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Invincible ignorance

18 December 2009

It’s not a sin to be stupid, but it is to wallow in ignorance:

So far as fixing responsibility, the most important division of ignorance is that designated by the terms invincible and vincible. Ignorance is said to be invincible when a person is unable to rid himself of it notwithstanding the employment of diligence, that is, such as under the circumstances is, morally speaking, possible and obligatory. This manifestly includes the states of inadvertence, forgetfulness, etc. Such ignorance is obviously involuntary and therefore not imputable. On the other hand, ignorance is termed vincible if it can be dispelled by the use of “moral diligence”. … the diligence requisite must be commensurate with the importance of the affair in hand, and with the capacity of the agent, in a word such as a really sensible and person would use under the circumstances.

(Catholic Encyclopedia, “Ignorance”)

The anonymous blogger, Yamascuma*,  comes to the defense of U.S. writer and, in Yamascuna’s words, a “Euro-style social democrat”,  Matthew Yglesias apparently on the basis that Yglesias’ is “progressive” and people like Otto at Inca Kola News and myself should be forgiving of both an appalling misstatement of fact and what both Otto and I see as a dangerous and potentially disastrous interpretation of that fact.  Neither was a harmless error and both are prime examples of the reason so many of us do not assume the present United States administration is any less bellicose and interventionist than any other since the Monroe Administration.  And, maybe even more a danger than some others.

Yglesias wrote in a “wrap up” of the first year of the Obama Administration, “The handling of the coup in Ecuador was, I think, quite deft but this was hardly a major event in the scheme of things.”

Yglesias may be “well-known for poor spell-checking and editing.”  He is also a professional writer.  My spell-checking and editing skills are not what they should be (ask my editor, who claims I have “dyslexic fingers”), and often make mistakes.  When I make an error — generally writing “it’s” for “its” (or vice versa) or reversing letters (“Hondruas” for “Honduras”), I’m not aware of any internet convention that forbids my silently correcting the error.  If the error is one that has been brought to my attention, or an error in fact, I correct if if possible, and note that the original post has been changed.  I don’t have the readership that Yglesias does, nor would I expect to, but I am a professional, and hold myself to professional ethics and standards.

But writing “Ecuador” for “Honduras” was not a spelling or editing error.  Having on and off been a reporter and writer, it’s axiomatic that errors in a published document negatively reflect on the credibility of the publication. Mistaking Honduras for Ecuador may not be a big deal to Yamascuna, but it was — as Otto noted — indicative of a much more serious problem:

We, down here, are pig sick of you up there telling us how to live our lives, what we should or shouldn’t be doing and proferring wise saws and modern instances when, at the same time, you think the capital of Brazil is Montevideo, if water goes down the plughole clockwise of anticlockwise really makes a freakin’ difference to life, Hugo Chávez is the President of South America, Colombia is spelled with a ‘U’, Ecuador comes equipped with a ‘Q’, how said country suffered a coup in 2009 and not Honduras, there’s no colour TV or broadband internet South of the Rio Grande, Macchu Pichu was built by the Aztecs, Colombia has no real political risk problems and them there Mexicans don’t know how to make a burrito right, do they?

Note that Otto used the non-U.S. spelling. I’ve corresponded with Otto for several years, know his real name (like Yamascuna, he publishes under a pseudonym for professional reasons) and where he lives. He is a resident of Peru, and — whatever his nationality — his children are Peruvians. He has no reason to defend a writer seeking to influence the policy of a country whose policy he sees a danger to his family.

I don’t have any reason to publish anonymously,and am a United States citizen. I reside in Mexico, and — while not having the readership nor the influence of Matt Ygelsias (nor seeking it), I have every right — and possibly an obligation — to object when prominent persons seek to damage the reputation of the United States, or when they perpetuate injustices in my adopted country, and its neighbors.

If the United States had a truly “progressive” policy in Latin America, one could ignore the blathering from reactionaries, like Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal.  But when the same general world-view is coming from influential “social democrats” or “progressives”, it is a much more serious matter.  O’Grady at least keeps her geography straight, and — if one seeks to influence opinion — things like the names of the countries matter. Any professional writer, even a lowly one such as myself, knows that factual errors in print call into question the credibility of the publisher. Is “Think Progress” as careless in their other articles, and how “progressive” is a publication that by taking a jejune attitude towards the name of a country is implying that “those people” don’t count — they’re all interchangeable and their countries are unimportant.

O’Grady, partisan that she is, has a hard time characterizing the Obama Adminstration’s “handling” of the Honduran situation as “deft”, but — like Yglesias — she approves of the outcome. This is where I see Yglesias as dangerous.  It was progressives, “Euro-style social democrats” who helped bring the Obama Administration to power, and who support that administration. We were promised “hope” and “change”. Interventionism — and the assumption that interventionism is justified is not change. Every president since Woodrow Wilson (another so-called progressive) said of Mexico, “We will teach them to elect good men,” has taken upon itself to change the course of human events in Latin America… and to ride roughshod over democracy and freedom. That Matt Yglesias — well-respected in “progressive” circles — sees that as a truth to be self-evident, is ignorant.

