American News

Questions on Which No One Agrees: Infrastructure, Cuba and Jobs

This week, we discover the drama around Biden’s ambitious infrastructure bills, take two oblique glances at Cuba in the news, and explore the ambiguity of political identity in the US.
Peter Isackson, Daily Devil’s Dictionary, Cuba economy news, Cuba US embargo, Havana syndrome, Rick Scott climate change, JFK assassination, US liberals, US Republican Democrat divide, Joe Biden infrastructure ban

Havana, Cuba, 3/18/2018 © Ernesto Suarez / Shutterstock

August 18, 2021 09:26 EDT

In August, the Daily Devil’s Dictionary appears in a single weekly edition containing multiple items taken from a variety of contexts.

Obama Hosts the Jet Set While Biden Plays the Propeller

As Barack Obama held a lavish do at his Martha’s Vineyard manor, US President Joe Biden tweeted his satisfaction with what appears to be a major accomplishment, getting an infrastructure bill halfway home through a vote in the Senate. “As we did with the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway,” he proudly proclaimed, “we will once again transform America and propel us into the future.”


Provide a force that establishes new momentum, with or without the means to control the direction of the resulting motion

The Context

In the first part of his tweet, Biden explained that his “Infrastructure Deal signals to the world that our democracy can function, deliver, and do big things.” Some may read this as meaning that Biden’s pride in this partial accomplishment proves that in exceptional circumstances — by definition extremely rare — US democracy is capable of functioning.

The corollary is that most of the time that must not be the case, an idea most people tend to agree with. But the politicians in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, appear ready to play a game of chicken. In the barnyard of the Beltway, Biden should know how perilous it can be to count your chickens before they hatch, especially when expecting one of the hatched chickens not only to cross the road (to work on repairing its potholes), but even to be propelled across it.

Christopher Wilson at Yahoo observes that nine “moderate House Democrats on Friday threatened to blow up infrastructure negotiations, highlighting the delicate line that party leadership is trying to walk as it pushes two bills totaling over $4 trillion.” At the same time, the progressive wing has threatened to withdraw its support if the $1-trillion bill passed by the Senate is not coupled with a bill for $3.5 billion that covers some of the most urgent needs.

In China, Cuba and Ohio, Reform and Inertia Go to Battle


Biden’s idea that the nation is being “propelled” into the future contains the odd suggestion that the future will not happen without this exceptional force. We might ask ourselves how 78-year-old Joe Biden envisions his own future, let alone the nation’s and the world’s. In the complete statement put out by the White House, a familiar Biden theme concerning the future reappears. It states that the “agreement will help ensure that America can compete in the global economy just when we are in a race with China and the rest of the world for the 21st Century.”

Speculating about whether the US “can compete” reveals how skewed the notion of competition has become in US culture. Of course, the US can compete. Even if China does eventually overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy, the US will still be in the competition. In a fair game — even a game of chicken — everyone is expected to compete. That is the principle at the core of capitalism. What Biden literally means is that it’s all about winning, or rather dominating, and not about competing. For nearly a century, the US has seen its role, not as that of a competitor, but of a dictator. Competing means exercising the power to deprive other nations of even being allowed to compete. That’s what wars, invasions and sanctions are all about.

The other complementary oddity in this statement is Biden’s idea that the 21st century is a prize to be won by a single nation. This is an idea he has repeatedly insisted on. It leaves the impression, confirmed by recent history, that as humanity prepares for a multipolar world, the US will resist to the death any challenge to its will to dominate. This bodes ill for the future of both Americans and everyone else at a time when it has become increasingly apparent that global problems can only be solved if all the nations and peoples of the world are involved.

The New York Times Is Suffering From a Cold War Syndrome

The New York Times continues to be hot on the trail of the tragic tale of the “Havana syndrome.” In its latest installment in the ongoing series of articles intended to demonstrate the paper’s failure to notice that tragedy has definitively morphed into comedy, The Times’ White House and National Security correspondent, David Sanger, offers this summary: “While the leading theory in the ‘Havana syndrome’ cases is directed microwave attacks, a classified session for senior government officials said months of investigation were inconclusive.”

Leading theory:

For government-led investigations, any theory, however improbable or utterly unlikely that points toward a hypothesis consistent with the requirements of the perpetrator’s agenda of political marketing

The Context

The New York Times appears to believe that “inconclusive” means worth writing about as if it was true until the whole thing ends up in the waste bin of history. For some historical perspective, the Warren Commission’s hasty and highly motivated conclusion in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the killing of President John F. Kennedy became the “leading theory” of the time. It has remained officially the “leading theory” ever since and has even profited from the trend created in the early history of the CIA of dubbing a “conspiracy theory” any theory that differs or deviated from the “leading theory.”

