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PSBMS: On Correcting Unwarranted Fears and Views


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Is Cono Sur Becoming the South American Scandinavia?

Montevideo, capital of Uruguay

Montevideo, capital of Uruguay

The slow evolution of UNASUR in South America (this continent’s version of the European Union), and the fact that Uruguay and Chile now have standards of living that are beginning to look like those of Scandinavian countries, have gotten little to no attention in North American corporate media.

Today, Uruguay has the highest standard of living south of the Rio Grande. It has a poverty rate lower than 2%, gay marriage, legal marihuana, and a highly efficient and prosperous socialized economy that produces a robust middle class, rather than producing the levels of marginalization that exist in North America. In fact, it’s thanks to the continent’s recent rejection of disastrous neoliberal policies of past regimes that South America is consolidating its progressive identity. Jose Mujica‘s country is followed closely in prosperity by Chile, a resource-rich land which is emerging as one of the great economic powers of the continent.

Brasil and Mexico may be excused for being superpowers by their sheer size. Also, the legacy of classism and the economic marginalization problems in these countries are quite evident: this graphic shows the considerable difference in income levels between Mexico’s northern states and the predominantly-indigenous southern ones. Brasil’s south also is much wealthier than the rest of the resource-rich country, and many in Sao Paulo are considering secession from the rest of the country as a result of a pervasive sense that they give much more than they get from Brasil.

Other countries in Latin America are slowly emerging out of poverty at impressive rates. The Dominican Republic, which shares an island with Haiti, has seen annual growth at around 7% annually for the last few years and is being transformed by constant development, and so has Bolivia–in great part, thanks to Chinese investment.

Other countries have seen less impressive growth, but they nonetheless have shown great promise. Panama City is clean and prosperous enough to be considered the Dubai of the Americas. And Costa Rica, with its stable and prosperous green economy and its history of pacifism, is the Switzerland of the Americas.

Another point that must be noted is that the region is beginning to exhibit levels of stability that past generations never knew. UNASUR–the Union of South American Nations–has gained enough momentum and power to stop a burgeoning coup d’état, which threatened to remove the democratically-elected president of Ecuador. UNASUR is beginning to perform a role in stabilizing the region similar to that of the EU in Europe. It’s also advancing scientific exchange and strengthening regional and cultural solidarities.

The long-term goals of UNASUR include a shared passport and visa for all citizens of South America, a shared military to defend the region, and UNASUR also has an ongoing process that seeks to make their university programs mutually compatible so that a Masters or PhD program in any South American university will be considered valid, and its educational credits recognized, in university systems all over the continent.

Chapel in Argentinian Anctartica

Chapel in Argentinian Anctartica

The countries in the Cono Sur–the “Southern Cone” of Latin America–are the most promising, although Argentina continues to struggle with fiscal and debt problems. It’s out of Argentina and Chile that the Spanish language has taken root in Anctartica. Although the southernmost continent is under international treaty and cannot be exploited or settled, except for scientific reasons, these two Cono Sur countries are positioning themselves to become two of the dominant cultures in the Southern Pole region once the treaty expires.

The future of Anctartica is to a great extent Latin American, with icy towns bearing names like Villa Las Estrellas and Esperanza. About a dozen citizens of Argentina and Chile have already been born in Anctartic settlements, with the first child ever born there being an Argentinian who is now in his thirties.

The 21st Century is widely considered the Asian and Chinese century, and the silent yet persistent growth that we’re seeing in the South may not be getting much attention, but it seems the future has never looked brighter than it does now for Latin America.

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Drag Queens as Laughing Philosophers 


RuPaul’s Drag Race Winner & Drag Celebrity Bianca Del Rio

Academia has sold us the idea of philosophy as something so ancient, so irrelevant, and so marginal, that we forget to name our own wisdom traditions and our surrounding pop philosophy, even our ghetto philosophy, when we find it.

We sometimes think that philosophy belongs in ancient Greece and not in contemporary everyday reality. Philosophy is, actually, everywhere. It sustains many of our societal structures and inspires much cultural output: the cynical wisdom of comedians like George Carlin is philosophy. So are many of the isms to which we adhere, and the policies that our governments and civic bodies adopt are all inspired by philosophical views, some more accurately and carefully evaluated than others.

While studying queer theory, I learned of its treatment of coming out as parrhesia–frank criticism. One of the great Epicurean teachers of antiquity, Philodemus of Gadara, said that philosophers must engage in two forms of frank speech: private and public. From Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Parrhesia:

Both are crucial and necessary for different reasons …

The philosopher must speak frankly and openly to outside society in order to help emancipate others from ignorance or from tradition, and from the forms of suffering that ignorance and tradition generate.

Queer theory proposes that when gay people give up their need to conform to homophobic society and come out of the closet, they unmask the hypocrisies and double-standards of patriarchal and religious society, and that in doing this they perform a much needed societal role.

