While our prime minister has been properly castigated for his ill-considered praise of a dead dictator, the death of Fidel Castro last week brought to light a surprising chorus of praise and mourning from Canadians who unselfconsciously used words like "hero" and "revolutionary" in their eulogizing of Castro.
What of the thousands of Cubans put to death by Castro? The thousands more imprisoned for being dissidents, or sent to labour camps? The regime's deplorable rank for freedom of expression, freedom of association, and for corruption?
What of the stolen wealth? A planned economy with its archaic ration system -- where you are entitled to five eggs a month, for example, and no milk for anyone over age seven -- and consequent empty grocery store shelves and thriving black market?
What of the inherently inequitable system of what has come to be known as "tourism apartheid?"
What of the Cubans who fled in fear, seeing no opportunity and no future in the place they were born -- whether they were ballerinas, or baseball players who defected (and continue to do so), or ordinary people who risked their lives to get across the Florida Straights in a rubber raft? Nothing betrays a country's true state of affairs like migration patterns, and this one speaks rather loudly.
But if you present these facts to a Castro fan, sitting comfortably in the West enjoying the virtues of living in a democracy, you will very likely not receive a response evaluating these facts on the basis of their merit. Instead, you will simply be told something along the lines of: "But Castro stood up to the United States!"
They may emphasize how Cuba is little. They may use the word "brave" (for Castro) and "bully" (for the U.S.). They may ramble on about Guantanamo. They will say Castro resisted U.S. imperialism. They may drift far away from Cuba, declaring simply "Vietnam!" or "Iraq!" Sometimes they will cite Cuba's supposedly glorious public health-care system or its literacy rate.
A very easy way to get away with mass murder is to broadcast your uncharitable views of the United States.
What I have learned from observing the "Castro was a hero" chatter of late is that a very easy way to get away with mass murder is to broadcast your uncharitable views of the United States. It would appear that this is a potent form of immunity, a kind of magical cloak that can make any crime, no matter how heinous, invisible to a certain kind of person pre-programmed to be sympathetic to anyone who uses the word "America" and "imperialism" in the same sentence.
What is actually happening here is a collective infection of a bad case of yesbuttery. It goes like this. One person points out an atrocity in Country X to another person. The other responds, "Yes, but what about this other bad thing that Country Y does?"
The responder doesn't actually respond to the original issue presented, but deflects the conversation to an entirely separate issue, shutting down the original line of inquiry.
Yesbuttery, usefully described by Terry Glavin in today's Ottawa Citizen as it applies to Cuba and giving the term's sordid history, enjoyed a heyday when Canada went into Afghanistan. People who thought themselves progressive types, smug in the assurance that they were a proper pacifist, would dismiss concerns about the Taliban's treatment of women or about the human rights of Afghans by some conversational gymnastics that would turn a conversation about Taliban stoning women to death into a conversation about Americans in Iraq for oil within a matter of seconds.
Today, yesbuttery often deflects criticism of human rights violations in developing countries to inequities and injustices domestically in the U.S., fingers pointing to Black Lives Matter as evidence that America's problems on its own soil give no one the right to talk about injustices in foreign countries.
Sound perfectly illogical? That's how yesbuttery works. It's the antithesis of logic. It's a device to extract oneself from actually having to articulate a defensible position in response to a counter-argument. It's intellectual laziness. It's an insistence on living within a comforting lie.
Where does that lie come from? It merits further study, but there is some suggestion it is rooted in a tendency to romanticize iconic figures and embrace a simple story of heroism. We are more drawn to simple stories, so we resist the details that poke holes in the story, like evidence of very bad behaviour.
Witness the lucrative industry of Che Guevara merchandise ubiquitous around the world. An executioner's image emblazoned on hats and T-shirts by mainly law-abiding, innocuous people who never lived in "revolutionary" Cuba? But he rode a motorcycle and wore a beret!
In some cases it may also be rooted in some kind of innate drive towards self-denigration (when the idolizing of Fidel Castro is coming from Canadians or Americans, or others who live in societies rather more privileged than Cuba's).
The creeping pervasiveness of identity politics into the discourse of the left may be driving people to assert their bonafide credentials as allies to the non-western. In other words, one chooses the side of the exotic other, automatically. One divides the world into two categories: the powerful oppressor, and the subjugated victim. Thereafter, all people and problems fall into one of the two categories, never both. It's an automated filing system, negating the need to think critically. And it's a threat to the truth, because it sanctions obfuscation and makes it allowable for yesbuttery to masquerade as actual debate.
Let's bring reason and logic back into the equation. Let's have ethical and intelligent debates, evaluating evidence objectively. You are allowed to have your criticisms of America without having to wear blinders when it comes to the behaviour of America's self-declared opponents. It's not a zero-sum game.
Acknowledging and condemning the well-documented crimes of an authoritarian ruler still gives you every freedom to condemn any other figure or institution you wish to. But seeking to replace the discussion of one issue with another issue entirely is not good argument; it's just sloppy rhetoric.
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