October 12, 2007

Chavismo's Mirror Image

Quico says:

Dear Katy,

Actually, I'm not sure if we really agree, or, to say it more precisely, I'm not sure if we're talking about the same thing. Your post deals mostly with what we think, but the problem, for my money, is all about how we think.

The question isn't whether one side or the other in this "debate" is failing to learn the right lessons...that much seems plain obvious. What I'm trying to get at is not the "whether" but the "why". Why does the opposition keep learning the wrong lessons? Why do we fail again and again to converge on a single, coherent position? Why does deliberation lead to vitriol, mistrust and successive schisms rather than to convergence and mutual understanding? What is it about this debate that makes it so dysfunctional?

To answer those question, I think we have to think through the preconditions for successful deliberation. Under what circumstances does open debate lead to mutual understanding, to convergence, to coordination? Until we're clear on that, we can't figure out why the debate we've been having fails to measure up.

So what are those pre-conditions? Under what circumstances can reasonable people talk through their differences with a view to reaching a common understanding?

In very broad terms, I think there are basically two:

-A common understanding of the facts of the matter
-A common commitment to talk through our differences rationally

My last post focused on the first of those conditions, but the two are pretty much irreducibly linked. The opposition can't coordinate because it can't come to an agreement on how we got into the mess we're in. But a big part of the reason we build that common understanding that is that our commitment to talk through our differences rationally has been badly eroded.

Too many of the rules of rational deliberation have become collateral damage to the infernal dynamic of hyperpolarization the Chavez era has brought. Basic rules of logic, fundamental axioms like "A and not-A cannot both be true at the same time" have been discarded, supplanted with irrational, politically opportunistic that amount to "A and not-A cannot both be true at the same time unless, in a given situation, it is politically convenient for me to act as though they are."

Probably the most basic axiom of rational deliberation, and probably also the one that has fared the worst in the Chávez era, is the simple understanding that the truth of an argument does not depend on the identity of the person making it.

A statement like "the sun rises from the east," is true whether the Dalai Lama says it or Kim Jong Il says it. Rational debate cannot go forward unless all participants accept something as basic as that. The first prerequisite for fruitful deliberation is the ability of participants to separate arguments from identities, and the willingness to focus on the argument while ignoring (at least provisionally, for the purpose of the debate) the identity of the party who puts it forward.

We're talking about a cornerstone value of the enlightenment project here, a kind of sine qua non requirement of modernity. Arguably, Venezuelans in the public sphere have never been very good at bracketing identities and focusing on arguments - which is just another way of saying that we've never been very good at modernity. But what we've seen over the last 8 years is really a catastrophic collapse in our society-wide commitment to this principle. The farther we depart from it, the deeper the country sinks into...well, why sugar coat it? Into barbarism.

Now, I think I know what you're thinking: "but Chávez started it!" I agree! That's right, Chávez did start it. From the word go, chavismo's Standard Operating Procedure when faced with any and every criticism has always been to ignore the substance of the argument and attack the person (or institution) making it. I've written about that, in outraged tones, a million times on this blog, I've examined it from every possible angle.

But, in this context, that's not the point. The relevant fact is that the opposition's reaction to this tendency has been to mirror chavismo: doing exactly the same, but backwards!

Think back to Roberto Giusti's "principled" statement, in 2002, that he could not be impartial between authoritarianism and democracy, that the circumstances forced him - as a journalist - to take sides. In practice, what this meant was that he would stop considering news stories on the basis of their intrinsic newsworthiness, but instead would judge them according to which side was likely to benefit from their publication. In other words, truth would play a second fiddle to identity. And much of the oppo journalistic elite publicly endorsed that view.

This subordination of argument to identity amounted to a retreat from the enlightenment project as such. And abandoning the axiomatic bases of rational deliberation undermined our ability, later on, to agree on the facts of the matter, to come to a collective understanding about what's going on.

