My Experience in Nicaragua (11th in a Series on Critical Thinking)

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Nicaragua taught me so much about the world and critical thinking. All during the 1980s it was the center of news reports every day. President Reagan was obsessed with the country and its president, Daniel Ortega (pictured above). Reagan continually referred to the Sandinista government there as a “Marxist, Leninist, repressive totalitarian regime.” However, he neglected to apply his lofty standards to what preceded it, viz. the Somoza dynasty of three dictators who governed the country brutally with the full support of the United States.

Reagan’s obsession took the form of support for an equally brutal counter-revolutionary force of terrorists called “the Contras” – whose base was the exiled National Guard of the Somoza regime. Reagan famously referred to those killers and drug runners as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”

My experience in Brazil along with careful reading of the press and some history had convinced me that the Reagan administration was disseminating what a Great Man would later term “fake news.”  But I wanted to find out for myself.

So in 1985 I found myself in Managua for six weeks. My specific purpose in going was twofold. The first was fact-finding; I wanted to experience life in a revolutionary situation. I also needed to learn Spanish, which was increasingly necessary for my work in liberation theology. That was my second aim. Languages, by the way, are nearly universally recognized as powerful aids to critical thinking. They expand awareness of other cultures, different points of view and ways of expression.

Along those lines, one of the strengths of my training for the priesthood had been language study. In high school it began with Latin my freshman year. Then came French and Greek. All of those studies continued through my sophomore year in college. Next, of course, I had to learn Italian for my years in Rome. Just before that I needed a semester of Hebrew to qualify for theological studies there; so I took a summer course at Harvard. Once in Rome, it became apparent that German would be essential for my doctoral thesis on Jurgen Moltmann and his Theology of Hope. That led to two summers’ study at the University of Vienna. Then I needed Portuguese for my sabbatical in Brazil. And finally, in ’85 it was Spanish in Managua.

For two summers, I studied at Casa Nicaraguense de Español. It had students living with Nicaraguan families, leaving for Spanish class every morning and then studying the Revolution every afternoon. We visited prisons, farming co-ops, and offices of both the Sandinistas and their political opponents. We attended political rallies and demonstrations. The experience was difficult, but invaluable in terms of expanding my horizons and acquainting me with revolutionary thought and practice. Over the next 20 years I would return to the country a dozen or more times. In 1990 I would do so as an Official Observer of the election that defeated the Sandinistas, replacing them with a U.S.-supported party. I edited a book on the topic.

On that first visit, however, I was amazed by the range of books available in Managua that I would never have otherwise encountered. They covered all aspects of Marxism, socialism, history, education, liberation theology – and critical thinking. It was a treasure trove for me. Reading those books acquainted me with a line of thinking “forbidden” to most Americans.

As I said, this first experience in Central America made an extremely important contribution to my political education. It brought me into further contact with the living conditions of working-class people on the receiving end of extremely destructive US Third World policy. The contrast between what I observed in Nicaragua and what our government said about the country was astounding. It pointed to the fundamentally dishonest character of our national leadership. In addition, those books I mentioned underscored the one-sided bias of our mainstream press, scholarship and teaching.

What I learned from all this, along with the other experiences I’ve outlined here so far, has made me terribly suspicious of our government. Revelations connected with the Iran-Contra scandal heightened the suspicion exponentially. I saw clearly that the lies told about the Sandinistas were only the latest in a long string of misleading stories, cover-ups, and paper-overs foisted upon the North American public. Contra-gate, Vietnam and Watergate were the rule, not the exception. Sad to say, they represent the way our government does business.

In the end, I concluded that the burden of proof will always rest with our officials, rather than with our country’s designated Third enemies, including those currently identified as “terrorists.”

(Next Week: Costa Rica and Franz Hinkelammert)

Critical Thinking: Where I’m Coming From

[This is the fifth blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. My previous entries addressed the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really remove our culture’s blinders unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. Today’s blog post begins explaining my second rule for critical thought, “Expect Challenge: Questioning the ‘Ruling Group Mind’” I open the topic with an autobiographical explanation of why I approach critical thought the way I do.]

Let me tell you where I’m coming from when it comes to critical thinking.

I am a field researcher whose travels have been inspired by concerns about Peace and Justice Studies – a program which I helped found and direct at Berea College in Kentucky. My research “digs” began in Rome where many years ago I spent half a decade doing graduate work, and where I first encountered Third World colleagues who raised deep questions about my own perceptions of reality.

Subsequently, my pursuit of intellectual archeology took me all over Europe – most notably to Soviet Poland – and then to Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Zimbabwe, India, Palestine-Israel, and Cuba. Over the years, I’ve taught as well in a Latin American Studies Program in Costa Rica, where I’ve also worked with a think tank, the Ecumenical Research Institute (DEI), in San Jose.

In all those places I’ve found that developing world thinkers are far ahead of would-be progressives in the United States. Third World scholars know all about colonialism, neo-colonialism, the CIA and its coups, as well as its support of dictators and right-wing counter revolutions around the world.

