To make an analogy between Chávez’s social democracy and the “totalitarian” socialism in Eastern Europe is an easy task mostly for the representatives of organizations and media who side with the Venezuelan opposition. Students and NGO activists sponsored by international organizations have traveled across the Western world campaigning against the so-called dictatorship of Chávez. In the former Socialist bloc they have been unconditionally supported not just by neoliberal think-tanks, but also by former dissidents including Lech Walesa and the late Vaclav Havel. One could only wonder, however, whether in the 1980s Havel and Walesa would have been allowed to freely travel abroad, and openly speak at mass rallies at home? Could the writer have freely launched an essay collection on “The power of the powerless” in a new bookstore in a shopping mall in Prague, where the reception included bites of salmon pate and champagne? Could the trade unionist simply fly over from Gdansk to give a passionate speech against the governments of Czechoslovakia and Poland, at the same book launch, before the eyes of over a hundred opponents of the regime?
The scenario is not accidental: it is taken from the book launch of the essay collection The Totalitarianism of the XXI century. Published in 2009, the book contained essays by leading academic intellectuals from state-sponsored universities who openly declared Chávez a dictator. Before the lavish reception, they all said out loud that they lived in a totalitarian state without freedom of speech. Police did not attend the book launch or later harass the participants. The book is one of the hundreds of volumes and thousands of print editions against Chávez in person, and against his government sold freely in bookstores across Venezuela. The location of the event is no accident either. The bookshop is cuddled cozily in El Paseo Mall is in the metropolitan district “Las Mercedes” connecting a number of wealthy parts of Caracas. To the south it is bordered by hills where the members of the rich mainly white economic elite live in gated communities or magnificent private mansions. To the east lies the municipality of Chacao: the bastion of opposition, where middle class Venezuelans share several heavily guarded square kilometers with representatives of media, embassies and multinational corporations. Foreigners and rich Venezuelans rarely leave this elegant oasis. For them, the highway to the airport is better known than the metro to downtown Caracas: the city center where most public institutions are hosted and rank-and-file Venezuelans live. And why would they bother: following the draconic neoliberal reforms in the 1990s, the Venezuelan public sector shrunk beyond recognition and became just one more service provider competing with exclusive private services.
It’s been a while since I last did this. Blame it on Twitter and Facebook. And Google Plus. Depending on your social media of your choice, click any of the links to join me there for stuff I share. But for today, the links:
1. The disappearing virtual library Chris Kelty on the shutdown of Library.nu (as my friend @sepoy said on Twitter, “This is like the destruction of the library of Alexandria.” Couldn’t agree more.)
Werner Herzog, whose movie Nosferatu the Vampyre I saw over a long train ride a couple of weeks ago, talks at length about film-making, his new movie Into the Abyss, his hatred of capital punishment (one of the reasons he doesn’t want to apply for American citizenship), and how movies don’t change anything (he says that his movies tell stories, not make arguments; and ideologies and arguments belong in the political space, media, etc., not in movies).
It is hard not to be amused and even impressed by his idiosyncracies – he once ate his shoes after losing a bet, and he claims that the first thing he does when he walks into a room is to size everybody up and assess who of them could milk a cow. According to him, he could tell that Woody Allen couldn’t handle udders.
Well, check out the video above. Worth all the 25 minutes it takes to watch it.
In one kind of measuring, we find how big or small a thing is using a scale, beginning point and unit. Something is x feet long, weighs y pounds or takes z seconds. We can call this “ontic” measuring, after the word philosophers apply to existing objects or properties.
But there’s another way of measuring that does not involve placing something alongside a stick or on a scale. This is the kind of measurement that Plato described as “fitting.” This involves less an act than an experience: we sense that things don’t “measure up” to what they could be. This is the kind of measuring that good examples invite. Aristotle, for instance, called the truly moral person a “measure,” because our encounters with such a person show us our shortcomings. We might call this “ontological” measuring, after the word philosophers use to describe how something exists.
The distinction between the two ways of measuring is often overlooked, sometimes with disastrous results. In his book “The Mismeasure of Man,” Stephen Jay Gould recounted the costs, both to society and to human knowledge, of the misguided attempt to measure human intelligence with a single quantity like I.Q. or brain size. Intelligence is fundamentally misapprehended when seen as an isolatable entity rather than a complex ideal. So too is teaching ability when measured solely by student test scores.
Both Stewart and Mortenson illustrate one particular configuration of the relationship between knowledge and the American empire – the “non-expert” insider who can traverse that unknown terrain and, hence, become an “expert”.
Even a cursory examination of the archive dealing with the American efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrates that there has been no related growth in specific scholarly knowledge about those sites of conflict. The knowledge of Arabic, Urdu or Pashto remains at extremely low levels in official corridors. There is, one can surmise simply from reading the back and forth sway of military and political policy in Afghanistan, very little advancement in understanding of either the text or context of that nation.
In America’s imperial theatre, Stewart and Mortenson exemplify a singular notion of “expert”. We can build, based on the profiles of other specimens – Robert D Kaplan, Fareed Zakaria, Robert Kagan – a picture of what the ideal type looks like from the official point of view. Such an “expert” is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major newspaper. They are not necessarily tied to the “official” narratives or understandings, and can even be portrayed as being “a critic” of the official policy. In other words, this profile fits one who doesn’t know enough.
At the same time there are greater claims, and greater efforts, towards satellite cameras and listening devices; drones which can hover for days; databases which can track all good Taliban and all bad Taliban. Yet who can decipher this data? When one considers the rise of “experts” such as Stewart or Mortenson against the growth of digitised data which remains elusive and overwhelming, one is left with a rather stark observation – that the American war effort prefers its human knowledge circumspect or circumscribed and its technical knowledge crudely totalised.