Friday, November 27, 2015

After Paris: The mocking of dissent and the selling of a failed strategy

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.
After the attacks in Paris, the supposed Western world promptly split into two camps: those who condemn the attacks and those who…what? Defend them? Justify them?
At least that’s how it was portrayed.
Perhaps due to professional malformations, I hang around too many people immersed in post-colonial, subaltern, cultural studies and the like. Therefore, perhaps I heard more than my fair share of accusations and diatribe against those people for bringing to bear a couple of thoughts in the aftermath of the terrorists’ crimes in Paris. The critics were not kind.
Two days after the attacks, the French president not just declared war on the terrorist group ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the murders, but French fighter planes began to bomb Syria in retaliation.
DIGRESSION: Wait! What does “began” mean? As we know, France was already bombing and involved in the campaign against ISIS, away from the front-pages. And we still had Paris. So, apparently, doubling down on what we were doing without success should be considered a plausible strategy. Not to mention that all of the sudden the United States could provide France with intelligence about ISIS targets that had not been bombed yet. How come? Why those targets that were so easily spotted that they could be supplied to the French army in two days flat had not been destroyed before? And, how come all the previous bombing and surveillance didn’t prevent the Paris attacks? Yeah. At some point we will need to awake to the governments’ manipulation of our emotions. We are so weak and feebleminded that they need to give us a pacifier…pun most definitely not intended.
As I was saying, the post-colonialists were criticized for pointing out a few of the obvious and longstanding problems so soon after the attacks, when “the bodies are still warm,” some said. But, in a matter of hours we are bombing a bit more and in a matter of days we are declaring war and forming a coalition – and the military industrial complex is ordering more champagne through Amazon.com because they’ll have something big to celebrate this Holiday season – and as our illustrious leadership dances to the music of the drums of war, when is the time to ask questions?
They are using our understandable hurt and fear to bring about more hurt and fear in others, as if that would soothe us or would prevent the next attack…since it has worked so well so far. We are dropping bombs and drones in many countries in the Middle East, and, yes, sometimes we killed the terrorists, but, obviously, many a time we killed many, many civilians. One of the diatribes against those calling for calm and thought before action said that, yes, a lot of civilians are killed, but the difference is that when that happens “Obama laments it; and ISIS celebrates.” I am sure that the mothers of those killed are making that distinction. I guess that’s what Ted Cruz counts on when he suggests we should increase the bombing with more tolerance for collateral damage. More tolerance from whom? As long as it is not our children, those there are just “collateral damage.” The notion that we are not creating more terrorists by doing that would be laughable, were it not so (o)pressing.
Of course, pacifist – which is said with the tone of an insult – has become synonym with coward. As if we the pacifists were actually going to go fight the wars we are trying to prevent. But, you know who won’t go to war either? Those encouraging it. They are like the king in the movie Shreck: “Some of you may die, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”
