Web Letters | The Nation

Web Letter

I teach political philosophy at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas, and I was one of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's hosts during her trip, in my role as member of the board of directors of the Hannah Arendt Observatory. As you can see, I can write in English a little, which means that I speak Shakespeare's language a little too. I'd never try to analyze American history better than a native historian or philosopher, even if I were living among you. But I'm absolutely sure that my Spanish and my knowledge about my country, about the history and the political trends of my nation is more accurate than the knowledge of any American lawyer implanted in our soil to defend a tyranny or to enjoy a kind of political tourism financed by Chávez. I'm thinking about Eva Gollinger, because I don't know lawyer McFadden. Gollinger published a list of Venezuelan citizens who visited the US sponsored by different universities, diverse programs, in some cases by the NED, and so on. She accused many of my colleagues of being CIA agents, demanding prison for them. It reminds me of the McCarthy era. I seriously distrust the statements of so many foreigners who come to Venezuela trying to make a revival of the Spanish Civil War, when romantic people from all around the world went to defend the Republic and the values of the international socialism.

The stupid thing is (and this kind of thing happens when you are not a Venezuelan with expertise on political affairs) that many pro-Chávez deputies were on Gollinger's list, because they attended meetings for conflict negotiation and solution, to recover the possibilities of dialogue: One of the most memorable encounters between the opposition and the pro-government leaders was hosted by Ted Kennedy at Cape Cod. Sponsored by the NED. The President of the Communications Commission of the Congress said to Ms. Gollinger: "Lawyer, it is not a criminal act to receive a fellowship or a grant." Dr. Young-Bruehl was sponsored by the American government, and this is not an illegal act. Also, I don't think it discredits her vision or opinions. And if she didn't meet pro-government leaders it is because they never want to meet with us, although we constantly send them invitations, calls for meetings and conferences at our universities and cultural centers. They are very afraid of the consequences of encounters with American intellectuals or scholars: "You were dancing with the enemy, with the Empire" would be the accusation. Yes, it's the obsolete mentality of the cold war era, but it happens here: They are witch-hunting among themselves.

On the other hand, when Chávez invites foreign intellectuals like Gianni Vattimo, you (as an opposition activist) cannot talk with them, because they organize a secret agenda with no press conferences; so these visitors never listen to the opposition, and they never see that at least half of the country doesn't agree with the Cuban model imposed by Chávez. Most of the time, when we (I) receive foreign scholars, we try to put them in contact with the pro-Chávez leaders. We respect their intelligence, and we leave in their hands the privilege of making their own judgments and forming their personal points of view.

Thomas Christian Hilde, from Maryland University, was our guest, and I invited him to Gramoven to meet some leaders of the Fabricio Ojeda Cooperative, the top-model cooperative of the country in a very poor neighborhood in West Caracas. Let me point out that this visit was possible thanks to the Minister of Communications, an old friend of mine, a smart person who is not afraid of the interchange and confrontation of ideas. We have no problem dialoguing with pro-Chávez people or putting them in contact with our guest intellectuals.

Another intellectual we--the Observatory--recently invited was Fernando Mires, from Oldenburg University. And Fernando attended a discussion at the Francisco de Miranda Political Formation Centre and had a deep debate with José Luis Monedero, a Spanish sociologist who works very close to President Chávez designing the so-called Socialism of Century XXI.

My point is: Gentlemen and ladies pro-Chávez, don't be afraid to talk with American intellectuals, or with people like us. We are not afraid to talk with you, whenever you leave your pistol out of the room.

American readers sympathize with the notions of social justice, the vindication of the poor people and so on, and we do too--absolutely, yes. But we don't want to pay the price of destroying democracy and liberty in the name of the "social question," as Hannah Arendt brilliantly pointed out in "On revolution." To eradicate poverty you don't need a socialist state with thousands of Russian rifles in the hands of teenagers: You just have to accomplish the United Nations Millennium Goals we subscribed to together with hundreds of countries in order to reduce poverty and exclusion in real terms from 2000 to 2015.

