Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Danger of Information Overload

The Internet, coupled with the gradually loosening-up of traditional restraints imposed on us over centuries by a ruthless hierarchical social system, is now confronting us with a new subtle but visible danger. Witness the 2008 presidential electoral process in the United States. For the first time our great nation is about to break a once thought unbreakable barrier erected by ossified traditions and a ruthless and corrupted socio-political system. This year’s election by one of our two major political parties of a presidential candidate —an African American or a woman—is proof that we, the people, have finally matured and truly deserve to think of ourselves as “We The People…” in the Land of the Free”.

This liberating process, however, is being undermined by a misguided understanding of the meaning of freedom. And the Internet, that universal forum for free thought, where everyone can publish anything unhampered by editorial corroboration, is unwittingly corrupting the very freedom it was meant to promote.

From the beginning of this year’s electoral campaign, our e-mail boxes are being overwhelmed by forwarded attachments—sent to us by friends and others—of uncorroborated writings by individuals often unknown to us extolling or decrying this or that virtue or vice of the candidates.

The sheer volume of these attachments, plus the wealth of what is freely published and accessed in what former vice president Al Gore called the Information Super Highway, is overwhelming and cluttering our understanding now.

The fact that at the same time we are being bombarded by a 24/7 news coverage that in its ceaseless need to appear up-to-date and newsworthy often resorts to a news coverage overload, dangerously flirting with irresponsible reporting, represents a clear and present danger to our democracy.

Indeed, the information overload to which we are continuously exposed can easily be turned into disinformation, a development we cannot allow to happen.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Thoughts about American Literature

Looking through the shelves of our big bookstores and reading our major newspapers’ Book Sections, one cannot help but notice that the strength of American literature largely derives from our writers’ keen opposition to or enthusiastic support of our country’s political and economical life. Many of America’s best known authors appear to be either active protesters or ardent supporters of whatever political wind happens to be blowing. What has happened here? Many a fiction writer complains that this pragmatic outlook causes non-fiction books to rank higher on publishers’ lists than fictional literature. Is it possible that the cause of this can be found in the way our society developed over the years? More often than not the American novelist creates his or her work in isolation, in a large city or small town, in a towering skyscraper or on a pastoral farm. Our writers live in a country devoid of a cafĂ© culture that enables social gatherings and cultural exchanges like those found in Paris, Madrid, or Buenos Aires, where writers meet other writers and share a spiritual home.

As of late, American literature is handicapped by publishers, often controlled by foreigners, who only pursue financial success, who publish their books guided solely by the aim of promoting them to become bestsellers. The writer’s artistic output, therefore, is subject to commercialization—it is only a product that “has to be sold,” and that’s all. Unfortunately this trend is detrimental to the reader, and oftentimes fatal to the writer. In our new globalized order, it can be said that this persistent diminishing of our writers’ artistic endeavors vis-a-vis the publisher’s practical considerations and financial successes may be limiting the penetration that our American literature should be enjoying in the world.

How likely is it that we will soon reach a new stage where literary merits are based on originality or boldness of style rather than the pragmatism of the idea or the commercial or political value of the covered subject?

Unfortunately, American literature, like most other forms of our artistic output, is falling victim to the subtle but inexorable descend into mediocrity provoked by a relentless market-oriented economy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Ultimate Emancipation

We Americans, as a nation, stand before our history’s ultimate test as roughly half of our population is to decide who will be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in this year’s election. We have an opportunity, for the first time ever, to overcome old taboos and traditions and break the ultimate glass ceiling that stands in our way to become a truly United States of America, united not just within geographic boundaries but also by race and by gender.

We like to think hyperbolically of ourselves as the “greatest nation in the world.” And true enough, we have done some extraordinary things not only for ourselves but also for the world in general. At the very beginnings of our history as a nation, we have inspired the French Revolution, a rebellion against tyranny that set the world on a new track towards freedom and democracy. We have fought our very own to preserve the Union that would make us great. We have emancipated our African-American population who some of our forebears mistreated horrendously. We championed the worldwide Suffragette movement that emancipated women long suppressed by giving them an equal right to vote. We overcame our own racial prejudices by enacting legislation that granted equal rights for all people under the law and little by little made us a kinder and gentler nation.

