Saturday, September 20, 2008

Believing is Seeing (BIS)

A reversal of the trite cliché “Seeing is Believing”, BIS implies that far from believing only what we see, we see only what we are disposed to believe and remain blind to whatever our mind can’t - or refuses to - conceive. Hence why “truths”, once accepted, often seem so blindingly obvious that we find it difficult to understand how our anyone could ever have thought otherwise; and why, conversely, resistance to innovative discoveries can be so fierce. Learned professors who looked through Galileo’s telescope thought the stars they observed were bits of trickery cunningly lodged between the lenses, and Pope Urban VIII had Galileo arraigned for refusing to place the earth at the centre of God’s universe. Nowadays, we regard the time when people were taught that the heavens revolved round the earth as unimaginably distant and almost incomprehensible.
Klaus Steinhausen, in an entertaining essay, recalls an encounter with a group of indigenous Ecuadorians from the remote eastern slopes of the Cordillera Condorcillo who had recently arrived in the capital, Quito. Emerging onto the sidewalk of a busy street they wandered, chatting and joking, into the roaring traffic, oblivious of the danger, deaf to the screeching brakes and the furious honking of irritated drivers. They saw and heard the commotion, but absorbed only what could fit into a landscape of mountain paths, the sedate progress of pack donkeys and llama, and the occasional asthmatic bus clattering unsteadily over rough terrain en route from village to village.
Not so different, according to Steinhausen, was the mental process that allowed US and UK politicians in 2003 to conjure Iraqi chemical and nuclear warheads from grainy photographs of desert ruins and wind-swept dunes.3 They formed a mental image of what they wanted to believe, and demanded that their eyes should see it.
Far from being a frivolous catch phrase, BIS suggests that most of what we think we know is more or less wrong. Dead wrong often; sometimes maybe a little right, though there’s hardly anything useful, valuable or meaningful that won’t end up being disputed, or disproved and superseded.
Life and truth are assertions; but so are illness, death, ignorance and untruth. We can only have a partial view even of the tiny portion of reality that confronts us; which is maybe why the Canadian speech habit of turning declarations into interrogations4 makes more sense than pretending to certainty.
Descartes rejected seeing and believing as sources of knowledge altogether, largely because the first was deceptive and the second unprovable. Instead he asked himself what could be said that was absolutely irrefutable. The answer he came up with made his reputation: Cogito ergo sum5. From that simple foundation he tried to build a picture of the world based on other “irrefutable” sentences. The trouble he ran into was that the “Cogito” tells us nothing about the external world, only about ourselves; and so far no one has come up with a way of leaping from one to the other without use of the senses.
Samuel Beckett shows us just how deceptive the senses can be. His hero Watt recalls lying in a ditch listening to three frogs croaking Krak! Krek! Krik! If we had heard that sequence, as we passed in and out of earshot, we would not have known that the frogs didn’t croak one after the other, but at nine-beat, six-beat and four-beat intervals respectively, which meant they would croak 79 times before the sequence Krak! Krek! and Krik! would be heard again.6 A passer-by would probably not have reported the frogs in the same way as Watt, though both would have heard the same croaks. Our certainties, Beckett is telling us, are merely assumptions.
Not that anything discourages us from claiming to see the light. Politicians notoriously do so - their vehemence, taste for propaganda, partisanship, and general mendacity being invariably proportional to the flimsiness of the platform on which they stand. They are not alone. Philosophers, historians, neighbours, colleagues, spouses, and children arguing in the playground all proclaim the primacy of their vision and the feebleness of their opponent’s. Rival churches have always aggressively defended their own versions of the eternal verities. And today, their lieutenants still solemnly tell soldiers that in murdering other folk and destroying their homes they do but the will of god.7
Who better than scientists to demonstrate that Believing is Seeing? For they have always shown a remarkable capacity to see what they believe and, for that matter, to believe what most fits the convenience of theory. Sometimes the thrill of discovery coincides with convenience - as it did for Newton and Einstein at the height of their investigative powers. But though Newton claimed to see further because he stood on the shoulders of dead giants, like Copernicus, nothing could dissuade him from stamping on living ones, like Leibniz, who was his equal in mathematical invention8,.. . Leibniz and Newton might have become colleagues had not jealousy blinded the Englishman to the qualities of everyone other than himself.
Einstein, a kindlier figure, nevertheless refused to countenance Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle9 because it conflicted with his belief that uncertainty was not an acceptable property of the physical world: “God,” he insisted, “doesn’t play dice”10.
Arguments about novel theories are the common currency of academic discourse. Professors commonly dress up theory as fact, form cabals, and excoriate opponents. Human-induced global warming, for example, is either “scientifically proven” or “an absurd myth”, and the advocates of each view “highly-respected” or “purblind embarrassments to themselves and their profession.”
The side on which we stand depends on... well... on what we believe. Or maybe on what we want to believe; or maybe on what the person who pays our salary wants us to believe.11 In science, said Einstein, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Once we’ve seen something in our mind’s eye, we should be able, with a little effort, to find it in the street.
3 Klaus Steinhausen, “The Elusiveness of Truth”, in Transactions of the Trelew Philological Society, Vol 10. No. 9.
4 New Englanders share the habit.
5 ‘I think therefore I am’
6 Samuel Beckett, Watt, Paris 1953.
7 “Thus we have learned that one of the duties of a decent citizen is to slaughter people,” Rousseau, Discours sur L’Origine de L’Inégalité.
8 Both independently discovered Differential Calculus - a method of calculating rates of change.
9 A basic tenet of Quantum Mechanics which states that we cannot determine both the position and the momentum of a particle at the same time.
10 Albert Einstein, Letter to Max Born, 4 dec, 1926. But did Einstein really imagine he knew what God got up to in His spare time?
11 The world is naturally averse
To all the truth it sees or hears,
But swallows nonsense and a lie
With greediness and gluttony.
- Samuel Butler (1612-1680), Hudibras

