November 29, 2016

Liberal media to Máximo Lider: We still just really don’t like you


Castro in Washington in 1959. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Castro in Washington in 1959. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Fidel Castro did one more seemingly impossible thing this weekend: he died. And he died as he’d lived: while polarizing public discourse, and annoying the living shit out of many, in the North American mainland.

Consider the case of the nice Canadian man. Canada’s Glamorously Docile Human-Panda Hybrid Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, struck a chord sympathetic with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Gabriel García Márquez, expressing his “deep sorrow” at the Commandante’s passing, noting that “Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.” (While there was certainly much not to like about Castro—we’ve even published a book about it—Trudeau’s assertions are completely fair.) The internet was quick to mock him, not batting an eye about comparing Fidel to Pol PotStalin, Mao, and Osama bin Laden — which, to be clear, for all Castro’s many and severe shortcomings, is patently deranged. Comparing Castro to Stalin is a bit like… comparing Barack Obama to Donald Trump?

Writing in Washington BabylonKen Silverstein has struck a different comparison, between Anthony DePalma’s recent New York Times obituary of Castro and the notice that paper ran last year of the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia, written by Douglas Martin and Ben Hubbard.

Whereas the Times described Castro as a “fiery apostle of revolution” (sure) and said that he had “brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere” (because the United States had been an unaligned party?), they called Abdullah a “shrewd force” and “cautious reformer.” In Castro’s case, the Times speculates that “it was more than repression and fear that kept him and his totalitarian government in power for so long.” Meanwhile, the same paper praised Abdullah’s “constant effort to balance desert traditions with the demands of the modern work.”

This disparity is rather extreme. To be sure, Castro was no champion of free speech in Cuba: his crackdowns on journalists and dissidents could be vicious and were painfully effective. They must not be forgotten and cannot be forgiven. But Abdullah, for his part, led a country where women cannot drivewitchcraft remains a crime punishable by public beheading, and violence by reactionaries is an important export. He was a member of a ruling dynasty that have literally named their country after themselves (say what you like about Fidel, he did not re-christen Cuba as “Castrovania”).

Then there’s this brain-busting excerpt from the Abdullah piece:

Abdullah became, in some ways, a force of moderation. He contested Al Qaeda’s militant interpretations of the faith as justifying, even compelling, terrorist acts. He ordered that textbooks be purged of their most extreme language and sent 900 imams to re-education sessions. He had hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded.

As Silverstein notes, it is bonkers to praise someone for achieving “moderation” via mass round-ups and public beheadings — even of bad guys.

To cull a lesson from the movie They Live, we see through whatever glasses we’re wearing. For mainstream news in America—a country that maintains an illegal prison on Cuban land for international abductees in whose cases we just don’t trust international law—Castro’s death seems an opportunity for conscientious subtlety that is being broadly squandered.

My point is not especially to defend Fidel Castro, but it’s worth looking at how we talk about these things — especially since, right now, we appear as a nation to be receiving a crash education in the potential consequences of not doing so. By thoughtlessly reproducing official grudges and expanding received analysis to fit the page, newspapers leave us less informed, injuring our sense of political scale and diminishing the clarity with which we see our world. Castro’s record on gay rights was especially abysmal, a historical disgrace that has not come close to being adequately addressed, and he tolerated no free press to speak of. He also brought Cuba within a rounding error of universal literacy, created a healthcare system that has been admired the world over, and, in the eyes of many, brought dignity and self-sufficiency to a fledgling republic theretofore thirsty for both. This is, to be sure, a lot of detail to take in, and the impulse to flatten a ferocious legacy into a simple “Cold War tyrant con brio” is easily enough understood. But to take Teju Cole, writing in today’s New York Times, thoroughly out of context, “This erasure of historical nuance can be the anteroom to hopelessness.”

Here, to that end, is the more even-handed note on Castro from Mirrors, published late in life by the legendary Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano:

His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity.

And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo.

And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices.

And in that his enemies are right.

But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders’ bullets,

he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane,

he survived 637 attempts on his life,

his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony,

and it was not by Lucifer’s curse or God’s miracle that the new country managed to outlive 10 US presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup.

And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.