Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

A Portrait From Foote’s Civil War: Sherman

foote_shelbyGeneral Sherman

Foote paints glorious portraits in his trilogy. This one is of Sherman, mostly with Sherman’s words. One of Foote’s great talents is his ability to choose, compile, edit and synthesize quotes from his subjects into the flow of his narrative.

EXCERPT:  Volume 1, Fort Sumter to Perryville, pages 58-59.

Christmas Eve of the year before, William Tecumseh Sherman, Superintendent of the Louisiana State Military Academy, was having supper in his quarters with the school’s professor…a Virginian named Boyd, when a servant entered with an Alexandria newspaper that told of the secession of South Carolina. Sherman was an Ohioan, a West Pointer and a former army officer, forty years old, red-bearded, tall and thin, with sunken temples and a fidgety manner. He had come South because he liked it, as well as for reasons of health, being twenty pounds underweight and possibly consumptive…Rapidly he read the story beneath the black headline announcing the dissolution of the Union…Finally he stopped pacing and stood in the front of his friend’s chair, shaking a bony finger in the Virginian’s face as if he had the whole fire-eating South there in the room…

“You people of the South don’t know what you are doing,” [Sherman] declared. “The country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing…You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it…Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical and determined people on earth — right at your doors.” Then he delivered a prophecy. “You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people but stop and think, they must see that in the end you will surely fail.”


Globalization Inevitable?

International economic integration is not ineluctable, not by a long shot. The challenge is making it more sustainable politically, socially, environmentally, and morally. This is the work of politician-statespersons who will need political capital to craft newer, better, and fairer deals. As for the one-percenters and the well-to-do, they need to understand that they benefit disproportionally from public goods so they have to pay more — a lot more than they have been paying while squirreling away gazillions in tax havens. Without better deals and more public investment, the pitchforks will come out and darker days of populistic violence, wars, environmental catastrophes, and dystopia await. We’ve been there before in the wake of a long globalization boom.

Closet Trumpistas

Closet Trumpistas are getting easier to spot. These tend to be educated and good-hearted Whites who love tacos and are doing well economically. They love the military, their guns, and they go to church. They are not inveterate racists; however, they are uneasy with race and gender diversity as well as rapid change. They want the 1950s back albeit without Jim Crow. They still love President Bush even though they understand that he badly bungled Iraq and Afghanistan. Although they reject humanitarian interventionism they are in fact neoconservative and aggressive, eager for us to seek out monsters that would harm America. They believe the nation has gone off the rails economically and is not respected in the world despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. President Obama still cannot be trusted, they feel, because deep down he is a liberal radical who, if given a chance, would come and take their guns. They will stay home because they don’t trust Clinton. We might also call them The Sons of Sam Huntington.

Frets About The Abuela

I read and enjoyed Lucia Brawley’s essay in the HuffPost some days ago. I thought the author compelling and she made me rethink my priors with respect to Presidential Candidate Clinton, and why supporting her is so terribly important even with all the reservations that I have based on her long wrap sheet.

Candidate Clinton has been too close to scandal and corruption (Whitewater, commodities trading), money grubbing (speaker fees), law-breaking (larding her personal account with classified and sensitive emails), cozying up to the financial sector (speaker fees, campaign contributions, etc.), and much else. Plus, she and her campaign team can be ruthless and rough – downright Republican – during campaigns (see race-baiting during the primary against Obama).

However, I essentially agreed with Brawley’s essay that many of these trespasses are the price of power and must be judged through the prisms of realism and pragmatism. Clinton has climbed a brutal trek to the top of a mountain strewn with land mines. Like LBJ on his path to power before arriving at the White House, she too has bounced back stronger from setbacks.

Perhaps her Candidate Clinton’s greatest accomplishment since she was First Lady has been her great transformation from liberal icon to fiscal conservative. She was once the poster child for a radical restructuring of healthcare reform that, under her leadership, crashed and burned because in part she had misread the country’s political landscape. Since becoming Senator she has perched herself on the center-right of the policy spectrum and has built a strong base among the military brass. Moderate conservatism resides in what will soon be her party. Clinton is poised for the presidency and there is only the smallest chance that she won’t win. She will, I think, carry on with and try to deepen Obama’s domestic policies. If she turns out to be 70 percent as competent as Obama in this arena I will be happy. The economy will be in good hands.

