Wednesday, March 6, 2013

An Injury to One Is an Injury to All

My liberal friends are very fond of the word "class," though not in a political-economy or sociological sense -- rather a cultural one: Barack and Michelle are so classy!  Well, not only liberals: there was a right-wing meme going around a week or two back, consisting of photos of Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama, with the caption Remember when First Ladies had class? Well, no I don't, now that you ask.  Laura Bush was in my opinion the best of that creepy GOP batch, and I don't actively hate Michelle Obama -- it's just that the word "class" has no real meaning in this context, and besides, when you're reduced to judging a presidential administration by the coolness of the President's wife, you're pretty much signaling that you have turned off whatever intelligence you had to begin with, which in most cases was not much.

The word "class," used in this way, reliably sets my teeth on edge: it points to stuff like accent, looks, dressing stylishly, possessing a certain je ne sais quoi that says "I'm better than those debased, watermelon-eating, cousin-marrying trailer dwellers out there," and that allows the fan to identify with the classy person even (or especially) if the fan lacks all those traits oneself.  It's a lot like participating vicariously in the victories of a sports team, sharing in its glory even if your sole athletic skill is working a remote.  But as I say, my liberal friends are big on this, no doubt because of "class" anxieties and insecurities of their own.  When I reminded one of them of the riots that followed our own little school's last half-successful basketball season, he said, "Let's hope we can celebrate with a little more class this time."  That was quite stupid, if only because the rioters were mostly privileged white kids, the kind whose skulls the cops never crack, the kind who see someone else's car as something to be overturned, the kind whose yards in my neighborhood are covered with refuse for days, even weeks, after their parties.  They're the kind of people who set the tone for these celebrations: rioting after a sports victory is a hallowed IU tradition, and what could be classier than Tradition? But as Raymond Williams remarked of his Cambridge days, "nobody fortunate enough to grow up in a good home, in a genuinely well-mannered and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive and deprived people."

Nice middle-class people have sometimes tried to reassure me that I'm one of them, because I read and I think and I'm smart and I don't talk like trailer trash.  Increasingly, as I observe them, I don't think so: reading and thinking are among the things that show I'm not like them.

But what I'm thinking of is Hugo Chávez, who, whatever his failings, had no "class" in this sense at all, which is one of the things I like about him.  That he had respectable pundits and politicians (who felt a sense of personal kinship with the worst tyrants in the world) foaming at the mouth because he disrespected Our Dear Leader at the United Nations was an added bonus.  (Was that moment "scripted"?  Who cares?)  According to a piece by Greg Grandin at The Nation, however, Chávez' shtick was to a great an extent an act, a conscious performance.  Granted, Chávez was low-class by background: he was "the second of seven children, born in 1954 in the rural village of Sabaneta, in the grassland state of Barinas, to a family of mixed European, Indian and Afro-Venezuelan race ... he was sent to live with his grandmother since his parents couldn’t feed their children".  This wouldn't be held against him if his rise had consisted of allying himself with the wealthy and powerful instead of opposing them, of course.
The high point of Chávez’s international agenda was his relationship with Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Latin American leader whom US foreign policy and opinion makers tried to set as Chávez’s opposite. Where Chávez was reckless, Lula was moderate. Where Chávez was confrontational, Lula was pragmatic. Lula himself never bought this nonsense, consistently rising to Chávez’s defense and endorsing his election.

For a good eight years they worked something like a Laurel and Hardy routine, with Chávez acting the buffoon and Lula the straight man. But each was dependent on the other and each was aware of this dependency. Chávez often stressed the importance of Lula’s election in late 2002, just a few months after April’s failed coup attempt, which gave him his first real ally of consequence in a region then still dominated by neoliberals. Likewise, the confrontational Chávez made Lula’s reformism that much more palatable. Wikileaks documents reveal the skill in which Lula’s diplomats gently but firmly rebuffed the Bush administration’s pressure to isolate Venezuela.

Their inside-outside rope-a-dope was on full display at the November 2005 Summit of the Americas in Argentina, where the United States hoped to lock in its deeply unfair economic advantage with a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Agreement. In the meeting hall, Lula lectured Bush on the hypocrisy of protecting corporate agriculture with subsidies and tariffs even as it pushed Latin America to open its markets. Meanwhile, on the street Chávez led 40,000 protesters promising to “bury” the free trade agreement. The treaty was indeed derailed, and in the years that followed, Venezuela and Brazil, along with other Latin American nations, have presided over a remarkable transformation in hemispheric relations, coming as close as ever to achieving Bolívar’s “universal equilibrium.”
There are other intriguing anecdotes in Grandin's piece, like the one that gives
the lie to the idea that poor Venezuelans voted for Chávez because they were fascinated by the baubles they dangled in front of them. During the 2006 presidential campaign, the signature pledge of Chávez’s opponent was to give 3,000,000 poor Venezuelans a black credit card (black as in the color of oil) from which they could withdraw up to $450 in cash a month, which would have drained over $16 billion dollars a year from the national treasury (call it neoliberal populism: give to the poor just enough to bankrupt the government and force the defunding of services). 
(Dangling baubles in front of the rich -- tax breaks, cutting services to the poor, "austerity" -- is not just acceptable but the natural order of things in "classy" politics.)

Grandin also tells of Chávez successfully lobbying Lula and then-Argentinian president Kirchner on a proposal to give debt relief to numerous poor countries in Latin America.
Chávez asked a number of thoughtful questions, at odds with the provocateur on display on the floor of the General Assembly ... We later got word that Chávez had successfully lobbied Lula and Kirchner to support the deal. In November 2006, the IADB announced it would write off billions of dollars in debt to Nicaragua, Guyana, Honduras and Bolivia (Haiti would later be added to the list).
I've felt hesitant to write about Chávez (but here I am, with my second post in twenty-four hours), because I really do believe that personalities are less important than issues.  I'm not interested (except lustfully, which is moot now) in Chávez so much as whether the organizations he worked with will be able to adapt and protect their gains after he's gone. This is why I've found myself defending Obama and Bill Clinton against right-wing attacks, and even Bush and Romney against liberal ad hominems. As I wrote before, only time will tell whether the good things he built in Venezuela will survive him; I've already seen his critics gloating, and there was already a celebration at the Atlantic's site last night. But he clearly did build alliances in Latin America that have made some breathing space for freedom there, and if you want to blame anyone for his ascendancy, blame George W. Bush, who overextended US power with his brutal, expensive wars and weakened its influence in Latin America and elsewhere.  In that area, as in so many others, Obama has followed in Bush's footsteps.

But one thing I do know: a major reason Chávez was hated so much by US elites was that he had no class.  This morning Democracy Now! did a segment on post-Chávez Venezuela, also featuring Greg Grandin.  Eva Golinger, one of the participants and an associate of Chávez, described how the Venezuelan vice president, Nicolás Maduro a former bus driver and union activist, was attacked by the opposition: "Oh, he’s a bus driver. You know, he knows nothing. He has no education. How could he be the top diplomat of the country?" When I look at how ignorant and stupid the properly entitled people (commonly known as the "meritocracy") have consistently shown themselves to be, I figure a bus driver couldn't do any worse.  As things turned out, it appears that he did much better.  But those attacks also remind me what most of the rulers think of the people they rule, and I know which side I'm on.