Joaquina Pires-O`Brien

A succinct review of liberal education by Leo Straus (1899-1973) forms the topic of our main article in this latest edition of PortVitoria. Strauss was a German Jew who immigrated to the United States, where he became a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. His article, reprinted here in Portuguese, is a speech that he delivered in 1959 during the tenth graduation ceremony of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago. In it, Strauss discusses the most important things associated with liberal education – culture, democracy and ‘the facile delusions which conceal from us our true situation’; together with our incompetence and the uprising of relative culture.

Our second article, by the Portuguese writer João Carlos Espada, is a biography of Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009), a German-born British sociologist, philosopher, political scientist and liberal politician who exerted a great influence on the many Brazilian and Portuguese postgraduates who studied at the London School of Economics and at St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford.

The third article by the Brazilian thinker and poet Fernando da Mota Lima, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Pernambuco, discusses the ‘narrow life’ (vida mesquinha). It is a reflexion of the importance of thought and common sense for the good life, cogitating a possible correlation between the culture of binge drinking and other excesses and the rarity of epiphanies.

Our Book Review section includes two books – La civilización del espetáculo (2012) by the Peruvian-born Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa and O mistério Inglês e a corrente de ouro (2010) – by the above-mentioned João Carlos Espada. Both books are compilations of essays, most of which were published as articles in daily newspapers in Spain and Portugal. Vargas Llosa’s book is a criticism of the new global ethos of constantly seeking entertainment and the causes and consequences of this behaviour. Espada’s book is a brave attempt to explain to the public a number of themes of political philosophy and to show how liberal education can help people to manage the constant social tension of modern living.

Regular readers of PortVitoria will notice that the articles and reviews in this edition are interwoven and we hope that you like this style.

January 2014

Pires-O`Brien, J. Liberal education and the uncertainties of culture. Editorial. PortVitoria, UK, v. 8, Jan-Jun, 2014. ISSN 2044-8236.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Social networking tools undoubtedly propelled people to form the crowds that gathered in cities all over Brazil in June. A demonstration on Thursday 5 June in São Paulo over an increase in bus fares has since spread to many other cities across the entire country and has picked up additional grievances in the process. President Rousseff appeared to be keen to listen to the protesters and even proposed a referendum to change the Constitution to accommodate a political reform, which she believes would sort out corruption in Congress. Whether Brazilian society has enough civil organizations to facilitate the public debate on the real problems that affect Brazil remains to be seen. The real threat of attempting to put things right too quickly is the repolarization of society around a 21st century version of the old Right-Left split, which could create more problems than it would solve. The evidence that this threat is real is the discourse of some protesters insisting on solutions that involve more government rather than less.

In their 2013 book The new Digital Age (reviewed in this edition) Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who work for Google, not only predicted that social networking was going to increase the number of popular insurgencies around the world but they also predicted that governments would also adopt a strategy of “if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em”. The latter would include infiltrating the cyber world to keep an eye on potential uprisings. Lately, Google and other technology companies have been accused of helping the American government to mine information in order to stay abreast of security threats. All of them have insisted that they do so only by means of a court order.

The Cold War and how Third and Fourth World countries became its fighting grounds is the subject of the book Small war, far away places, by Michael Burleigh, also reviewed in this edition. Burleigh’s account of the bloody conflicts of this period should be taken as a warning to all countries in Africa and Latin America.
July 2013

Pires-O’Brien, J. Insurgencies and the threat of repolarization. Editorial. PortVitoria. UK, v. 7, Jul-Dec, 2013. ISSN 2044-8236.

Joaquina Pires-O`Brien

The leading article in this sixth edition of Port Vitoria is The architecture of Utopia: Norway and the origins of the regime of goodness, a critical analysis by Nina Witoszek, showing that Norway’s wealth is not merely economic from its oil and gas but its ‘rich tradition of peaceful, reform-oriented, development, emancipatory politics, a generous welfare system, and an identity based on partnership with nature’. Witoszek, a Polish lecturer and researcher at the University of Oslo, holds the position of Head of Research of the Centre for Development and Environment. Her article is in fact the first chapter of her 2011 book called The Origins of the Regime of Goodness, which she kindly gave her permission to reprint in PortVitoria, in Portuguese.

