Monday, May 29, 2017

Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

I have learned over the past year that there is nothing quite like a David Foster Wallace essay. I read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. He's so smart, so funny, and so not in tune with everyone else. They're good essays, but not as good as the collection in Consider the Lobster.

"Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley" - a story about how he played tennis as a teenager in Illinois, all about how he was not all that gifted but very good at the instant calculations needed to account for angle, wind, and the like. If you are not into tennis, and I am not, then the first 2/3 of the essay might bore you a bit, but he gets in stride with the last part, where he discusses tornadoes.

"E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" - Wallace was addicted to TV and in this essay tries to connect it to fiction writing, arguing that fiction writers should take TV more seriously. This essay is more academia-ish, with unironic footnotes, so gets old after a while.

"Getting Away From Pretty Much Being Away From it All"- this sort of journalist-on-assignment thing is where Wallace is funniest, even though, as his biographer writes, he was "not particularly worried by veracity." It''s abundantly clear that he doesn't like pigs. Or rides. Or poultry. Or a bunch of things. I started to feel bad for him almost, with stream-of-consciousness writing born largely of sensory of overload, and then little nuggets like, "I ask a little kid to describe the taste of his Funnel Cake and he runs away."

"Greatly Exaggerated" - a Serious Essay of Literary Theory. Skim judiciously.

"David Lynch Keeps His Head" - he's on the set of Lynch's Lost Highway. He defines Lynchian as "a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment in the latter." Fun essay to read, though very rooted in the 1990s.

"Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff About Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" - I have never heard of Michael Joyce, but it seems he was a tennis player and in 1995 he played in the Canadian Open.

"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" - this reviews a week-long Caribbean cruise he took for Harper's. It is funny but you (or at least I did) have to get over his basic disgust with the entire idea of a cruise. As it goes on--and it's 100 pages--he gets more incisive and funny precisely about how he doesn't fit and basically laughs at himself. As a semi-agoraphobe, he scuttles out of his room for short periods of time, never leaving the ship when it docks, accumulates brief experiences, then runs back to his room to write about them in great detail. He makes a game effort to join in the fun, including doing crafts with old people, about which concludes, "I have absolutely no fucking idea what's going on," (p. 337) which made me laugh out loud. BTW, there are 137 footnotes in the story. That's a lot even for David Foster Wallace.

One last note is that his thought about being passively entertained and how empty it is makes you realize that Infinite Jest was rattling around in brain. At that time it was finished and in the process of editing.

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Resistance to Cuba Sanctions Increases

Unrestricted travel to Cuba is getting closer and closer.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) reintroduced a bill Thursday to eliminate all prohibitions on travel to Cuba. The bill, which had only eight cosponsors when first filed in 2015, now has the support of 55 senators from both parties.

And:

In a separate move to push the agenda forward, another piece of legislation was introduced on Friday to lift the trade embargo. The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017 was introduced by Sens. Leahy, Flake, Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming).

This is the sound of inevitability moving its way along. The ultimate irony is if Trump ushered in some of the most radical changes in Cuba policy since the Eisenhower Administration. But it's entirely possible. He has shown no interest in fulfilling campaign promises, this appeals to his business sense, he could personally profit from it, and he could claim to be bolder than any other presidents. It's gift-wrapped for him.

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Friday, May 26, 2017

Electoral Fun in Venezuela

Nicolás Maduro had announced a constitutional assembly, and now Anabella Abadi and Francisco Toro have a discussion of the electoral rules. The clear problem is simple:


how do you take 10-15% support in the opinion polls and turn that into 50%+1 of the seats in an elected Assembly?

Doing so requires creativity and by necessity also requires complexity. You have to advantage rural areas and specific groups of people, which means malapportionment. You may remember that malapportionment has been a key feature of the Venezuelan electoral system for years, including under Hugo Chávez, meaning that opposition votes have long been worth less. The main difference is that Chávez had a solid foundation of support to begin with.

This is a desperate and ad hoc effort to slap some facade of legitimacy on a crumbling government. And given the intensity of political conflict now, who knows whether the unwieldy body will ever actually meet.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Fox Trolls Trump

We live in such strange times. Disparaging U.S. presidents is not new--just think back to Hugo Chávez's famous "devil" speech at the United Nations but it's been focused on ideology and foreign policy. Nowadays Donald Trump is universally the source of jokes and criticism. Left, right, doesn't matter.

The current example is that former Mexican President Vicente Fox made a video for Donald Trump, mocking him and "the bees buzzing inside your brain," complete with the camera focusing on a piece of chocolate cake. It is quite insulting. He then put it on Twitter, complete with bad English.



Fox has been trolling Trump for a while, This takes it all one step further by actually having a full production, with script and everything.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Latin America Appointees

Kudos to Chris Sabatini and Latin America Goes Global for keeping everyone updated on who will fill the Latin America positions in the Trump administration. Here's the latest post.

