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Criticism: an Abandoned Process

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

The art of criticism is yet another casualty of television, the internet and individualism. I come from a generation that pre-dated the TV dinners of the 1960s. As a child, I remember my family sitting down at a prescribed time and eating together. At my home, dinner was from 6-8 PM or at the hour my father arrived. During dinner, the telephone was off limits.

We could not leave the table without permission; voices were regularly raised. We criticized each other, often not too gently. We often did not like the criticism but we knew that the person making it loved us, and he or she wanted us to improve – that was a given.

Today’s generation is not as disposed to heated conversations, and often students and colleagues are devastated by the slightest criticism. They cannot distinguish between personal attacks, and when a criticism is meant to improve or to better the outcome.

It starts from the top. Criticize Barack Obama, and you don’t like him. Criticize George W. Bush, and you hate him.

Most of us have never met them or broken bread with them so how can we dislike or hate them? We dislike or even hate bigotry or capitalism, but we should know who or what we are criticizing.

They objective of criticism should be to improve something. That is the only way that changes and transformations take place.

Formal and informal criticisms have been the centerpiece of every advanced society. We know more about the western world not because it was the epitome of learning but because of our Eurocentric educational system. History tells us that Europe imperialism in its drive to control and exploit other people often erased the history of superior civilizations.

Witness the Spaniards’ destruction of the Mesoamerican codices, and the suppression of Indian voices in the name of their god. The English similarly destroyed or coopted indigenous memory.

The truth be told, Western Thought is really Mediterranean – not Western European.

Everything seems to begin and end with the Greeks and to a lesser extent the Romans, i.e., language, philosophy, and history. That’s why some say, “Blame it on the Greeks!”

(Our guilt ridden society seems to always want to blame somebody or something else for its failures. Blame the alcohol, the times, women, immigrants or the devil).

However, history shows that the Greeks were not that bad, and if there are flaws in their thought system it can be attributed to distorted translations.

Take that guy Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) who produced a well-reasoned way to answer a question. His question-and-answer mode of probing has influenced methods of learning from modern law school training to critical thinking. Some call it logic.

Socrates did not form theories; he listened to others. Socrates did not publish anything, but he influenced the field of western philosophy. He kind of reminds me of my family conversations that taught you ethics — something that politicians, university administrators and professors should learn about.

It is from the Greeks that the West got the word criticism.  According to Wikipedia, “The word critic comes from Greek κριτικός (kritikós), ‘able to discern’, which is a Greek derivation from the word κριτής (krités), meaning a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis, value judgment, interpretation, or observation.” (How the meaning of words have changed).

So called scholars and religious sages have made careers out of deconstructing and regurgitating the Greeks, only to produce corrupted translations. Their compromised method – scholasticism — held sway over much of Europe for centuries. Criticism was temporarily brought back to earth by Dialectics and Materialism.

The old guy Socrates had discovered that through discussion and reasoning you can root out imperfections. Basically, we have to know how something is imperfect before we can change it.

Like other critics Socrates was tried for his subversion. He was charged with corrupting youth and “impious” acts. It seems as if he failed to acknowledge the accepted gods, a familiar charge against those who challenge the existing order.

Based on my own experience, the 70s and 80s were periods that produced the greatest intellectual growth in Chicana/o studies. Marxist study groups were a pain in the ass; they became religious and wanted to party build. However, these groups made significant contributions to questions of gender and class inequalities. Aside from their discipline and newspapers I was impressed by the rigor of some of the groups that engaged in spirited group and self-criticism.

The failure of Chicana/o studies to grow is in large part the failure to criticize.  This is lamentable because the areas of criticism are well established in academe. Evaluations are traditionally based on Community service, University service, Publications and Teaching. For the first five years of the San Fernando Valley State CHS, we engaged in this kind of criticism but it gave way to friendships.

There is no similar base criteria to evaluate (criticize) Latino elected officials. However, I would start with a list of questions such as

* How much outside money is she/he receiving?

*  How much do they get from corporations?

* Do they have storefront centers to listen to their constituents problems?

* Do they take public stands on questions such as police brutality and education?

* Do they have community forums to discuss these issues?

* Do they participate in the life of their districts?

* Where do they stand on privatization?

* What is their voting record on progressive issues?

* What is their stance on immigration?

* Do they show up and champion to these issues?

Through discussion, questioning and answering, this list can be expanded. Using logic we should grade the politicos, and issue periodic Report Cards. The same should be done with President Barack Obama and the gaggle of Democratic Party elected officials.

Do we live in a democracy?  The United States’ health system ranks 39th and spends more on per capita than other nations. This is the result of subsidizing insurance and pharmaceutical corporations.

Millions are without health coverage. It ranked 7th in wages in 2010, and it was 12th in college affordability and losing ground. The United States along with three small third world nations is the only nation not mandating paid leave for mothers of new born infants. It is the only advanced country not requiring paid vacations for its workers. It is the only nation that does not mandate paid medical leave.

It spends more on war weapons, five times as much as China its closest competitor.  It incarcerates more of its citizens than any nation. Has more guns per capita, and leads the world in infant mortality. Finally, it leads the world in income inequality.

Yet there are those that say that it is the land of opportunity.

Socrates would have a field day asking, why and how? Is the culprit American individualism? Most European societies have free universal health care for their citizens. Many provide free higher education, and it is only those who follow the American model that are falling behind.

Like my family, the progressive nations are Communitarian societies that emphasize the importance of community and caring.  Its citizens realize that the function of political life is to analyze and evaluate political institutions, and care about the well-being of their fellow citizens. (To promote the general welfare in other words). And they realize that they have to restrict the powers of government and the greed of corporations.

So don’t blame it on the Greek for the growing inquality. Let’s blame ourselves for not caring, not acting like a family and not criticizing.

(Beware of making a weak person a martyr, criticism can do that!)

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.

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