Oscar Reyes

Caracas, Venezuela

Sep 14 2007 - 4:03pm

Web Letter

Speculating on what, in the face of historical social inequality, Hannah Arendt's advice might have been to the anti-Chavista students of Venezuela, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl states, "The question is how this social justice goal should be achieved, and that, as Hannah Arendt always argued, is a political question, a question for political actors--like the students themselves."

Although Arendt's published writings do not contain her most candid views on this subject, they are clearly stated in the private advice she offered to a favorite doctoral student in May of 1969, after he wrote to her describing his involvement in mediation between the University of Chicago administration and student protestors. (The full correspondence is in the Library of Congress Hannah Arendt archives.)

I wish you could extricate yourself from the whole student turmoil.... Briefly, the overriding issue will become the race question, and the demands of the blacks are an entirely different order than the rebellion and/or the grievances of the students. The whole thing is a mess, and as far as I can see, rather hopeless. The SDS now tries to use the race issue, and will thereby lose more and more support among the majority of the students--and rightly so. The strictly political issues will lose importance, and the pressures from the black community will grow. This means not only a shift in emphasisy [sic], but--as have become clear at Cornell, City College, and to a lesser extent, at Columbia, the massive infiltration of persons and means that are not "revolutionary," but clearly criminal. So get out.

The lesson from Hannah Arendt, then, for Venezuelan students concerned with their country's future, is that as "political actors" they should recognize that the demands of Venezuela's economically dispossessed, Hugo Chávez's base, are "an entirely different order" than their own. Accordingly, some of the mostly white and middle-class students, and the academics, with whom Young-Bruehl spent her time in Caracas, have chosen to oppose a movement that certain interested parties (e.g., the US Embassy and Administration), echoing Arendt's callous characterization of rising black political consciousness ca. 1969, would like to label as "clearly criminal."

Stuart Newman

Pleasantville, NY

Sep 1 2007 - 2:04am

Web Letter

Does anyone else find it weird that 'Marc Cooper, Contributing Editor, The Nation', has written a "bletter" to support this article? Although I always enjoy when Nation writers like Katha Pollitt and Alexander Cockburn challenge other writers who appear in The Nation, I don't understand the logic of an editor writing in to praise an article in the magazine he is partially responsible for. It reminds me of the phrase "talking up the market," used to criticize traders who tout the value of stocks they trade.

Cooper is a signatory of The Euston Manifesto, which hails the occupation of Iraq as a "liberation." One wonders if he will hail future military actions against Venezuela or Cuba as liberations?

Steven Sherman

Carrboro, NC

Aug 28 2007 - 4:42pm

Web Letter

Elisabeth Young-Breuhl's literary subterfuge, "Pitching and Puffing Arendt for the CIA," was directly out of Phillip Agee's playbook. Here's her pitch.

That totalitarian Chávez is stifling free speech. He is just like his mentor, that totalitarian Castro. That totalitarian Chávez, his nationalistic socialism, and his Cuban doctors are being opposed by all manner of dedicated student activists who just adore real democracy and Hannah Arendt. She tells us that Chávez is a crypto anti-Semite who likes that totalitarian Amadinejad. Even worse, Chávez's brother is an overt anti-Semite and Holocaust denier.

Young-Breuhl knows all about the human condition, politics, the perils of parroting the party line and how to make genuine democracy from psychoanalytic ejaculations. She knows because she is both a lady of letters, a literary wordsmith and a psychoanalyst. She even wrote psychobabbling biographies of Arendt and Anna Freud. Therefore her literary opinions and psychoanalytic speculations are readily available to inform your politics about that totalitarian Chávez and his totalitarian pals, Castro and Ahmadinejad.

The Nation published six pages of this shameful propagandizing brain damage.

* * *

In order to be disillusioned, you first have to be "illusioned." Marc Cooper and I both apparently suffer from a similar disillusionment, but we disagree about where to place the blame, or what to do about it. Yessir, Marc, much of what passes for leftist/socialist politics and rhetoric is serious brain damage. Too many hard-nosed Marxists with all kinds of intellectual credentials have never stopped mouthing what the master hath said--while predicting the inevitable proletarian victory.

The road to serfdom can come from left or right, and we forget this at our peril. Surely Bush, the neo-cons, and our representative Congress are teaching us daily lessons about the murderous abuses of any kind of state power, agit-prop, corruption and genocide.