Friday, September 19, 2008

Cuba Libre

This piece was originally written for Open Democracy.

When writing about Cuba westerners do well to begin - as Fred Halliday did - with their credentials. His are as lamentably inadequate as are those of most people whose comments about Fidel Castro's resignation have found their way into the press. Very few western journalists - or academics - have visited Cuba other than fleetingly, and the majority, like Halliday, base their accounts on conversations they claim to have had with Cuban officials - fortified not infrequently by quotations drawn from the underground river of hostility that runs between Washington and Florida.

To the above, of course, Richard Gott is an honorable exception. He knows the country well - and its history very well - although his historical summary for Open Democracy would have benefited from an attempt to address some of the more well-founded criticisms of post-revolutionary Cuba such as Che Guevara's naive economic policies, and Fidel's reluctance to build a political system independent of his - or anyone else's - personality.

In any case, before adding my two cents to the discussion, I will follow the lead of both contributors and offer a summary of my own experience of Cuba and Latin America.

I have worked in and been a student of the region for roughly thirty years. I lived in Mexico during the 1970s, which was then the only country in Latin America where it was possible to meet and converse with Cubans who supported the revolutionary government. For a time my apartment was one of several where Cuban visitors knew they would find a welcome - and sometimes a bed for the night - during their visits to Mexico's capital city.

At the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económias (CIDE) in Mexico City, where I taught from 1974 - 1977, my colleagues included former government ministers, senior politicians and university professors from Argentina, Chile and Uruguay - all of them refugees from the right-wing military regimes of the 1970s. I was on the editorial team (the only non Latin-American) of CIDE's first serial publication. Its rather clumsy title - Estados Unidos, Perspectiva Latinoamericana - was sufficiently alarming to evoke adverse comment in the US congress - and for several of us to have our telephones tapped (mine among them). My encounter with a good selection of ministers and senior officials of Salvador Allende's government led me to conclusions similar to those of Fidel himself after his visit to Allende's Chile. Looking back over the period from the comfort of his spacious house in a Mexico City suburb, one of those refugee ministers quietly admitted to me over a glass of wine that - "Most of us were armchair revolutionaries. We didn't think it was for real". None of my CIDE colleagues noticed nor cared to hear about the wretched slum, built on a city garbage dump, that stood in all its appalling ugliness and stench just across highway - the old road to Toluca - that ran at the back of the splendid campus that the institution took over when the Universidad de las Americas moved out of town.

Following my years in Mexico, I worked at various times in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and most of Central America. And about twelve years ago, I finally got to know Cuba first hand - not as a tourist or journalist - but as a consultant charged with the task of establishing a joint venture between a Canadian corporation and a Cuban state-owned enterprise. During my several visits to the island, I traveled extensively and met a wide range of Cuban citizens, from government ministers to small farmers, from writers and intellectuals to taxi-drivers, from students to bricklayers, from bureaucrats to laborers, from teachers to waiters. I met and chatted with soldiers and police officers; with engineers and agronomists trained in the Soviet Union and who spoke fluent Russian; and with fans of American baseball.

At no stage, during my sojourns in Cuba, did my movements or conversation come under scrutiny; nor did anyone I spoke to show any unwillingness to discuss even touchy subjects like domestic politics or the economic situation. One of my Cuban friends was a key adviser to Carlos Lage - a powerful, long-serving member of the government. From the hours and days spent with my friend, I learned much about how government really works in Cuba - and also about how readily Cubans criticize political decisions and make fun of bureaucratic procedures. Cuba is not in any meaningful sense a police state. Not, in fact, in any sense at all. And it operates a form of internal democracy that would put some of our own democratic processes to shame.

