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The Conservatives' Love Affair With Communists

07/14/2012 12:36 EDT | Updated 09/13/2012 05:12 EDT
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Canada's intellectual and political elite have a dilemma: how do they deal with Dr. Norman Bethune's legacy?

On the one hand they desperately want to praise Bethune for his so-called "humanitarian" and innovative efforts as a surgeon, but on the other hand there's that nasty little historical fact concerning the good doctor's sordid political beliefs, i.e. he had a crush on Joseph Stalin.

Stalin, recall, is infamous for butchering millions of people, for creating one of history's most brutal dictatorships and for ruthlessly terrorizing half a continent -- and that's when he was in a good mood!

Yet Bethune the "humanitarian" thought Stalin was the bee's knees, so in 1935 he joined the Communist Party.

That's right instead of joining his local Rotary or Optimist Club, Bethune thought he could best help society by doing such things as advocating cockamamie economic theories, waving red flags and whistling L'Internationale.

Now in the 1960s and 1970s, this Stalinist past actually wasn't much of a problem for Bethune worshippers. Those were the days, after all, when supporting the communist ideal was still trendy in left-wing academic and media circles.

Sure communism wasn't perfect, they argued, but anything was better than capitalism, which simply didn't work and which they confidently predicted would collapse in or around 1985 due to its own obvious internal contradictions.

Yep the super-geniuses in academia had it all worked out.

Except reality didn't co-operate. In fact, after 1991 it sort of became clear that capitalism was, in reality, far superior to a system whose existence required generous doses of barbed wire, secret police and Siberian gulags.

Even Ivory-tower-ensconced university professors couldn't help but notice the Berlin Wall toppling, the once mighty Soviet Union dissolving and China adopting a decadent, non-progressive, quasi-market-oriented system.

The only truly Stalinist state left was North Korea and aside from its snazzy military parades, it just wasn't all that cool. It's kind of hard even for intellectuals to idealize a society where the chief leisure activity is known as "trying not to starve to death."

Consequently by the onset of the 21st century communism lost much of its cachet.

Which brings us back to Bethune. For better or worse, the guy will forever be tied to a discredited and blood-drenched ideology, yet oddly, there are still those in Canada who seek to romanticize his life.

And to do so, Bethune groupies have come up with two ways to overcome the "Bethune was a tyrant-admiring communist" problem.

One way is to simply ignore his communist ties. This is the method, for instance, Treasury Board President Tony Clement used to justify his government spending $2.5 million to build a Bethune shrine in his riding. (Coincidently his riding is also the official federal repository for all things to do with Public Pork and Gazebos.)

Clement basically said Bethune's communist past didn't matter. As he put it, "I think we as Conservatives can be comfortable that there's a message here broader than just his communism, that goes to his humanism and entrepreneurship."

Well, all I can say to that is... hey, wait a minute! Did Clement actually call Bethune, the Stalin-loving, Mao Zedong-adoring communist, an entrepreneur!?

Maybe I'm wrong about Clement. Maybe he isn't a Bethune groupie at all. Maybe he is actually using clever irony to insult the dead doctor.

I mean calling Bethune an entrepreneur would be like calling Thomas Mulcair a member of the Calgary Petroleum Club. As a good communist, Bethune regarded entrepreneurs as bourgeois enemies, as exploiters of the proletariat, as the people who would sell Stalin enough rope to hang everybody.

The best place for entrepreneurs, in Bethune's view, was is in front of a firing squad.

So this leads to the question: why is the supposedly pro-free enterprise Conservative government paying homage to guy who regarded free markets the way Mike Tyson viewed human ears?

Well it seems Prime Minister Stephen Harper is really desperate to impress Communist China. The Chinese Communist Party recently gave him a few cute pandas, so the least he can do in return is lionize Mao's favorite Canadian.

Of course, before the Conservatives could glorify Bethune in this manner they had to first set aside certain facts. They had to set aside the fact that Bethune supported Mao Zedong, a man who surpassed Hitler in the All-Time Mass Murderer Rankings.

They had to set aside the fact that Bethune turned a blind eye to the horrific atrocities that took place in Stalinist Russia during his lifetime. They had to set aside the fact that Bethune embraced a totalitarian ideology that had as its goal the destruction of Canada's democratic values.

And oh yeah, there's one more thing the Conservatives had to set aside: their principles.

But I digress. Let's get back to whitewashing Bethune's communist past. As I said, you can ignore it like Clement did or the other method is just to pretend it never happened.

This is the strategy Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson used in a recent column in which he paid homage to Bethune.

While describing all the supposedly wonderful qualities of the doctor, Ibbitson nonchalantly declared Bethune's "communist taint" has been "rinsed away."

Really? And exactly how and when did this miraculous cleansing take place? Did historians discover Bethune really admired Groucho Marx and not Karl Marx?

Did any of Bethune's letters recently emerge in which he wrote something like, "I tried to contact some of my comrades in Russia today, but found out they had all been purged after a series of show trials. Apparently Stalin had them all tortured and then shot. Yikes! I know this might sound bourgeois and all, but it got me thinking that perhaps this working class struggle bullshit isn't all its cracked up to be."

If such a letter exists it's news to me. Maybe Ibbitson will provide evidence of it in a future column.

In the meantime, I will continue to oppose my government using my money to honour a man who was not only on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of morality.

You see unlike Bethune-apologists, like Clement or Ibbitson, I have no difficulty in judging the communist's legacy.

Nor, I suspect, will history.