The nominee for the key National Security Council post appears to be Juan Cruz, who was the CIA Director for Latin America but who Mark Feierstein says is pragmatic. In the same article, Dan Restrepo also spoke highly of him. But then here's this gem:


"I don't know his ideology," he said. "Those guys are paid not to let on, so it's hard to tell." 
Univision was unable to find a photograph of Cruz or any reference to him on the internet, a testament to his spycraft.
OK, that's a bit much. But it does mean we just don't know what his advice to Trump will be like. Just as we already know that Trump may or may not listen to what his advisors say.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cuban Government Goes Outside DC

The Cuban government has always understood U.S. politics better than the vast majority of Americans. It (really, meaning Fidel Castro) knew how the president must deal with public opinion, how parties interacted, how the executive-legislative relationship functioned, and how interest groups interacted at all levels.* So it's not surprising now that Cuban diplomats, led by Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas (also active on Twitter), have been going all over the United States, to universities and local governments, even in places like Montana, to introduce people to Cuba and thereby try to make it harder for the Trump administration to roll back President Obama's reforms.

This is smart, because it's outside DC that Cuba can really make a case. Governors of both parties from farm states have been traveling and selling to Cuba for years. Farmers don't care about the revolution, or the Bay of Pigs, or anything else. Mayors want to know how to better serve their constituents. Universities want travel, cultural exchange, and discussion. So yes, you have lobbyists like everyone else, but you campaign and make yourself visible. All of these activities help increase the political cost for rolling back normalization.

*read Back Channel to Cuba to see how Fidel mentioned these things in messages to U.S. presidents.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Latin America Economic Forecast

There is a new IMF economic forecast for Latin America, and after years of reading and blogging about them, I can say they vary little. In fact, one of my goals when I teach Latin American Politics is to drive home the basic argument:

Growth is up when commodity prices are up

Growth is down when commodity prices are down

See how easy that is? Latin America is a commodity-dependent region, period.

But there is a new and ugly twist.

The outlook and risks for Central America and Mexico are being influenced by their exposure to the United States through trade, migration, and foreign direct investment. Mexico’s real GDP growth is expected to decelerate to 1.7 percent in 2017. Uncertainty about future trade relations with the United States and higher borrowing costs are expected to more than offset the positive effect from stronger U.S. growth.

Sadly, the Trump administration is hurting Latin American economies just from uncertainty and incompetence.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Tanner Colby's Some of My Best Friends Are Black

I read Tanner Colby's Some of My Best Friends Are Black. It's a white guy who grew up in the South making a good effort to figure out integration, based on the epiphany that he has no black friends.

It's earnest and informative, but scattered. He moves around the South, looking at unexpected twists and turns (such as reasons why some black communities resisted integration). The beginning is partly his story because it involves interviewing people he knew, but then moves on to other areas.

The book really calls out for structure, some way to show how all this fits together in a coherent way, but there isn't any. If you want to read some mostly interesting but sometimes wandering stories, then great. If you want to finish the book with a new way of thinking about integration, then it's not that useful.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Podcast Episode 34: Violence Against Journalists in Mexico

In Episode 34 of Understanding Latin American Politics: The Podcast I talk with Jan-Albert Hootsen, who is Mexico Correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists, Trouw and America Magazine. As you might guess, he’s been focusing a lot on how dangerous it is to be a journalist in Mexico, and that’s the topic of conversation. Among other things, we talk about the murder of Javier Valdez and the complicity of the Mexican government (at all levels and across parties).


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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Roots of the Venezuelan Crisis

John Polga-Hecimovich has a nice article (detailed and loaded with links) on the historical roots of the Venezuelan crisis. He discusses partyarchy and its disintegration, oil dependence, elections, and poor economic decision-making. One lesson in particular that he draws caught my attention.


Politically, it suggests that free and fair elections are necessary but not sufficient for democracy, and that democracy requires effective ongoing citizen participation, political representation, and political equality.

In my Latin American Politics class, we use the concept of "polyarchy" as a starting point. Are there elections and competition? From there you can start talking about representation, individual liberties, and so on. So I agree with his point.

But I also think we need to emphasize that free and fair elections are critical. They are central to legitimacy, and right now the Venezuelan government is suffering badly from illegitimacy. Indeed, elections are central to the entire crisis because blocking them is what has intensified the opposition to the government.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

What's Missing From Venezuela Explanations

When I discuss the Cuban Revolution in my Latin American Politics class, I always make sure to spend time talking about why it was popular and what programs Cubans liked. If you don't do this, students are left with the impression that it never had any foundations of support, which is false. This is the problem with yesterday's New York Times "interpreter" article about the development of the Venezuelan.

It becomes a presentist argument, where you use today's sensibilities to understand the past. Right now there are mass protests and even lots of Chavistas are unhappy. But rewind a decade and that's not the case. Hugo Chávez won elections all the time. People were lifted out of poverty. There are many popular social programs that poor Venezuelans appreciated. The article suggests that a majority of Venezuelans have been been outraged since Day One.