According to Witoszek, Norway wants to be not just an Eldorado but a ‘moral superpower’, an unheard of combination in the world geopolitics. She points out that Norway’s current environmental and humanitarian morality did not suddenly appear simultaneously with its new wealth, but was already there from the time when Norway was still the backwaters of Scandinavia.

The smart way the Norwegians are managing their new wealth could serve as a great model for other countries which find themselves in the same predicament. One of the countries that has a great prospect of joining the club of the super rich is Brazil, with its huge pre-salt deposits of oil and gas already on the pathway towards commercial exploration. In the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme, which is an indication of how good a country is for those who live there, Norway has ranked in the 1st place for six consecutive years. In the 2011 report Brazil was ranked in the 84th place, which is disgraceful for a country that is the world’s eighth economy. This suggests that Brazil should not wait for the financial returns of its new oil and gas projects to continue the reforms it needs to improve the quality of life through health and education and to create the conditions for meritocracy to flourish.

Brazil is beginning to act to address its social imbalances and other problems that stand in the way of its future as a super power. During 2012, the Commission of Constitution, Justice and Citizenship of the Brazilian Senate approved a proposal by Senator Cristovam Buarque (PDT – Partido Democrático Trabalhista / Democratic Labour Party, of Distrito Federal), of an amendment to include the wording ‘the pursuit of happiness’ in the 6th Article of the Constitution. Supporters of the amendment are well aware that the insert has no real effect but hope for some psychological ones that could lead to improve citizenship awareness. Brazil’s paltry HDI rank and the proposed amendment to the Brazilian Constitution inspired the second article A Busca da Felicidade e o Estado (The Pursuit of Happiness and the State) in this edition.
January 2013

Pires-O’Brien, J. Norway: the wealth beyond GDP. Editorial. PortVitoria, UK, v. 6, Jan-Jun, 2013. ISSN 2044-8236.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

The existing link between liberal democracy and a strong middle class and the likely consequences of the squeeze on the American middle classes for its liberal democracy are examined in our leading article by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama. Although Fukuyama recognises the need to save the American middle class in order to save American liberal democracy, he doesn’t think that the government policies of the past two generations have steered the country in this direction. For him, they simply created a model that has exhausted itself with the welfare state becoming big, bureaucratic, and inflexible. The reluctance of letting go of the expectations of the past two generations is the biggest internal threat to American liberal democracy for it will create the scenario for a new ideology to capture the masses, just like the one that promised the perfect society and instead delivered Hell. Outside the US, the main perceived threat to liberal democracy comes from China, a country which is about to displace the US as the world’s largest economy and whose system is being presented as an alternative to liberal democracy. However, according to Fukuyama, the Chinese model is so culturally specific that few developing countries can hope to emulate it. Furthermore, it is likely to collapse once China has a strong middle class interested in protecting their property and position.

The second article in this edition of PortVitoria, The Green and the Blue, by British philosopher and polymath, Roger Scruton, outlines his vision for the environment and is a synthesis of his latest book Green Philosophy. How to Think Seriously About the Planet. In it, Scruton argues how the left-wing radicals highjacked the environmental agenda during the twentieth century and that some of their policies added to the environmental problems instead of solving them. According to Scruton, the solution to the environmental problems requires a moral mindset centred on the virtue of loving one’s home, where ‘home’ includes not just house but our community and our larger society. For it is this love of home, or oikophilia, which will motivate people to look after their environmental resources instead of squandering them.

The third article “Occidente, libre de deudas culturales” by Fernando Rodríguez Genovés is an essay-review on two books which debunk some fallacies about Western Civilization. They are The fall of the West: the death of the Roman superpower, 2010, by Adrian Goldsworthy, and Aristóteles y el Islam: las raíces griegas de la Europa cristiana (Aristotle and Islam: the Greek roots of Christian Europe, unpublished in English), 2008, by Sylvain Gouguenheim. Goldsworthy’s book criticises a number of false perceptions such as the existence of a parallel between Ancient Rome and the United States.

