Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Too Big to Concur?

Kavanaugh Burns Down His Home Just To Get It Over With
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper web site The Babylon Bee, June 24

Is the United States simply too big to hold together?

Americans, like most everyone else in the world, tend to take the size of their country for granted, but when you live for a while in a smaller country, you begin to notice things. For one thing, a national consensus seems easier to achieve.

For example, let’s take the abortion issue. Historically, Ireland was predominately Catholic, socially conservative country. Yet when social mores evolved, people went to the polls and voted to legalize the procedure through a change to the country’s constitution.

Is there any possibility something like this could happen in the U.S.? It’s hard to imagine, despite the fact that in the U.S. abortion could be legalized (or banned) nationally simply by an act of Congress. The cumbersome constitutional amendment process would not even be necessary.

One of the arguments for overturning the Roe v. Wade precedent was that abortion is mentioned nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. By contrast, the issue actually was addressed in the Irish constitution. That document’s 1983 Eighth Amendment said, “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

Four years ago Irish voters repealed that amendment, making it possible for their elected representatives to legislate on the issue. That was seen as a huge victory for women’s abortion rights. Ironically, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling, America is now in the same situation as Ireland (abortion being a legislative matter), but because of the different context, it is seen as a setback for women’s abortion rights.

Upon the Eighth’s repeal, Ireland’s government promptly legalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. That’s pretty standard in Europe. The UK and the Netherlands permit the procedure during the first 24 weeks, and Sweden 18 weeks. Other countries range between 10 and 14, except Malta, where abortion is outlawed altogether, and Poland, where it’s allowed only in the case of rape, incest or saving the mother’s life.

Ireland’s law actually matches fairly closely the general U.S. opinion. Polls have consistently shown Americans favor legal abortion during the first trimester but not in the second or third ones. So why doesn’t Congress or state legislators simply put that into law? Why does the public debate always seem to be conducted between those who either want abortion banned entirely and those who want it guaranteed until the day before a baby’s birth?

Simply put, it’s hard to compromise when your position is tied to your core beliefs about humanity. If you truly believe a zygote has a human soul, then you’re going to consider its elimination murder. That makes it a public matter. If you believe that a woman’s physical autonomy is paramount, then you’ll conclude the fate of a zygote, embryo or fetus is a concern only for the woman carrying it. That makes it a private matter.

How do you reconcile public policy when society is divided between those two world views? Obviously, it happens because we can see that democratic countries, like those in Europe, arrive at legislative solutions—and as it happens, ones not so far off from the polling in the U.S. I mentioned.

Here’s the rub. The overall national opinion in America is not uniform in every geographical sector. Some states already have very liberal abortion laws on the books, while others have laws (old and new) that ban the procedure. (Some of the so-called trigger laws may possibly be revised since Roe’s revocation is now a reality and not merely theoretical.) So, is that the solution? A patchwork of abortion policies decided (ultimately) by the voters in each state? That may satisfy people who look at the issue with a certain legal detachment, but it does not make people happy who have strong beliefs in the human values mentioned above. Living in a state with an abortion policy you agree with is small consolation when people just across the state line have the opposite situation.

To a certain extent, the same is true about how people feel when talking about national borders—but there may be more detachment in that case. I don’t think, for example, Germans fret about the lack of abortion rights in Poland in quite the same way that Washingtonians think about the situation in Idaho. Washington and Idaho, after all, are part of the same country.

Or are they? I mean, in a cohesive, social sense? That brings me back to my original question. Is the U.S. too big to contain its diversity of world views and human values? It all comes down to how strongly people are tied to certain beliefs and how motivated they are to defend them—or impose them on others.

Monday, April 11, 2022

History and Context

Our weapons are not weapons with which cities and countries may be destroyed, walls and gates broken down, and human blood shed in torrents like water. But they are weapons with which the spiritual kingdom of the devil is destroyed.
 —Influential Anabaptist religious leader Menno Simons (1496-1561), whose followers were known as Mennonites
Many words have flowed on the war in Ukraine. Given the going price of talk (cheap), allow me to throw in mine for what they’re worth (two cents).

Since my main gig is film blogging, I can begin by recommending two movies. When Russia invaded Ukraine last month, I was at a film festival, specifically the Dublin International Film Festival. By complete coincidence, one of the films I saw there was Elie Grappe’s Olga, a fictional story about a teenage gymnast forced into exile during Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests and Revolution of Dignity during 2013-14. In the movie we see Kyiv as the modern, glistening city it was and, hopefully, will be again. We also get a crash course in how Ukrainians rose up against a corrupt, pro-Russian government and chased it from power. It’s a useful reminder that the current war has a context and that Ukraine has a history that didn’t begin only when the country started showing up daily in our newscasts.

The other movie is one I saw three years ago at the Galway Film Fleadh and which I recently rewatched. It was directed by Oscar-nominated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland and is based on the true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. It is called Mr. Jones after the film’s central character and also after a George Orwell character that may have been inspired by him. The film recounts his journey to Moscow in 1933 where he was determined to learn how Stalin was funding the Soviet Union’s military buildup. On a visit to Ukraine (then part of the USSR), he slipped away from his handlers to see firsthand the devastating famine caused by Stalin’s policy of wheat exports. Such an atrocity was seen as impossible in the minds of other western journalists, who idealistically saw the Soviet Union as the way to the future and to modernity. The most egregious example was The New York Times’s Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty, who actually won a Pulitzer Prize for articles debunking Jones’s famine accounts, which had appeared in The Times of London. Despite Duranty’s clear journalistic malpractice, his Pulitzer has never been revoked. Jones was kidnapped and murdered in Mongolia in 1935, presumably by the NKVD (Soviet secret police).

