Idiocy doesn’t cease being idiocy because it’s published

I love it when people who have never spent significant time in a given country or who know very little about a given country, take the opportunity to speak authoritatively as to what is right and what is wrong with said country.

Enter James Travers’ recent column on Cuba (available here). 

This is a great case study in what I’m talking about. While I’m ultimately in agreement with Travers that the US needs to butt-out of Cuba’s business and needs to stop its lusting after the small island as an untapped capitalist paradise, Travers takes this simple (and reasonable) conclusion and sullies it with his patronizing judgements which, in North American punditry, are all-too-common.

Now, Travers is a fairly influential man, so I think it’s important to document what is at best uninformed or at worst disingenuous in some of his comments lest his critical assessment of Cuba be allowed to stand as somehow valid despite its perversity.

Firstly, Travers writes, “Materially poor and culturally rich, Cuba is the worst of travelogue clichés.” What’s important to discuss here is two-fold:

#1) Travers goes on discussing Cuba’s poverty as if it is somehow an inseparable byproduct of its so-called ‘socialism’. In fact he suggests that it’s their backwards system which has left the people poor when he opines that Cuba’s failures are “evident on sparse shop shelves”. Never does it enter into his mind that perhaps the crushing economic sanctions by the world’s superpower against this tiny nation might have more to do with its poverty than any political or economic system that exists. Keep in mind that US economic influence brought down the Soviet Union and emasculated Saddam’s regime from 1991 up until the Iraq War, causing upwards of a million childhood deaths due to poverty – but no, that isn’t worth consideration as a cause of Cuba’s poverty.

#2) It’s also important to question Travers’ contention that Cuba is “materially poor” on philosophical grounds. What determines whether a country is considered poor or rich? Travers obviously considers our system “rich” and Cuba’s system “poor”, but why? Travers uncritically takes the capitalistic assumption that we ought to measure our success by the intoxicating heights reached by the most well-off in our society instead of quantifying it by the measuring stick of the ability of the least amongst us to sustain life. So which way of measuring ‘wealth’ is more valid? Sure, sure some individuals are richer up here in Canada but since all people only have one stomach to feed and one body to clothe & shelter, what does this measure of ‘wealth’ really matter? Which really is more accurate way of measuring wealth: measuring it by how much in excess of biological necessity a certain select few have or by how few fall below biological necessity?

Secondly, Travers wrights that “That transition [the transition from Fidel to Raul] or, to coin a phrase, that “tyrant-sition,” is mostly complete.” Now unlike the last point which was either ignorant at best or disingenuous at worst, this on this point Travers can only be described as disingenuous at best. Even the loosest definition of Tyrant would not encompass Castro.

Using two dictionaries to look up “tyrant” (the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2006 and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [4th Ed], 2000) I found 7 possible definitions of the word. They were:

1. a sovereign or other ruler who uses power oppressively or unjustly.
2. any person in a position of authority who exercises power oppressively or despotically.
3. a tyrannical or compulsory influence.
4. an absolute ruler, esp. one in ancient Greece or Sicily.
5. An absolute ruler who governs without restrictions.
6. A ruler who exercises power in a harsh, cruel manner.
7. An oppressive, harsh, arbitrary person.

Do any of these describe either (Fidel) Castro or Raul?

#1 doesn’t really apply because:

a) Castro by the official standards of Western governments wherein the current governments of Turkey, Pakistan, Haiti, Lybia and Saudi Arabia don’t qualify as official “tyrannies” it seems odd to suggest that these oppressive regimes aren’t tyrannies while Cuba somehow is.

b) Castro’s power isn’t illegitimate but is actually recognized by the same international legal precept which the Supreme Court of Canada reaffirmed in the Quebec Secession Reference: namely the Principle of Effectiveness. This principle basically states that even a revolutionary government can become legitimate over time (this, obviously, was the same principle which granted the United States legitimacy because, lest we forget, they initiated a revolution for far far less noble reasons than Castro’s revolution yet are nonetheless considered legitimate).

