On Fidel Castro’s Death; Or, When My Fellow Liberals Insist On Losing Credibility
I was waiting to calm down and process the election before I wrote anything — and then Fidel Castro died.
I must have scrapped about a dozen different introductions in writing this post, so I’ll make it short and sweet: as much as I dread that America is now probably closer than it’s ever been in its history to becoming a totalitarian state, pretty much everything I’ve read on the liberal side after El Commandante ascended to the great collective farm in the sky made me think, we fucking deserve this.
A few days before the election, I wrote about the lack of appreciation across the political spectrum of the importance of consistency. Let me restate this: consistency is crucial, because if you are a minimally intelligent, decent, fair-minded person, then there has to be something more to your political values than merely hating “the other side”. Shortly after the election, fate served a perfect case-in-point to what I had been saying, when liberal bloggers and journalists all ran tripping over each other to fellate the dead Fidel Castro’s corpse.
I mean, wow.
Look: I realize my fellow liberals are all traumatized by what had just happened (the election, I mean, not Castro’s death); and perhaps a lot of my ideological friends still aren’t back to thinking clearly. Still, I am amazed by the glowing appraisals of Fidel Castro’s regime, all inoculating themselves against criticism by appealing to “balance” and “it’s complicated” and “it’s not all black and white”; or by characterizing Castro and his most objectionable policies as merely “controversial”. (I myself prefer the virtue of nuance over that of balance, because “balance” usually — as in this case — is achieved by putting one’s thumb on the scale. As for “controversial”, it’s a cowardly, disgusting weasel word; the second you use it as a euphemism for something you are unable or unwilling to defend, you lose my respect.) I am dismayed, to say the least, to see people I highly respect and agree with on almost everything engage in pretty much all of the following in their discussions of Castro:
- Downplaying Castro’s violent suppression of free speech, art, independent journalism and political opposition, and more specifically, his practice of persecuting, imprisoning, torturing and killing people for not perfectly conforming to his ideological orthodoxy, as well as banning – as in criminalizing the possession and consumption of – unapproved literature and media. This trivialization of the regime’s worst abuses is typically done by referring to these deliberate policies as “mistakes”, or merely “some bad things”, or “controversial” (as if the question of whether or not such policies are acceptable is an unsettled question for the liberal mind) or just generally no big deal.
- Dismissing out of hand and maligning Cubans who are critical of the current Cuban regime, generally by characterizing them all as pre-revolution capitalist oppressors (if not worse).
- Mischaracterizing Castro’s Cuba as a plucky underdog fighting against the evil American Imperialism, driven by noble principle alone – while eliding the fact that Cuba was a client and flunky (not always perfectly obedient, but still) of the Soviet Union, a major imperialist and racist power with territorial ambitions so vast, a belief in its ethnic superiority so reflexive and an existentialist faith in its destiny to rule the entire goddamned world so deeply ingrained in its culture, it makes the American Manifest Destiny thing seem quaint by comparison. Leading to:
- Just generally a shitty understanding of geopolitics. This is particularly galling on the part of the “it’s complicated” school of pro-Castro thought. I can’t figure out, for instance, why it is assumed the stand-off between the US and Cuba was always unilateral. The rapprochement didn’t begin to happen until the Obama administration, true, but it also didn’t begin to happen until Fidel Castro had become too sick to continue his absolutism and handed over the reins to his less firebrand brother. I have zero reason to believe Fidel Castro wanted to reestablish diplomatic relations with the US — on any terms. People who remember Bush the Younger’s administration would recall the kind of political capital that the ruling elite gains by pursuing an indefinite, perpetual war against an enemy pretty much likened to Satan. That describes American hardliners, sure, but it isn’t exactly a one-way street. For Castro’s Cuba, hostility with the United States had (and still has) an existential significance; it is a defining theme of the regime’s own conception of its destiny. I don’t believe Castro would have been willing to relinquish such an important ideological asset. Unless, of course, for whatever reason, Cuba isn’t getting along with Mommy all that well anymore, so it’s sidling up to Daddy for a change. This is what “complicated” really means.