In gay culture, the act of pointing out a flaw in someone else (usually publicly and in front of them) and exaggerating it.

judgingDrag queens–and many who are not–also act as laughing philosophers and take the role of being critical of individuals and society to a whole other level. They have elevated reading to the status of an art.

When we read someone, we unmask their vulnerabilities and attack their psychological defenses. This can be quite intimidating and disruptive, and there is no question that reading has been misused way too many times, but there’s also no question that there are occassions when reading somebody is absolutely necessary and therapeutic. Bullies, politicians, arrogant religious fanatics, and false friends who betray our trust might at times profit from private or public parrhesia. Philodemus compares it to sour medicine without which there is no healing from some of the diseases of the human character.

I’m not inviting my audience to go out and read people indiscriminately, but when you do, be cautious, avoid abuse, and be mindful of the end goal: the healing of the character. Most importantly: have fun. Ancient Epicureans specifically employed suavity and comedy to soften and sweeten the bad medicine. Lucian’s Alexander the Oracle-Monger is the perfect example of this.

Ladies, the library is open! – RuPaul

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PSBMS: Respecting and Admiring Good People is Good for the Character


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The #OscarsSoWhite Hashtag: the Kiss that Awakened Hollywood from its Snow White Fairy Tale

Controversy has been ignited, taking the shape of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in social media, concerning how for the last two years the Oscar nominees have been all white. The reasoning behind the controversy involves the demographics in America, which include approximately 15% each of African American and Hispanic presence, and a smaller Asian population, but these communities–which, presumably should make up about a third of the nominess if the Oscars accurately represented America–are noticeably absent from the list of nominees.

A part of me hates the controversy, in part because actors are already egocentric enough and perhaps they get too much credit and too much is already expected of them as role models. They’re just people, and we should celebrate our everyday non-famous heroes at least just as much as we engage in celebrity cult. I’m also aware that good actors must be deemed good actors, and that if they all happen to be white this year, then they are white. But after two years in a row, and no Hispanic or Black nominees … well, we have to admit there’s just something shady about that.

The absence of non-white actors in many series and movies has not gone unnoticed. I may not watch much TV or many movies, but when I do, it’s very obvious that there is a lack of Hispanic actors and a strong preference for British accents in certain roles … even ones that somehow posit that in a galaxy far away and in other planets, British–not American–is spoken, particularly by certain dignified characters. People of color, if they do show up, are almost invariably extras, and the leading roles are overwhelmingly white, with frequent casting of foreign actors for these roles. People in movies and TV rarely if ever reflect what my own Chicago neighborhood looks like, and Hollywood would rather go out of its way to hire Australians or even white South Africans, or British actors from the other side of the ocean, than people that look like our neighborhoods, as if desperate to build and reaffirm an imagined Pan-Anglo identity even if they have to cross to the other side of the world to find their ideal.

There’s probably nothing inherently wrong with this Pan-Anglo fantasy that Hollywood seeks to have us imagine–understandable if and when the films are made between two countries–but it is worth noting and does say something about Hollywood’s values, aesthetics, and a certain elitism, self-segregation, and denial of the true composition of our demographics. Hollywood is in California, which is hugely diverse, and has for many years said that it is not the America that we see on our streets. It is something other, transnational, that imagines itself more European and whiter than America.

Clearly there are very talented actors in our own continent who are either starving or at least in need of and deserving of work. The over-representation of Australians in leading roles in American television and film might be justified if there was a migration of them as massive as our Hispanic and Black population.

So the challenge for Hollywood is to reshuffle its tired prototypes and reinvent and diversify what a dignified person looks and sounds like, what heroes look and sound like, and to allow itself to accept that maybe the key characters can sometimes be unexpectedly non-white or non-Anglo.

Leave it to a hashtag in 2016 to make the majority of us make these curious observations.

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War Against All Puerto Ricans: Book Review

The following is a book review and personal reflection about the book War Against All Puerto Ricans, by Nelson Denis

In the past, I’ve written about how DemocracyNOW’s Juan Gonzalez did an amazing job at changing the invisibility of Puerto Rico’s situation and producing an engaging and very well informed lecture on the current crisis there. I am now going to write about a book that I had been hesitant to read for months, but ultimately came around to reading and could not put it down.

I must explain my hesitation with a minute detail: my own father used to believe in independence for Puerto Rico, and he was one of the thousands of innocent citizens on whom the FBI had carpetas. He’s also from Utuado, which together with Jayuya was one of the places ever in history where the US government has bombed its own citizens. My own family history is embedded into, and put in relief against, the greater history of the Boricua tribe. Today, my father is merely cynical about nationalism, frequently telling people who support Puerto Rican statehood: “don’t have me remind you later that I told you so! (when things don’t turn out as statehooders expect)”. My family is divided on the political status, and having grown up in this environment day in and day out, this book provides me with context, helping me to understand the world from which my father’s cynicism emerged.

