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Why are artists, novelists, and "intellectuals" such dupes when it comes to tyranny?

I have no idea how to answer that question. But it never ceases to amaze me that the same sort of folks who were terrified that Sarah Palin would usher in theocracy become fawning sychophants in the presence of gangsta "statesmen" such as Castro, Chavez, and Stalin. (Compare, for example, Chip Berlet's bio with his piece on Palin). While they share a scotch and cigar with Castro, they conclude that the only injustice taking place in Cuba is on that tiny slice of it called "Gitmo."

George Marlin's recent piece on The Catholic Thing was the proximate cause of that reflection. Here are some excerpts from his outstanding essay:

In April, seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus returned from a Cuban junket giddy over the private audience they had with ailing Communist dictator, Fidel Castro. A mesmerized Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said “I think what really surprised me, but also endeared me to [Castro] was his keen sense of humor, his sense of history, his basic human qualities.” Picture it – Castro cracking humane jokes and charming the visitors – the same Castro who over fifty years sent many Catholics, Protestants, and non-believers who did not agree with him to political prisons, quite a few of whom never returned, something almost everyone has now forgotten....

No one should be surprised by Congressman Rush’s comment. He’s a member of the latest generation of “useful idiots” who embrace charismatic tyrants. When Castro descended from the Cuban mountains in January 1959 and overthrew the Batista regime, he was portrayed by U.S. sympathizers as a revolutionary freedom fighter who extolled democratic virtues. Even after he abolished human rights, civil liberties, free elections, political parties, independent unions, religious and cultural organizations, and instituted political prisons and forced labor – intellectuals and progressives continued to gush over him.

During Castro’s 1959 visit to the United States, 10,000 (!) members of the Harvard community greeted him on campus with a standing ovation. Novelist Norman Mailer, founder of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, issued this proclamation: “I announce to the City of New York that you [Castro] gave all of us who are alone in this country…some sense there were heroes in the world…. It was as if the ghost of Cortez had appeared in our century riding Zapata’s white horse…. You are the answer to the argument of commissars and statesmen that revolutions cannot last, that they turn corrupt or total or eat their own.”

Mailer wasn’t the only prominent cheerleader: Senator George McGovern found Castro “in private conversation at least, soft spoken, shy, sensitive.” Julian Bond said that Castro’s explanation of his ideological positions made him think of the “connection between socialism and Christianity.” Dan Rather called him “Cuba’s own Elvis”; filmmaker Oliver Stone, “very selfless and moral.” Then there was singer Harry Belafonte who said: “If you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy, you have no choice but to support Fidel Castro.”....

Here’s the real story of the Castro era: Shortly after seizing power, Castro ordered his henchmen to infiltrate and destroy Catholic parishes. He closed Catholic universities – including his alma mater Bethlehem Jesuit College – and confiscated the property. Hundreds of priests were expelled; Catholic institutions were abolished or marginalized. Those who openly professed their faith were denied higher education and jobs and many were tossed into prison....

Since 1959 over 500,000 people have spent time in a Cuban gulag. The authoritative Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression – written by a team of French intellectuals – reports that there have been 15-20,000 prisoners of conscience; 12-15,000 political prisoners; and 15-17,000 prisoners shot. Over 2 million Cubans, out of a population of 11 million, “voted with oars” and settled in other countries. In 1994 alone, over 7,000 attempting to escape died at sea. When confronted with these facts, the Castro replied: “From our point of view, we have no human-rights problem – there have been no ‘disappeareds’ here, there have been no tortures here, there have been no murderers here…torture has never been committed, a crime has never been committed.”....

And rejecting what he calls “stale Cold War arguments,” President Obama has called for a new friendly relationship with Cuba that will include the lifting of the embargo, if some political prisoners are released and Cuban taxes on remittances from the United States are reduced.

The reaction to this kinder, gentler approach towards Cuba? Fidel Castro, the last Cold War thug, poked Obama in the eye. In a recent article, Castro accused the president of showing signs of “superficiality” and made it clear that Obama had “no right to suggest that Cuba make even small concessions.”

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


You can read the whole thing here.

Comments (17)

Why are artists, novelists, and "intellectuals" such dupes when it comes to tyranny?

I recall a critique of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine in which the critic pegged it: They are just fine with brutal dictators as long as they are not in favor of things like free trade.

Could it have to do with an unbaptized imagination?

It's because "intellectuals" are usually people who get to work in terms of pure logic, systems-on-paper and other forms of abstraction that do not ever require them to focus on the practical ramifications and implementation details. They are also able to get away with redefining variables that should be considered constants, something that scientists and engineers cannot do. Their paper systems may look sound and consistent, but that's only because they systematically cheated on their proofs in order to make their equations balance out.