Certainly Cubans are not well off by our standards. Years of economic embargo have taken their toll. Nor, however, do they suffer the abject poverty so widespread elsewhere in Latin America. The villas miserias, the ciudades perdidas, the favelas are mainland specialties. To be sure, there are disagreeable aspects of Cuba's internal economic arrangements, not the least of which is the dual economy that virtually excludes nationals from tourist hotels and restaurants - though contrary to the misrepresentations of conservative pundits - they are not forbidden to enter such places or barred from accepting invitations from foreigners. Cubans may not enjoy the consumption patterns of middle-class Americans or Europeans, but they are among the healthiest and best educated citizens in Latin America. Readers who doubt this may like to consult the UN's Human Development Report, where they will find that Cubans have a life expectancy similar to that of Americans and higher than that of all the other Latin-American countries except Chile; and Cuba's literacy rate of 96.9% is exceeded in Latin-America solely by Uruguay's 97.2%. This is a remarkable achievement in a country which the most powerful nation on earth has spent considerable time and effort trying to undermine.

Other negatives?

Perhaps the most obvious - and in my view the most inexcusable - are the government's control of the media, and ludicrous over-sensitivity to public criticism. It seems unfortunate that, fifty years after the revolution, the government still has not learned to trust its own citizens. This is, of course, a failing shared by many governments - not least that of the UK where we have a free press but can no longer walk down city streets or drive anywhere without being spied upon by cameras. Were those cameras located in Havana, we would be told that they were the typical hallmark of a police state.

Undoubtedly there are prisoners jailed for their political activities. These so-called "prisoners of conscience" have been convicted in Cuban courts of plotting or encouraging the overthrow of the government. As recent "anti-terrorist" legislation has shown only too clearly, they would also find themselves incarcerated in the UK - and for that matter everywhere else in the western hemisphere. Western journalists make much of Cuba's "political prisoners"; but nothing at all of the Miami five - Cuban patriots jailed in the US on trumped up charges by what effectively amounted to a kangaroo court.

And how easily these commentators slide over the unpalatable fact that, in addition to the innumerable attempts on Fidel's life, the US financed and armed an invasion force to "retake" the island: the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco. Then, as now, the US government put out the story that their purpose was only " to bring freedom and democracy to the people". But now as then, the Cuban people don't want to be set free by the United States - or indeed by anyone. What is not generally understood in the West is that the Cuban revolution of 1959 was a war of national liberation; and its success marked the first time in the island's modern history that it became truly self-governing. What the US lost in 1959 was, in all but name, a colony - of which the last remnant is the now infamous Guantanamo Bay - land leased against the wishes of the Cuban people by their former colonial master. Independence, and the fact that, for fifty years, Cuba has stood as an example to other Latin-American countries are what stick in the craw of the US body politic. More important still - and equally unpleasant to neo-liberals - Cuba offers a message - some may call it a dream (though a compelling one) - that alternatives to raw, neo-liberal capitalism exist and that, in the end, these alternatives may offer the best hope for the future of mankind and of the planet.

And Cubans do not stop at theory. The island is a movingly generous contributor of aid to other developing countries. Unfriendly commentators like to refer to Cuban "interference" in Africa - by which they usually mean Cuba's assistance in liberating Angola from Jonas Savimba and his US/South-African backed militia. They prefer to pass over the fact that the small island of Cuba was the largest provider of medical aid to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake. Nor do they mention that over a thousand Cuban doctors are currently providing free medical services to impoverished Bolivians. These doctors are not there to foment revolution or to meddle in local politics, but to demonstrate solidarity with the Bolivian people by helping to improve the lives of the poor. By contrast, far richer countries of the West seem content to stand back, criticize and do little else.

Recent critics of Cuba have become fond of describing the island's economy as "in ruins" thanks to the "failed" economic policies of a "discredited regime" (the references are drawn from the BBC, The Guardian and The Independent).