Then those who call for a thoughtful response and ask to put things in perspective are mocked for their “post-colonial” discourse. Or are accused of justifying, as if explaining, contextualizing and justifying were the same thing. How little accountability is demanded of the leaders who put us continuously in this predicament and have very little to offer in the way of real solutions; and how much is demanded of citizens to suspend their disbelief and put aside their critical thought!
More outrageous were the infantile calls to “take sides,” as if there were any sides to take; as if because we put things in context and warn not to go for the millionth time down the same road that leads to a dead end – literally and figuratively – we are somehow condoning the barbarism of ISIS in Paris and everywhere else.
Yes, history matters, particularly when we are about to repeat it.
Yes, the history that created Arab ghettos in France matters a lot, particularly when Europe is receiving many refugees and is creating neighborhoods for them, instead of integrating them – which is not the same as assimilating – to the communities.
Yes, only a purposefully blind person could ignore the connection between Algeria and France today. The warring factions at some point should be called to demonstrate how, exactly, the strategy we have been using since 2001 is increasing our safety and producing the results they promised. They ask mockingly of the pacifists “So, we do nothing? We just take it?” I wish some leaders would have the demeanor to say: “Yes, we do nothing unless we actually have something that would produce an outcome we can live with. We won’t double down on failed strategies and bring further pain, unintentional as it might be, to peoples that are at their wits’ end.” I realize that a wounded people, like the French after November 13, needs consolation and compassion; it needs its leaders to acknowledge the pain and the fear. It also, and perhaps more than ever in those moments, needs its leaders to be honest brokers and not PR hacks. Politicians, however, don’t show any qualms to take advantage of that moment of hurt and make policy that would compound it.
Viet Nam should be a useful history lesson. But not because the war ended badly, but because of the enormous manipulation that surrounded it.
The people opposing it back then were called the same names we are called now. Then, 30 years and innumerous deaths later, we have to hear Kissinger and McNamara say that it was a mistake, it was a civil war and we shouldn’t have gotten involved. Oh, really? What was the peace movement telling you then??? But there is no accountability and those who are now sending our kids to war, like Dick Cheney, back then had other priorities. We could try to excuse them by assuming they didn’t know it was a lost cause. Except that we now know they did know and they were lying to us in public television.
Nixon’s note to Henry Kissinger, then his national security adviser, on Jan. 3, 1972, was written sideways across a top-secret memo updating the president on war developments. Nixon wrote: “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam. The result = Zilch. There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force.”“The day before he wrote the “zilch” note, Nixon was asked about the military effectiveness of the bombing by Dan Rather of CBS News in an hourlong, prime-time TV interview.“The results have been very, very effective,” Nixon declared.
I will bow down and state, in case it needs clarity, the obvious: ISIS, its terrorist brethren and their murderous religious ideology are at fault for the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Mali – just to mention the most recent. But, if we allow ourselves to be pulled into a whirl of never ending wars that has proved so appallingly unsuccessful so far, the sad joke will be on us.


DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Ben Carson and the house negro game

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

Some look at Ben Carson, one of the Republican candidates for president, as showcasing a supine scientific ignorance that should be surprising, given his great medical acumen. I do not give him the benefit of the doubt: he is the worst of the false prophets.
The more I see of Carson, the more he evokes the image of Stephen, the character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. A well-rehearsed game he is playing. Four scenes from the film showcase the double role and double speak of house negroes.
We first encounter Stephen as he is welcoming his master, Calvin, and overly subserviently arguing with him about the impropriety of allowing the nigger Django to stay in the house. Calvin makes clear he is the one who makes the rules, and Stephen reluctantly acquiesces. All this after we have seen Calvin order a slave to be torn to piece by a pack of dogs.
In the diner scene, physically shrinking, Stephen almost begs Calvin to come see him for a moment. Right now. Calvin apologizes to his guests for his slave’s impudence and incapacity to deal with the most menial of tasks, such as dessert selection, without his master’s help. “Oh, a white man’s burden,” his face seems to say.
Then, we see Calvin entering the library – a familial setting of power we recognize from the entire history of cinema – to encounter, without the slightest surprise, Stephen seating at a big, iconic chair, powerfully, whiskey in hand, tall and self-possessed. Stephen then proceeds to admonish Calvin for being made a fool. Role playing is over, since neither the guests nor the other slaves for whom the charade is intended are present. We know who the brain is.
Lastly, after Calvin’s death, Stephen goes to where Django is held and dismisses, by orders of the Mistress of the house, the henchman who was about to cut Django’s balls off. Now, Stephen speaks directly and alone with Django, and pretense is again dispensed with. He recognizes a match, a hated one, but an equal. He mocks the whites’ ideas of torturing Django by doing various things to his masculine parts; and tells how all the time he kept saying that slaves in the mine had it worse than that. Then, sarcastically, adds that, what do you know, all of the sudden they had the bright idea of selling Django to the mine. Essentially laughing of how easy it is to plant an idea on those white people and make them think it is theirs. 
There is a reason why house negroes, which should be just a descriptor of working conditions, in opposition to field negroes, has a distinctly pejorative meaning among the black community. Actually, when we now refer to house negroes we are saying little or nothing about their locus of work. We allude to the fact that they played a role in supporting the existing structures of power that kept them doing a bit better than the rest. Their support could have been passive or, as in the case of Stephen, essential by turning their feigned complicity with their supposed peers into their peers’ compliance, and running a tighter ship than white masters alone could.  
Our Uncle Ben plays that part with classicist overtones. He offers himself not as a role model but as a talking point for the right, while knowing full well the concrete limits of that discourse. But, even after considering how his pretense harms the black community, nothing is to me more despicable than his stance against science.
He uses his scientific credentials to deride science, particularly in areas in which he has no credence. He does that by counting on the facts that his audience is predisposed to such “truths;” will use his credentials as validation of such “truths;” and believes those “truths,” because it is, at best, scientifically ill-educated, such as many of his fellow Seventh-Day Adventists in 2012.   
What he is doing is dishonest in every possible way because he is not only counting on that ignorance, but fanning its mind-scorching flames. As soon as he is confronted on the facts, he says: “I’m not going to denigrate you because of your faith, and you shouldn’t denigrate me for mine.” (Let’s ignore for a second that came from the mouth of the most bigoted man against Muslims.) Obviously, a factual scientific discussion is the same as a discussion of faith, right? He couldn’t debate scientists on any of this because he could not stand one round. But he has learned who to pander to and knows a little misinformation combined with a drop or two of confirmation bias is a never-fail recipe.
Some believe he is actually ignorant of these matters, and is just posing and feigning knowledge. But given his timid acquiescence in the face of an attack on vaccines, which one may think a doctor knows something about, I firmly believe he is just like his rival Ted Cruz, a hypocrite that would not mind spreading ignorance to pocket votes. As a doctor, I suggest at least on the discussion of vaccines, Carson would do well to remember the Hippocratic Oath.
He mocks science he doesn’t understand and purposefully misrepresents the one he does. I am willing to bet he was not peddling that devil-encouraged-evolution garbage when he was applying for positions as surgeon or publishing on scientific journals…when he was facing what he thought were his equals, there was neither point no reward for pretending. But he knows well when it is time for a little shuckin’ and jivin’.


DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Pope, left and right… and that tropical island

