19 April 2009

The Summit Challenges Obama's Pragmatism

Obama claims to be a "pragmatist." But if he hopes to avoid letting that stance degenerate into the more common and less appealing "opportunist," he is going to have to recognize some consequences of being a pragmatist.

Obama is now in Trinidad, attending the Summit of the Americas. According to this report from AP, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has given Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano's book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. The title will suggest that the book offers a critical account of Latin American history. Galeano is a Uruguayan journalist and author, who has endured prison and exile for his political views. You can find several of Galeano's essays here at The Progressive and an interview with him here at Democracy Now!. And here is a somewhat older but extremely entertaining conversation between Galeano and photographer Sebastião Salgado.

Of course, this gift may seem wholly inappropriate. Obama tends to complain that, as a pragmatist, he aims not to dwell on the past but, instead, to craft workable approaches to the future. But, a pragmatist recognizes that any of our beliefs or commitments might be mistaken, that regardless of how confident we are in those beliefs or commitments we might simply be wrong.* From this perspective the past is crucial a source of knowledge, a resource from which we might learn. Obama's pronouncements tend to imply that the past solely provides fodder for recrimination. Similarly, diversity provides a source of insight and a check on our confidence. Here too, the point is less to assign blame than to identify bases for defining and addressing common problems and concerns. In that sense, a pragmatist would insist that the prospect of learning from the past or from views at variance from our own implies that we needn't agree with everything that, say, Galeano writes to think we might profit from exposure to his view of the history of Latin America.

And, the administration simply cannot make the excuse that because he cannot read Spanish Obama can't read Galeano's book. After all, the book has been translated - look here at Monthly Review Press.
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* This view - falliblism - should not be mistaken for skepticism or the view that none of our beliefs or commitments are reliable; pragmatists reject the latter stance, insisting that not just belief but doubt must be justified too. Indeed, in order to question particular beliefs or commitments we must assume that a whole range of other beliefs and commitments are reliable.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jose Guilis said...

I've read Galeano's book and I laughed when I learned that Chavez had given it to Obama. One of those populist gestures so dear to the Venezuelan president.
Still I feel that, if I remember well, the book is very wrong on a lot of issues, specially in pointing the finger to third parties (Spain, US, etc.) instead of analysing the origins of most of LA's conflicts. Galeano is in Chavez's league. Not that the book isn't worth reading, on the contrary. As a summary of LA's tragedies it's inspiring.
The US may have supported the coup against Salvador Allende, but Pinochet after all was Chilean himself, supported by Chileans and encouraged by Chileans. Same applies to most other conflicts. And it is even funnier, well sort of, when he writes about Spanish colonization. After all Galeano is not an indian family name.
When I think about all that I wonder why the US cold not have supported Arbenz or all the democratic leaders of Latin America. Can't find an answer.

21 April, 2009 10:05  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Jose, Thanks for the comment. Don't get me wrong. I have no doubt that Galeano has a partial, not entirely persuasive view - in ways you suggest. But the view from Uruguay (to say nothing of the view from exile) is one few, if any, American Presidents have probably considered.

So, the point is about expanding the range of views that get into the conversation. JJ

22 April, 2009 20:54  

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