This week Hannah Arendt’s notion of “past and future” has been revealed at DC. We have addressed a variety of different issues, trying to orient our future action, by thinking about our experiences. We have looked at the headlines, but also looked elsewhere and thought about different experiences to support the imagination.
I was particularly happy to receive Sergio Tavolaro’s post on President Obama’s visit to Brazil. Following cable news logic, it was a big mistake for the President to go to Brazil, given the pressing problems at home, centered on the impending budget crisis and the great debate about jobs and the deficit, and the military engagement in Libya and the growing uncertainties in North Africa and the Middle East. Yet beyond news sensation, there are important ongoing developments in the Americas, with very significant changes and challenges. Paying attention to Latin America, not only connected to drug and immigration issues, is a necessity especially when there are problems elsewhere.
Brazil is an emerging global power. Brazil and the United States have a long, sad history, marked by domination and political repression. As Brazil has emerged politically and economically, it often has defined its independence against the United States. Obama’s trip worked to change this. The highlight: the historic appreciation of the first African American President of the United States meeting the first woman President of Brazil. Tavolaro reports that there is a fascination with a shared progressive heritage, working against racism and sexism. And he notes that Obama embodied the declaration of equal partnership between nations: the President of the United States visited Brazil before he had an audience with the Brazilian leader in Washington, reversing the usual order. Using a sad past, the Brazilian population could and did imagine a hopeful future with the great American superpower to the north. This is important news for them and for us.
Karl Marx famously said “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Gary Alan Fine shows how sometimes it works the other way around. First the popular entertainment show, “Candid Camera,” and now the grave dangers of the politics of surveillance.
I believe there is a need to distinguish between the public and the private. I think that targeted revelations about hidden injustice is necessary, but generalized invasions of that which is private will have a long time effect of diminishing democratic capacity, as Daniel Dayan, Elzbieta Matynia and I have noted here, as we each reflected on the WikiLeaks controversies. The new form of simulated revelations is even more pernicious. It has been associated with the left, directed at Governor Scott, but especially by the right, directed at wonderful organizations such as ACORN, Planned Parenthood and NPR. I always find Fine provocative, but I often disagree with him. On this issue, in his linking between a happy past with a frightening future, I am in complete agreement.
Esther Kreider-Verhalle reminds us of the long term effects of Chernobyl as we are observing the horrors of natural disasters in Japan and the failing reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. It is a cautionary note, about future dangers, especially meaningful to me as I live less than twenty miles downstream from the Indian Point Energy Center.
And when I wrote about enhancing nature and mission creep, I also was positioning myself between past and future, trying to inspire thoughtfulness about not only the perils, but also the promise of our times. I often find strength, facing public and private challenges and difficulties, at my favorite retreat, the Rockefeller State Park. I thought about its special qualities to get me out of my latest funk, trying to absorb and think about the painful news from Japan. Bridges old and new helped me think this through, helped me link past and future, reminding me that the human hand can create useful, beautiful and meaningful things. I am looking forward to more reflections on bridges as they enable us to make creative links. Elzbieta Matynia has written incisively about this in her book Performative Democracy. I hope she will adding a post on this here in the near future.
And on my hopes for mission creep, I must confess some deep concerns. I see real creativity and promise in the Middle East and North Africa. But as that promise is being met by violent suppression and as it is defended by violent resistance, I fear the promise is retreating. I will consider this further in my next post, but in the meanwhile, some thoughts related to Michael Corey’s reply to my post. I don’t have a highly elaborated justification of American actions. I am appalled as he is by the administration’s use of the term “kinetic military action,” although I understand why they don’t simply use the word “war.” This is an intervention, very quickly enacted with multinational support, to stop an impending massacre of innocents. As the international support for the action was elegant, the domestic enactment has been clumsy. Using newspeak to cover this clumsiness is not a good idea. Obama’s speech to the nation on Monday is the way to go. I look forward to it and will deliberately review it here on Tuesday. But in the meanwhile, please take a look at a series of posts by Juan Cole. He presents the facts on the ground which explains why action was urgent, how it has been successful and why the mission creep I hope for has a chance.