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What could be dumber than a red-baiting revival?
Sometimes it seems things are out of control in dazzling new ways, and sometimes it seems they’re out of control in ways that are even older than I am.
Like did you see that Bernie Sanders, Democratic presidential front-runner, said on TV that Cubans have done alright at health care — which is true! See “How Cubans Live as Long as Americans at a Tenth of the Cost” — and at literacy programs — which is also true! See “An adult literacy program developed in Cuba is now being used in more than 30 countries” — and now everyone’s acting like he said “I think gulags are great, you can’t have universal health care without gulags, as President I will throw you all in gulags”?
“Bernie Sanders just loves America’s enemies,” says Rich Lowry at the New York Post. “Bernie’s Cuba Illiteracy: The Vermont Senator finds a silver lining to the Castro revolution,” says the Wall Street Journal.
Even the allegedly liberal New York Times story on it is “Sanders’s Comments on Fidel Castro Provoke Anger in Florida,” as if that were the important thing about it, as if instead of making an anodyne statement about a generally acknowledged truth, Sanders had done some kind of faux pas against Floridians, like telling them their state was America’s Wang.
And the Washington Post says “Bernie Sanders greets his new front-runner status with one of his greatest hits: Praising Fidel Castro.” That Bernie! You can’t ask him about the weather without hearing about Castro.
Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal repeated a relevant section of Sanders’ Anderson Cooper interview that, to any sensible reader (not their audience, admittedly), would reveal how meaningless this whole thing is:
Mr. Sanders responded to Mr. Cooper: “We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?”
Mr. Cooper gently insisted: “There’s a lot of dissidents imprisoned in Cuba.”
Mr. Sanders answered: “That’s right and we condemn that. Unlike Donald Trump, let’s be clear, I do not think that Kim Jong Un is a good friend. I don’t trade love letters with a murdering dictator. Vladimir Putin, not a great friend of mine."
Sanders is not only beyond dispute here, he goes out of his way to say that Cuba’s oppression, like that of all dictatorships, is bad — like he’s against it, not for it, do you get me, here I am holding a big sign saying OPPRESSION BAD. But the Journal responds by strenuously avoiding the point:
That’s nice to know. But Mr. Sanders still flunks Cuban literacy 101. Before the 1959 revolution, some 80% of Cuba could read. That put the island’s education level far ahead of most of its Latin American neighbors. In the ensuing six decades, many countries in the region have moved to near-universal literacy.
I’m not sure where they’re getting this 80% figure — maybe from some long-ago press release for Batista, the dictator Castro overthrew. For another thing, so what? The Journal doesn’t dispute that Cuban literacy rates are good.
Then the Journal does the old Answering Unasked Questions trick, e.g., “Cuba has gone from being one of the more advanced countries in the region in the mid-1950s to one of the most impoverished, and the reason is its economic socialism and political tyranny.” I'm guessing decades of U.S.-led embargo have something to do with it, but whoever said Cuba was rich?
This line of shit reminds me of what I thought was the last era of American life where some dumbasses would take seriously as the counterargument to any criticism of America, “So why don’t you move to Russia if you don’t like it here?” Yes, Person Who Is Younger Than Me, back when I was a little boy, back when Russia was communist and not the home of Trump’s employer, this was considered a snappy comeback.
Even if you are not old but have read about red-baiting in a history book, you will know that back in the middle of the last goddamn century, calling someone a communist — or even a communist sympathizer (as Rod Dreher of The American Conservative called Sanders yesterday) — was an acceptable way to freeze someone out of the discourse, no matter how irrelevant the characterization was.
I remember this and I also remember that in some circles (like Mad magazine!) red-baiting was an object of ridicule. I didn’t know then that it had been an object of ridicule for years before that, going back to the beatniks, The Manchurian Candidate, and Joseph Welch. But as I grew older it became more obvious that red-baiting was some bullshit, and anyone who pulled it was probably trying to get away with something. In fact culture reflected that: Red-baiters were figures of fun, obviously flim-flam men, the Tartuffes of democracy.
When the Soviet Union actually collapsed, and with it any chance of a Dictatorship of the Proletariat in our lifetimes, I figured that nonsense was over for good. People only called you a commie-pinko as a joke, like calling you an Albigensian.
But here we are in 2020, and last week Michael Bloomberg literally called Bernie Sanders a communist in a Democratic debate, and today we have people practically drawing a Stalin mustache and red star on Sanders because he noticed that Cuban kids don’t get rickets anymore and can read.
The new stuff like social media weaponization and climate change, I can handle. Every generation brings its own challenges. But it’s actually more disturbing to me that, having survived and surpassed this particular stupidity, we’re actually reviving it. It suggests not that we never learn anything, but that we learn and then keep getting dragged back into the darkness from which we emerged by the same bunch of con artists as before.