My biggest area of concern with respect to a Clinton presidency is national security affairs. Part of the price of building her bona fides has been that she has ingratiated herself with the military and hawks in congress. There is a swath of generals who like her because she is tough and has not been afraid from her perches in the Senate and State to support dubious interventions – in sharp contrast to President Obama’s restraint (inter alia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria). She supported the war in Iraq and sided with the military and defense in favoring a ridiculously large surge in Afghanistan. In short, she shows signs of being trigger happy and too eager to trust generals who in the end are rarely held accountable for mistakes.

In her defense, all I can say is that I hope that her aggressive internationalism has been a function of politics, that is to say, that she made her choices because, like amassing wealth via speaker fees, they were necessary for accumulating power. Once in power it is my hope that restraint will be in order with respect to money-grubbing and her dubious embracing of liberal interventionists (Samantha Power et. al), neoconservatives, and hawkish generals. I am not optimistic on foreign policy. My bet is that we will return back to the imprudence of the Bush years.

Field Studies in the Americas (FSA)

Field Studies in the Americas (FSA)

One of the most attractive attributes of my current employment is that each year in early March for two weeks I get to lead a field studies trip to Latin America. FSA has been a grand experience, personally and professionally. As a professor of international relations and Latin American politics, the trips have enabled me to see more of the region than I otherwise could.

Right now I am in Peru after spending a few days Mexico. This year’s trip – my fifth – will continue on to Colombia before returning home to Alabama. By the time this trip is over, I will have been to Mexico five times, Colombia twice, Peru twice, Chile once, Ecuador once, and Panama once. In Mexico, we have visited Mexico City, Guadalajara, Toluca, and Tapachula. In Colombia, Bogota, Cartagena, and Medellin. In Peru, Lima, Cusco, and Machu Pichu. In Chile, Santiago, Valparaiso, and wine country. In Ecuador, Quito and the amazon region. In Panama, the Panama Canal. Next year we will travel once again to Mexico and, I hope, back to Chile. With some luck I hope to be able to travel to a new country, perhaps Nicaragua, Bolivia, or maybe even Argentina. I think that of the countries that I have had the opportunity to visit, there are some that I hope to visit once again on my own dime for exploration and adventure. In addition to Mexico, where I plan to retire, I think that Peru tops the list. I would love to mountain bike in the Cusco environs, hike Machu Pichu, and surf its northwestern coast.

I got to thinking about this opportunity and about how it might go away due to budget cuts or shifting priorities at my institution. I certainly would be sad to see FSA go. They are extremely valuable for the students, for my institution, and, not least of all, for our country partners. However, I understand fiscal and political reality enough to be a realist and am grateful for the experiences and memories.

Here are some pretty pictures of Machu Pichu. I had my students read relevant sections of 1491 in preparation. Be sure to click on the photo to see it in nice resolution.




Trump Wins! Whither Trump?


Trump has just won South Carolina, what does this mean? What might we say at this stage of the Campaign? What might we project about how this will end?

Clinton will continue to put more daylight between herself and Sanders; Bush is dead; support for Cruz will likely continue to soften; and Rubio will begin to align himself for the veep slot with irrepressible winds now blowing hard into Trumps sordid sails.

What will Trump do with these hard winds? Will he turn serious about moving to the center somehow to have a shot against the battle-tested and ruthless Clinton juggernaut?

I just described Trump as maybe turning serious because until recently I thought that he was more of a Joker figure — by this I mean someone who was in this race only to see things burn rather than to building a coherent GOP machine capable of winning the whole Enchilada. Now it seems that he has the opportunity to try and herd the demons he has unleashed to fashion a winning strategy.

Trump must be given his due. He has excelled at campaigning, outwitting his adversaries at most turns with well placed combinations of insults, provocations, and bizarro policies that have forced his rivals to match his lunacy. He has both gutted and usurped the GOP. Bush is dead and Rubio lives only because he has recast himself entirely, shaking off all vestiges of moderate decency. Only Cruz can stand up to Trump with the base, but he seems not to have a single friend in the GOP. (One can be forgiven far wanting him to win the nomination just to see the most awkward and sad GOP convention ever). But the dream to be nominee is fading now, I think, for Cruz and anyone not named Trump or Clinton.

Nominee Trump is really too bad for America. Not because Trump can win it all — he cannot without the aid of some weirdo exogenous shock — but because his campaign will extend the national agony of his parading the very worst of America, a stupid slobbering bull that Trump has been riding shamelessly with relish and delight.