Am I too rough on Matt Yglesias? Not at all. He’s an important voice in United States political thought. One who sought to bring hope and change to the country of my birth. One hopes he can change, and with diligence he will overcome his (and our mutual country’s) serious delusions about Latin America.  He is ignorant, but one trusts, not invincibly ignorant.

* “Oops, I did it again” (Brittany Spears)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt Hawkins permalink
    18 December 2009 11:54 am

    Greg Grandin, a historian of Latin America from the US, has in his book “Empire’s Workshop” an important and simple analogy of the way in which ‘ignorance’ of Latin America is weld in the US:

    “The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that the lack of camels in the Koran proves its Middle Eastern provenance: only a native author, he explained, could have so taken the animal for granted as not to mention it. Perhaps a similar familiarity explains the absence of Latin America in recent discussions about the United States and its empire. Though Latin America has played an indispensable role in the rise of the United States to global power, it elicits little curiosity from its neighbor to the north.” (2006:1)

    Commentators, including their ‘progressive’ (I have a hard time accepting the label of ‘left’ for to the brand of paternalist liberals that have not been actually that ‘left’ ever since the French Revolution), in North America (Canada increasingly as well) have no basis of being ‘ignorant’ of the Americas. The amount of wealth and spirit of life stolen over the past centuries from the countries that make up Latin America and the Caribbean for the comparatively meagre value of profit of our North American companies and lives requires a moral debt to not be ignorant of the injustice, inequality, and suffering caused for our benefit. But here we stand, so naturalized in the acceptance that the Americas belongs to North Americans (in the Cuban parlance to mean Canada and the US). It has come to be that it is fine and acceptable for so-called progressives to be so woefully ignorant of the context and significance of a coup, so strongly rejected by the peoples of the Americas, and it continues to some how be ‘wrong’ to be critical of these vaunted ‘progressives’ when they demonstrate their ignorance. It remains much easier to be ‘proud’ of our empires and or role in progressing those empires when we take for granted the bloodied foundations on which they are built.

  2. 18 December 2009 12:05 pm

    It’s Yamascuma with two “m”s, but that’s OK. It’s an obscure reference.

    Thanks for the response, for what it’s worth, I wish I had been clearer.

    Yglesias made his error (obviously bad and egregious) in the context of a post about the Obama administration’s first year of foreign policy successes and failures, arguing that the record was better than some would like to acknowledge. Plainly, if you move the handling of the coup in Honduras from the success column into the failure column, as you, Otto and I all agree it should be, the record looks worse. But for the argumentative thrust of Yglesias’ post, even making that switch would not move the needle too much. In that and only in that sense would I say that the error was not a “big deal.” In other ways, of course it’s a big deal. It’s a terribly big deal in Honduras, where the coup has led to enormous suffering, and in Latin America more generally, where the Obama Administration’s incoherent and halting response has had and will have bad consequences for more than just international diplomacy.

    What I objected to, as I’ve now explained in comments over at IKN, and what I still object to, is taking this error and using as evidence that Yglesias holds quasi- or neo-imperialist views about US foreign policy being attributed to him. Having read him for years, I simply believe that to be mistaken. You’re free to disagree, but I think that the bulk of the evidence is on my side of the argument. I don’t think that the attitudes that Otto describes with appropriate scorn as being “pig sick of you up there telling us how to live our lives” appropriately characterize Yglesias’ views. That’s all.

    Yglesias would certainly be better informed, and a smarter pundit, if he added you to his rss feed.

  3. Matt Hawkins permalink
    18 December 2009 2:51 pm

    Obama is an imperialist, not neo or quasi. The US is an empire – it has imperial fingers in a lot of pies. He had a chance to break apart an aspect of the US’ empire and that was the promise he held. Rather than do anything in this regard, he has increased 30 000 troops in the empire’s war, extended the reach of the empire’s war-machine with 7 bases in Colombia and an unrestricted access to Colombia’s airports in the need of crisis, maintained the empire’s blockade of Cuba rather stringently against the demands of all countries in the Americas, and supported a coup of the empire’s semi-autonomous finger puppets in Honduras.

    Those aware of the US history in Latin America are more than aware of the oscillation of the friendly and the vicious imperialist in the Americas. Obama may play ‘friendly’ in most of his dealings, he himself may not in fact be an imperialist (Jimmy Carter in many regards now does not seem like a bad guy) but he stepped into the office of President in an imperial country. In doing so, by upholding at a bare minimum the empire’s status quo, ipsofacto makes him an imperialist. With no effort to change the US’ foreign policy in any significant regard while ‘returning interest’ to Latin America as a whole since the Bush years, is an imperialist gambit and the fact that most of Latin America rejected this movement with new found vigour and unity is not a trivial and uneventful time.

    I think many UnitedStatesians are imperialists in their outlook upon the world – as are many Canadians and Europeans. They are not neo or quasi, they just maintain the psychological position of an imperialist in the world and see the world events wrapped up in the moralized justifications of why they can make hundreds/thousands of times more wealth than half of the world, and experience the consequences of this situation disproportionately less (whether it be the environmental, social, political, or economic experience). To unquestionably mouth the edicts of empire, especially when they occur in their worst, such as a military coup in Honduras, is imperialist, whether or not you think that it is justifiably progressive, ‘social democratic’ or ‘left’.

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