An Encomium Of Castro
We tread ever so dangerous a path when, in the course of our frequent sojourns to the past, we ignore along the way those things which we’ve deemed rotten and foul, if only to lay our sights upon that which was, by even the most lenient of estimates, only speciously good. Such a practice, that of venturing into the dense wood of history if only to miss its trees, confounds our perception.
We see not the path from which we strayed nor the context by which we’re surrounded in the normal light of day. We see instead, within the dulling restraint of our own lens, that line which sits before us—at once diaphanous but distinct—for whose construction the apologist and the revisionist are responsible: the former offers, with an eloquence and potency toward which our vulgar conversation rarely inclines, a defense to what is, by any normal standard by which our moral compass is directed, the indefensible. The latter simply manipulates, with the dexterous fancy of his mind and the agility of his hand, a lifeless fact into a revivified “truth”. He molds the world anew with the blueprint of his breath.
It’s thus said, without even the remotest hint of pretense or jocularity, that Benito Mussolini shouldn’t be thought of as a completely vile and incorrigible man—an opinion, held by any right-thinking person, on which the tale of his villainous story ought to be closed. He did, after all, set those stubbornly unpunctual Italian trains (for which, at that time, his country was becoming embarrassingly notorious) to run on time. Prior to his unexpected and meteoric ascent to the head of the Fascist Party and thence of the Italian Empire, a rise to which the supine Italian president, Victor Emmanuel, offered only the feeblest resistance, Mussolini observed around him a crumbling Italian infrastructure. Every means of locomotion seemed to be in a state of disrepair. The vessels through which his country’s transportation system flowed were a failing and threadbare linkage of railways, highways, and withering ports. This was a network, mind you, of whose prior efficiency and grandeur—in the days of Octavius and Cicero, when the aqueducts and the arches carved the land—the entire world, from China to Britain, was so deeply envious.
In time, Mussolini rehabilitated his country’s infrastructure system and restored to their previously vaunted punctuality his nation’s glorious trains. But were these refreshingly timely trains, and all the pleasant highways by which they were surrounded, worth the tyranny that he established?
The trains were, as one might contend, but one of the sundry beneficial consequences of Mussolini’s despotic reign. Should we, then, careful historians as we are, overlook so consequential a feat, simply because he was, by way of his own ambition, a bumptious, histrionic, and sanguinary Fascist of the worst kind? Should we instead applaud his public works programs, a long list of centralized measures by whose timely implementation, Italy was uniquely immune to the collapse of the international economy by the time the 1930s and the Great Depression rolled around? Should we, in our frustrating tendency to subsidize the yield of the earth, model our own farmers’ assistance programs with his own ample agricultural reforms? If we do, we venture to do so without utterance of his misdeeds.
What, then, should be said of Adolf Hitler? Indisputably, his was a government, however undemocratically conceived, under which most of the German citizenry flourished—with that solemn exception of a few million Jews. After all, as no prior administration had done, his succeeded in hastening the restoration of that bygone, Teutonic pride of which his nation had been so unjustly dispossessed —a pride at once ancient, yet so recently and badly injured by the Great War’s end.
The Nazi Party, once it was affirmatively in command, discharged the indemnity by which Germany (only recently unified, mind you) was burdened as a result of the war, and all but resuscitated itself from the dust of the earth. Like Mussolini, his southern counterpart of whom he was, at times, unabashedly imitative, Hitler instituted a robust program of public works. Rates of the German unemployed, once discouragingly high, diminished with the passage of every year. Still today his sinuous and exhilarating autobahn highway-system is utilized by both motorists and tourists alike. That, and the Hugo Boss outfits in which he and his sartorially-savvy comrades were draped, are objects, to some, of veneration from the perspective of fashion. Do these few and glimmering “bright spots”, if they’re to be so called, actually succeed in softening the ugly and quite irredeemable world that was the Nazi regime?