- Justifying Cuba’s dictatorial regime as a political necessity – so, you know, things like totalitarianism, torture and blithe disregard for human rights are all bad things unless they are necessary. Also, due process should only be there as long as it’s convenient. (Just shoot me now.)
- Uncritically citing as facts the Cuban government’s unverifiable claims of sky-high quality of its healthcare, education, standard of living and happiness of its citizens – thereby ignoring the fact that in a totalitarian state, the single-party government maintains a blanket monopoly over information, so even foreign researchers and international organizations have to base their assessments on data that has not been critically evaluated by anyone, and may very well have been pulled out of some apparatchik’s ass. Like I said: unverifiable. Sure, this doesn’t necessarily mean the claims aren’t true, or mostly true, or somewhat true, but riddle me this: if Cuba is basically Sweden, only more betterer, then why do people risk their lives to leave? Why do they head for the supposed hellhole that is the United States? And why do they have to risk their lives at all? Why is the Cuban government so hell-bent on holding on to its citizens by force?
- Praising Castro for exterminating vanquished political opponents – this, only a couple of months after the same people who are now saying this needed smelling salts when Trump promised he’d have Clinton jailed if he became President.
- Calling Cuba’s collectivization program a success because it was accomplished without Stalin-levels of bloodshed. As I’ve written previously, I think most people who write shit like this would sooner gnaw their legs off than go live on a collective farm themselves, but in their condescending superiority, they believe forcing others into state-run latifundism is just fine. Let’s make one thing clear: involuntary collectivization is fucking evil. It involves using state violence and legal institutions to bind people to the land, and erecting virtually insurmountable legal (not just economic, but legal) barriers to leaving. A state-run collective farm is like a hard-labor prison camp, except “collected” farmers are people who have committed no crime, and the incarceration is indefinite. I don’t give a shit how much collectivization supposedly improved Cuba’s agricultural output (those claims are, again, unverifiable and highly suspect, but that’s beside the point). Efficiency is no justification for forced labor, just like profit is no justification for outright slavery.
- Praising Cuba’s poverty as a manifestation of Cuban people’s supposed idealism, juxtaposed against America’s evil consumerism. Once again, people who say shit like this have never had the experience of living in a communal flat; or having to scheme to get their hands on basic necessities; or having to do all their laundry by hand, along with lots of other things that people in the West largely don’t have to do anymore, which has the effect of giving them plenty of free time in which to write sanctimonious blog posts about the evils of consumerism. For what it’s worth, as a former Soviet, I will say this: no, lacking access to basic necessities or comfortable housing doesn’t make people less materialistic; it makes them more materialistic, since in their world, a cheap bar of perfumed soap has a significance both economic and social that Americans can’t even begin to comprehend.
- Relying on personal anecdotes of meeting Ordinary People ™ during one’s ten-day visit to Havana, or whatever, and hearing nothing but praise and love for El Jefe – apparently oblivious to the well-established (nay, classic) practice of totalitarian regimes of scripting and orchestrating such encounters with gullible Westerners as part of their propaganda policy. I know this sounds paranoid, but you know who’s really paranoid? Fucking totalitarian systems, that’s who. They have paranoia built in as an indelible mark of their political character. I know what I’m talking about – I grew up in a totalitarian regime, in the heavily visited capital. My family and I – real ordinary people – didn’t get to actually interact with people from the West until well into Perestroika. Trust me: if you’ve ever gone to Cuba, or North Korea, or if you ever visited the USSR in the olden days, you did not come face-to-face with a single Ordinary Person ™ who hadn’t been thoroughly vetted by state security and instructed on what to say.