This isn't a normative argument (i.e. whether you approved of Chávez or not, or even Fidel Castro) but an empirical one, and it is separate from the question of democracy being eroded. Without widespread popular support, Chávez couldn't have ruled as he did. That should be part of the narrative.

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Communists Write to Maduro

There is still a Communist Party in the United States, and it has translated (or at least approvingly published) an open letter to the government of Nicolás Maduro written by the Venezuelan Communist Party. Once you wade through the jargon, the message really is that all moderates need to be kicked out and radical forces should clamp down hard on all non-radicals. Then you've got "peace" (I will leave you to decide what "peace" means).

At the same time, in the context of a wavering and indecisive petty bourgeoisie in power, we call upon the most class conscious and militant sectors of the popular and workers’ movements, the peasantry, the middle strata, the revolutionary intellectuals and the patriotic officers to forge a block of forces to lead the wide patriotic, anti-imperialist alliance. Such and alliance must halt the seditious plans of the pro-US right and displace the reformist-appeasement sectors in government, which tend to favor the interests of the big capitalists and form pacts with social democratic elements of the right wing.  
Only an broad, popular unity, led by the organized and conscious working class can guarantee the defense of the Bolivarian nation and the deepening of the revolutionary changes towards the real construction of socialism on strong scientific foundations.
This is a step that Chavista leaders have never wanted to take, perhaps because the current system allows so much self-enrichment. But Hugo Chávez himself talked about "21st Century Socialism" as distinct from the 20th century, and therefore not in line with the Communists. At this point if the government cracks down harder, it's out of desperate self-preservation rather than ideological purity.

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Another Venezuelan Scapegoat

Nicolás Maduro fired his Health Minister, presumable for telling the truth that infant and maternal mortality jumped, while malaria and diphtheria were also more prevalent.

In a move that Donald Trump would be proud of, Venezuelan state media reports that Tareck Al Assaimi made the announcement on Twitter (here's the tweet). There is no official reason.

Of course, ministers are routinely sacked when a problem pops up. It gives the impression of doing something. In this case, however, it immediately boomerangs right back at Maduro, whose policies have been generating shortages. I assume the lesson for the next minister is to never release any statistics. The government is already famous for not wanting to release inflation statistics. In general, statistics of any kind make the government look really bad.

Update: even UNICEF is talking about the data. Yet another reason the government will try to find ways to suppress the release of any more.

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Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree

Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree (2004) immediately both hit me with irony and made me think I wish more people write such books. It's a short collection of essays, simply listing the books he bought and the books he read, with discussion, including personal stuff that pops up and admitting how many of the bought books were not yet read. That's reality.

My only quibble is that Hornby is less funny than he appears to think he is. I may well be guilty of the same, but I've never published a book of personal essays. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and would buy another (he has several such books, it seems).

But the irony is that because of a receipt I stuck in the book, I know I bought it from The Last Word used bookstore here in Charlotte (not far from UNC Charlotte, great store). Anyway, I bought the book over two months ago and basically forgot about it. I found it cleaning up my desk at home and then finally read it.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump Negotiates NAFTA

Donald Trump recently had an interview with The Economist and talked quite a bit about NAFTA. Besides the almost entirely inarticulate discussion about his goals, one particularly interesting point is that Trump, the master negotiator, seems not to understand that the leaders of Canada and Mexico are coordinating against him.

Now at the same time I have a very good relationship with Justin [Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister] and a very good relationship with the president of Mexico. And I was going to terminate NAFTA last week, I was all set, meaning the six-month termination. I was going to send them a letter, then after six months, it’s gone. But the word got out, they called and they said, we would really love to…they called separately but it was an amazing thing. They called separately ten minutes apart. I just put down the phone with the president of Mexico when the prime minister of Canada called. And they both asked almost identical questions. “We would like to know if it would be possible to negotiate as opposed to a termination.” And I said, “Yes, it is. Absolutely.” So, so we did that and we’ll start.

What's amazing is that Trump thinks this is amazing, when in fact he's getting played.

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Military Spending in Latin America

Elizabeth Gonzalez at AS/COA has a nice post on military spending in Latin America, using SIPRI data. Some highlights:

--Colombia spends a higher percentage of its GDP on the military than the United States. It should be a goal to reduce that drastically with the peace process underway.

--Venezuela's spending fell 56% last year, the largest decrease in the world. This is not good news for the government because lower level officers who struggle to pay the bills and buy food will not be particularly loyal.

--as a percentage of GDP, Honduras is fifth in the region (1.6%), which doesn't bode well for human rights and democracy in a country where both are weak.

--Only Colombia and Argentina increased military spending last year, which is good, though there is no particular reason for Argentina to do so.

--as you might guess, the biggest drops overall were in oil-producing countries.

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