All three authors in this edition of PortVitoria are world experts in Western culture and civilization and are critical of Westerners’ mistakes regarding their political societies, environment and culture. Fukuyama does not rule out the possibility that Americans have not learned the lessons of the 20th century. The rest of us can take this as a remider that the lessons from history are not just for the United States but for the entire world. Otherwise, peace in the 21st century won’t stand a chance.
July 2012

Pires-O`Brien, J. Not learning from one’s mistakes. Editorial. PortVitoria, UK, v. 5, Jul-Dec, 2012. ISSN 2044-8236

Joaquina Pires-O`Brien

In this issue of PortVitoria Fernando da Mota Lima, a Brazilian poet, essayist, critic and retired lecturer, contrasts universalism with relativism and uses the example of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman who in 2010 was found guilty of the crime of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning, to explain why he believes universalism to be superior to cultural relativism. He explains that his preference for universalism is made in spite of recognising it as a product of European hegemony with an American extension and the caveat that it may be a myth. ‘Myth by myth I prefer the one with universal ideals to any particularistic myth such as that of nationalism or any other expression of cultural relativism’, he states. Mota Lima’s article describes a conflict faced by the peripheral West, where radical-minded intellectuals reject the Western liberal-democratic values, believing them to be an expression of American or European hegemony and a form of post-colonialism.

Western Europe and the United States has a similar conflict to that which Mota Lima describes for the peripheral West, in the need to integrate their large population of immigrants, especially those that came from outside the West. According with Fernando Rodríguez Genovés, a Spanish writer, essayist and philosophy professor, the multicultural approach to this problem, which exhorts that other cultures should be judged on their own terms, can never work in the West due to lack of reciprocity. In his 2005 article entitled ‘Multiculturalismo, universalismo y reciprocidad’, originally published in the internet magazine El Catoblebas, he discusses the situation in Europe and lists some of the issues underlying the existing conflicts linked with the Muslim population such as the demand for sectoral (religious) schools, the announcement in Islamic centres inside the United Kingdom of the fatwa imposed by an Iranian imam on the writer Salman Rushdie, and the murder of the Dutch movie maker Theo van Gogh and the omission by the mainstream Islamic groups to manifest their disapproval of Islamic terrorism. The alternative that he suggests to this antidemocratic multiculturalism, is the ‘liberal-democratic’ approach based on the principles and values of equity, the fostering of individual excellence and the incontestable priority of individual liberty. The difficulty of this approach resides in creating the right conditions for other nations to consider themselves members of the world community and to embrace the principles of universalism.

The conflicts of the West cannot be dissociated from those of the rest of the world. The civil unrest which started in Tunisia in January 2011 and then spread to the Middle East and Northern African (MENA) countries were deemed to be awakenings to democracy and referred to as the Arab Spring. The strategic importance of the region has captured the interest of the West over the unfolding events such as the elections already held and their results. So far the ballots have given victory not to the secularly-orientated parties that claim to have started the upsurge but to Islamist ones. One of the concerns of the West is that instead of an awakening to democracy the Arab Spring may turn out to be an awakening of Arab nationalism cum religion. The results of the Egyptian elections gave 60 percent of the votes to two Islamic parties, being 40 percent to the Muslim Brotherhood and 20 percent to the Salafists. In spite of these concerns some observers have remained optimist to the expectation that the moderate Islamists will prevail over their radical counterparts. The future of the MENA countries will depend on how their new governments will be built and what kind of policies they will pursue.

Given the expectations of the Arab Spring in terms of rebuilding of the existing states, I opted to review Francis Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order, published in 2011, the first of a two volume set that covers the period up to the eve of the French and the American revolutions. Fukuyama’s book describes the painstaking process of social evolution, from kin-based to state-based societies. The latter range from the state whose sovereignty Thomas Hobbes equated with tyranny to the Modern State, that which characterised by the rule of law and government accountability. One of the conclusions of this book is that although each country has a unique path of development rooted in their historical past, countries are not necessarily locked into it. An awareness of such past events could help to free their societies from their existing constraints.
Jan 2012

Pires-O’Brien, J. Conflicts in the West and the Arab Spring. Editorial. PortVitoria, UK, v. 4, Jan-Jun, 2012. ISSN 2044-8236.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

This issue of PortVitoria focuses on Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian-born writer who in 2010 was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Vargas Llosa writes both fiction and non-fiction. His fiction is amongst the finest written by any Latin American novelist. His non-fiction reveals that he is also a public intellectual who is not concerned about pressures from his influential socialist peers. Not only does he has the ability to think critically and independently but he also has a wealth of knowledge of Latin American history and literature. On top of this he has demonstrated a tremendous generosity towards fellow writers whose political opinions differ from his. His love for democracy and individual freedom often appear in his essays and also in his fiction. Our review section has a review of his 2000 novel The feast of the goat, and of his 2010 non-fiction book Sabres e utopias (Sables y utopias in Spanish). The first is the anatomy of a tyranny through the fictionalized account of Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. The second is a compilation of selected articles chosen and prefaced by Carlos Granés. The leading article, by the Swedish journalist Johan Norberg, describes –with great wit– the reaction against giving Mario Vargas Llosa the Nobel Prize, simply for being a liberal in the classic sense of the word. What Norberg describes is an example of the ‘us and them’ attitude which is at the heart of all forms of prejudice.