- Bootstrapping: arguing that it’s wrong to criticize Castro’s regime because it’s hypocritical for “America” to do so. It would have been hypocritical, maybe, in an official statement issued by the State Department or whatever. It’s not hypocritical for Americans to criticize Castro’s regime and calling it like it is. “But Guantanamo” isn’t a justification for Cuba’s explicit disrespect for human rights. Speaking of which:
- Spewing a METRIC FUCKTON of tu quoque bullshit and false equivalencies. No, being stuck in a poorly paid job you hate, in a town in the middle of nowhere, is not even remotely like being stuck on a collective farm, facing not just insurmountable costs of moving, but serious legal penalties if you ever tried.
There is no way for me to put this gently: people who praise Castro in these ways are out of their gourds. Read your standard “Fidel Castro was a complicated person but mostly a hero” piece, and you’ll see every single value central to progressivism being treated as negotiable.
Every. Single. One.
Democracy? Meh, it’s not for everyone, sometimes a dictatorship is what a country needs to stand up to America – forever.
Allowing artists, journalists, political dissenters and private citizens to engage in free and unfettered expression? Well, maybe it’s a “mistake” to persecute people for lack of ideological purity, but on second thought, those dissenters are capitalism-loving assholes, and free speech is a luxury a country can’t afford when it needs to stand up to evil America.
Human rights? Those are nice, but as long as human rights get violated in America, it’s fine for Cuba to violate human rights too, especially when it’s necessary to stand up to America. Also, lacking moral standing to criticize someone else’s human rights violations means someone else’s human rights violations aren’t a thing. Logic!!
Truthfulness, respect for facts and intellectual rigor? Those are nice too, but balance is more important, so on occasion we just have to accept state propaganda at face value. (Unless it’s Trump demanding “balance”, and the state propaganda comes courtesy of Breitbart; that’s different.)
Respecting the personal experiences and perspectives of people who escape totalitarian regimes? Not if trashing them instead helps us score imaginary political points.
Valuing individual choice and equal access to all opportunity? Not if we need farmers to increase crop output.
Not using torture? Sure – waterboarding is torture when America does it, and electroshocks were torture when Pinochet did it. But when Castro did it to dissidents , that was merely controversial treatment for the controversial diagnosis of a controversial mental illness of doing things that piss off Castro and his political elite. It’s complicated, okay?
Refraining from using state power to go after political opponents? Yeah, but if said opponents are bad people, then by all means, do a nice show trial and put them all up against a wall. And maybe their children too; nits do make lice, after all.
Christ. What is liberalism even about when liberals rationalize totalitarian practices in this fashion?
It has been said in the past few weeks that liberals have been deaf and dismissive towards the concerns of vast swaths of the American society. To the extent that this claim refers to working-class concerns, it’s nonsense: Democrats, not Republicans, have always pushed for greater legal and economical protections of the working class. But it does ring true as long as we are talking about liberals’ commitment to, well, liberty. By “liberty”, I don’t mean guns, or religion, or any of the other obsessions of the American right; nor am I talking about the use of public bathrooms. I mean the most basic freedom to live as you choose, read and watch whatever you want, write and say whatever you want, and pursue your chosen goals through political participation, as long as you harm no one else — where “harm” is narrowly defined to be limited to crimes, harassment and discrimination, nothing else. Are you for that kind of basic freedom or against it? It can only be one or the other. If your answer is “it depends”, then you are against it. If your answer is “but the CIA supported Pinochet!”, then you are against it. If your answer is anything other than an unqualified “for”, you are against it.
Not to put a finer point on it, but my faith in Americans has been shattered this year. I now know a very sizable proportion of this country’s population want to live in a totalitarian state. They want to see people whose ideas or background they don’t like imprisoned, tortured, silenced – either that, or they think it would be no big deal, as long as it only affects those they don’t like. They want to see ideological conformity. A good number of them, I suspect, cannot conceive of being on the receiving end of a totalitarian state’s tender mercies, and imagine themselves instead in a position of signing execution orders for every single internet commenter that has ever pissed them off. What the liberal reactions to Castro’s death have revealed, to my utter despair, is that not all people who display these pro-totalitarian tendencies are of the conservative persuasion. It’s a society-wide cancer.