Sure, there are plenty of ideological warts on Cuba, Iran and Venezuela--much of it a reaction to the thumbscrews of Los Chicago Boys, free market dogma and the CIA. You ought to know. You have earned your stripes, and I am humbled by your past. But endorsing practicing psychoanalyst Young-Bruehl's crypto-fascism in the name of Hannah Arendt is pure tear gas and more agit-prop than critical politics. Marxist/Hegelian contradictions are no less moribund than Freudian repression and psychoanalysis. Hunger, suffering and death at an early age at the hands of the so-called benevolent market remain a materialist/scientist's inescapable focus--or should be.

Since few people have your sterling credentials and worldly experience in leftist activism, you command my attention. I still pay attention to sixties leftist David Horowitz too, especially because his political pendulum went so bonkers to the right. So I dare not conjure up Eric Hoffer's "true believer" syndrome. Like Young-Breuhl's writing, wouldn't it be just more psychologizing fog?

Here are four not-so-simple questions that both of us must answer. How else do we inform our politics?
1. Was Pinochet better or worse than Allende?
2. Was Castro better or worse than Batista?
3. Is Ahmadinejad more or less of a tyrant and murderer than Bush?
4. Would you, as an investigative journalist, consider the hypothesis that the Young-Bruehl pitch that you so effusively support was a plant by the CIA?

* * *

In 1998 Mr. Marc Cooper wrote a truly "fine piece" about contemporary Chile, "Land of Illusions." My filed copy is from Utne Reader, July/August 1998. Great writing, and truly powerful content. Brains sticking out everywhere. It was so good that I printed it for my permanent files, and e-mailed it to many friends. I have reread it many times since 1998. (I reread it this morning, but I cannot find it on the web under Utne or The Nation.)

Its prescience and predictive power speaks Britannicas to the present state of our bizarre Los Chicago Boys government. Its subtitle, "If you want to see how free market gurus envision our future, look at Chile today," gives it an uncanny on-point prescience. Marc called it with precision, and then some. Maybe The Nation could republish it?

Your post for Aug 28 on your personal website about poor blustering Senator Larry Craig's toilet-stall antics is unworthy of your magnificent brain. Say it ain't so, Marc. I cannot accept that we are not true brothers in our politics.

Gerald Spezio

Willits, CA

Aug 27 2007 - 3:16pm

Web Letter

What a pleasure to read this piece. A bracing departure from so much of the agit-prop that passes for "alternative journalism" currently streaming out of or around Caracas. One need only to read the responses to this fine piece to get a sense of the denial that unfortunately grips too much of the left.

Apparently, the more negative lessons of the Cuban Revolution have not been assimilated. Namely, that a half-century after the seizure of power the Cuban model has failed to construct anything that even remotely resembles democracy. And yet, too many of our leftist comrades are oh-so-ready to cheer on Hugo Chávez as he rapidly acquires more personal power and steadily closes down political space.

The twenty-first century, indeed, requires a redefinition of socialism because the models of the previous century have so utterly failed. Unfortunately, Chávez does nothing to advance this cause.

It's uplifting to read that in the universities of Caracas there are still some active, critical thinkers who refuse to become mere apparatchiks in a budding authoritarian system.

Marc Cooper

Woodland Hills, CA

Aug 25 2007 - 1:28am

Web Letter

The abstention rate for the elections of December 4, 2005, to the unicameral Parliament, was an astounding 74 percent (from footnote #5, pg. 282, "Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography," by Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka, Random House, 2007).

The president attributed the low turnout to internal failings:"lack of debate, triumphalism, electoral campaigns based on dancing, fighting, and grandstanding; and partisanship, which is always harmful."

At the top of the same page: "OAS observers, while inspecting the voting machines, determined that the ballots would not be cast anonymously and that it would be possible to determine exactly how each voter had cast his or her ballot." Gee, just like the "election" in El Salvador, with transparent ballot boxes in 1984.