Joel Mokyr’s article on the Enlightenment and that of Norman Berdichevsky on Uruguayan identity, both cover themes that are close to Vargas Llosa. The Enlightenment –the period when scientific truth was finally separated from entrenched traditions and customs– is the foundation of modern Western Civilization. The Left in general denies this role of the Enlightenment while the Latin American Left denies that Latin America is a legitimate part of the Western Civilization. A fierce critic of nationalism and racism, Vargas Llosa recognises a single culture shared by all the Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. He also views Latin America as a part of the West by virtue of language and history.

In his essay on the Enlightenment, Mokyr shows how its innovative ideas, such as the belief in ‘useful knowledge’, contributed to advance the state of humanity, pointing out that the various improvements in the quality of life obtained since the year 1700 surpass the sum of health improvements obtained in the last five thousand years of civilisation. Finally, Norman Berdichevsky’s article on Uruguayan identity is a humorous account of the lengths Uruguayans take to protect their language from Brazilian ‘luzismos’ and to assert themselves as a distinct culture from that of Argentina. Although one could say that the topic falls under the theme of nationalism, the Uruguayans’ yearning for identity in no way qualifies as a dangerous type of nationalism. I am almost certain that Vargas Llosa would agree.

Jul 2011

Pires-O’Brien, J. A tribute to Mario Vargas Llosa. Editorial. PortVitoria, UK, v. 3, Jul-Dec, 2011. ISSN 2044-8236.

Joaquina Pires-O`Brien

This second issue of PortVitoria is dedicated to Latin America, which in 2010 began to celebrate the bicentennial of its independence. The process of independence began in the Spanish American provinces, with Argentina and Chile becoming its first independent republics. This, and much more, is in a two part article which I have written on the independence of the first Spanish American republics, for the pressent issue of PortVitoria. The first part consists of a summary of the struggle for independence that includes a short biography of the liberators. The second part is a reflexion on the roots of the left-right conflict between state capitalism and free market capitalism that divides the continent. Although our Spanish speaking readership may be well aware of this chapter of the history of the independence of Latin America, many Brazilians may lack such awareness and could benefit from it.

In another article, Norman Berdichevsky shows that the Communist Party of Cuba supported not just Fidel Castro but also the dictator Fulgêncio Batista, a fact that the Cuban dictatorial regime suppressed by presenting a revisionist version of the history of the Cuban Communist Party, emphasizing its history from 1959 but omitting the party’s record from its actual beginning in 1920. In this article, Berdichevsky also criticises the jargon of political science discourse where ‘right’ means reactionary, ‘conservative’ and/or ultra-nationalist, and religious whereas ‘left’ means enlightened, beneficial to the working class, ‘liberal’, secular and internationalist. However, his greatest criticism is to the lack of discernment of the American and European Left in their promotion of undeserving leaders.

Most social observers recognise the tendency of people to hang on to wrong notions and that many unscrupulous politicians use them to promote themselves. One example of this was pointed out in the present article by Berdichevsky, when he stated that “some 99.99% of left-wing college students and many American journalists proudly wearing their Che T-shirts will assure you that ‘America has always supported corrupt dictators like Batista in Cuba’.” The article reveals why this statement is wrong: the fact that the Communist Party of Cuba also supported Batista and the many presidents that he controlled. However, a problem that is even greater than the ignorance of the people is the cowardice of public intellectuals who avoid tackling popularly held errors in fear of becoming unpopular. The political philosopher Alan Bloom (1906-2005) was the biggest critic of the public intellectuals’ incapacity to resist public opinion. To Bloom, what democracy needs is good criticism, not sycophancy towards the people. It was thinking along these lines that I decided to write Is the Voice of the People also the voice of God?, offered in this issue.

