Venezuelan Protests Get Usual US Media Treatment

Venezuela FlagI heard a bit of NPR’s On the Media over the weekend. In discussing Protests in Ukraine, Bob Garfield talked about Venezuela and how the reason Ukraine got so much more coverage was that it had good visuals in a way that Venezuela did not. He then went on to say how repressive the regime in Venezuela was and left it at that. While it is certainly true that the Venezuelan government is far from perfect, I thought it was shocking that a program dedicated to examining the media would push such a bit of propaganda. That is the US government line. And as a result, that is the line from the corporate media. But this is NPR media criticism?!

For those that haven’t been following, there have been anti-government protests in Venezuela the last two weeks. They have turned violent and a number of people have died. This has been reported in the United States as peaceful protesters and a repressive government reaction to them. Now, I’m not saying that the Venezuelan government is blameless in this. In particular, it seems that Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) has been responsible for some of the deaths. But we know this because the government reported it (Spanish language) and has made arrests and is continuing to investigate the case.

What seems to be going on is that the same anti-government groups as always are protesting the government. Dan Beeton provides a good rundown of the history, Violent Protests in Venezuela Fit a Pattern. The most important part of this is that these are the same people who were responsible for the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. And these are the same people who claimed that Nicolas Maduro’s election victory last year was a fraud. Then they claimed that the municipal elections in December would show that the people really were behind them. After they lost those elections by 10 percentage points, they didn’t even try to claim fraud.

I think we see much the same kind of thing there as we do here with the conservative movement. They know that their policies (basically to sell off the oil industry to corporate giants) are unpopular. So they can’t depend upon democracy. Instead, they try to take power by other means. But it looks now like the anti-government forces are fracturing and fighting among themselves. There is some evidence that factional fighting is responsible for some of the deaths in this struggle.

The opposition could try to craft policies that appeal to a larger part of the electorate. But instead, their plan is to overthrow the government. And this isn’t just speculation. During these protests (just as in the past), opposition leaders have explicitly argued that the people have the right to overthrow their democratically elected government. Let’s be clear here: that behavior would get anyone in the United States arrested for treason. But when opposition leaders say that in Venezuela, they are suddenly heroes?! It’s outrageous.

I’m none too thrilled with the way that the Venezuelan government has responded to all of this. But given the actions of anti-democratic opposition forces in the country’s recent history, it is hard to blame the government for their current actions and, frankly, quite a bit more.

Afterword

The best place to go for information about what’s going on in Venezuela right now is The Americas Blog. I’m not saying that they don’t have their own biases, but they at least look at the facts and put them into perspective. They are a whole lot more objective than the usual corporate media whose response is always that the Venezuelan government is wrong and needs to be overthrown.

Just Because Abe Vigoda’s Old

Abe VigodaOn this day in 1619, the great French painter Charles Le Brun was born. King Louis XIV considered him the greatest French painter of all time. But he might have been biased; he was Brun’s employer. But Brun did a lot of work outside his palace work. He produced an incredible amount of art in his 30 prominent years working for the court.

Winslow Homer was born in 1836. He is one of the greatest American painters ever, and perhaps the greatest seascape artist across all borders. Unfortunately, his work has been so copied that it is now hard to see it with fresh eyes. But it is worth trying. For example, I think this painting, The Gulf Stream is wonderful:

The Gulf Stream - Winslow Homer

Other birthdays: steam engine inventor Thomas Newcomen (1664); automata creator Jacques de Vaucanson (1709); music educator Charles Frederick Horn (1762); playwright George Moore (1852); film director Richard Thorpe (1896); actor John Vernon (1932); actor Barry Bostwick (69); actor Edward James Olmos (67); the most overrated “entrepreneur” in history Steve Jobs (1955); and the actor, who plays the most annoying Sex and the City character, Kristin Davis (49).

The day, however, belongs to the actor Abe Vigoda who is 93 today. We all know him primarily for the part of Fish on Barney Miller, which he was only on for three of its eight seasons. But he’s remarkable because he was so convincing as Fish that most of us thought that Vigoda must be at death’s door. But he was only 56 when he left the show. If you saw him in interviews into his 80s, he seemed younger than Fish ever did. So I fully admit: I gave the day to him because he’s lived so long. And because Barney Miller was one of the greatest television shows ever. And because Abe Vigoda is a fine actor. But mostly, because he’s 93 today. And I don’t think this is the last birthday he will celebrate.