Michael Pugliese

Denver, CO

Aug 24 2007 - 1:22pm

Web Letter

We urgently need news coverage and commentaries that explore the complex, exciting and contradictory reality of the Chávez government and the social movements of Venezuela. But Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's article is a disservice to the people of Venezuela and to critical thinking in general. The piece is a litany of phantoms that exist only in the fervid imagination of US neocons. First, Young-Bruehl claims Chávez's decree power means he rules as Maximum Leader:

Not satisfied to control the court, in 2000 Chávez got the unicameral Assembly to, in effect, erase its power by granting him a year of nonconsultative decision-making (in European history this kind of antidemocratic achievement is known as an enabling law, or Ermachtigungsgesetz).

This is an outrageous lie. Chávez's decree power is quite limited in scope and duration, and was used by previous Venezuelan presidents. The Assembly continues to exist and to make policy, and local and regional forms of democratic participation and organization are flourishing. Then Young-Bruehl criticizes the Chávez government for daring to deliver actual goods and services to its people, rather than letting them subsist on a diet of lofty platitudes:

Along with this regression from the political ideal--the Constitution--goes the possibility that economic policies, formulated by the government, will circumscribe political action by the citizens, controlling them not with overt or covert violence, as happens in most revolutions that start rigidifying, but with money.

Leaving aside the obvious rejoinder that US politicians are purchased with $3 billion in cold, hard cash each and every electoral cycle, this begs a more basic question: Isn't the point of a democracy, to deliver state goods and services to the entire people, as opposed to a tiny elite? But EYB speaks not a word about Venezuela's awful comprador elites, who plundered the country's oil wealth for decades while 85 percent of the population endured grinding poverty. Instead of an analysis of imperialism and neocolonialism, we get this:

But El Presidente has responded by announcing on TV--Chávez does not disguise his intentions--that he is going to "neutralize" the three main sources of opposition to the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela: the media, the church and the schools and universities. Closing down RCTV was step one.

Young-Bruehl's use of the term "El Presidente" is a vile, racist slur. Whatever the faults of Chávez and his administration, he was democratically elected and reelected in free, fair and open elections. The term clearly suggests that poor brown Spanish-speaking people can't possibly be capable of running a democracy.

Young-Bruehl's other points are equally mendacious. The RCTV lost its spectrum license because it aided and abetted an illegal, criminal coup. If a US station ever tried to subvert the US constitution, it would be immediately shut down by the FCC. That said, RCTV is still free to broadcast on cable TV.

The final final lie, which truly tops all the other lies, is the claim that Chávez is a threat to Venezuela's constitutional order.

a political science graduate student came up to me and said in slow, careful English what he had heard and what he thought of it: "...But I think that in Venezuela you have to worry even more stronger than [Hannah Arendt] did because you have a president who wants to kill the Constitution that created him!"

One of the first things Chávez did when he addressed the public after the failed coup was to hold up a copy of the Constitution and tell the people of Venezuela, This isn't about me, this is about our constitution, which incarnates the inviolable will of the people. Young-Bruel completely erases several major campaigns to debate, reform and revise the constitution, campaigns which were key building-blocks of Venezuela's progressive turn.

Please don't misunderstand me: Open and informed criticism of left governments and social movements is a good thing. But none of Young-Bruehl's claims survive even the most basic fact-checking.

Dennis Redmond

Champaign, IL

Aug 20 2007 - 11:59pm

Web Letter

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's article about Venezuela is so negligent it verges on journalistic malpractice. You cannot write anything cogent about Venezuela without talking first about race and second about the social movements that made and are making the positive reforms possible. The US media's tendency to attribute what is going on in a country to a single leader is thus raised by Young-Bruehl to farcical levels. Further, her history of the left in Venezuela is unrecognizable to even a casual student of the country. Again, she focuses entirely on Hugo Chávez and erases the movements that are responsible for creating the conditions that made him and have kept him president, through US-supported attacks that would have long since toppled a government without broad, genuine support.

Jenny Brown

Gainesville, FL

Aug 19 2007 - 10:36pm

Web Letter

I am an American lawyer living and teaching in Merida, Venezuela, since February of this year, and had the opportunity to observe the anti-Chávez oppositionist campaign against President Chávez arising from the withdrawal of the RCTV broadcasting license after completion of its last twenty-year term.