This is in spite of a mountain of forensic evidence as well as willfully ignored testimony that has emerged over time pointing to the involvement or complicity of the CIA, or at least some members of the CIA, most likely with the discreet assistance from the Mafia. Film director Oliver Stone is still bravely working on the case. Despite his new documentary on the JFK assassination that was featured last month at the Cannes film festival, The New York Times didn’t bother to review or even mention it. If it wasn’t financed by Hollywood, no movie is worth reviewing.

The Havana syndrome story has turned into high and, as usual, expensive comedy because of the monumental efforts required to ensure that the “leading theory” continues to hold its lead even after multiple contradictory hypotheses emerge. In Sanger’s article, one quote by CIA Director William J. Burns gives the game away. Explaining his hesitation to charge Russian President Vladimir Putin with the crime, Burns responded: “Could be, but I honestly cannot — I don’t want to suggest until we can draw some more definitive conclusions who it might be. But there are a number of possibilities.” The Times has not just been suggesting it, but claiming it for at least the past year.

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Sanger seems unaware of the comic effect of what he reports in the paragraph following Burns’ admission: “This spring, for example, American military personnel operating in Syria suspected that a sudden illness may have been caused by a Russian aircraft that could have directed microwaves at them; it was later determined they had food poisoning.” Those who have followed the story over the past five years know that the initial cases in Cuba that gave the official title to the syndrome produced the first comic trope when, after the victims submitted recordings of the sounds identified as the source of their woes, a study by a team of biologists “said it matched the mating song of the Indies short-tailed cricket found around the Caribbean.”

Could the Russians have been genetically engineering the crickets to produce the kind of microwave suspected (but never identified) of causing the damage? The idea that it is a sonic attack in the form of aggressive microwaves is still nothing but that: an idea or, as Burns would admit, one of “a number of possibilities” — alongside food poisoning.

Can The New York Times be suffering from what should be called the “Havana syndrome syndrome”? It appears so, as it continues to feature the latest “inconclusive” official moves as a breaking news story that is literally devoid of content. Sanger obviously has a direct line to the State Department and the CIA, and probably knows that if he has nothing else to report about how frightening the Russians or the Chinese have become, he can always come back to the Havana syndrome. 

As with the narrative around UFOs, explaining the state of play of the unexplained, especially if fear is involved, will always attract readers, even when the explanation amounts to affirming that there is no explanation. Meanwhile, the investment of taxpayer money continues. The National Security Council, according to a senior administration official, is “leveraging a broad array of scientific and medical expertise from within the government and outside of it to explore multiple hypotheses and generate new insights.” Their aim is of course to “protect our personnel and identify who or what is responsible.” If they aren’t even sure if they’re looking for a “who” or a “what,” there will indeed be a lot of expensive work to do.

Whose Reason Will Prevail in the Cuba Debate?

Following recent protests in Cuba, people find themselves struggling with what politicians and the media want to frame as a simple binary problem. To the question of what has caused the misery in Cuba, Jorge Salazar-Carrillo, writing in The Conversation, notes that  “many analysts and activists — and the Cuban government — argue that this is due to American sanctions on Cuban goods” and counters that “the embargo is not the main reason Cubans are in dire straits now.”

Main reason:

One of many probable causes of a particular disaster, cited by a person who seeks to reduce the problem to a single cause so as to put all the blame on an adverse party and deny any responsibility from the speaker’s own side

The Context

Claiming to offer “perspective,” Salazar-Carrillo writes: “consider that Cuba’s income per capita back in the 1950s was one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere. Today it has one of the lowest.” He chooses to forget another critical historical fact reported by Marianne Ward and John Devereux in an academic article with the title “The Road Not Taken: Pre-Revolutionary Cuban Living Standards in Comparative Perspective.” The authors describe a Cuba dominated by US business and Mafia interests. They explain that “between 1920 and the 1950s per capita income was declining while the revenues of the richest Cubans were increasing exponentially.”

Castillo conveniently fails to observe that, despite the decline in income per capita since the revolution, income equality is much greater than it was under Batista’s rule. Ward and Devereux explain that in pre-revolutionary Cuba, “U.S. financial interests included 90 percent of Cuban mines, 80 percent of its public utilities, 50 percent of its railways, 40 percent of its sugar production and 25 percent of its bank deposits. In return, Cuba got hedonistic tourists, organized crime and General Fulgencio Batista” who “appointed himself president by way of a military coup in 1952.”