Happy birthday Abe Vigoda!

Kant in 90 Minutes Is Enough

Kant in 90 MinutesAfter having a comment discussion with JMF about Kant, I realized that I was rather unclear about just what he had done. Kant is a lot like the blind men and the elephant: it’s a wall! It’s a snake! Kant wrote so much that it is hard to get your head around his totality. Being a mathematically inclined person, I’ve always been more interested in his approach to questions more than his answers. Answers are kind of a fools game anyway; we should all of us strive for better questions.

So last night I went to the library online and requested a couple of books, but I was able to download an audio copy of Kant in 90 Minutes. I didn’t expect much. These books are generally little more than mini-biography and this one was no exception. And I have to say, Kant was much more of a miserable bastard than I had expected. I especially didn’t like the way he treated his family. He reminded me of a number of intellectuals who I have known who place such a high value on knowledge that they completely lose sight of anything else. Throughout his adult life, he never visited with his siblings because they lacked “class.” Of course, I don’t understand how that would matter given that he seemed to think that of everyone.

Regardless, the author Paul Strathern does get into some of Kant’s philosophy. In fact, he spends time discussing something JMF brought up: the fact that Kant believed that it was always wrong to lie. It’s pretty clear that Strathern doesn’t think much of Kant as a moral philosopher, and takes the man to task on a couple of things in Critique of Practical Reason. As usual, Kant didn’t really have anything to say about moral philosophy, he just created a framework in which one might be created. As a practical matter, Kant didn’t agree with his own examples like the “never lie” idea.

What is much more interesting is Kant’s idea of metaphysics. He argued that since God was not something that we had actual experience of—since he was necessarily outside our reality—it made no sense to argue for or against his existence. That strikes me as a rather limited way of looking at the issue. For one thing, what are we to make of negative theology? But then, Kant is great largely in the way he argues against the validity of most things that are of interest to actual human beings.

His metaphysics is based on the independent existence of time and space. That is to say that they exist before anything else. So that time and space are on the same level with God, except that they are things we actual experience. That surprised me. Most of the last hundred years of physics has pushed back rather strongly on that idea. With general relativity 99 years ago, Einstein developed a theory that implies that objects create their own space. Kant argued that you could take away all the observable aspects of an object, but you could not take away the space that it occupies. That doesn’t seem to be true.

Similarly for time. It doesn’t exist without a universe to measure it. We tend to look at actions in the universe as a function of time. But it is probably more accurate to say that time is a function of actions in the universe. Regardless, what does it even mean to say that time existed before existence? It makes my brain hurt to think about. But regardless, our understanding of these fundamental qualities of the universe have changed a great deal since Kant.

So where does that leave Kant? I find ridiculous all the work by philosophers to prove that philosophy doesn’t exist or is invalid. Have people really stopped thinking about philosophy since Wittgenstein? Have they stopped thinking about mathematics since Godel? Of course they haven’t! And the idea is similarly ridiculous that Kant had to save metaphysics from Hume who showed that it was an invalid field thought. That’s especially true given that Kant “saves” metaphysics by redefining it.

In the end, I’m left with the same thing that I always thought: Kant is interesting because of his approach to knowledge, not the knowledge he ultimately brought to light. And that’s good enough. What’s more, I think the 90 minutes I spent reading about Kant is enough for now. I’m going to cancel those other books I requested.

Conservative Hypocrisy on “Future Generations”

Robert SamuelsonIt’s Monday, and that means Dean Baker is out with another article correcting the math of Very Serious Pundit Robert Samuelson. It is something I look forward to at the beginning of each week, and Baker rarely disappoints because Samuelson rarely knows what he’s talking about.

Go ahead and read the article if you are interested. What I want to discuss is a broader point. Samuelson is one of those typical pundits who is always talking about how we have to cut entitlements because we are leaving future generations with a huge bill because of the elderly living off the fat of the land with their $15,600 yearly stipends. But at the same time, Samuelson is a global warming denier. As I discussed before, there are three levels of global warming denial, and he is at the third level, “Humans are causing global warming, but there is nothing we can do about it!” It’s not as intellectually retarded as, “There is no global warming!” But it is every bit as dangerous. (Samuelson’s thinking has evolved slightly since 2006, but not by much.)

