Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Pro-Dictator Left

Ian Buruma has a superb essay in today's Sunday Times on the continuing trend among many Western leftists to sing the praises of foreign despots. This phenomenon exists in microcosm in my own profession, witness the adulation among the radical left on ALA Council for Fidel Castro. Buruma himself cites the example of the Maximum Leader in his essay:

When the Cuban novelist Reinaldo Arenas managed to escape to the US in 1980, after years of persecution by the Cuban government for being openly homosexual and a dissident, he said: “The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream.”

One of the most vexing things for artists and intellectuals who live under the compulsion to applaud dictators is the spectacle of colleagues from more open societies applauding of their own free will. It adds a peculiarly nasty insult to injury.

I imagine that this is exactly how the independent Cuban librarians, brutally repressed by the Castro regime, while Mark Rosenzweig and company openly celebrate their persecution, must feel. Unfortunately, as I noted above, pro-Castro librarians are merely a small subset of a broader leftist trend:

Last year a number of journalists, writers and showbiz figures, including Harold Pinter, Nadine Gordimer, Harry Belafonte and Tariq Ali, signed a letter claiming that in Cuba “there has not been a single case of disappearance, torture or extra-judicial execution since 1959 . . .”

Arenas was arrested in 1973 for “ideological deviation”. He was tortured and locked up in prison cells filled with floodwater and excrement, and threatened with death if he didn’t renounce his own writing. Imagine what it must be like to be treated like this and then read about your fellow writers in the West standing up for your oppressors.

Sadly, as Buruma points out, this phenomenon is again repeating itself, with Venezuela's thuggish Castro wannabe Hugo Chavez the new object of adulation. Buruma traces the source of this infatuation with Third World despots to an almost pathological anti-Americanism:

The common element of radical Third Worldism is an obsession with American power, as though the US were so intrinsically evil that any enemy of the US must be our friend, from Mao to Kim Jong-il, from Fidel Castro to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And if our “friends” shower us with flattery, asking us to attend conferences and sit on advisory boards, so much the better.

Criticism of American policies and economic practices are necessary and often just, but why do leftists continue to discredit their critical stance by applauding strongmen who oppress and murder their own critics? Is it simply a reverse application of that famous American cold war dictum: “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”? Or is it the fatal attraction to power often felt by writers and artists who feel marginal and impotent in capitalist democracies? The danger of Chavism is not a revival of communism, even though Castro is among its main boosters. Nor should anti-Americanism be our main concern. The US can take care of itself. What needs to be resisted, not just in Latin America, is the new form of populist authoritarianism.

One can oppose specific American policies or even not like the United States. That's all part of freedom of thought. However, all too many on the Left are willing to embrace the cause of any despot who is suitably anti-American.


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