#2 doesn’t apply for the same reasons that #1 doesn’t apply (if we’re going to consider Castro oppressive, then we’ve got to consider some of our closer friends at least more oppressive and tyrannical than he is and that’s not going to happen anytime soon)

#3 doesn’t apply because Castro doesn’t exercise compulsory influence. Not only had he allowed massive numbers of his people to leave (as in the 1990s), his hold on the party isn’t as absolute as people may think. The party decides who becomes president (unlike, for instance, Muammar Gaddafi who is President for Life) and has the power in its constitution to impeach even the Castros.

#4 and 5 have never existed anywhere in history because nobody has ever been an “absolute” ruler. Ever. Not even Hitler. Not even Napoleon. Not even Caesar.

#6 and 7 don’t apply for the same reasons that #1 and 2 didn’t apply

So what do we make of James Travers’ column? A weak attempt at father-knows-best paternalism from a distance? The uneducated ravings of a man who probably had a column deadline looming with no well-researched material available? Or; yet another attempt to remake history with Castro’s silly or tyrannical brand of governance being the cause of all the poverty and evil that has befallen Cuba?

The answer is probably all three

4 Responses to “Idiocy doesn’t cease being idiocy because it’s published”


  1. 1 Canadaidan Tar Heel 21 January, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    I love it when people who have never spent significant time in a given country or who know very little about a given country, take the opportunity to speak authoritatively as to what is right and what is wrong with said country.

    Other elements of your post notwiithstanding, does the above mentioend quote apply to the US too?

  2. 2 paulitics 22 January, 2007 at 12:45 am

    Canadaidan Tar Heel – I’m sorry, I don’t know if I understand your question. Are you asking if I’ve been to the US frequently or have intimate knowledge of it? If that’s what’s you’re asking, then I can definitely answer yes. If it’s not what you’re asking, could you please clarify.

  3. 3 Canadian Tar Heel 22 January, 2007 at 9:45 am

    Upon a second reading of my comment, I realize that it may have come off as more provocative than it was intended. I was not necessarily refering to you personally with respect to this particular criticism of James Travers’s recent piece. Rather, I hoped to stir the pot.

    I love it when people who have never spent significant time in a given country or who know very little about a given country, take the opportunity to speak authoritatively as to what is right and what is wrong with said country. This is a great quote ! I wish that many people would apply it more. However, it is also dangerous in that some believe a familiarity and an occasional visit means that one “knows” a country or a people. Moreover, there is a flip side to the quote in that it should apply to the US too.

    More to the subject matter of the particular post above: I happen to disagree with your analysis of “tyrant” as applied to Fidel and Raul. Although I do not take issue with the process of elimination methodology, I believe that it glosses over a variety of issues. As one example, the analysis for the first definition disregards political prisoners.

    Despite these “oversights”, I do agree that Travers is patronizing in this peice.

  4. 4 paulitics 22 January, 2007 at 10:41 am

    “However, it is also dangerous in that some believe a familiarity and an occasional visit means that one “knows” a country or a people.”

    I think you’ve hit on something important here. You’re right, this axiom of mine ought not to be taken as an absolute because there is, as your correctly point out, the other side of the spectrum of a person who consumes only Fox News but lives in the US and believes they know what America is all about, all the while not having any knowledge of the US’s overthrowing of democratic governments worldwide etc…

    As for your contention that Fidel and Raul Castro ought to be considered ‘Tyrants’, I think you’re drawing attention to an important matter (political prisoners) but I think that even with that knowledge in hand, there are still real reasons for doubting whether Fidel and Raul ought to be considered ‘tyrants’.

    My contention, I hope it was clear, was one of gradations rather than binary. Thus, since we’re talking about a “spectrum of tyranny”, and since it is both the popular conception and the official government position that much more oppressive contemporary regimes such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lybia, Saudi Arabia or historical regimes such as Pinochet’s Chile, Marcos’ Philippines, Suharto’s Indonesia, were never considered tyrannical – it seems a little bit odd to suggest that the comparatively benign regime of Castro’s Cuba be considered a tyranny. My contention, therefore, was merely that: if we want to consider Castro a ‘tyrant’ by some sort of reasonable and universifiable definition, then a LOT of our current conceptions of the world and who is and is not a friend would also have to change — including a lot of our government’s foreign policy — before we could call him as such without ourselves being hypocritical.


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