Thursday, March 23, 2023

Planeta Nostrum

It's cold in the shade, but sunny and clear on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in Almada, Portugal just a five-minute ferry ride across the Tagus from Lisbon.  I'm 10th in line to get into Ponto Final.  Behind me a French group banters as to whether they should've gone to McDonald's instead.  In front of me an Italian couple wonder how much longer it will be.  And every so often the Portuguese maitre d' comes along and asks each group how many they are.  All of us are connected, not just by the fact that we're waiting to get into a trendy restaurant but also as heirs to Roman culture and language.

It is as much historical fact that Rome fell to Germanic invaders from the north, as it is that Germanic invaders from the north fell to Rome.  The rot of the Roman elite, both physical and moral, and its never-ending wars did bring the political entity that was the Roman Empire to an end in approximately 500 AD, but not before that Empire established cultural hegemony across much of Europe.  That 1500 years later I was able to get the gist of the French spoken behind me, the Italian in front, and the Portuguese to the side is a testament to this.

When directed to my table, however, English was the language of choice.  There have, of course, been many important empires between the fall of Rome and the establishment of the American world order after World War II.  But in political, military and especially cultural hegemony none have been as relevant in my opinion, as post 20th century America.  I have seen it with my own eyes and heard it with my own ears, from Tokyo to Lisbon.

It is sad that the America First isolationists will never realize how important their language and culture are to the rest of the world.  They may, at most, get a curated view of a few Caribbean islands on a bad cruise.  America is to the world today what Rome was once to the Mediterranean, only better. Constrained by the rule of law and an international order we help maintain, spreading our culture, our language and our prosperity everywhere we go.  I hope there are enough of us left to defend this vision in the coming years.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Bukele's Sins

Criticize El Salvador's authoritarian president for the right reasons.

Let me be clear: the mistreatment of prisoners is absolutely incompatible with the rule of law.  However, this weekend I ran across an unfortunate editorial in El País which equates the parading of uniformly attired prisoners during their transfer to and processing at a new detention center with mistreatment and torture.  This editorial shows how out-of-touch certain sectors of the global elite are vis-a-vis crime and yes, punishment.  

President Bukele may very well be a tyrant in the making.  His strong-arming of Congress and the Supreme Court have all the hallmarks, at the very least, of the traditional Latin American right-wing strongman.  We must criticize him for this; but let us not fall into the trap of criticizing everything the Salvadoran state does under his watch as dictatorial and authoritarian.  Especially its treatment of the most brutal elements of society who have been allowed to terrorize the population for decades, often exporting their violence and decadence north of the border.

A quick search reveals the brutality of the MS-13 gang, often in America, and often perpetrated by minors.  We must, of course, be concerned by the casting of the wide net in El Salvador, and its potential to ensnare innocent victims.  And we must ensure that all prisoners, but especially those who are below a certain age are treated in accordance to basic principles of human rights.  But let us not kid ourselves; when Human Rights Watch complains about minors being incarcerated by the Salvadoran state, it could very well be talking about stone-cold 16 and 17 year-old murderers who hack people to death.

Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.  As I watched the images of the prisoner transfer in El Salvador, they reminded me of several documentaries I've seen on the Japanese prison system.  It is regimented. It is strict.  It is extremely disciplined.  It may negatively impact prisoner psychology.  And there may be isolated cases of prisoner abuse.  The abuse I condemn without reservations. But about all of the former I say: don't commit crimes.  More prison systems should follow the Japanese model as a way to 1. impart justice; 2. prevent future crime; and 3. protect weaker prisoners from the law of the jungle and abuse by other inmates. If El Salvador is implementing something similar we should be celebrating it, not condemning it.

As mentioned in the NBC piece linked to above, President Bukele has the highest approval rating of any leader in Latin America.  [As an aside, I find it hilarious and extremely hypocritical that El País ends their editorial by quoting from Gustavo Petro, a president whose approval rating continues to dip, and a former member of the Communist terrorist drug dealers of the M-19 guerilla movement in Colombia.] I would not vote for Bukele.  However, I personally know many people across Latin America who admire his governing style.  This fact is unfortunate, but with naive and misguided pieces like the one in El País it is no wonder that common people across Latin America who are afflicted by crime and corruption on a daily basis distrust the media and vote for authoritarian leaders such as Bukele.