That’s the real tragedy of 2016.
One more thing that really struck me in all those glowing paeans to Castro: praising Cuban doctors for (supposedly) selflessly volunteering in great numbers all over the most troubled places in the world — contrasted, presumably, with the selfish American doctors who are only interested in buying luxury cars and chichi vacation homes. Implicit in such comments is an assumption that Cuban doctors have a choice. It is based, of course, on a complete ignorance of how “volunteering” works in a totalitarian state (individuals don’t volunteer for stuff, generally speaking; their local collective “volunteers” them). But more troubling than ignorance, there is an inability among Americans, today’s liberals especially, to imagine a world in which an individual’s freedom of choice is so severely restricted, the government can simply pick a civilian’s name out of a hat and ship that person to Angola. And call that “volunteering”.*
This patent lack of comprehension leads me to believe that, perhaps, people who discount the regime’s violent suppression of speech do so because they do not truly understand how totalitarian censorship works, either. Perhaps they think censorship in a country like Cuba consists of narrowly drawn laws that make it illegal to say a limited number of things, like “Castro sucks” or “America is the greatest” or “capitalism is better than communism” — and since they themselves disagree with those statements, they think criminalizing them is no big deal.
Of course, as I said earlier, totalitarian regimes are inherently paranoid — which means that censorship enacted by such regimes is pervasive. It is pervasive in several ways. For one thing, Americans, from an early age, internalize the idea that anything not expressly forbidden is permitted, at least when it comes to speech. In a totalitarian state, it’s the reverse — if a thing isn’t expressly authorized, it’s forbidden; there is no default entitlement to liberty, no philosophy of attaining public ends with the least possible degree of restriction.
In terms of content, then, totalitarian regimes not so much enact a list of what is proscribed as delineate what is ideologically proper; anything that does not fit the narrow and rigid mold is deemed anti-revolutionary, regressive, subversive, degenerate, etc., i.e. illegal. Totalitarian regimes, in essence, go so far as to enact aesthetic values – and failure to amuse or please the censor can have a work banned, or worse. This explains why, in the case of many works of fiction and art that totalitarian regimes have banned, it can be difficult to figure out what exactly the government found so threatening as to justify a ban. Banning speech in a totalitarian state is not an extreme, not a measure of last resort; it’s the default.
The third way in which censorship in a totalitarian state is pervasive is that the government owns all the soap boxes. It is the only Internet provider, the only publisher, the only movie producer. You can’t publish a book unless the government likes it; you can’t make a movie unless the government endorses the script; you can’t work as a journalist except for a state-run newspaper. And this is different from publicly owned institutions in the West (such as NPR, for instance), as in a totalitarian state, the government itself is undemocratic, ossified, rigid and unresponsive to the public.
I wonder if people who think Castro’s policies of censorship are no big deal realize any of this. I doubt it, but I also suspect they aren’t willing to consider these facts.
Americans now stand in a moment in history when they might get a taste of what it’s like to live under a true dictatorship. That my fellow countrymen and women might become a little wiser as a result gives me little comfort.
To paraphrase Albert Camus, we have forgotten about the plague bacillus slumbering in our dressers and library stacks while we all amused ourselves. Worse yet, it’s the educated, the self-appointed doctors and people of science who have forgotten about its horrors. And now, for the bane and edification of man, God has awakened his rats and sent them forth to die in a happy city.
Brace yourselves, my friends. Oh, and do shut up about how supposedly wonderful Fidel Castro was.
* And even to the extent that a Cuban doctor may have a choice, in a very narrow sense, to decline an assignment, one must appreciate how that choice is affected by the fact that volunteering in an impoverished, war-ravaged region may actually be the doctor’s only chance to see the world outside of Cuba. So freedom of choice aside, the respective balances of costs and benefits for Westerners versus Cubans in volunteering abroad is fundamentally different.