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

There are several ways in which Pope Francis is upending the outward ways of the church without messing much with the doctrinal essence. Shouldn't his chosen name, after the poor loving, pacifist Saint Francis de Assisi have been a hint?
Damas de Blanco/Ladies in White, Havana, Cuba
He seems a real follower of Christ, at least of the Christ that warned in Mathews 10:34: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
While his approval ratings among American Catholics and the general public are at an enviable 85 and 70 percent, respectively, everyone has found something to dislike.
After my orthodox atheism, I myself found solace in the service oriented call of Jesus Christ. I thought there was something there, and, when I told my mother, she showed me something I had written as a child about a vocation of service. I was convinced that’s what socialism was.
The immense disappointment and betrayal I felt when the intricacies of the Cuban calamity became apparent to me – something inevitable if you study journalism there – sent me into the Catholic Church with the same passion and conviction. I switched masters. After leaving Cuba, however, I realized the church was only “liberating” in socialist or leftist regimes, everywhere else, it was a purveyor of the worst capitalism has to offer, particularly by reaffirming the silencing propaganda; and a force to keep the poor and disposed in their place. My brain, a bit recovered from the previous ulcer, began to see clearly and my orthodox atheism returned just in time.
Then comes Pope Francis and tries to upend things.
I praise him for following through with his own beliefs and opinions, conflicting as they may be at times. I applaud that, as certainties are no common in my own thinking.  
He goes to the root of the problem of poverty and denounces the ills of capitalism. His concern for the environment, as a man of science, are in the same vein, since he understands how worsening environmental conditions would further harm the poorest individuals and countries. These criticisms open him to severe attacks from the right and applause from the left.
He has also shown compassion for whom his religion considers sinners, with a non-condemnatory tone towards LGBT people and a year of forgiveness for women who have had abortion – I don’t find that particularly compassionate as it is premised on women feeling contrite and repentant for having taken care of their health in the way they needed. But these are, no doubt, considered very liberal positions in some quarters.
And, in the midst of all of these revolutionary stances, this Pope goes to Cuba and does the same thing the left does. All of the sudden, the fight for equality, justice, fairness, freedom is put on hold and we begin to worship a 56 year old dictatorship. I wonder if he is atoning for his silence before the right wing Argentinian dictatorship, by going way out on a limb to the other side.
Why meeting with Fidel Castro? I can concede to meeting with the current dictator, as he is the head of the government. But why go out of his way to meet with the other one? Why not meeting with the opposition? The justification that this was an “informal meeting” is not just ridiculous but utterly hypocritical.  
According to the Washington Post:
“Francis pleaded ignorance about the Cuban dissidents who say they were arrested by security agents when they tried to see him at Havana’s cathedral.
“The pope said he had no information about what came of the Vatican embassy’s invitation for some dissidents to come to the cathedral to be among those who could greet the pope on Sunday. He stressed that no private meeting was ever planned but that he would have been happy to greet them in the crowd.”
He is trying to subvert the status quo everywhere, but falls for it completely in Cuba.
It reminded me of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, “The church has always been on the side of power.”
For political expediency, there are a couple of harmful contradictions in the Pope’s actions. As he is criticizing the ills of capitalism, the focus on consumption and its detrimental effects on the environment and on the poorest among us, his visit to Cuba, his guarded message that leaves intact the tenants of the repressive regime – which echoes the apologist ways of many leaders of the church in Cuba, and brings to mind the role of the church in the previous dictatorships in the island – and, finally, his completely unnecessary visit to Fidel Castro make for a very dubious backdrop for his anti-capitalism message. Cuba is the symbol of the worst versions of socialism and communism, and the man taking a principled position against the worst of capitalism decides to shake a conciliatory hand not just with the Head of State, Raul Castro, which protocol demands, but goes out of his way to shake the bloody hand of Fidel Castro, the unrepentant despot who destroyed the island and oppressed its people.
In the U.S., Senator Bernie Sanders is going around explaining what socialism is and, most importantly, what those of us who want to make the United States a better, fairer place mean by social democracy – health care and education as rights not privilege; a real, dignifying safety net that would help those who lose a job or fall ill; a justice system that honors its name; racial justice; less war; more cooperation around the world.
The old right goes around trying to tie Sanders’s message to the Soviet Gulags and the like, but young people saddled with debt and with expectations of individualistic and cutthroat success have no memory of a Soviet era and no intention of ignoring a potentially good idea just because the name may be associated with past wrongs in some places.
Could you imagine what would happen if Sanders were to praise Cuba’s regime? That would be all the fodder Republicans would need. Sanders has said he was leery of running not because he was afraid of losing, but because he was fearful a rebuke of him would be damaging to the ideas and ideals he espouses, which he believes are really good and important for the betterment of our nation.
The Pope puts us just in that predicament: he was already being criticized for being a leftist, a progressive, and that worse of all things, a Democrat. Now, his position – or lack there of – regarding Cuba, as he supposedly advocates for reconciliation, as if the opposition and the regime were in anything like equal footing, gives credence to those who believe the left is willing to be silent in the face of oppression as long as a nice “equality and anti-imperialism” speech is given.
At the end, it was all public relations for Pope Francis. It’s a shame he found the way to the homeless in Washington, D.C., but couldn’t “informally” bump into the repressed and oppressed in Havana.


DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.