In the Third World, university students also know about the IMF and its disastrous Structural Adjustment Policies – terms which often raise nothing more than quizzical looks from U.S. audiences. So there’s no need in most Third World settings to argue about the pros and cons of corporate globalization and its effects on the world’s majority. For them the argument was long ago settled.

None of that is true in the United States. Here higher education largely ignores the Third World, where most people live. Most college classes overlook its rich traditions, indigenous scholarship, and progressive thinking. (I even once had a well-meaning colleague respond to similar observations on my part by admitting, “I didn’t know there were any Third World scholars.”) In the United States, the so-called “developing world” is seen as a center of self-induced misery, population problems, food-shortages, and inexplicable revolutions and genocides. Alternatively, the Third World is seen as the undeserving recipient of largesse on the part of the United States understood as the Santa Claus of the world

In the light of history and political realism, I’ve concluded that clearing up such misunderstandings should be Job #1 for post-secondary educators concerned with critical thinking. Doing so entails questioning the unquestionable and broadening students’ horizons to embrace what most thinkers in the Third World recognize as simply given.

To begin with, critical thinking must question the “of course” convictions that belong to American culture – to any culture. As noted earlier, Plato referred to such unquestioned beliefs with the Greek word, doxa. Its power is conveyed by his familiar “Allegory of the Cave.” There the human condition is portrayed in terms of prisoners chained in a cavern where their only experience of reality (including themselves) is conveyed by shadows produced by their manipulative captors.

Plato’s allegory finds its counterpart in American culture, including the prevailing system of education. Typically what happens in the classroom predisposes students to accept what John McMurtry of the University of Guelph (in Canada) calls “Ruling Group Mind” which is largely set by the parameters of generally admissible political opinion. Within such confines, the United States is seen as the best country in the world. Its overriding concern is with democracy, peace, justice and human rights. Its wars are fought in the interests of peace. God is on its side. “Of course!” we all agree.

Such naiveté is revealed in the second episode of the HBO series, “Newsroom.” Its highlight had lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivering a speech about our country that has been viewed widely on the web. As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering a question posed by a bright American college student: “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered.

Daniels’ answer captures the realism of what I consider a major goal of critical thinking.

(Next week: Unveiling the uniquely narrow U.S. spectrum of debate)

Shame on NPR: Elliot Abrams Is Not a Trustworthy Authority

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Have you noticed the rightward drift of National Public Radio? I think it’s unmistakable. That hasn’t caused me to adopt Mitt Romney’s position on the station’s defunding. However NPR’s validation of spurious right wing commentators has led me to petition my local station (WEKU) to replace “All Things Considered” with Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” After all, the right has enough air space with its nearly absolute domination of AM radio.

Case in point: On yesterdays “All Things Considered,” Melissa Block interviewed Elliot Abrams about the pending appointment of Chuck Hegel, the former senator from Nebraska, as Secretary of Defense. Though a Republican, Hegel has been tapped by President Obama for this important cabinet post. His Republican credentials however have not prevented him from being opposed by neo-conservatives like Abrams who see him as “anti-Semitic.”

Abrams’ charge is based on Hegel’s criticism of “the Jewish lobby.” Apparently, the ex-senator is suspect not only for his use of that somehow objectionable phrase, but for pointing out that he had been elected a senator from Nebraska, not from Israel.
Additionally Abrams contests Hegel’s appointment because of the former Vietnam veteran’s seeming reluctance to endorse possible military action against Iran over its alleged nuclear ambitions. Hegel is suspect because he sees diplomacy and dialog as less destructive and more productive than yet another war in the Middle East.

Before voicing such opinions, Abrams was introduced as a former advisor to Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, and as Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. What the NPR interviewer didn’t say was that Abrams himself is part of “the Jewish lobby.” He is also a convicted felon. Abrams, you’ll recall, was found guilty of criminal activity for his role in the Iran-Contra affair and was later pardoned by George W. Bush.

Also unmentioned was Abrams’ role as point-man in Reagan’s wider illegal U.S. policy in Nicaragua costing the lives of nearly 100,000 Nicaraguan peasants at the hands of U.S.-supported terrorists. I remember quite well his interviews during the 1980s when he endorsed Reagan’s ridiculous characterization of the vicious Contras as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” He also repeatedly (and falsely) described the Sandinistas as “totalitarian, Communist dictators.”

Despite such discredits, Block treated Abrams as a trustworthy objective authority from just another Washington think-tank. In reality, she might just as well have been interviewing Oliver North, G. Gordon Liddy or Rush Limbaugh.

That NPR should validate Abrams’ commentary without reminding its audience of such important elements of Abrams’ biography is inexcusable. Similarly unpardonable is Ms. Block’s failure to ask the obvious: (1) Is there a “Jewish lobby” or not? (2) Might Abrams be considered part of that lobby? (3) Was Hegel wrong in identifying himself as primarily responsible to his Nebraskan constituents rather than to Israel? (4) Why has Israel (unlike Iran) not signed onto the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? (5) If Iran should be sanctioned and threatened for its alleged nuclear ambitions, why not Israel for its de facto possession of hundreds of nuclear weapons?

NPR habitually ignores such obvious questions. “Democracy Now!” never does. That’s why I tune in more often to the latter than the former.