Beyond film recommendations, I offer my own strange connection to Ukraine. As far as I know, I have no Ukrainian ancestry, but it so happens that four of my great-grandparents were born in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast region of Ukraine, which is currently under Russian occupation. Several earlier generations were also born there. They were farmers who did not mix much with people outside their own German-speaking community.

They began as a Dutch Anabaptist movement and fled persecution in the Low Countries in the early-to-mid-16th century for Poland’s Vistula Delta region where they were valued for their skill in building dykes. In the mid-to-late-18th century, they were invited by Catherine the Great to settle in what is now Ukraine. This was territory recently won by Russia in a war with the Turkish Ottoman Empire and which had been dubbed New Russia or South Russia. In return, the devoutly pacifist Mennonites were granted special status which, among other things, exempted them from military service. During the reign of Tsar Alexander II in the late 19th century, the government moved to strip the special status, prompting many of them to emigrate elsewhere. Families resettled all over the world, and that is how my maternal grandparents came to be born in Kansas, live for a time in Oklahoma and then finally settle in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

What my family history tells me is that, while Vladimir Putin insists Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, it is actually a conquered territory that Russia has used as a buffer against perceived threats and which Moscow has treated brutally for generations. No wonder so many Ukrainians (though not all, it should be noted) would prefer to be part of the democratic liberal community of Western Europe.

To much fanfare, the European Union has kicked off the long, bureaucratic process of admitting Ukraine as a member. Depending on how events on the ground develop, this could turn out to be farsighted, provocative or merely symbolic. The dilemma for Europeans is whether Ukraine will eventually be seen as a new and shining outpost of Western values or wind up as an unfortunate sacrifice to Russia’s paranoia about its security. Would such a sacrifice even satisfy Putin?

To put it another way, will Ukraine be Finland in 1940 or Hungary in 1956? Or more worryingly, Poland in 1939?

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Chilean Déjà vu?

If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave
 —Chilean president-elect Gabriel Boric upon being elected on Sunday
Is history repeating itself in the Land of Poets?

In Chile’s 1970 presidential election, the choice was narrowed down to extremes on the left and right. There was a popular, moderate incumbent president (a Christian Democrat), but under the constitution in effect at the time he was not allowed to run for re-election. Instead, his party’s standard-bearer was a weak candidate, so the choice boiled down to right and left. In those days Congress determined the winner of the three-man race, and the Christian Democrats threw their support to socialist Salvador Allende. His election was followed by three years of instability caused by (depending on your point of view) either Allende’s radical reforms and policies or by his opponents’ overreaction to them. In 1973 he was overthrown by a military coup, and a junta ruled the country for the next 17 years.

Superficially, something similar to 1970 seems to have just happened again. But there are key differences. Under a different constitution—one written originally under the Pinochet dictatorship—a first-round presidential election on November 21 drew several candidates from a variety of parties across the political spectrum. The largest single vote-getter was the Republican Party’s far-right nominee José Antonio Kast with 27.91 percent of the vote. Not far behind was the far-left candidate of Apruebo Dignidad (an alliance whose name means “I approve of dignity”) Gabriel Boric with 25.72 percent. Given the overall makeup of the first-round voting and the opinion polls, it was no surprise that, in the second-round vote held this past Sunday, Boric was the winner—although the margin of his victory (more than 11 percent) was indeed notable.

Boric’s party is the left-wing Social Convergence, and his coalition has the support of Chile’s Communist Party. Do we need to worry about a right-wing reaction as happened in 1973? Probably not. One major difference between Boric and Allende is that Boric actually received a majority mandate from voters. Perhaps even more significant is that there has been a huge generational shift in Chile. Protests in the streets in 2019 led to the election of a Constitutional Convention after a plebiscite in which 78 percent of voters chose to replace the country’s current charter. Given the makeup of the elected convention, the new constitution will be much more leftist-oriented than any in the country’s history.

Sometimes it helps us North Americans to draw comparisons between the United States and other countries. For example, we might say that electing Gabriel Boric as president of Chile would be comparable to Americans electing… who? Bernie Sanders? Elizabeth Warren? Comparisons like that are not ideal because, for one thing, what is considered left-wing in the U.S. is often much different than what the label represents in other countries. For another thing (and to be unkind) Sanders is as old as dirt, and Warren is no spring chicken either. It is a strange feature of U.S. politics these days that the American political duopoly keeps throwing up geriatric candidates to the voters. As a result, the de facto leaders of America’s left in government are dinosaurs from another age.

This is not the case with Gabriel Boric. At 35, he barely met the minimum age qualification to run for president. A former student leader while studying law at the University of Chile, he was in the forefront of the protests leading to the Constitutional Convention. He and those around him are of an entirely new generation which sees the world much differently than their parents and grandparents did. While the appeal and lure of socialism have long tantalized certain segments of previous generations, anyone who spends much time around young people these days knows that as a political philosophy it is much more mainstream among that age group than it has ever been before.

During his campaign, Boric repeatedly promised to “bury neoliberalism,” i.e. free-market capitalism. That is unsettling for those of us who associate free markets with democracy and personal freedom. On the positive side, though, he cites as his models Europe’s Nordic countries (which are firmly capitalistic, despite what some may think) and Uruguay—as opposed to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which was Allende’s model.

Decades from now, will Chileans be happy with their political choice? Maybe. Maybe not. In any event, they will at least know it was their own choice and not, as in North America, a legacy bequeathed them by elderly leaders who will by then be long gone.