What's upsetting is realizing that we reacted to Chávez's rejection of rational deliberation by, in turn, rejecting rational deliberation. Giusti's position - the position of most of the oppo media for most of the last 8 years - constituted a surrender. We gradually started to become just like them, but backwards. Chávez nos tiene locos...but only because Chávez es loco and, without realizing, we've started to think the way he does.

We've surrendered to Chavez's barbarism. Thinking we were "fighting fire with fire", we started treating rationality as a kind of luxury that we just couldn't afford in the heat of battle. We've become chavismo's mirror image.

Over the last three years, in the era of the Chávez consolidation, the implications of our surrender to this kind of barbarism have corroded our political discourse more and more deeply. As the government achieved its goal of splitting us between abstentionists and participationists, we've found ourselves shorn of the tools we would need to come to agreement through rational deliberation.

Well trained in the arts of dismissing anything "the other side" said as self-evidently wrong, ill-intentioned, even evil (hey, we'd been doing it to chavismo for years!), we started training those habits of mind on one another. So phrases like "oposición oficialista" entered the debate, slurs meant to not to criticize the arguments of the other camp but to disqualify them on the basis of their their identity. In fact, the internal opposition debate has come to resemble nothing so much as the debate we used to have between the government and the opposition, with deeply entrenched positions and a growing sense that the other side is more than just wrong, it's evil.

So it's more than just a failure to learn, Katy. It's that the structural preconditions for collective learning aren't in place. It's that the norms of public discourse within the opposition itself have been chavesized, have devolved into a dysfunctional, primitive form where debate is always about people, never about ideas, and therefore yields enmity and resentment far more often than mutual understanding and convergence.

You know, Briceño Guerrero wrote beautifully about Latin America's always embattled but nonetheless genuine identification with the values of the enlightenment. He didn't think enlightenment values would ever be incorporated widely enough into our way of behaving to organize our public life quite successfully, but neither did he foresee that our identification with those values could wither away completely.

I guess the reason behind my recent bout of acute pessimism, Katy, is this sense that the old man was wrong: the impasse he reported 25 years ago is being broken. We're no longer confronted with discourses in permanent stalemate, we're confronted with the gradual but decisive retreat of European Rationalist values from the public sphere. And that's some serious shit, Katy.

October 9, 2007

How to debate when you agree

Katy says:

Dear Quico,

Sorry it's taken me so long to reply to your previous post, but I wanted to take my time before answering what, in essence, is a debate in which both parties agree. Fundamentally, we both agree on how frustrating it is to see our side caught up in a useless debate on whether or not to participate. As for the opposition media, we both agree that it does more harm than good. So what is there to debate?

Lots. Because where you see reason for despair, I see an opportunity to make us stronger, to make our positions more coherent, to test our tolerance.

I've been on the record before as saying that I don't think the elimination of Chavez's term limits is necessarily a bad thing. My approach to the current state of rigor mortis on our base electorate sort of points to that direction - namely, that until the Chávez phenomenon has run its course, we're better off not winning.

Don't get me wrong - obviously any legitimate opportunity to unseat Chavez should be taken and exploited to the max. However, all losses point to something, and in our case losses point to the flaws in our side. Until we learn the lessons from the bitter medicine that chavismo has supplied us with, we're better off in the opposition. The country isn't, but we are.

Take, for instance, April 13th, 2002. On that day, the opposition movement should have learned a few things. One of them is that Chavez has the honest, yet a bit fanatical, support of a large minority of the population. Another is that we should never rely on the military to solve our problems. And finally, we should have learned that unseating governments by unconstitutional means is the kiss of death which takes away legitimacy from all attempts to make our country a better, freer place to live. Can we honestly say we have learned these lessons? Some of us have, others of us have not.

In August of 2004 we learned another lesson. That day we should have learned that unity in the opposition is not a panacea, that the way the media paints a picture is not always the way the country is. We should have learned that the international community is not going to come and save us, and that we should never, ever trust Chavez's electoral authorities. Finally, we should have learned that there is a non-significant mass of people who chavismo has enfranchised, people who had never come out to vote but decided to do so for the first time because they honestly believe in the process.