One rightly strains to think of any qualities or programs by which the Soviet Union’s great tyrant, the villainous Josef Stalin, might be redeemed. Doubtless, the country’s aeronautics and space programs were, under his careful guidance, enviably robust, but, when gazing upon them in the light of day and with the distance of time, one can’t simply shield his eyes from those literal black holes by which these achievements were surrounded. I speak, of course, of the gulags, or, as such intrepid writers as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Arthur Koestler make clear in their vitally important works, the bottomless pits of suffering and death from which very few of its prisoners escaped.
They were places that composed, in their ghastly entirety, a legitimate and frightening archipelago of sprawling proportions, a network of labor and death into whose dark, soundless, and insatiable mouths millions of Russians were shoveled and fed. They included academics, scientists, religious or political dissidents, free thinkers, and personae non grata to whom, for lack of any other good evidence or incriminating reason, no crime might’ve been imputed. Of the nearly eighteen million people to whom, if only briefly, the gulag was to be called a temporary “home”, approximately two million died. That, it should go without saying, is a mortality rate of which any genocidal maniac might be not only envious, but positively enamored. The likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and, eventually, Mao went so far as to replicate or to surpass Stalin’s macabre statistical feat.
Certainly, as listed, Stalin’s death rate is a statistic of whose utterance or evocation any modern-day commentator should be wary. As it turns out, it’s also a rate of death of which most proponents of so brutal a system as that toward which Socialism tends are ignorant. Recent audio of which the furtive and necessarily nosey Project Veritas came into possession revealed a supporter of Bernie Sanders, the current senator from Vermont and hopeful Democratic presidential candidate, lauding the construction of Stalin’s White Sea Canal.
This canal, whose inauguration was marked in the year 1933, connected the White and Baltic Seas—of whose frigidity, as we exit our own bristling winter, we need not here take account. By no stretch does it surpass the grandeur of other twentieth-century architectural feats, but, by most measures, it is an impressively long canal in a rather inhospitable part of the world. And, yes, it was carried out from start to finish by way of a socialist edict, but one must look at the cost—specifically as it pertains to human lives.
Its one-hundred-and-forty-one anfractuous miles were built by literal slave labor. Over one-hundred and twenty-five thousand gulag inmates were recruited for the job, of whom twenty-five thousand died. This amounted to almost two hundred casualties per mile built—another discouragingly high mortality rate for so useless an endeavor; the canal was built in so desultory and ham-fisted a manner, that, when “completed”, it was insufficiently deep. Lacking depth, no ships—excluding the smallest and least proficient of vessels—could pass through its now idle waters.
Yet, that said, the Bernie Sanders surrogate with whom Project Veritas came into contact, extolled its completion—otiose though it ultimately proved—as proof of the heights to which an autocratic and centralized government could reach, if only given the unfettered chance.
His intimation seemed to be, if I misread him not, that the efforts of a centrally-planned government and economy—despite the endless downsides with which these things are associated—often produce salutary effects. Extending his defense still further, their achievements are of a kind of which a capitalist society, such as ours, is pitifully incapable.
Indeed, so reckless and historically ignorant a statement by a campaign surrogate was disquieting for the average American auditor into whose ears these recordings trickled, but one was made to wonder where exactly Sanders stood in his own thinking on so grave a matter. Would Bernie Sanders, the Democrat’s potential nominee for the presidential race in 2020 and standard-bearer, by every indication, for the party henceforth, concur with so outlandish a sentiment—one to which our own dearly-held American and liberal values are completely antithetical?
It’s true, in the course of a long public career, over which many a decade has passed, Sanders has accrued a list (indeed, one of a commensurately long length) of statements that must be judged by any standard as being inimical to traditional American values. These are values, so often repeated, though recently neglected, among which we might number such liberties as commerce, association, religion, person, and life. Much to his campaign’s merit and glee, Sanders has not yet been recorded as having overtly lauded the building of the White Sea Canal—for whose every mile, so many hundreds of Russians perished and of whose current utility, so very little is spoken.
