As America settles in for some prevent defense against ever-advancing authoritarianism at home, it is potentially useful to examine the categories of apologetics for the advanced authoritarian who just expired 90 miles away. Since bad political argumentation is fungible across ideological and partisan lines, chances are versions of these tacks will be deployed in service of hand-wavery about our current and future caudillos, as they certainly have been in the past.
Category 1: Trudeautastic euphemism. Amply covered in this space by Anthony Fisher and Nick Gillespie, this is the practice of cramming into a brief anodyne phrase one’s entire acknowledgment that just maybe there might be legitimate objections to a murderous dictator who impoverished his country and banned the Beatles while advocating first-strike nuclear attacks on the United States and throwing gays into camps. See, for example, the phrase “A controversial figure for sure,” in this glowing tribute from Peter Schwab, author of Cuba: Confronting the U.S. Embargo.
Category 2: The last gasp of Whataboutism. Or, “the enemy of the target of my domestic criticism is my ‘controversial figure.’”
“Whataboutism” refers to the Cold War commie tactic, embraced by many domestic doves, of immediately changing the subject from communist tyranny to American sin, whether it be in domestic treatment of minorities or foreign militarism abroad. Since Castro’s Revolution promised (though did not deliver) the abolition of racism while providing safe harbor to several fugitive Black Panthers, in addition to surviving multiple attacks both literal and attritional from the Yanquis to the north, the whataboutism was rich with potential examples.
Fidel Castro was a symbol of the struggle for justice in the shadow of empire. Presente!
— Dr. Jill Stein (@DrJillStein) November 27, 2016
“With what morality can the US leaders talk of human rights in a country where there are millionaires and beggars, where blacks face discrimination and great masses of Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans are deprecated, exploited and humiliated?”-Fidel. While I don’t agree with all that Fidel Castro did[*] there is ample reason why he is vilified in the US and yet remains a huge hero throughout the Third World. By defying Yankee imperialism for 50 years, instituting the best healthcare, child immunization and literacy systems in the Western Hemisphere (surpassing the US and Canada), exporting doctors to countries in need all over the globe (the Bush administration turned down his offer to send medical teams to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina), and being an unrepentant advocate of the poor and exploited it is no surprise that millions will mourn his passing. Audioslave was the first US rock band to ever play in Cuba and that experience will be one I will always treasure, especially the trip we took to a former country club of the wealthy that had been turned into a free college for gifted musicians. #vivalarevolucion #RIPFidel
* See Category 1. (Also, read my Rage Against the Machine anecdote from 1998 Havana here.)
Category 3: Yeah, I remember my first beer. During big news events it’s hard to stand out amongst the cacophony of commentary, so hats off, I guess, to Ronald Howell, who—God help his students—”teaches English and journalism at Brooklyn College.” This is how Howell marked Castro’s passing in the New York Daily News:
Okay, the media failed supremely in not realizing Americans could elect an empty-headed, knee-jerk liar as President. But, still, I say the greatest media shortcoming of the past half century was not recognizing that Fidel Castro was the most dedicated and powerful proponent of racial justice the world has ever known.
That would be news to, among many other people, the late Black Panther hijacker Bill Brent, who I interviewed at length in Havana 18 years ago, and who at the time of his death was working on a book documenting the Revolution’s failures on race relations. Though apparently the Medium account of Black Lives Matter hasn’t quite caught up.
Category 4: Celebrity testimonials. Since the actually revolutionary portion of the Revolution, as the great Glenn Garvin has documented in the pages of Reason (and if you haven’t read Garvin’s Miami Herald Castro obit, drop what you’re doing and check it out now), the bearded bastard has played Western intelligentsia like a flute. Not unlike the way Vaclav Klaus was able to dine out for decades among Anglo-American free-market types with a few well-chosen Thatcher quotes and digs at Al Gore, Castro warded off international skepticism by cultivating key sympathizers.
Been to Cuba? I have. Against nondemocratic/censorship stuff but learn why MalcolmX/Mandela/PopeFrancis admired him https://t.co/0nUm0n25v9
— Tom Morello (@tmorello) November 28, 2016
Or as Ronald Howell puts, it, “Castro’s commitment to black Americans was shown early on, notably in 1960, when he came to New York City fresh from his leftist revolution in Cuba, and sat with Malcolm X in Harlem, cameras clicking for all the world to see.” New photo op proves it!
What do these four categories of apologia have in common? My theory stems in part from a seemingly innocuous line in a rather pointless front-pager in today’s New York Times about Fidel Castro’s approach to sports:
Castro banned professional sports in Cuba in 1961, and several years later, said, “Anybody who truly loves sport, and feels sport, has to prefer this sport to professional sport by a thousand times.”
His strategy worked for decades as Cuba played baseball against mostly amateur competition, or non-major leaguers, winning 18 championships in the Baseball World Cup from 1961 to 2005 and three Olympic gold medals from 1992 to 2004.
Italics mine. By what measuring stick could you say that Castro’s strategy of banning professional sports “worked”? From the perspective of the individual fans? No, they saw vastly inferior baseball, once the AAA Havana Sugar Kings left town, there were no more professional leagues to attract Major League Players to play during the winter, and the island’s best either defected or stagnated against lesser competition. From the perspective of the individual athletes themselves? Obviously not; here’s how the great post-Revolution émigré Luis Tiant put it in an interview with ESPN.com:
You couldn’t leave. You had to defect. That was hard, but the worst was worrying about your family and what could happen to them. They lectured you on what they would do to your family if you did not come back. That was the system. So many great players were unable to develop because they couldn’t get out. There were so many good players who stayed.
[Castro] hampered the development of baseball. Cuba was the country with the most Latin American players in the majors until the regime took over and set everything back. It’s incredible, all those players that were unable to succeed, so many good ones. When I played, when I left, there were 50 or 60 players as good as me or better than me. And they could never get out. They all stayed there.
No, the only way in which you can say Castro’s authoritarian banning “worked” is if you deny the plight and agency of the individual, and subsume it all in favor of an up-down measurement of the collectivized state. This is, in the final analysis, what all these categories of apologetics have in common—the euphemism, the whataboutism, the juvenilia, the outsourcing of judgment to celebrities: They all gloss over or plow under or just ignore the fate of individual people suffering under a dictatorship.
That’s a lesson for all of us. When your argument about a politician or a policy or a system waves an impatient hand when presented with acts of individual repression, it’s a good time to step back from the keyboard or microphone or legislative drafting session and check yourself. Human beings are not here on this earth to provide propaganda fodder for a despot’s statistics bureau; they are here to be free and to pursue happiness as they see fit.
The United States falls short of this ideal every day, which provides excellent reason to get up and get after it in the morning. But recognizing failure here (preferably by its non-euphemistic name) does not grant a blanket excuse for downplaying it elsewhere.