooed on their proverbial breasts.

More nefarious still are attempts by Republican Party surrogates in the press to lay the blame at the door of the "non-performing poor". It is at least inexcusably naive if not downright dishonest, ill-intentioned and mean-spirited to suggest that banking loaned a raft of money to people who, because of their low income, probably never should have qualified for credit, but did so out of the “kindness of the bankers’ hearts” because they wanted people to be able to buy homes, having then been duped by the “wicked” low-income beneficiaries who all of the sudden and all together defaulted, precipitating today's crisis. Anyone who really expects the people of the United States to believe such complete nonsense clearly thinks Americans to be a nation of imbeciles. And anyone who buys this guff is indeed just that, a complete imbecile.

Culturally speaking, throughout the Bush Jr. era, the United States has been living in a haze of 1950s naiveté but transferred to a time of not only much-multiplied sophistication but also of dehumanizing ruthlessness. It is a ruthlessness that while no less terrifying for it, is socio-politically natural enough. It’s that in those naive '50s that successive Republican Administrations since Ronald Reagan have tried so hard to recreate as one might set a stage to generate an illusion, we Baby-Boomers were growing up in a world that was supporting a population of only a little over 2 billion and Humanity was only just becoming vaguely aware of some environmental and social challenges that might have to be faced in what was thought would be the distant future.

But today the world is fast approaching a population of 7 billion, a fact that is suddenly making vital resources scarce: food, oil, potable water, land, clean air, etc., etc. That which is scarce logically becomes precious. This fosters greed. And this has become an era of unbridled greed.

It is an easier concept to understand if we think of the history, not of these things that we have taken for granted, but that of so-called “precious stones” and “precious metals”. For as long as men have known how to smelt ore and mine gems, they have killed and died for gold and diamonds, for rubies and silver, for emeralds and pearls. And in doing so that have sought to corner the markets for such precious items.

The mentality that we are seeing in corporate business, in investment banking and on Wall Street today is based on this kind of greed, the greed of accumulation, the greed of the cornered market, the greed of getting whatever John and Jane Q. Public have out of their pockets and into those of the major speculators and “business hogs”. And there can be no doubt that government has served the interests of such speculators by encouraging and facilitating or at least turning a blind eye to high-risk credit, society-wide speculative investment, consumerism gone wild, and a general climate of life far beyond one’s means. And all of this in the name of maintaining the illusion of the American Dream in a country that produces fewer and fewer tangibles all the time, while cranking out ever greater mountains of paper assets whose value is as invented and illusive as that staged '50s innocence.

This is the noxious combination that has given us a generation of industry sultans who have each amassed tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in their personal fortunes while plunging their companies into bankruptcy and lying about it on their books. It is the same pernicious combination that has generated multi-billionaire robber barons who have been held up as cult heroes in business for getting away with monopolistic murder. The same evil mix that has permitted financial institutions to encourage people to enter into mortgages that they would never be able to pay off in a lifetime, or to take out two and three mortgages on the same property based on nothing more than an often hollow dream of financial success in the future.

The horror of nine-eleven shocked Americans into submission in the face of a government that has been all about unlimited power for itself and its friends in big oil and big business. This is not a rash statement. The Bush administration has used nine-eleven, international terrorism and the war in Iraq as a bogeyman with which to frighten the nation as a whole into doing its will. Throughout the eight years of the Bush administration, people have been afraid to speak their mind. They have been afraid to question, afraid that they will be perceived as “against” instead of “for”, under a regime that has sought to convince anyone that will listen that criticizing the country and indeed the government borders on treason at a time when the United States is “under attack” from abroad and “fighting for its life”. We are fighting for our lives, all right, but the greatest danger to the American way of life right now is what’s happening to the economy and what hasn’t been happening in Washington: namely, the necessary oversight to protect the economy from rampant speculation and greed and the citizenry from widespread hardship.

The exploitation of “things that go bump in the night” has permitted Washington to invent far-fetched justifications, like the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq never had as an excuse for invading an oil-reach country that never had anything to do with the nine-eleven attacks. It has permitted the administration to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a protacted war that has still not produced the capture of the supposed architect of the nine-eleven massacre or the disappearance of the terrorist organization that he leads, but that has cost thousands of lives on both sides, and for which no end in sight. How can we be expected to believe that such a grossly and nefariously invented war is not, in the end, about oil and the interests of the administration’s closest friend. Only the my-country-right-or-wrong naiveté of the 1950s could permit anyone to think otherwise. Especially when the vice president is the former CEO of one of the firms that has most benefited from the oilfield contracts that "saving Iraq from itself" has wrought. A vice president who has even recently demonstrated his utter contempt for the democratic traditions of the nation by claiming that his office doesn’t answer to the president and that it presides as more than a figurehead over the upper house of Congress when both things are clearly inventions of convenience and of astounding arrogance on his part. But then again, within the power circles in which this administration moves, the vice president might very well indeed overshadow the president’s power.

During the Bush administration we have witnessed how oil speculators in connivance with big oil have held the country hostage at the gas pump, how big banking and Wall Street speculators have run amok and run the country bankrupt and how government at all levels has knuckled under to the post-nine-eleven with-us-or-against-us mentality of bogeyman paranoia and McCarthyite persecution orchestrated to keep people’s mind off of what was really happening and the results of which we have experienced in the past couple of nightmare weeks.

Gee whizz, wouldn’t it be just swell and dandy to stop thinking about all this doom and go back to the days when the North America looked like a Norman Rockwell painting and gasoline cost 20 cents a gallon? But those days are over and it is time for Americans to come of age.

We need to be perspicacious. We need to distrust government and call it to account. We need to use the Internet for something besides chatting, games and infotainment, use it to get connected, get informed and get our opinions out there. We need to get mad, get involved and get down hard on business and political leaders that lie to us, cheat us, pick our pockets and strip us of our rights, our money and our self-respect. We need to ignore their flag-waving campaigns to win our hearts and loyalties while luring us to disaster. The age of innocence is long-ended. It’s time to get smart, get tough and get mean, if we hope to survive. Most of all, it is time to trust citizen action over government action (or inaction) and become the most tenacious of watchdogs for our own interests.

If we don’t protect ourselves, nobody else least not if we don’t make them.