He is, however, on the record—time and again within the span of one week—of applauding the endeavors and the achievements of the Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro. Castro or, perhaps more appropriately, Castroism, is a man and a methodology to whom and to which Sanders is unabashedly sympathetic. He has been for years, but the scrutiny with which he’s been treated by the media has been somewhat lacking.
Speaking with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Sanders, in so many words, offered his defense of the Castro regime. After mildly condemning the idea of authoritarianism as a general matter, he waxed reverential of the Cuban nation’s literacy programs, for whose institution Castro is largely seen as being responsible. Enduring the unexpected outrage by which his comment was followed from both the political left and right, Sanders then doubled-down on his statement at a CNN town hall event. He did so again at a more formally-scripted Democratic primary debate, for which he ought to have been more thoroughly prepared and to which he might’ve adopted a more tactful and moderate approach.
He was neither prepared nor contrite. His reaction was one of pure incredulity when, in defending Castro’s ostensibly progressive and magnanimous educational program, the audience in front of whom he spoke audibly groaned at his insistence on this communist’s literacy program being a praiseworthy thing. Clearly, this is a position with which most Democrats are in disagreement (not to mention those of a more centrist disposition, who, due to the dramatis personae on stage, weren’t in attendance at this exclusively Liberal debate) but to Sanders, this matters not.
It’s a tendency, that of praising dictators in control of socialist states, by which Sanders, despite his outward good-health, is fundamentally ailed. It’s a pernicious ideology from which he hasn’t an intention to escape. In fact, it’s one on which he quite openly prides himself, as being consistent. When speaking of any brutal, illiberal communist regime—of which Castro’s is a prime and acutely close example— Sanders has no difficulty in finding a fleck of gold within an ocean of dross. In his mind, even the smallest pursuit, so long as it be putatively noble, by which a communist government is animated should be exalted to the sky and celebrated for all to hear—even if this pursuit is heavily outweighed by all the disproportionate and brutal oppression to which the people are made to succumb.
In my mind, narrow though it may be, the question arises of the value of Castro’s “literacy” program of which Sanders is apparently so staunch a proponent. For one, this type of education is nothing like that with which we Americans, universally educated (however that may be defined) in our public-school systems and blithely unaware of just how good these systems are, are in the least bit familiar. Sure, as a wretched Cuban peasant laboring under the “utopian” reign of Castro and his inner-circle of apparatchiks and thugs, you might now have the ability to read, and perhaps even to write, but that which you’re permitted to read and write is, if not severely truncated, completely censored. It’s done so, not surprisingly, by the very same government upon whose supposed benevolence and magnanimity the possession of these vaunted literary skills depends. Literacy rates might’ve expanded under Castro’s program as opposed to that of Batista, but the beneficiary’s ability to express himself surely did not.
What good, then, is a literacy program if all you’re given to read is propagandistic tripe—the material and intellectual pablum in which many Cubans still find themselves awash? What good is it to be able to read if the internet and all its turbulent non-conforming speech is censored from up above? What good is it to be able to read if the government withholds from any attractive or divergent work its imprimatur of “acceptable” and, therefore, “legible”? And, as for writing, what value is there in being possessed of that divine and distinctly human skill if the production of your pen is aborted before it can take life? What good is it to have the ability to write if your written expression, that movement by which your heart is stirred of which you endeavor to make your newly literate friends aware, could be the reason for your ending up in jail?
At once the “beneficiary” of the enlightened and ennobling gift of literacy (a gift, one might add, whose sheer irrevocability makes it so valuable an inheritance that one can’t, at least not by his own volition, divest himself of its grip), the man becomes the slave to the organ from which it was received. This darker side of Castro’s literacy program is one to which Sanders, and those ideologically akin to him, are blind. In one way or another, every apologist or revisionist ultimately is. One must be devoid of his full sense of sight if he’s to perceive in a pound of evil, an ounce of good. The horrors perpetrated by Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, and Castro simply cannot be overlooked. We ought not to allow our presidential candidates to try.