Thursday, May 07, 2009

Ruminations, May 3, 2009

Politics and poker

In the opening act of the 1959 Musical Fiorello!, Republican Party leaders lament their prospects in the song "Politics and Poker":

Gentlemen, here we are, and one thing is clear:
We gotta pick a candidate for Congress this year.
Gentlemen, how about some names we can use?
Some qualified Republican who's willing to lose.

With the defection of Arlen Specter to the Democrats, the prospects for present-day Republicans look as bleak as they did to the stage Republicans in the musical. According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 21 percent of voters consider themselves to be Republicans. That's down from 29 percent a year ago. In Connecticut in 2006, three of the five congressional seats were held by Republicans; today, it is zero – in fact, there are no Republicans representatives in any of the six New England states.

Things do look bleak for Republicans and many are predicting that they will get worse. But, informed prognosticators don't always get it right. The late historian Theodore Paulin told me that after the Roosevelt landslide of 1936, "Many people, including me, predicted the demise of the Republican Party." Obviously, Paulin and his cohorts were wrong.

Republicans can, however, take heart from another statistic: even fewer people identified themselves as Republicans in 1983: 19 percent. The next year, Ronald Reagan carried 49 states, Republicans maintained control of the Senate and they gained 16 seats in the House of Representatives. Of course, as the political cronies of Fiorello! remind us in "Politics and Poker":

Bless the nominee, and give him our regards
And watch while he learns that in poker and politics
Brother, you've gotta have ... the cards!

Chavez's book of the month club

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez presented President Barack Obama with a book at the Summit of the Americas two weeks go. "It's an extraordinary book," Chavez said, "that helped me understand Latin America when I was young, our history, our reality."

Some people think that Obama should not have accepted the book. Practically speaking, under the circumstances Obama had no other choices except for throwing a temper tantrum and storming out – not very presidential.

Chavez's presentation was loaded with symbolism. He knows that Obama does not read Spanish and yet Chavez made a point of giving him a book written in Spanish. The message was that the predominant language of the Americas is Spanish and not English. The rest of the message was plainly said by Chavez, that the book represents, for many, Latin American "reality."

What is the reality represented by the book, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent? Eduardo Galeano, the author, is definitely anti-American, anti-capitalist and firmly believes that Latin Americans are losers while North Americans are winners. You don't have to read far into the book to get Galeano's perspective. The second sentence reads: "Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious; it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of Indian civilizations."

Galeano's winner-loser take is interesting. In North America, we regard winners with esteem and losers are to be encouraged to become winners. In Galeano's world, winners are the bad guys – real bad – while losers are their victims.

More a student of polemics than of economics, Galeano equates capitalism with slavery – another reason to be against capitalism, if you accept his premise. Without a foundation in economics, Galeano cannot see that slavery is antithetical to capitalism; without labor being free to sell their services or to begin new enterprises, capitalism falters.

He attributes the "Great Depression of 1929" solely to the United States. Although the Depression was world wide, we would have to admit that as the world's preeminent economy, the United States did play a significant role in the downturn; but, by placing all blame on the United States and capitalism, the victim (loser) can claim to be pure as the driven snow.

Galeano quotes Che Guevara (a doctor by training and a revolutionary by experience) on economics: "The nation that buys, commands. The nation that sells, serves." This simplistic aphorism ignores the supply demand price curve but is consistent with the notion that capitalism and the United States, by buying raw materials from Latin America, are the winners that exploit the losers.

Is the book worth reading? It depends on why you read it. If you read it for a historical construct of Latin America, you will get a distorted picture. If, on the other hand, you read it to understand the way many in Latin America view history and their perspectives vis-à-vis relationships with the United States – their "reality" -- it can be informative.

Mea culpa

My mother told me that when you do something wrong, admit it, apologize for it and go on. She never told me to do what politicians seem to be doing.

More and more, American politicians seem to be traveling the world and apologizing. Have you noticed, though, they never apologize for what they have done; they apologize for what someone else has done.

When you admit no culpability for anything but point to what others have done as wrong and apologize for them, isn't this a form of self-aggrandizement? Of making yourself look good in comparison with others whose acts require apologies?

Mom never told me to apologize for others and never told me to engage in self-aggrandizement. Of course, Mom was not a politician.

Quote without comment

Comedian Rita Rudner: "Thanks to the baby boomers, 30 million women are now going through menopause; that's a billion hot flashes a day. Do you think that could be the cause of global warming?"

Robert J. Kulak
West Hartford, Connecticut

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