24 February, 2010

The Mischief of Factions

by Jorge Reyes

I actually feel bad for President Obama. Never before has our democratic experiment been confronted by so many well-financed groups calling themselves grassroots movements vying with one another for public attention.

But don't be deceived.

While the clamor for attention in our democratic experiment is not new, what is new is that none of these groups are the spontaneous growth of people rallying around a single cause or theme.  Rather, what we're seen is the din of a disaffected few heavily financed by lobbyist (corporate) moneys with huge bank accounts at their disposal and not being shy about spending it. These lobbyists not only provide the blueprint and toolkit to embolden “the mischiefs of faction,” to paraphrase James Madison in the Federalist paper #51, but also to maneuver the ever increasing political angst and discontent of people. Madison feared, not without reason, that these factions if left unfettered would ultimately hijack the entire political parties and issues, eventually fracturing the entire democratic process.

To take as an example the Tea Party, that unconventional group of people mostly protesting against big government and taxes.  The issues they are embracing, again, is nothing new nor so outlandish. We've all heard it before from every politician: how they're anti-government and anti-tax.

Fine and dandy.

The problem is this: the Tea Party is financed solely by lobbyists organizations, mainly Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works and not by the people, for the people, or we the people. 

It is Freedom Works that provides the Tea Party with coordination, “take over” ideas in local and national political events, “how-to guides”, Web site information, as well as professional-looking press releases. Americans for Prosperity, the other PAC that finances the Tea Party, also coordinates press releases and events information in certain states. More, Americans for Prosperity is run by Tim Phillips, not coincidentally a former partner of Ralph Reed, also a lobbyist for the firm Century Strategies.

President Obama wants to save the economy by pumping federal moneys into it. The disaffected factions, on the other hand, want and need jobs and look to the government for such. Incredibly it is these same people who at the same time don't seem to want the government's involvement in the economy either. In fact, Radio talk-show Rush Limbaugh called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 a “porkulus,” in reference to spending earmarks. So how do we get out of this seeming quagmire?

We can't do it that easily because there are too many knots to be untangled. That's the problem. Our own rhetorical flair is preventing a solution; a set of solutions; any solution. Take your pick.  More, since there's so much money being poured into these highly-vitriolic staged protests the voices of these revolutionaries won't be silenced anytime soon further aggravating any short-term resolution. 

"Do any of these people have foggiest idea what it's like to live under communism, I wonder?"

How about health care reform? Why would anyone argue against reforming a broken system? After all, the rather tepid health care reform would extend coverage to the uninsured, ban the worst practices of the insurers, and guarantee insurance for people who lose their jobs. Yet, everyone seems to think these measures are a bad thing for the country many going so far as to call this reform communism.  Do any of these people have the foggiest idea what it's like to live under communism, I wonder?

There's a lot of anger, and understandably so. More and more people are on the brink of losing their jobs and livelihoods. Unemployment remains at a 10% margin, and some say the percentage is actually higher. As we all know, many Americans don't have health care coverage, something that costs every single one of us who has it more in the long-term. There doesn't to be an end to foreclosures, leaving unanswered an important question: what's going to happen to all this new form of middle-class homelessness? What are we going to do about them?

So, yes, there's a lot of anger and there are a lot of social issues we need to face and solve. The problem is that whenever we start chanting to catch-phrases written by lobbyists posing as leaders of legitimate grassroots movements, we all lose.

We need to wake up. The mischief of factions is eroding both democracy and liberty because what it comes down to is money or how much of it you got in order to effectuate any sort of political changes.  Short of that, you're out of the picture.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most effective. Take time out of your busy life and write a letter to your representatives in government at all levels. Tell them how you feel. Ask them to respond to your queries not with a pre-packaged set of ideas, but with answers that respect your right as a citizen.

Pardon the redundancy, but I actually feel bad for President Obama. He's got a lot on his plate right now and no matter what he does, I feel that his good intentions are set against a collision course of historical importance not of his own making.

19 February, 2010

Sarah Palin for president in 2012? How dumb can we be?

By Jorge Reyes

I'm one of those people who love to read other people literally. I often equally enjoy to take them at face value. Dare I say that I also tend to be a bit sarcastic?

Since Sarah Palin seems to be a name much talked about as a possible presidential contender in 2012, I think that someone ought to scrutinize her recent ramblings at the Tea Party Convention in Nashville.

Did you watch her less than lackluster performance?

