A Time to Choose
Today, Cardinal Jaime L. Ortega, the head of the Catholic Church in Cuba, will speak privately with a group of undergraduates and publicly in the JFK Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics. The Cardinal, only the second in Cuba’s history, was criticized recently in a blistering editorial in The Washington Post for being “a de facto partner of Raul Castro,” but based on the advertisements for today’s event, you wouldn’t know why. Cardinal Ortega, in the publicity materials sent out by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Student Association, was described in a rosy biography as “instrumental in opening a dialogue with the Cuban government [and] negotiating the release of political prisoners.” The description failed to mention that the Cardinal did not object to the prisoners’ forced exile to Spain, nor did it mention his other failures to protect political dissidents in Cuba. The full story ought to be told.
As the commuters filled Athens on the morning of April 4, a 77-year-old Greek pensioner shouted, “I don’t want to leave debts to my children” and shot himself. Unfortunately, such events have become increasingly common. In the first half of 2011, Greece’s suicide rate increased by 40 percent, leaving many Europeans wondering why. During a solidarity rally in Athens following the public suicide, one plumber pointed to Parliament and stated, “It’s those in there that killed him, and they’re killing us all.” One note pinned to a tree near the site of the suicide said, “Austerity kills.” And the Greeks are not alone. From Spain to France and the United Kingdom, protests blaming the government for economic plight have swelled. The protesters and workers of Europe are right to be frustrated, but they are frustrated for all of the wrong reasons.
Since World War II, the European continent and Western Europe in particular have been attempting to build a new society, one that would provide the institutions to solve the persistent problems of the past. With massive amounts of aid from the United States, the European recovery from the devastating war was a success. Industry grew, education was reformed and expanded, and with rapid economic growth, European governments could easily afford to provide generous benefits to their citizens and grow the state. Looking forward, it appeared that Europe was destined to converge with the United States. Instead, it diverged, falling away from its global rivals throughout the 1990s and collapsing in spectacular fashion during the Great Recession.
Olympia J. Snowe’s sudden and unexpected announcement that she was retiring from the Senate sent shockwaves throughout the nation that went well beyond the electoral calculus. The retirement signaled a recognition that something had been lost in American politics, that the political moderate was part of an era that had passed. Following her announcement, Snowe criticized the Senate for failing to be a body “that ensures all voices are heard and considered.” In the wake of her statement, many fingers were pointed—at the Tea Party, MoveOn.org, and other political organizations—to explain the loss of respect within politics. Yet, by design, the Congress represents the nation and people that elect it. When Americans stop respecting opposing opinions, we can’t expect Congress not to follow our lead. Unfortunately, Harvard, too, is far from innocent in America’s race to incivility. We can’t turn around what happens in Washington without first changing what happens in the Yard.
As the “Kremlin on the Charles,” Harvard is famous for its liberal reputation and infamous for its intolerance of dissenting opinions. When prospective freshmen arrive at the activities fair each year at Visitas, the most common question they ask at the Harvard Republican Club’s table is not “What activities do you have?” or “How many members do you have?” but “Can I be conservative here?”
This past January, President Obama stated that the state of our union is and always will be strong. With an improving yet still ailing economy and bleak budget outlooks for the future, some may disagree. What nearly every American and politician agrees upon, however, is that the state of our politics is weak. The strong reaction to the miraculous recovery of Representative Gabrielle D. Giffords showed, if anything, that most Americans and members of Congress wish that the government could work better for its people. Despite the good intentions of many individuals—from the Bowles-Simpson Commission to the Senate Gang of Six—politics in America remains unnecessarily polarized. If gridlock remains despite the willingness of significant party members and committee leaders to work together, perhaps we as Americans have been looking for the problem in all of the wrong places. Polarization in America is not a result of disagreements over solutions; it is a serious dispute over what the problems actually are.
If Americans remember one thing about their government from the summer, it is the fierce and drawn-out debate over the debt ceiling and fiscal future of the United States. Approximately six months later however, the president seems to have forgotten. He’s been fighting against Congress for six months, but he won’t even mention what they were fighting about. In the State of the Union address, the big three entitlement programs—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security—received one mention in a speech that lasted well over one hour, despite the fact that they are the largest drivers of the federal debt by a wide margin. In the Republican response, it took Governor Mitch E. Daniels (R-IN) a mere few minutes to point out the glaring omission: “So 2012 is a year of true opportunity, maybe our last, to restore an America of hope and upward mobility, and greater equality. The challenges aren’t matters of ideology, or party preference; the problems are simply mathematical, and the answers are purely practical.”