I suspect that even in defeat Trump will ride into the history books for having concocted the grandest farce in presidential politics. He’ll have plenty of time later for winking mea culpas to repair his reputation. “I did it,” I can hear him saying much like Jeff Davis said late in life, “because I loved America.” I suspect he will succeed even at this because the man can market and it’s best not to underrate him. And he’ll have plenty of friends in the media who will enable him because he is great for ratings.












More Movies

On the flight home from Puerto Rico the other day I took in The Martian.  Of course the tiny screen did not do the film visual justice but it was immensely enjoyable nonetheless. The film was Hollywood at its best: big, beautiful, predictable and comfortable. It never fooled me about its impending happy end. What I liked best, though, is that it was a movie about grit and problem-solving. This is yet another wonderful movie with a message about how to live well on Earth. The key ingredients are science, love and faith.

There is practically no romance in this film beyond a few nods that do not distract us from the object at hand: the mission to Mars, how it goes awry, and efforts to rescue Mark Watney, efforts that do not go smoothly. It provides insight to risk management and the viewer is keenly aware that more often than not the players take excessive risks. They do so with their eyes open because for these choices it was better to die failing than not to have tried at all. Notice that big decisions are never taken lightly and come only after careful and rigorous analysis.  No one is winging it. Everyone does the math, even if it is back-of-the-envelope.

Just because there is no romance does not mean that the movie is devoid of love. It is full of it, particularly among associates who work together on a mission for a common and noble goal to save a comrade who was inadvertently left behind. They are cheered on by the world and those of us in the theater.

The film ends in a classroom, with Mark Watney delivering a sermon:

“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”  

2016 Odds and Ends

I have been away from this blog for more than a year. Frankly, I miss putting pen to paper in this format.

This Christmas season was good for the movies. I got to see Branagh’s Winter’s Tale, Tarantino’s Hateful 8, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The last I saw twice, including one outing with my adorable niece, Sarah. I rode in a car with her driving for the very first time. This was hard because when I see her I still see a two year old who loved her doting tio.

I saw Tarantino’s flick with Dolores, which was followed by a lovely Indian meal. I took a crew of nephews, my younger sisters, and my mom to see Branagh’s production, which aired live around the world from London.

I do not regret any of these choices for all were excellent, each special in its own way. Tarantino captures America’s polarized dysfunction in his effort and Star Wars its best hope. These two balance each other quite nicely.

This year, prompted by good friends on Facebook who suggested that it is the Bard’s best play. So in 2015 I wrestled with Winter’s Tale on Audio (Arkangel production) as well as the text. It is a fine hard-hitting comedy that barely qualifies as such — tragicomedy is more appropriate. I genuinely loved it but cannot agree with my friends that it is his best play. (Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear are indubitably better). But it is in my personal pantheon of best plays (also add the Henriad).

From among the three movies I saw, The Force Awakens was the most evocative and poignant. Both times I saw it my eyes grew mistier throughout and a lump grew in my throat. I saw the original Star Wars when I was 10, more or less.

The Force Awakens took me back to a time when I was a big dreamer albeit still an innocent one. It took me back to the lofty ambitions that were slowly coming to the surface and would burst forth during my hard and messy early adolescence. It breathed life to youthful memories and passions that do not easily stir.

Then and Now: The Pull of Immigration

Circa 1976-77, my parents bought their old beater home in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. It had 3.5 bedrooms, garage and large back yard overlooking the 10 Freeway near the corner of Marengo and Evergreen streets. They paid $50,000 and could afford the mortgage on a combined income of approximately $375 per week. They had six children. Basic health care at the local clinic was available and we had General Hospital for minor emergencies that my parents could afford to pay. Elementary schools were good in those days too. We had enough to eat. It was a modest way of life but we had a chance to chase the American Dream. Thanks to affordable higher education at local city colleges and the California State University system, we caught it.

It is tricky to get purchasing power parity PPP comparisons of income then and now because of the big shifts in relative prices. In today’s dollars estimates of my parents’ weekly $375 in 1977 range from $1140 to as much as $3,010. Compare this to bare subsistence living in Mexico’s countryside as that country marched towards its economic catastrophe of the 1980s. Prior to the 1990s the borders were loosely monitored. During the 60s and 70s my dad crossed back and forth many times, and was chased out of the US seven times.

The pull factors from differences in relative wages were massive in the late 1970s, taking into account the relative ease of crossing the border. Today the pull factors are not as strong because, according to economists, technology and, to a lesser extent, globalization. In other words, the working classes today are in PPP terms significantly worse off.

The American dream is dying.

The Secret Auden

This is a must read essay.

“On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.”


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