It doesn't matter if you did or didn't because basically she simply gave vent to that “creedal passion” of certain groups who feel that they are not represented in the halls of congress, never mind that most of what they say isn't true. Short of going through their entire list of complaints, you probably already know their basic ones: President Obama is a person not to be distrusted (he could also be of foreign extraction, so watch out); the economic bailout amounts to socialism; the healthcare reform infringes on people's rights; the behemoth of Washington is eroding states's rights. Dare I say it also, do I hear calls for secession from the Union?

All of us have been privy to all of these rhetorical-filled flairs and vitriol by some who consider themselves to be part of the new dispossessed. And while there's no evidence to feel that way, they believe it and that's enough for them to consider it true.

But now they have a savior, someone who happens to also be one of the least qualified woman in this country for such an important responsibility, Sarah Palin. Not that I have anything against her personally. I just don't think she has anything to offer any of us in the form of leadership.

Sorry folks, Sarah Palin isn't much to boast about, and, no, we're not going down the path of socialism. If the economic bailout has done anything, it is to keep the basic structure of mixed capitalism alive and well, thank you very much. In fact, if we are dumb enough to think of the rantings of Ms. Palin as anything other than vapid soundbytes for the evening news, then we have no right to complain when others call us Americans dumb, as when the British magazine The Daily Mirror did when George W. Bush was forced upon us as president by the Supreme Court.

Why am I being so harsh on someone as loveable, as promising, as pure as Ms. Palin?

For starters, she has neither the command of international issues nor the intellectual capacity to verbalize them. She has neither a vision nor a coherent plan for anything beyond platitudes.

As I wrote, her performance at the Tea Party Convention in Nashville was awful and it deserves more scrutiny. After her speech during a question and answer session moderated by Judson Phillips, the founder of the Tea Party, about a plethora of issues Ms. Palin responded with the typical gibberish answers she's well known for. This time, though, her answers were worse than ever.

She was asked about the Palin Plan, as opposed to the Obama Plan. With a timbre of fear in her voice, she responded: “When it comes to national security, as I ratchet down the message on national security, it's easy to just kind of sum it up by repeating Ronald Reagan when he talked about the Cold War. And we can apply this now to our war on terrorism, you know. Bottom line, we win, they lose. We do all that we can do to win.”

Not sure what to make of this statement, but then neither did many of the people in attendance who simply cheered and applauded with an effusion of energy.

When asked about the budget, she dutifully answered: “We've got to rein in spending, obviously, and not raise it extremely high budgets and then say, OK, we are going to freeze a couple programs here. That doesn't do us any good really. We've got to start reigning in the spending.”

Compared to the Ronald Reagan answer, this was more garbled and confused. But it matters not among equals for the applause continued, increasing to an almost frentic crescendo. Ms. Palin, unperturbed, seemed to gloat in the cheerleading moment.

Since God always seems to be a favorite topic of conversation in these pep-rallies, (God is always on the side of the dispossessed remember), she was asked a question about the spirit of America, and trust me, Ms. Palin didn't disappoint: “we should seek some divine intervention again in this country so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again. To have people involved in government who aren't afraid to go that route.”

I don't know about you, but I feel that there's an obvious lack of intellect, substance and coherence to the Sarah Palin phenomenum and I've never been one to be taken by her charm. It's all pre-fabricated, like a mass produced and dangerous talking doll.

Dare I say it: I don't think she's qualified for much except trying to change our public discourse with a baseless and irresponsible call to arms that does more harm to our democracy than not. And heaven knows, we're in need of some new blood pumped into the system and some new ideas infused into our public discourse. But she, like her paranoid ilk, just aren't it.

Sarah Palin for president in 2012? How can so many of us be so dumb?

13 February, 2010

The Terror of Happiness: why Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil could be wrong

by Jorge Reyes

Years ago I had a supervisor who approved my draft memos with a happy face. Of course when one of the drafts weren't approved, I'd see an unhappy face. 

Let's face it, we Americans think of ourselves as a happy people. Even our most basic legal framework, the Bill of Rights, protects such ephemeral concept-- the pursuit of happiness. (A weird concept of a legal right if you think about it.)

How refreshing, then, to read a book that puts the entire business enterprise of happiness into perspective, such as “Bright-sides: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Ehrenreich sets out to analyze that strange notion of happiness which goes by many names and that is so peculiar about this early part of the 21st century.