Baker notes the hypocrisy in this:

One of the main themes of his columns is that the old are stealing from the young with their Social Security and Medicare. However Samuelson apparently sees nothing wrong with handing our kids a wrecked planet so that we can increase employment by 0.007 percent for two years. [He is referring to employment that would come from building the Keystone XL Pipeline. -FM]

This is a really important point, because this doesn’t just apply to Samuelson. His thinking on the matter is standard among conservatives. And it makes absolutely no sense. First, the fact is that Social Security is not bankrupting us. Samuelson, like most conservatives, just hates Social Security and wants to see it destroyed. But even if it were a big financial problem, we could solve it at any time by simply raising taxes or cutting benefits. It has never been clear to me why we are supposed to get behind cutting benefits today in order to stop from cutting benefits in the future.

What’s really going on with conservatives is that they think if we don’t cut Social Security now, we may face a major funding shortfall in the future. Given that the elderly vote in large numbers, future politicians will not be able to cut the program for current retirees. So the only option will be to raise taxes—most likely focusing on the rich. When Samuelson discusses stealing from the young, what he actually means is stealing from the next generations’s rich. And given the abysmal level income mobility, that just means the kids of today’s rich.

While financial problems can be fixed quickly, global warming cannot. Samuelson is right that we don’t have practical ways to remediate carbon pollution. Once the atmosphere warms, we have to just wait for the extra carbon in the atmosphere to be removed by natural processes. But note the loony logic here, “We can’t do anything about pollutants in the environment, so let’s keep putting more pollutants in the environment!” The correct solution is to stop polluting and deal with the damage we’ve already done as best we can.

What Samuelson argues is what conservatives always argue: we should do everything we can to protect the rich from any pain. And anything done for the common good should only be done if it doesn’t cause the rich any pain. So cutting entitlements is a good thing because it will protect the rich from possible future tax increases. And cutting fossil fuel use is bad because it would cost the rich money today. Of course, Samuelson would never admit this. I’m sure in his mind, he does all of this for the common good. But you have to look at the results of his preferred policy, and it is always the same: help the rich, screw the poor.

Political Writers Turn Off House of Cards

House of CardsAh, television! Or at least television series. Over the years, I’ve been very into some popular series like Arrested Development and Deadwood. And I was very much a fan of Breaking Bad through the fourth season. But some shows never really click for me. The biggest example of this was The Sopranos. But I only saw the show intermittently. Still, I’m not a big fan of modern gangster narratives. For example, I’ve never much liked Goodfellas, even though I appreciate its craft. And maybe this is why I don’t care for House of Cards.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the first episode of the series and wrote, Dark Cynicism in House of Cards. I thought it was interesting stylistically, but it all depended upon unbelievable characters and an entirely cynical view of the world. What bothers me this morning is why so many people I read are so interested in the show.

This morning, Ed Kilgore writes about it over at Political Animal, House of Cardboard. Like most people I’ve read, he complains that the second season is less believable than the first. That seems very strange to me because the show doesn’t even try to be realistic. Even the look of the show goes for an other worldly feel. It comes off looking more like David Cronenberg’s Existenz more than anything else.

This, I think, is the core reason that people have liked the show. They mistake it for something that is realistic when it is actually more along the lines of a fable—albeit, one with a perverse moral about ends justifying means, even when the ends themselves aren’t particularly good.

Kilgore complains about the second season plot line where Underwood works on entitlement reform. Last Week, Matt Yglesias complained about the same thing:

There’s a lot of implausible plot threads in this show, but the treatment of Social Security in Season 2 is politically insane. You have a Democratic administration working furiously to cut Social Security not in exchange for some big GOP concessions, but just to avoid a government shutdown. In the real world, there’s absolutely nothing politics-minded Democrats would rather see happen than have Republicans shut the government down in an effort to force the country to swallow Social Security cuts.

That does sound silly. But it is hardly less believable than the Speaker of the House murdering inconvenient people. I think this is a major problem for the series, though—at least for the political types who I read. They seem most interested in the series because it shows the behind-the-scenes machinations that really are representative of how laws get made. But if Underwood is good enough to kill people with out getting caught, he ought to understand the politics of Social Security. My guess is that the third season of House of Cards will be the last. Or at least, it will be the last for the political writers. When the third season comes out, I highly doubt that everyone will be writing about it.