Jan 2011

Pires-O’Brien, J. 200 years of the independence of Latin America. Editorial. PortVitoria, UK, v. 2, Jan-Jun, 2011. ISSN 2044-8236.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Welcome to PortVitoria, a Big Picture magazine providing reviews and informed articles on a wide range of topics for the worldwide Lusophono and Hispanic language communities. The planning for PortVitoria started before I registered the domain with 1&1 four years ago. In the various blue prints that the process required one thing did not change: the idea that PortVitoria should be a space for Lusophone and Hispanic writers.

The idea that well informed individuals make the best citizens is widely recognised in the democratic world. However, many issues which are highly relevant to society are so complex that the discussions around them are mostly restricted to the academic journals. Good reviews of the relevant topics would allow laypersons to grasp the big picture and to become better informed. The writer of reviews need not be an expert but simply someone with the skills to digest a complex topic and to write a clear summary of it.

PortVitoria’s mission is to be a global medium for the Portuguese and Hispanic cultures worldwide, providing relevant, objective and unbiased information on a wide range of topics such as language, literature, history, geography, political science and science & technology.

In this first issue the article by the American geographer, historian and linguist Norman Berdichevsky provides a different and quite interesting insight on the ‘rediscovery’ of America, where he ponders on the possibility that the voyage of Christopher Columbus was a in fact a mission of espionage by the Portuguese and the Danish, whose alliance goes back to the time when Don Pedro, brother of Prince Henry the Navigator, fought alongside the Danish king Erik VII and visited him in 1426. According to Berdichevsky, the other motive of the Danish-Portuguese cooperation was the sibling nations’ rivalry that took place in the two peninsulas that guard the entrance of Europe: Portugal with Spain and Denmark with Sweden.

There are still two other special contributions for the present issue. One is an illustrated article on the history of the English language by Ricardo Schütz, reprinted from the internet site English Made in Brazil (www.sk.com.br). The other is an article commemorating the 50 years since the death of Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate who died on 10 January 1957, reprinted from the Chilean e-magazine Critica.cl. We are grateful to Norman Berdichevsky, Ricardo Schütz and Ricardo Cuadros for their contributions.

We hope that PortVitoria will be a useful resource to secondary teachers, learners of foreign languages, cultural tourists and anyone with an inquisitive mind. In subsequent issues we will address wider concerns than those presented in this first issue.

July 2010


Pires-O’Brien. Welcome to PortVitoria! Editorial. PortVitoria, UK, v. 1, Jul-Dec, 2011. ISSN 2044-8236.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

The last year (2015) has been troublesome throughout the world and especially for those individuals affected by failed governments and afflicted by civil wars. What has been positive is that there are great minds illuminating the troubles of mankind, although there is a caveat in the necessity of good public opinion to make use of this light. We can contribute to a good public opinion by learning to think for ourselves and practice this ability in our daily lives. A good public opinion is also crucial to distinguish the knights and the knaves among the intelligentsia. Without it, society is vulnerable to wacky leaders and their radicalisms. While a good public opinion is a defining element in all mature democracies, a trait that reoccurs in all immature democracies is the inability to recognise intelligence, home grown or otherwise.

Almost two and a half centuries ago, the West embraced secularism, following the lead of the great minds of the Enlightenment. Now, the greatest minds of the twenty-first century are trying to persuade humanity of the need to defend life here, and to consider the alternative of a post-theistic morality. Two outstanding minds at the forefront of this movement are Anthony C. Grayling and Daniel Dennett. Grayling is Professor of Philosophy and Master of the New College of the Humanities, in London, while Dennett is an American philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist. Their ideas are greatly relevant to the troubles of the twenty-first century and are contained in my essay O Caminho do Humanismo (The Path to Humanism), published in this edition.

The two books reviewed in this edition are individually about the Persians and the Turks, two Eastern cultures at the centre of the global problems. They are both by Warwick Ball, an Australian-British archaeologist specialised in ancient cultures, and are part of a series of four entitled ‘Asia in Europe and the Making of the West’, by East & West Publishing. The first is Towards one world: Ancient Persia and the West, and the second is Sultans of Europe: The Turkish world expansion. Warwick Ball’s main idea is that the chasm that separates the West from the East is more psychological than real and the sooner the world understands this the better it will be in terms of good relations between West and East. I hope that you enjoy the reviews and that you may even be prompted to read the books.

January 2016

Citation:

Pires-O’Brien, J. Editorial. The knights out there. PortVitoria, UK, v.12 Jan-Jun, 2016. ISSN 2044-8236.