She feels that happiness, or positive thinking, has become the main and most paradigmatic cultural trend in America today. From the preacher Joel Osteen to Oprah Winfrey to Dr. Phil, she questions why this trend (happiness as the cure for all malaise) has become so entrenched in popular culture, and when, if how, it might end.

"There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.”

Happiness, Ehrenreich says, is not the same as feeling good, or having a generalized positive outlook on life or about being hopeful or even courageous. Feeling good, or feeling bad, are natural human emotions and are legitimate ways to cope with life, especially during times of crisis, such as when suffering from cancer, as the author was. Stricken with this deadly disease, Ehrenreich's therapist asked her on more than one occasion to embrace her ailment, to accept it cheerfully, to befriend it almost in a halo of light.

That, she feels, is brainwashing and a very irresponsible way of looking at the world.

Ehrenreich likens happiness to what it has become in many circles-- a sort of mysterious, supernatural mantra that can be channelled by a proactive mental process in the vain hope of altering reality to conform to our wishful thinking, which is what it is.

Under the veneer of so much happy talk there lurks a darker shadow, though, and that's one of the most fascinating aspect of Ehrenreich's book. By comparison with other industrialized nations, in America children are most likely to die in infancy and grow up in dire poverty. The health care system, as we all know, is fractured at the same time that it is also one of the most expensive. We have a very high rate of incarceration. Our income disparities is becoming alarming. We Americans consume 2/3 of all the world's market for antidepressants.

The list is long. Exhaustive. Sobering under so much talk about happiness.

Throughout the book, Ehrenreich continually asks some very important questions. Do we say that we're happy because we're truly happy? Or do we just say that we're happy in order to fight off personal insecurities? Are we happy because we rely so much on prescription, or illegal, drugs and are constantly in a daze? If we didn't rely on so many antidepressants, would we feel as happy?

As she cautions in the introduction, “there is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.” Ouch.

The culture of happiness, in all its variants, is just an offshot of the old idea of progress. It is nothing new. People who adher to it see human nature as malleable, progressing towards a better future based on reason and, yes, happiness. Hence, “the pursuit of happiness” in our Bill of Rights.

But where most of these progressive ideas stopped short, extremism filled the gap. Fast-forward into the 21st century, and you grasp how these extremist ideas have been reinterpreted in a way that has become a billion dollar business.

Happiness, divorced from circumstances, is an utopian ideal, and that's the main theme of this book. After all how can anyone argue against happiness? 

Feeling happy is an ennobling and healthy endeavor, perhaps one of the healthiest feelings any of us can have. As it has been demonstrated by scientific research, without the feeling of feeling happy or without the feeling of what happens generally (to paraphrase Antonio Damasio an expert in neuroscience) our human species would be in a much sorry shape.

Happiness becomes a problem, a pathological New Age mumbo jumbo, though, when all other feelings except it are discredited offhand as less than or unworthy of other forms of human feelings. Like it or not, to be sad has its merits.  To be depressed.  To be angry.  To feel revengeful.  Within the panoply of human feelings, none should be repressed or disregarded.

The world, life, living in general, is full of strife. Unfortunately, as the conclusion of this books attests to, there really isn't a bluepring for living, only a propensity for survival and that can be either good or bad, happy or sad. The world is what it is and we are vulnerable creatures living in it, reacting to circumstances, often times rebelling against them, while at other times accepting our fate with quiet, resigned acquiescense.

If by the end of the book you feel a little less happy, cheer up. A gloom and doom existential scenario is not what this book is about; after all, life-- the mystery of living-- is something not to be despaired about.  On the contrary, there's cause for celebration in living. 

So if along the way in your journey you ever feel genuinely happy about something or someone, then consider yourself lucky and cherish those moments for as long or as short as they may be.

09 February, 2010

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

by Jorge Reyes

One of our most cherished constitutional rights is the first amendment's freedom of speech. With it also comes the free exercise of religion and the establishment clause.

These emblematic basic principles sets us apart from other countries, being unique in many ways. Together, they are a compodium of words, ideas and Enlightenment principles instilled in us from the day we are born. Whatever their real practicalities in our lives, unfortunately we often may take them so much for granted that we often don't realize how vulnerable those first basic rights are, and how they can be taken away from us, often in subtle ways.

Freedom of speech has not been a very popular thing to sell. I think it is one of the toughest things to sell. Historically, there have been times when this right of self-expression has been all but real, such as when it has been used as a tool of suppression or against sedition, or when it has been used against economic reform between the right of contract between corporations and employees.