Elizabeth Young-Breuhl, biographer of Hannah Arendt, reports that she spent only one week in Venezuela. By her own admission, she was invited to give a lecture there at the invitation of anti-Chávez intellectuals. Her trip to Venezuela was financed by the US Embassy. She notes that she spent most of her time surrounded by anti-Chávez intellectuals and members of the opposition, including the chancellor of the private university at which she lectured, whose views she gives great credence. It was his view of the student demonstration and the putative "student movement" as well as of Chávez that she apparently accepted as fact. Private university administrators have been in the forefront of the opposition to Chávez.

Ms. Young-Breuhl also notes that she does not read Spanish; I assume from that that she does not speak Spanish either. This would have limited her ability to speak to members of the non-university community, as the vast majority of Venezuelans do not speak English. She did not report on visits to workers groups, cooperatives, or even to conversations with casual observers in the streets. She would have benefited more by taking one of Global Exchange's "Reality Tours," which brings visitors into the barrios, public medical clinics and the cooperatives and provides lecturers from a wide variety of political views to its groups. I think the author was well meaning, but she reports that she has had no previous experience, academic or personal, with Venezuela, its history or its current issues and had little access to non-oppositionist thinking. Her article, based on one week in the company of the opposition, cannot be relied upon as the definitive work on political reality in Venezuela.

From my observations here, the supporters of President Chávez's government's refusal to renew the RCTV license greatly outnumbered the opponents. Many more students participated in the pro-Chávez rallies than in those opposed to the RCTV decision. Contrary to the assertion of the chancellor of the private university, adult oppositionists appear to be controlling the student protests, and even encouraging violent confrontation with the police and government officials. Thankfully, the police did not generally take the bait.

Those who are swayed by the oppositionist claims that President Chávez is shutting down free political speech might be surprized to learn that the student oppositionists were actually invited to address the country's National Assembly with their concerns. The oppositionist students appeared in the National Assembly, took the podium and read an angry protest statement, and then walked out, without waiting to participate in any debate about their concerns. This was a sorry performance on their part, and gave lie to their claims to be truly concerned about free speech issues.

The RCTV license issue was merely another pretext for the opposition to generate protest against the Chávez government. The RCTV issue has also been a pretext for the U.S. State Department to demonize President Chávez. RCTV violated Venezuelan broadcasting laws on numerous occasions by broadcasting cigarette and liquor ads and showing pornography, and that in addition to actively using their broadcasts to call for and encourage the violent overthrew of the democratically elected government. Had this occurred in the US, the RCTV management would have been tried for treason.

Ask yourself whether an administration who bombed the Al Jazeera office in Afghanistan and killed one of their top reporters in Iraq, and which had actual plans to bomb the Al Jazeera headquarters in Quater, until dissuaded by the horrified response of Tony Blair, actually cares about a free press. It is hard to imagine more total suppression of the press than bombing it!

Ms. Young-Breuhl was unfortunately, used by the US-funded Anti-Chávez opposition to give credibility to its positions. It is sad to see The Nation being used for that purpose as well.

Bonnie McFadden

Merida, Venezuela

Aug 19 2007 - 2:47pm

Web Letter

You would think that after the Joaquín Villalobos fiasco The Nation would be a bit more circumspect when it came to the question of Venezuela. Ms. Young-Bruehl claims that Teodoro Petkoff "ran for president as a democratic socialist." Perhaps the Venezuelan people are a bit more savvy when it comes to campaign rhetoric than North Americans. Petkoff is widely regarded as an aggressive neo-liberal politician, no matter his "socialist" verbiage. The March 8, 2006, edition of The Hill, a Washington-based newsletter with no particular ax to grind on Venezuelan politics, described him as follows: "He is strongly associated with the adoption of the IMF-supported Agenda Venezuela in 1996, a package of stabilization and structural adjustment measures that led to the privatization of Venezuelan industries and the dismantling of collective-bargaining rights for labor." With respect to Hannah Arendt, I am a bit leery of her progressive credentials myself, especially in light of her infamous 1959 "Reflections on Little Rock," which took a strong stand against "forced integration."

Louis Proyect

New York, NY

Aug 19 2007 - 11:01am