The law seems to be: the more aggravated the crime the more myopic the liberal. To the millions they are insensible; for the individual sufferer they shall rend their clothes. I always pinch myself when I stumble on these special individuals who can muster an ultra-sensitivity for people they have never met, yet manage utter insensitivity to the suffering right before their eyes.

They are capable of tears in a second if you mention baby seals; but when it comes to tens of thousands decaying and forgotten in prison you get a raised nose. The sin of these political prisoners is that they are too many and especially that they are too innocent. Should they have been guilty, then surely the liberal could rally immense support for their cause. But they are incapable of consistency, and should anyone suggest that the thousands of political prisoners in Cuba are just as important as baby seals, you will likely be break the poor liberal's world right in two.

It's because "intellectuals" are usually people who get to work in terms of pure logic, systems-on-paper and other forms of abstraction that do not ever require them to focus on the practical ramifications and implementation details. They are also able to get away with redefining variables that should be considered constants, something that scientists and engineers cannot do. Their paper systems may look sound and consistent, but that's only because they systematically cheated on their proofs in order to make their equations balance out.

Yes, I would say there are these sort, but they are much more calculating than you suppose. I have found that there is very little middle ground with liberals. There are the intellectual liberals, fully aware of all of the ramifications of their ideas, guiding policy mostly through misdirection and deception, and operating always on the principle that people are sheep. On the other end are perfectly naive individuals, possessing a grossly amputated reason and a cancerously large emotional capacity. Most of the political class are of the second sort, with enough of the fall in them to be utterly malleable for a bit of monetary incentive.

I honestly believe that liberals just declare certain people to be "the good guys" or "liberals in a hurry" or something to that effect *by definition* and then consistently mute their criticism or even heap praise from then on. It's a kind of brute ideology: X [thuggish foreign dictator] is a Marxist. Therefore, X is a high-minded idealist who shares my ideals. Therefore, X is a good guy at heart. Therefore, X is above criticism and must be doing good things. Therefore, I will ignore or assume to be misguided or exaggerated all stories about X's gulag.

As you say, this has been going on for so long. (Duranty and all that.) You should read W.E.B. Dubois's paeans to communist China. Sickening.

Yes, I would say there are these sort, but they are much more calculating than you suppose.

It's their instinct to cheat by redefining anything that doesn't fit their purposes. They all do that in some capacity. Some are simply more sophisticated than others.

They are capable of tears in a second if you mention baby seals; but when it comes to tens of thousands decaying and forgotten in prison you get a raised nose. The sin of these political prisoners is that they are too many and especially that they are too innocent. Should they have been guilty, then surely the liberal could rally immense support for their cause. But they are incapable of consistency, and should anyone suggest that the thousands of political prisoners in Cuba are just as important as baby seals, you will likely be break the poor liberal's world right in two.

The only rights that liberals are consistent about are positive rights. To them, Cuba's political prions are forgivable since Cuba is to the positive right of health care what the United States is to freedom of speech.

Nevermind the fact that all the positive right of health care is theoretically buying the Cubans is more time to spend enslaved in their country before God releases them of their suffering through death.

It seems Lydia and Brett believe this phenomenon is limited only to "liberals". I would invite them to review the pages of National Review from the 1950s through the 1980s and read the apologies for assorted dictators like Franco and Pinochet. One might also reference the toleration as well as affection for the Jim Crow American South.

They might also want to consider the problems some present day conservative intellectuals have in coming to terms with "their" side adopting interrogation methods that most of us had no problem labeling as torture when they were used by the Soviets, Chinese Communists, North Koreans, and Khmer Rouge.

Some folks need to see themselves as part of a vanguard (consider all those Trotskyites who made the journey rightward). Rationalizing a need for power when ones calling is relatively powerless can lead to all sorts of value issues. We should keep in mind that this isn't a left/right matter; instead certain artists, intellectuals, etc. of all stripes are capable of grave error.

al makes a fair point.

My impression, however, is that the right never thought their "sons of bitches" were good guys establishing paradise. They used these dictators for the nation's interest. Of course, the question of whether that was right or justified is legitimate to raise.

It seems Lydia and Brett believe this phenomenon is limited only to "liberals". I would invite them to review the pages of National Review from the 1950s through the 1980s and read the apologies for assorted dictators like Franco and Pinochet. One might also reference the toleration as well as affection for the Jim Crow American South.

The right's problem here was following the saying "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." There is also something to be said of the devils that the right befriended versus those that the left befriended. The ones on the left massacred far more people, and created an incredible amount of misery around the world. Pinochet and Franco were nowhere near as bad as their counterparts on the left.