I think we were certainly the victims of electoral shenanigans that day. I also think that it didn't make a difference in the final outcome, and that international observers knew about this and basically ok'ed a flawed referendum by assuming that this was a case of a broken clock actually getting the time right. Can we honestly say we have learned these lessons?

In December of 2005 we declined to participate in Congressional elections. That day we should have learned that you can't prove fraud if you don't force the other side to cheat. We should have also learned that massive abstention may backfire on us, and that perhaps the only side we end up punishing with our actions is our own. Have we learned all this?

I think that abstaining that day may have been a mistake, but it was the only politically viable option at the time given how the CNE was caught lying about the secrecy of the vote. I also think that people have a hard time believing this was the only reason parties decided to not participate.

In 2006, the lesson should have been that no matter how enthusiastic the crowds or how feverishly you campaign, you can't defeat an electoral behemoth like Chavez with a disorganized, improvised campaign. We don't need to think back much to remember that, during last year's World Cup, with the elections five months away, the opposition still didn't know who their candidate was going to be. We should have also learned that opinion polls, more often than not, get things right. Did we learn all this?

My point in writing this laundry list of mistakes made and things unrealized is not only to convey the idea that, until we learn these lessons, we won't get rid of Chavez. What I'm believing more and more these days is that until these lessons are learned, we don't deserve to get rid of Chavez.

I'm convinced that Chavez and chavismo have changed Venezuelan politics, yet Chavez seems to be the only politician who has understood this. The poor in Venezuela have long been neglected, a fact few people dispute these days. And Chavez has brought about a sense of empowerment in people previously disenfranchised. Whether this empowerment is real or not is beside the point - what matters is that they feel empowered.

I'm convinced that this thing that has been engendered will make people realize, sooner rather than later, that chavismo goes against the very surge of citizen power that it thinks it has brought about. I'm also convinced that, until chavismo runs out of financial weapons to feed its populist project, we're better off getting ready for the true battle.

It would have been unthinkable for a project like Chavez's to gain power in the middle of the 1970s. But during that time, the seeds of what we have now began to grow. Chavez and his minions were in hibernation, waiting for their time, and it came in the 1989-1992 period. Perhaps now is our time to hibernate as well, metaphorically speaking.

One of the lessons we still have not learned - and here I include you, Quico, first and foremost - is to appreciate our diversity. Yes, it is frustrating that we still have abstentionists in our camp. But until we learn to embrace that debate, until we learn to see that it's not, in your words, "fucking hopeless", we will never be electable. After all, how can we convince the country that we are the only way to reconciliation if we can't even tolerate the people in our side who think differently? Only when we learn to deal with the Marta Colomina's and Roberto Giusti's of our side, to the point of them being able to tolerate us, will we be ready to take the lead.

Quite frankly, as much as abstentionists may annoy me from time to time, I understand their point and I see where they are coming from. Abstention is a phenomenon, it is an integral part of the psyche of our electoral base in the same way that the Tupamaros are an integral part of the psyche of chavismo's base. But Chávez doesn't attack the Tupamaros, he sort of tolerates them, tries to rein them in. That is how you deal with the radicals on your side whose support you need.

(And for all my abstentionist friends out there - don't take it personally, but you *are* radical; we love you, but let's call a spade a spade)

I have said this before and I really believe it - I will outlive this. If chavismo defeats us ten, twenty or thirty more times, fine, it had to happen. Had Germany gotten rid of Hitler in 1938, the world would be a very different place, but perhaps Germany wouldn't be the civilized, modern country it is now, built on the rubble of its own people's madness. History has its pace, and we should learn to read it and not force it. In the meantime, the only productive thing we can do is participate as much as we can and develop our grassroots network. We've been given the wonderful gift of defeat - let's use it to wisen up.