Dangerous shame

While in New York we had the pleasure of meeting the young India-born novelist Kiran Desai. Later, when I read her 2006 Man Booker Prize novel, I was a little surprised that such a sweet, gentle-seeming person could imagine in such specific detail the violent emotions of internal colonialism (Indians exploiting other, poorer Indians) and class and racial humiliation, and how that humiliation can fuel violence. The subtlety of the psychological portraits, more than the lush (to my mind, overwrought) descriptions of the mountains and valleys at the foot of the Himalayas, are what make this book memorable.

Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss. New York: Grove Press, 2006. (Click on the title for my summary.)

Photo: Rock garden in Darjeeling, from Eastern Himalayan Tourism Foundation


Venezuelan politics seen from Venezuela

This piece by Max Ajl in the current NACLA gives another perspective on Hugo Chávez's latest electoral triumph: Venezuela: Local Reactions to the Re-Election Reform. Some interesting ideas here, though one of the oddest arguments in this collection of opinions has me perplexed:
And two, as Venezuela scholar Julia Buxton notes, there is something "fundamentally wrong in thinking that democracy is judged through reference to the procedural mechanics of liberal democracy," which is often understood as demanding pluralism, in which the opposition controls some political levers. Buxton argues that democracy simply is not measurable using the yardstick of mainstream U.S political science, and that it should be understood as popular control of decision-making and popular engagement within the society as a whole. On those scales, Venezuela is no lightweight.
If that's what she's saying, she's confusing democracy with plebiscite. Aside from the logical and political ethics problems (democracy without freedom to dissent? Come on!), there's the pragmatic problem of running a successful regime. If there are no constitutional checks, and no guarantees of pluralism, you lose the synergy that only a multiplicity of energies and ideas can create. Stupid ideas occur to everybody, even very smart people (remember Fidel Castro's "10 million tons" campaign? Or the coffee trees he ordered planted all around Havana? Or, to take a very different smart man's blunder, how about Winston Churchill's World War I strategy at Gallipoli?). If there's nobody around to talk back to the smart (or unsmart) strongman, disasters are more than likely.


Catcher in the Rye

I finally got around to reading Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. 1951. New York: Bantam Books, 1969. (Click on title for my plot summary.) I had long intended to read it, but if I did years ago, I've forgotten. It was this month's selection in our reading club in the Carboneras public library, so I read a (very good) Spanish translation for the first chapters, until all our books (and other things) arrived from New York last week and I found this copy. Our Spanish partners in the reading club found it amusing, I guess, but were not much impressed. I think we're all too old and have seen too much to be shocked by another adolescent crisis of a very privileged kid. (His parents are well off and buy him anything he wants, and his much more stable siblings love him, so what's his problem?) Some of Holden Caulfield's observations of social types are spot on, though, and his irreverence and slang (even in Spanish translation, but better in English) are sometimes very funny.

Venezuela: preserving or imperiling reform?

I'm impressed by the argument of Venezuela Beyond the Referendum by Nikolas Kozloff. By identifying his "Bolivarian revolution" so strongly with himself, Hugo Chávez may be putting the whole operation -- the re-orientation of the country's wealth toward solving the problems of the poor -- in peril. He has also alienated a lot of people who had been, and wanted to be, allies, but who disagreed with him on some issue or strategy.

This happened in Cuba, too: people who considered themselves revolutionaries and strongly supported what we all understood were the basic principles of the revolution were driven into exile or even into armed resistance (the case of Gutiérrez Menoyo, the most famous example) because of some disagreement with Fidel Castro. Or, mainly, because they wanted different voices to be heard. Fidel survived all those mutinies; Hugo may not be so fortunate. How much better it would be if revolutionary socialists really practiced the democracy they preach. They might still make mistakes, but the mistakes would be shared. And talented, energetic people with independent minds could contribute to the common goal.