To make matters worse, “Not only was the economy weakening as a result of U.S. influence, but Cubans were also offended by what their country was becoming: a haven for prostitution, brothels and gambling.” Is this the situation Castillo and other Cuban exiles wish to return to? Does this explain why a six-decade-long embargo that deprives an entire nation of interacting economically with the dominant economies of the world is not the “main reason” for its economic woes?

The Hyperreality of a Liberal Identity in the US

New York Times columnist Ross Duthout used the example of Tucker Carlson’s fawning interview with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to make an important point about “the ever-lengthening list of people who have had careers derailed for offenses against progressive norms.” He adds that frequently, “they are heterodox liberals rather than conservatives, because conservatives are rare in elite institutions and less interesting to ideological enforcers.” 

Heterodox liberals:

Either a real subcategory of a totally imaginary category of Americans or an imaginary subcategory of a real category of Americans. Let the reader decide.

The Context

In the US, everyone is taught from birth that society can be divided into two opposing camps: liberals and conservatives. Growing up, most young people feel pressure to decide which side they are on. Typically, they accept their chosen label for the rest of their lives, though converts do exist, some of whom make a point of broadcasting to the world how they were “born again” politically as living examples of a “great awakening.”

Criticizing the tyranny of thought exercised by what he calls “intolerant progressivism,” Douthat somehow misses the real and obvious vice in the system. The intolerant progressives he despises have adopted a behavior perfectly consistent with one of the core values in US culture. We could call it “the culture of aggressive community enforcement or negative branding.”

The idea of law and order resonates strongly in US culture. People can believe and think anything they like, but there are laws that define the limits on their actions. On the other hand, the belief in the abstract notion of “freedom” as something divinely ordained tells them that there should be no limit on what they can do. This has led the culture to adopt a compromise position formulated in the traditional idea that you can wave your arms around as much as you like, but your freedom to do so stops when it enters another person’s space. There is even a consecrated expression: Your personal liberty to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.

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In other words, Americans think of themselves as free swingers, but they acknowledge that there are instances in which it may be necessary to restrain the movement. That produces a psychological dilemma that can be resolved either by disciplining one’s own movements (respecting other people’s space) or simply by avoiding other people altogether and retreating into one’s own private reality. This implicit choice has a major impact on how people choose to live their lives. The bold take risks and cultivate a carefully managed discipline of assertiveness. The shy crawl back into their shell.

Douthat asks an interesting question: “But where can you go to vote for a different ruling ideology in the interlocking American establishment, all its schools and professional guilds, its consolidated media and tech powers?” The answer is nowhere, but not for the reason he expects. The “ruling ideology” isn’t the regime of political correctness he excoriates. There is a superior, universal ruling ideology shared by all but a few lucid and utterly marginalized critics. It bears the name “American exceptionalism.”

Douthat has no problem with that imposed ideology that indeed interlocks everything in the political economy. Its effects may lead to the destruction of humanity. But what Douthat thinks we really need to worry about is political correctness.

Forget Climate: Rick Scott Wants to Protect Jobs, Mainly His Own

In an interview with NPR’s Ari Shapiro, Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida weighed in on the question of climate change. In the past, Republican politicians have preferred to dismiss the topic as fake news. Not Rick Scott, who tells us: “I think we clearly want to, and need to, address the impacts of climate change, and we’ve got to protect our environment, but we’ve got to do it in a fiscally responsible manner. We can’t put jobs at risk.”

Fiscally responsible:

Possessing the theological virtue in the capitalist religion of being socially irresponsible, thanks to a divine decree that places the health and prosperity of investments above the health and prosperity of the people

The Context

Scott added, “We’ve got to focus on the impacts of climate change, but you’ve got to do it in a manner that you don’t kill our economy.” Many economists agree with the Biden administration’s stated belief that aggressively countering climate change will not only save the planet but also produce jobs and permanently improve the economy. If that is true, what is the basis of Scott’s fear of killing the economy?

The short answer that Republican lawmakers are well aware of is that stimulating a new direction for the economy will deprive some in the rentier class of monopolists their flock of geese that have so consistently laid golden eggs. The economists counter that promoting economic transformation may create new wealth. But the problem for someone like Scott is that new wealth takes years to build the reserves required for it to engage in serious Beltway lobbying and the active funding of political campaigns for incumbent senators.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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