Even the most freedom-lovers among us defend this right, except when it is not to their liking. After all, it takes a commandable spirit of magnanimity to defend hate groups, to give but one example.

Of late, I haven't seen more academic polemic over a Supreme Court decision than Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which was decided by a five-to-four vote. The Court's opinion overturned the McCain-Feingold Act (the Act) which forbade corporation or union television advertising that endorsed or opposed a particular candidate. In effect, the opinion said that corporations can spend unlimited funds on political advertising in any political election. At issue was a pay-per-view documentary critical about then Senator Hillary Clinton, totally financed by corporate money.

The Court's decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, was joined by the conservative wing of the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. The dissenting opinion was written by Justice John Paul Stevens and joined by the other liberal justices.

Immediately everyone, whether from the Left or the Right, read this decision as flawed, onerous, and simplistic, and mostly for the same reasons. One side saw it as a Right-wing judicial activism favoring the already entrenched power of corporate money into the political arena. The other side saw it as a total disregard for democracy, treating corporations as individuals not as legal fictions, with the same freedoms of speech as you or I have.

Each side, of course, is both right and wrong. One cannot pick and choose what we like and still call it freedom of speech. On the other hand, democracy can become a mockery if one group can buy themselves into power while the rest of us remain on the sidelines as mere expectators.

I happen to be a strong defender of first amendment rights. As a writer, I feel that there should be no infringment on speech, of any type. Whatever reason may exist for suppressing speech is just that-- an excuse, whether it's the Left or the Right doing the suppression.

Years ago when I wrote a book about Cuba, I received a flood of hate mail from people who didn't understand why I had returned to Cuba. Some, taking pen and paper in hand, wrote missives against me in local newspapers. The bitterness was intense. I felt vulnerable. With nothing but my ideas, I spent almost a year in a public relations campaign trying to defend myself and educate people about my decision to travel to Cuba either on TV, radio, or the print media. It never crossed my mind to stop speech by suing my detractors in court for libel. (For the record, I say “sue them” because that's exactly what many prominent Cuban-Americans have often donein the past, shut their oponents up by suing them for libel. I'm thinking of the late Jorge Mas Canosa and his bitter, long-standing feud against the Miami Herald, and even Castro's sister, Juanita Castro, who sued her niece Alina Fernandez in a Spanish court of law after Alina wrote a book critical of her lineage.)

One can't believe in democracy, much less become fully engaged in our democratic experiment, if elections are decided by who has the most money, what group is most vocal, and who has access to the halls of power. That's a problem; a highly dangerous one when so many groups are marginalized or on the fringe of society without the right to vote, others are totally unrepresented, or yet others the apathetic ones don't feel that their vote counts for anything. You can call all these scenarious the sad pathology of our modern democracy, and it is a serious one. While on principle everyone is treated equal, is it true in practice?

That's what the McCain-Feingold Act tried to rectify and what the Supreme Court tipped the balance by saying “sorry, no can do.” The difference is more than one of degree. It is how each side interprets differently one paradigmatic principle.

The implication between the Act and the Court's decision is this: if democracy and the first amendment mean anything it is that democracy is flawed, not perfect, and that it will continue to be so and in need of help; and that the first amendment, instead of guaranteing equality of results, is only a method, a tool at our disposal and nothing more. Whether one group gets the upper hand or not is beyond its purview.

The idea of a populist right (the Act) and a democracy based on majority rule (emblematic of the Supreme Court decision) are often diverging and on opposite ends of the pole. It's an old tug-of- war as old as Athenian Democracy, one that continues in our modern age, and one whose results you may want to monitor yourself next time there is a national debate about a major issue, such as a Presidential election or healthcare reform.

Perhaps the best cure to rectify the democratic malaise of current times between moneyed interest and populism is by becoming more civic-minded and instead of bemoaning the sad state of democracy, becoming fully engaged in it.

01 February, 2010

Cuba's "Los Van Van" concert in Miami not as divisive to Cuban-Americans as it once was

by Jorge Reyes

The first thing my mother said when I told her the Cuban band Los Van Van was going to perform in Miami was: “Wow, what memories.”  She, of course, was reminiscing about a band she remembers fondly from her youth, a band that led by Juan Formell celebrates its 40th anniversary with an international tour, which kicked off with a concert in Key West on Sunday night.