In my opinion, the difference between a Pinochet or Franco and a Stalin or a Mao is the difference between someone gets violent in a bar and kills someone in fight and a Manson or Dahmer. It's not right to defend either man, but one need not be utterly depraved and/or insane to defend the former as opposed to the latter.

the right never thought their "sons of bitches" were good guys establishing paradise.

I almost anticipated what Al (or somebody) was going to say and made this very point. Frank's point in the main post concerns fawning over horrible dictators and implying that they are wonderful people and are bringing in paradise. Nobody can deny that leftists have done this again and again. I don't think there is a similar parallel on the right.

I would invite them to review the pages of National Review from the 1950s through the 1980s and read the apologies for assorted dictators like Franco and Pinochet.

The difference here is one between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Since I am not a doctrinaire libertarian, I have no problem with authoritarianism under certain circumstances. I have a problem with totalitarianism all the time, because men are not mere creatures of the state.

I would not necessarily have wanted to live in Franco's Spain. But if I had lived there at that time, my only other alternative had been the priest and nun killing Commies. Given that choice I would have put on a red beret, sown a Sacred Heart on my shirt, grabbed my gun and went to war singing, "Dios, Patria, Fueros, y Rey!" I would have done this because I understand that paradise is impossible this side of the Parousia, and I would have preferred an authoritarian who generally respected the culture and history of our country to the totalitarians who were trying to wipe these things from the face of the earth.

I would have preferred an authoritarian who generally respected the culture and history of our country to the totalitarians who were trying to wipe these things from the face of the earth.

I am a mostly doctrinaire libertarian, and I agree with your sentiment in this situation. It's not like the invasion of Russia wherein both sides, Nazis and Communists were equally deplorable and the only honorable solution was to simply shoot anyone in uniform.

It seems Lydia and Brett believe this phenomenon is limited only to "liberals". I would invite them to review the pages of National Review from the 1950s through the 1980s and read the apologies for assorted dictators like Franco and Pinochet. One might also reference the toleration as well as affection for the Jim Crow American South.

Al, you assume too much about my views of the political right and its politicians; however I reject the "they're both bad" argument when it is used as a wash--as it seems to be used here--as though to say "they're both equally bad." Conservatives, especially neo-conservatives, can seem at times willing to work with the devil. But it is a special liberal quality to sit across from a murderer and be convinced that they smell freedom.

And I'm not sure what you mean about the Jim Crowe bit...

We should keep in mind that this isn't a left/right matter; instead certain artists, intellectuals, etc. of all stripes are capable of grave error.

The same goes for this. These sort of bromides do next to nothing to help. Yes, as a lone fact it is perfectly true that people of all stripes are capable of grave error. But you precede it by the utter falsehood that it has nothing to do with left/right. If certain errors repeatedly fall along the left/right divide--as the errors sited in the original post do--then why should left/right not be an issue? We can count hair color, hobbies, money, and education as relevant characteristics for why people do things, but for some reason left/right is supposed to be irrelevant.

I don't understand this reasoning; it is utterly foreign to me and I think it is the first cousin of political correctness. It is a left/right matter, because that is the line that has been drawn for us. We aren't dealing with political ideals here. And it is as easy as agnosticism to stay "above the fray" and not risk backing either side. But as a reality there are only two horses in the race, and it does no good pretending they are both the same breed.

There are two ways to split the question of intellectuals and tyranny.

The first is to examine the nature of the intellect.

I believe "studies have shown" that smarter people are more capable of convincing themselves that untenable positions are rational and good. Mental dexterity, wrongly used, allows them to minimize objections and maximize the appearance of truth.

The second point is to examine the group dynamics of the intellectual class.

Intellectuals tend to fall for left-wing tyrants rather than right-wing dictators. Perhaps left-wing tyrants are better at casting an intellectual cloak over their malice?

Right-wing dictators also tend to be generals and military types from the established military. Leftist dictators, if they have a military background, tend to come from military insurgencies.

(This may be an artifact of Spanish forms of government, in which I'm told the military capacity to take power from the government serves almost as a constitutional function.)

Anyway, insurgent movements must have or must generate a popular base on which to build. They must have leaders capable of inspirational propaganda and smooth talking. These appeal to wordsmiths and the kind of people who, for instance, admire Byron for dying in the service of Greek independence.

Finally, many intellectuals have fancied themselves to be scientific and original. Science rests on experiments. But the most interesting and original experiments in political science require dictatorial control. Therefore "scientific" left-wing dictators are necessary for progress, while religious or military right-wing dictators are reactionaries who stop experiments by reverting to an old form with the old guard.

It's also easy to be duped when the bounds of acceptable debate are already set in corrupting ways. Even very intelligent anti-leftists have problems breaking out to the point that they are given a sneering criticism, let alone a respectful hearing, in left-wing circles.

Sometimes this failure is the fault of the anti-leftists.

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