Every regime makes mistakes - and Cuba's is no exception. Some of its economic policies - particularly during the early years - were nonsensical. But the economy is not in ruins. On the contrary, the regime has survived years of US hostility and the "período especial" following the demise of the Soviet Union for the best of all possible reasons: because on the whole, the people believe in the tenets of the Revolution; and they work to sustain it. The image of Fidel Castro as an evil dictator who oppresses his people is simply false. When he dies the people will not rejoice, they will lament the passing of a man whom many regard as the father of the nation; and they will fear the arrival of McDonalds and what it symbolizes: the wretched social inequalities of the neo-liberal model. They will remember what the Revolution overthrew: the US puppet government of Batista , the slums on the outskirts of Havana, the racial apartheid that forbade blacks to be seen in the elegant suburb of Miramar after 6pm. And this contributor, at least, hopes they will resist any attempt to turn back the clock.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Obama's Mountain

The 2008 US Election

On August 28, Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, the first "black" American to run for the highest office with a real chance of making it. Something new and strange must be taking place in the American political landscape. We are accustomed to American presidents with anglo-celtic names: Bush, Clinton, Nixon, Carter, Johnson, Kennedy. Barack Obama resembles none of these. A different world radiates from his name no less than from the colour of his skin, the rhythmical lilt of his voice, and the hope he embodies for the America of our dreams.
What are those dreams? Well they are doubtless different in their detail, but in outline they are surely one: a kinder, less corrupt, more socially inclusive country at home; and a nobler, less venal and trigger-happy one abroad. Would Obama deliver? Probably not; but judging by his popularity beyond US borders, we foreigners will expect him to try.
First, though, he has to get there over the hard-bitten, racist prejudices of redneck middle America, the vicious smears characteristic of Republican campaign advertising, and the corrupt meddling in the electoral voting procedures of Republican politicians and their factotums.
All of these hurdles are difficult to negotiate, but by far the most difficult will be racial prejudice. None of us know how many Americans remain infected by this wretched mental aberration; but the chances are that it's more than we think, and more, far more, than any of the pollsters and media commentators would have us believe.
Common sense tells us that what voters are prepared to tell a pollster can differ radically from what they choose to do with their vote in the privacy of the polling booth. Even so, small town America - the deeply reactionary heartland of traditional Republicanism - tends to be less shy about expressing illiberal views than big-city America of the coasts and Great Lakes. So it's no surprise to hear a BBC interviewee at the Republican Convention tell the world that Barack Obama may be intelligent but 'You never know what someone of mixed race might do. You can't trust people like that.' And the insidious suspicion spreads like a contagion over the air waves and the prairie landscape that Barack Obama can't be a true American.
Because to be a true American, you need a white skin, a small vocabulary and a taste for guns. If you're a good American as well as a true one, you believe God created the universe about 5000 years ago, abortion is evil and it's okay to torture 'suspected' terrorists. Around thirty-five percent of the U.S. electorate belongs in this last category. Rock-hard right-wingers with a virulent hatred of anyone or any idea bearing a 'liberal' sticker, they are the torch-bearers of righteousness, the enlightened ones, the new children of Israel, inheritors of the promised land. They form the backbone of the Republican Party, and no Republican Candidate can afford to ignore them.
These sanctimonious, poorly educated 'true' Americans have the power of numbers: there are enough of them in the US hinterland to sway the election. America's fate and maybe that of the world is in the hands of dullards; people brought up on prejudice and betrayed by an educational system that neither cares nor caters for them.
Hence why John McCain, the Republican candidate, chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. A maverick himself, and regarded with suspicion by the mainstream right, he needed one of their number on his side: an all-American, huntin', shootin' an' fishin', god-fearing, creationist. Palin fits the bill nicely. A former beauty queen with a modest intellect, she radiates all the timeless Republican values: admiration of the military, a fake contempt for the Washington elite, and vacuous patriotism proclaimed for no other purpose than to win applause for herself and cast doubt on the loyalty of the Democratic nominee whom, she noted in her speech to the faithful at the 2008 Republican Convention, had never pronounced the word 'victory' in his reflections on the US government's military folly in Iraq, and by inference was therefore a borderline traitor.
Like most of her kind, Palin makes a virtue of ignorance. She doesn't know what the US vice-president does or stands for - and obviously hasn't thought about it - but that's why she's the ideal candidate: an outsider, a Mrs Smith going to Washington with a mission to clean it up.
Commentators agree, by the way, that she understands nothing about foreign policy; but that particular weakness has never troubled the American electorate. And besides, nobody even tries to dispute the received orthodoxy, namely that McCain's spell in a Vietnamese prison camp some thirty-five years ago qualifies him as an expert in international affairs. Nobody in America anyway. The rest of us are baffled. If jail is the place to acquire expertise, then the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay can look forward to glittering foreign service careers - assuming they make it out of there one day.
Republicans believe - and act as if - US elections are won by toadying to prejudice and keeping it simple. Therein lies another problem for Obama. He is bright, passionate, and inspiring, and he wants to win by the superiority of his ideas, the quality of his vision and the clarity of his arguments. But a good 50% of the US population wouldn't recognize a well-expressed idea if it knocked them over in the street.
Should we care who wins? Before you answer, take a look at Jonathan Friedland's article in The Guardian.
If you'd like a redneck view, click here.