If you're somewhat familiar with Cuban issues this may be yet another instance of our seemingly intractable political impasse.  If you're not familiar with Cuban issues at all and your only idea of Cubans in Miami is via the Elian Gonzalez saga, you must be trying to figure out what all the fuzz is about.

In a nutshell, for years Cubans in Miami have refused to welcome any performer or any other public figure who lives in Cuba.  Anyone disagreeing with this mentality has been called everything from fascist to terrorist to, worse, murderer.  I kid you know.  Whether this is true or not, to the exiles anyone who stayed behind is representative of a communist regime, and that's enough to ostracize them in a free country such as ours.    

This all makes for some weird bad publicity to Cuban-Americans.

To the outside world, Cubans in exile seem like a throwback of another age; a community that does love this country and has done relatively well, yet seems to have very little respect for the first amendment.  That's a shame, though, for it is a myth; one that may be shared, perhaps rightfully so, by that first generation of immigrant Cubans still yearning to return to the Cuba of their dreams in a few month's time; those who think the world has remained still since they first fled a political dictatorship in the early 1960's; those who think the Cold War is still a political presence to be fought.  All of that has been a myth; a myth because it simply isn't true any longer.

Thankfully also, the geopolitical issues of 1959 are not those of 2010.

Times do change, folks, and when Los Van Van played last night in the James L. Knight Center, a cultural shift of sorts seems to have occurred in only a decades' time since they played last in Miami in 1999.  At that time, there were more protesters than concert-goers.  This time around, things were different. Radically different.  As reported in the news media, of all the thousands of protesters expected only about 350 showed up.  The views of a new generation of Cubans seems to have shifted from that of their ancestors.  And that, I think, is a good thing.

For many years, one of the things I've always said is that the Cuban community is not a monolithic group.  We have different views on a plethora of issues, including the Cuban embargo, Castro, and what we would hope happens in the last communist country in the western hemisphere.  I once gave a lecture about a book I wrote about Cuba.  Halfway into the lecture,  I got into verbal scuffle with a lady who defied and interrupted every word I said every time I mentioned what I consider to be the foolishness of maintaining the Cuban embargo.  Call it what you want, but that's how discussions about Cuba end up mainly among Cubans-- personal and highly emotional personal attacks.  That's it. 

Dissidents like me who do not share the either/or mentality of the Cuban exiled community for decades have been the most silent minority due in large part to us not wanting to go against the tribe. In the past, to speak and think differently in my South Florida community is often an attempt in intellectual futility and outright censorship.

But regardless of how you feel about this topic, what 4,000 concert-goers did seem to say is that changes can happen, and often in subtle ways.  After all, what happened to the thousands of protesters that showed up during the last concert in 1999? Did they suddenly die?  Did they have a change of heart?  Are they looking at alternatives ways to end what I call the Cuban impasse?  I wish it's the former for that would imply a different strategy towards the betterment of a 50-year old fractured and volatile relationship.

Protesters, of course, have of course have a perfect right to peacefully protest against anyone they choose to.  Obviously the fact that Cubans are displaced all over the world is significant.  What they don't have a right to do is stifle speech, dissent, or music as in the past.   But how do we change this state of mind?  By further dividing our sense of nationhood against anyone immediately branded a communist? Or by using events, such as a concert, to narrow the gap of our great divide? 

What Los Van Van concert shouldn't be about is politics. That, unfortunately, is what it has always degenerated into.  What it should be about is culture and the arts, something alien it seems to many who hold on to this erroneous belief. 

And this is the bottom line: some famous Cubans have chosen to remain in the country of their birth and not try their luck somewhere else.  Like Los Van Van, I can name a few: writers like the well-known author Alejo Carpentier and actors like Rosita Fornes.  Whatever their personal reasons for staying in Cuba, the discussion should not solely focus on their political views, if at all.  What is important, though, is how we interact with one another from now on and how we choose to engage in a substantive conversation about where we go from here.  Hurling glass bottles and empty cans of sodas is hardly the way to be heard above the dim of ad hominens.

Which is probably what my mother had in mind when I told her that Los Van Van were going to play in the sunshine state.  The sudden joy in her face told me of another story, and another Cuban.  One that is not political.  One that is not divided.  One that can careless about any of the things we are often guilty by association.  Not once did she think of politics, Castro, or the so-called "exiles."  To her it was just about remembering her past, and that had nothing to do with politics.  Thank goodness.