Saturday, September 13, 2008

Service (sic)

There is great confusion out on the campaign trail and in the world at large:

The two American presidential candidates recently devoted an hour each to answering questions about “service”, yet both endorse a forty-five year old blockade of a country whose political philosophy is based on the notion of service.

In case this isn’t immediately crystal clear, let me be more precise:  In Cuba, the principle of solidarity (which is the moral basis of service) is taught from nursery school on.  Cuban medical personnel not only serve their own people on salary, many of them spend time in distant lands to help others.

The stated purpose of a socialist government is to ensure that the community supports the individual in his life and endeavors.  In the U.S., volunteers are expected to do for others what the government doesn’t do.  Americans pay taxes AND are expected to pick up the slack when their taxes don’t cover basic support.  In socialist countries, salaries are low but there are no taxes and the government is expected to provide health, education and welfare to its citizens, in addition to organizing things so that everyone has a job and food on the table.

Even though we support monetarily and militarily a large array of dictators across the globe who have no concept of service to others, successive presidents have continued to do all they could to bring down the Cuban regime. Even after the Russians had removed their missiles from Cuba, in the sixties, even after the Cold War with the Soviet-Union-now-Russia had ended, even after we started talking with the North Koreans, the only Cubans we talk to are dissidents.

Clearly, the Cuba experiment in trying to make socialism work must have both Democrats and Republicans - and this is where the relatively small difference between the two is most apparent -  very worried.  Currently, the emphasis is on the fact that the Cuban government deems it necessary to remove from the public arena those of its citizens whose opposition the U.S. government supports, so that some of the Cubans we talk to become political prisoners.

Hmmm.  Is that worse than the U.S. government arresting Americans whom it suspects of sympathies with any one of a long list of enemies, and is known to spirit them off to places where the level of human rights is such that they can be tortured?

Meanwhile - and this is where it gets really confusing - the (for want of a better word, and notwithstanding its political overtones) capitalist system, which has spawned an international money market, is teetering on its heights because the free flow of goods, services and money is unregulated by governments.

Progressive commentators rightly point out that we’re witnessing a kind of socialism for the rich,  but I’m not aware of any discussion of what a social-democratically inspired international monetary system would look like. (Keynes?) According to the April review in the New York Review, of Joseph E. Stiglitz’s most recent book “Making Globalization Work”, this former chief economist at the World Bank uses that word approvingly, in yet another small sign that American intellectuals may be timidly abandoning their McCarthy-inspired self-censorship.

I think the world is struggling on many fronts and at many levels toward a social-democratic version of modernity based on sustainable development, where individual service would not be an antidote to runaway inequality, but the functioning basis of government.

And I am convinced that unless the new president can steer this country in that direction, the world is going to be an increasingly confused and scary place.

As a first step, talking to the Cuban government would start to brush the cobwebs out of our heads.

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