Why Intellectuals Adore Tyrants Like Castro
My best friend in high school was Will, a Cuban exile, who later went on to become a Catholic priest. When I complained that one of our teachers was a “tyrant,” Will laughed at me ruefully. “You have no idea what that word means.” He’d lived in a tyranny, and knew what it was like.
His father and grandfather had both supported Castro against the corrupt usurper Batista — then turned against the regime when it betrayed all its liberal promises, and turned a once-prosperous island into a rusting, starving outpost of the dismal Soviet bloc. Both those men were sent to prison camps, where they were tortured periodically during their multi-year sentences. “My father never wanted to take off his shirt in front of me, so I wouldn’t see all the scars,” Will told me.
Will recounted the heavy pressure his grade school teachers put on him not to go to church. “You should come to our parade, instead!” The Cuban Communist Party sponsored a festive march with bright red flags every Sunday morning, to draw the children from God and toward the Party. Will remembered the heavy emphasis that Cuban schools put on literacy: “They wanted everyone to be able to read their propaganda, and the orders sent by the Party. So there was no excuse for disobedience.”
“Do these people have any idea what people in Cuba would give to live an American middle-class life? Or even a working-class life?” he would ask me.
Finally, after a harrowing escape from that prison island, Will and his parents made their way to New York City, to pursue the ordinary middle class lives that the poor worldwide still dream of — and that too many self-styled intellectuals hold in bemused contempt. That was one thing that Will always found puzzling. “Do these people have any idea what people in Cuba would give to live an American middle-class life? Or even a working-class life?” he would ask me, flabbergasted. In fact, many thousands gave their lives, sailing rickety boats through shark-infested waters, sometimes with the Cuban military shooting at them, as Castro had ordered.
Will would wonder aloud why so many intellectuals — and wannabes, like Hollywood actors — trooped off to Cuba over the decades? Why did they rally to the support of a vicious dictator who
- drove one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America into poverty and stagnation;
- oppressed and destroyed its middle class, nationalizing virtually all private property;
- filled his jails with priests, nuns, businessmen, and ordinary citizens;
- and tortured dissident authors and ordinary people whose only “crime” was that they’d been denounced as homosexual?
Why did anti-poverty icon Dorothy Day proclaim, “God bless Castro” in 1961, and poo-poo the obvious signs that he was imposing a totalitarian government that crushed Cuba’s churches? Why did the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, just offer an anodyne eulogy for Castro’s death that has set off a worldwide parody epidemic of comparably blind, bland praise for Pol Pot, Hitler, and Idi Amin?
Socialism: A Disease of the Spirit
There is something deeper going on than simple partisan blindness. What we are seeing grows from a disease of the spirit. We need to diagnose it.
The attraction that lures intellectuals to socialist tyrants like a dog to its master’s leg has its roots in three temptations, that build on one another.
To this day, “bourgeois” is an epithet that college students and teachers toss off with a satisfied smirk, in the same way that too many white Americans used to sling the “n-word.” But it’s still perfectly respectable, even clubbable, to scorn the middle class. In fact, it’s a method of social-climbing, a way to convey to listeners that you — of course — have always enjoyed the perks of good education, nutrition, economic opportunities, and personal freedom. No need for you to scramble after them. In fact, you are actually jaded by them, like an archduke bored with his family’s art collection.
It is deeply satisfying to know that you have a kind of political and economic X-ray vision, which sets you apart from the vast majority of dupes and victims. That superpower which you have gained introduces you to an elite.
You now have seen beyond the materialistic allure of abundance and social mobility — without, of course, sacrificing either one by embracing actual poverty or relocating to live in some socialist tyranny. (Not one leftist American threatened that if Donald Trump were elected, he would move to Cuba.) Piercing the bourgeois veil has freed you up for the next stage in socialist enlightenment.
Unlike the sweaty, materialistic masses, you have enjoyed an education that would have put most aristocrats over the centuries to shame. You have read enough Marx or Zizek or Zinn in college to see through the empty rhetoric of a free society, to perceive the secret core of pulsating truth: that the status quo, which has cossetted you, is in fact profoundly evil. It is a mechanism by which the wealthy “one percent” hijack control of society’s money and power, while duping ordinary workers with the fleeting dream of a comfortable, peaceable life. That dream numbs these exploited masses to the damage being done to them, and dulls their appetite for struggle.
So it is your business to enlighten them — whether they want your enlightenment or not. In fact that is your duty, as one who has risen above their sad obsessions with cars and houses and tacky white picket fences, to the cold and austere vision offered by the socialist conspiracy theory. It is also deeply satisfying to know that you have a kind of political and economic X-ray vision, which sets you apart from the vast majority of dupes and victims. That superpower which you have gained introduces you to an elite, a class of supermen who make it their business to seize and redirect the course of human history.
The great Catholic freedom advocate Frederic Bastiat observed that the socialists of his day (the mid-nineteenth century) imagined themselves to be philosopher-kings in exile. They awaited only the moment when they could impose their private designs for a perfect society by the force of the state on millions of hapless citizens — those who had been too blinkered and deluded by bourgeois slogans to know what they actually wanted.
As Bastiat put it, these socialist thinkers imagined their fellow men to be shrubs and trees, while they themselves were the gardeners. The men of Bastiat’s day had at least the excuse that they had not witnessed the Gulag, the famine in Ukraine, the tens of millions of needless deaths imposed by Mao in China, or Pol Pot in Cambodia. They didn’t dream that the shears they’d need to use to carve up human nature into the new shape of Socialist man would be drenched in innocent blood.
What possible excuse is there for favoring socialism today?