We must have Porto Rico, because when a territory of that nature falls into our hands it must never be parted with. – The New York Journal of Commerce

We are not pledged to give Porto Rico independence … It would be much better for her to come at once under the beneficent sway of these United States than to engage in doubtful experiments at self-government, and there is no reason to believe that her people would prefer it. – The New York Times

Because of the nature of what a colony is–basically a country that still has not gained political rights–colonies tend to have a difficult time getting their narrative right. The identity and reality of Puerto Ricans has been proposed and is monopolized by America. People born in Puerto Rico are tax-paying American citizens that live in an island occupied by America, must use American passports and visas when they travel out of the states, must therefore avoid going to where Americans are hated, are expected to abide by American laws, and are governed by a President and a Congress in whose democracy they are barred from participating. The island can not trade with other countries and its waters are protected by the US Coast Guard as part of the US Caribbean border. They have no say in their immigration policy, in who gets a green card and who can become a US citizen in their own island and gain the right to vote, etc.

This type of power over a population does not consolidate itself overnight, and what Nelson Denis does in War Against All Puerto Ricans is document the early decades of the American occupation of Puerto Rico, and how the local population was tamed into submission by the military industrial complex, particularly under anti-Communist paranoia which was at its height just as nationalists were most indignant and most prepared for a revolution against the greatest empire on Earth.

The author is a brilliant and engaging narrator, and the book reads like a novel, although it’s entirely historical and contains nearly 100 pages of sources which took decades to compile. WAAPR contains colorful and funny characters, side stories and anecdotes that are either a pleasure to read, or deeply shocking.

Another benefit of the book is that it helps people who have not lived in a colony to begin to understand the profound psychological repercussions of colonialism. There are many intangible things about living in Puerto Rico that can only be understood by living there. How media persistently presents a Spanish-speaking people with English-speaking cultural and aesthetic ideals, and how this slowly and daily erases the legitimacy of oneself. How the currency is in English and Spanish-language currency looks like fake money. How one’s identity is unclear and people question even whether Puerto Rico is a country, and whether they are in fact Americans. All these things, day in and day out, hammer into the collective psyche of a people, and Puerto Ricans are only uncomfortably, marginally, and awkwardly half-ass embedded into America’s collective psyche as outsiders who are also insiders.

WAAPR is not for the faint of heart, and one must be careful to read dispassionately. There were times during the reading when I had to put the book down. My stomach was revolted. It wasn’t when reading about the Ponce massacre and other massacres, or the sterilization of thousands of uninformed women, or the carpetas incident: these are all events I knew about. It was when reading about the parts I didn’t know about that I had to invoke sobriety: the imprisonment and torture of thousands of innocent people for believing in an ideal, the experiments with prisoners which reduced them to lab rats …

According to the Yankees owning one person makes you a scoundrel, but owning a nation makes you a colonial benefactor. – Pedro Albizu Campos

Then there were the instances where I had to remind myself not to blindly idealize people merely for their pro-nationalist views. Few people discuss how Albizu Campos, the hero of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, was a devoted Catholic who saw no distinction and no clear boundary between his patriotism and his faith: he probably would have instituted a loathsome theocratic-like regime on the island, if he had had his way. Yes, he was a great orator with unequaled passion, but so was Hitler: and for that same reason people need to stop themselves from following blindly after someone without digging deeper into the details of that person’s ideas.

Also, many people today are calling for the release of Oscar Lopez, who was a nationalist terrorist in the 70’s, and even have the audacity of comparing him to Mandela. Well, he’s no Mandela. The reason why dozens of other nationalists were set free and he wasn’t is because he has declared war on the US and refuses to give up violence as a tactic. He has basically sworn to continue engaging in the same acts that got him into jail. Do independentistas really want a terrorist who has vowed to kill innocent people again for the sake of his ideals to roam the streets, and become the image and the voice of their movement? That is the LAST thing Puerto Rico needs.

One small side note: a similar volume to this has probably not been written about Spain’s colonial misdeeds for four centuries prior to the Spanish-American war in Puerto Rico, which involved–among other things–the genocide of Tainos, the theft of all the gold in the island’s rivers and extraction of other wealth, the enslavement of Blacks, and the “libreta de jornada” which required even white Puerto Ricans to work for Spaniards and report their weekly hours of work to the government, instituting de-facto slavery even after slavery was abolished, and many other attrocities. It must be noted that the US was not better or worse than Spain as a landlord, and that idealized depictions of the Spanish heritage and history of the island are also biased and misinformed.

And so while I understand and share the anger and indignation that drove the author to write WAAPR, it’s important to evaluate the recklessness of some of these nationalists in honest light of the hard facts. And also, it’s important to remember that, in the end, their tactics DID NOT free Puerto Rico. The US is the most militarized empire in the history of humankind and the decolonization of the island, whether in favor of statehood or independence, must happen without the use of weapons.

The book painfully ends up with a reflection of America itself and at what cost she came to be “great”. It does not spare words of honesty in this regard. Maybe if enough people read this book, this false sense of exceptionalism, and the many sad dysfunctions that it masks, can be tackled honestly and overcome.

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