We did all this and more. But one thing we haven’t done yet in our society. We haven’t raised the cultural barriers that prevented a black man or a woman from becoming president of the United States. Until recently it would have been unthinkable for either to aspire to become president of the mightiest country in the world. Whites would have rejected the idea of an African-American running for president, and most men would have rejected the idea of a woman becoming president and commander-in-chief of our armed forces. It would have been considered ludicrous. We kept telling ourselves that “the country wasn’t ready for it.”

Now, finally, our nation is facing a decisive test. We are about to see the ultimate emancipation in our country’s history. History would correct itself by putting Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Why Obama and not Hillary Clinton? It’s not because Hillary isn’t qualified. It’s because White America owes a greater debt to our black compatriots than to our women.

Sorry, Hillary. Next time it’ll be your turn.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sequel to We the People

The other day I read in the paper’s Opinion Page a letter referring to the accountability or “unaccountability” (italics mine) of our government. In it the writer asked, “When are we, the people, going to make our government accountable?” The question not only begs to be answered, it invites a closer scrutiny.
The writer puts her question quite rightly. She didn’t ask “When will the government be accountable?” Instead, she ask, “When will we, the people, make our government accountable. The emphasis is on “we the people.” It clearly shows that the burden is entirely on us. The truth is that we, as a people, are complainers. We are passive users and many times vocal abusers of a system that was given us by our inspired forefathers who saw in us, the people, a nation and not an economy, which regrettably is what lately we are being programmed to be. But in all fairness, even today there are innumerable examples of the government being accountable. Unfortunately the accountability appears to favor mainly the privileged among us, namely, those special interests groups who through their lobbies make their voices heard. We, the “mainstream” people, have few lobbies other than our representatives in Congress, who unfortunately, like Judas in another time, often succumb to the temptation of a few pieces of silver, and a handful of advocacy groups whose non-profit status many times ignores overly generous salaries and other pecuniary benefits for their executives. So how can “we the people” make our government accountable? Not by imitating the powerful corporate or political lobbies with their bribes and corruption, but by a more direct action at the grassroots level. By boycotting politicians whose track records are shady, instead of falling again and again for their empty promises and constant personality “reinventions;” by boycotting products and services whose prices are visibly not based on honest costs and returns but on “what the market can bear,” that fabulous market economy formula that legitimizes, indeed decriminalizes in some cases, the once reprehensible, if not illegal, price gouging; by doing “en masse” what that letter writer did – flood our newspapers’ opinion pages with our observations and yes, legitimate complaints; by shouting from our allegoric rooftops: “We wont take this anymore. We want our country back!”

We the People

Honest Abe must be turning in his grave seeing how his Gettysburg address ending with the glorious words “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” often is being interpreted in our time as “…that government of the privileged people, by the privileged people, for the privileged people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Clearly our country has been a shining example to the world as to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What is not so clear today, while we wallow in our much touted super abundance, is who the real beneficiaries of Lincoln’s proclamation are. It weren’t the Native Americans, or the African Americans, or too many of those who came to our shores in search of precisely those tenets. More and more it seems that the super privileged in our society—the big shots on Wall Street, the multinationals, the legions of foreign investors—created a new breed of capitalists who have gradually metamorphosed into today’s super capitalists. Individuals often unknown to the public who operate behind the scenes, spawning corporations so powerful as to eclipse the power of our elected leaders, who are turning into mockery our nation’s forefathers’ wisdom and foresight by establishing special interests groups and corrupting our institutions through their lobbyists, all under the aegis of the Constitution.

The slow but inexorable descent into the abyss to which the unchecked greed of this convoluted amalgam commonly referred to as neoconservative, military-industrial complex has condemned our nation, finally seems to be reaching bottom. In their unpatriotic hubris of global dimensions, the special interests groups, aided by their lobbies, have pushed our government into a war of aggression (Iraq didn’t start this war), and are ruining our economy with total disregard of the people Lincoln’s words referred to, who find it harder and harder to pay their mortgages, their health insurance, even the gasoline they need to move around in our country grievously lacking a public transportation system worth mentioning.

Sad as it is, the party of Lincoln is not heeding the words of the Great Emancipator. Perhaps in this election year, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee, who promised to stand up to the special interests groups and the Washington lobbyists, will convert Honest Abe’s passionate vision into reality.

There is no question that change is needed.