Tag: communist

When Che Guevara Met Nat Hentoff

In the new video below, renowned civil libertarian and Cato senior fellow Nat Hentoff talks about his meeting with Che Guevara when Hentoff wrote for the Village Voice. (See it also here with Spanish subtitles.) El Che is romanticized by college kids and those on the left as a champion of the oppressed, but he was in fact a main architect of Cuban totalitarianism, a cold-blooded murderer whose defining characteristic was sheer intolerance of those with differing views. The best essay on Che, “The Killing Machine,” was written by Alvaro Vargas Llosa for the New Republic some years ago. 

It is hard to imagine a symbol in popular culture in which the represented ideal is more far apart from the historical reality than in the case with Che. Surely that gap helps explain Che’s appeal among people all over the world with little knowledge of Latin America. Four years ago on a visit to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council I saw pro-democracy activist and Council member Leung Kwok-hung, a.k.a. “Long Hair,” wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt on the floor of the chamber. (Hong Kong is not yet a democracy and its Legislative Council is quite limited in its powers; in practice, the city is ruled by the communists in Beijing, which has ironically upheld the city’s free-market model and rule of law tradition inherited from the British.) Does Long Hair not know that Che despised democracy?

In his classic book, The Latin Americans, the late Venezuelan intellectual Carlos Rangel explained how outsiders, especially Europeans, have since their earliest contact with Latin America idealized the place, projecting their fantasies and frustrations, and promoting ideas there that they themselves would not find acceptable on their own turf. Thus the early inhabitants of the region were “noble savages” despoiled and degraded by the Europeans; the noble savages later evolved into the good revolutionaries, those authentic Latin Americans who fight for everything that is good and reject the imposition of all forms of oppression. Simplistic and wrong, but effective. So it is even in Latin America, where, as Rangel explains, that storyline has served political leaders well as they justify the imposition of any number of restrictions on freedom, from tariffs to censorship. Che’s image still abounds in the region. (For an excellent and eminently relevant video in Spanish of Rangel speaking in Caracas in 1980 about the central problems with Venezuela, see here.) 

Incidentally, another Cato scholar had close ties to Che. The rebel was a cousin to well-known Argentine libertarian and adjunct scholar Alberto Benegas Lynch (Che’s complete last name was Guevara Lynch). In this article in Spanish, Alberto discusses his cousin Che.

Turns out State Schooling Isn’t Communist after all…

Albert Shanker, long-time head of the American Federation of Teachers union, said back in 1989 that:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

But hang on a minute! Doesn’t the following description sound a lot like the work rules in our public schools:

Promotion was determined by the Table of Ranks…. An official could hold only those posts at or below his own personal rank…. [S]tandard intervals were set for promotion: one rank every three years from ranks 14 to 8; and one every four years from ranks 8 to 5…. This meant that, barring some heinous sin, even the most average bureaucrat could expect to rise automatically with age…. The system encouraged … time-serving mediocrity

That, ladies and gentleman, is not a description of the work rules of the communist-era Russian bureaucracy. It describes the rules in the Tsarist Russian bureaucracy (see Orlando Figes, “A People’s Tragedy,” p. 36).

The funny thing is, according to Figes, “By the end of the [19th] century, however, this system of automatic advancement was falling into disuse as merit became more important than age.”

So the modern U.S. system for promoting public school teachers was discarded as inefficient and unworkable… by the Tsars.

China Cracks Down on Ideas. And Music. And Advertising.

The government of China finally confirmed that it has detained the artist Ai Weiwei. Meanwhile, Evan Osnos writes from Beijing for the New Yorker about China’s “Big Chill”:

Step by step—so quietly, in fact, that the full facts of it can be startling—China has embarked on the most intense crackdown on free expression in years. Overshadowed by news elsewhere in recent weeks, China has been rounding up writers, lawyers, and activists since mid-February, when calls began to circulate for protests inspired by those in the Middle East and North Africa. By now the contours are clear: according to a count by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, the government has “criminally detained 26 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under soft detention.”

Indeed, everywhere I turn today, there’s news about Chinese censorship and fear of dissent, of ideas, of art, of words like “luxury.” The Washington Post has a major article on Bob Dylan’s concert Wednesday night in Beijing. Dylan, the troubadour of the peace movement and the Sixties and civil rights, in the capital of the world’s largest Communist party-state. How’d that go? Ask Keith Richburg, whose Post article is titled “The times they are a-censored”:

Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.

Keeping with his custom, Dylan never spoke to the crowd other than to introduce his five-member band in his raspy voice. And his set list – which mixed some of his newer songs alongside classics made unrecognizable by altered tempos — was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.

In Taiwan on Sunday, opening this spring Asian tour, Dylan played “Desolation Row” as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements.

But in China, where the censors from the government’s Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang “Love Sick” in the place of “Desolation Row,” and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding “Forever Young.”

There was no “Times They Are a-Changin’ ” in China. And definitely no “Chimes of Freedom.”

Meanwhile, NPR reports that Beijing has banned words such as “luxury,” “supreme,” “regal,” and “high-class” on billboards:

The city’s new rules state that ads must not glorify “hedonism, feudal emperors, heavenly imperial nobility” or anything vulgar, according to the Global Times newspaper. They also should not violate “spiritual construction” standards or worship foreign products — leading some to believe the campaign could be targeting foreign luxury goods.

“The truth is that the party has very clearly started what is very clearly a campaign against ostentation in China,” says David Wolf of Wolf Group Asia, a communications advisory agency. “There is a pushback against things Western. And there is the desire to see those Western things take a lesser role in the development of Chinese culture.”…

China Daily reports that the campaign is aimed at protecting social harmony, quoting a sociologist who says advertisements that promote the belief that “wealth is dignity” could upset low-income residents.

Now there’s some good old-fashioned communist thinking! Of course, communists with the courage of their convictions would ban the products, not just the ad copy. But it’s nice to see the old values survive.

In some ways the government’s confirmation that it has detained Ai Weiwei is the most chilling indication of the new climate. It came in an editorial in Global Times, a vigorous presenter of the government line. Just listen to the combative language:

Ai Weiwei likes to do something “others dare not do.” He has been close to the red line of Chinese law….

The West ignored the complexity of China’s running judicial environment and the characteristics of Ai Weiwei’s individual behavior. They simply described it as China’s “human rights suppression.”

“Human rights” have really become the paint of Western politicians and the media, with which they are wiping off the fact in this world.

“Human rights” are seen as incompatible things with China’s great economic and social progress by the West. It is really a big joke. Chinese livelihood is developing, the public opinion no longer follows the same pattern all the time and “social justice” has been widely discussed. Can these be denied? The experience of Ai Weiwei and other mavericks cannot be placed on the same scale as China’s human rights development and progress.

As I’ve written before, China faces a dilemma. They have opened up their economy and reaped huge benefits, perhaps the largest advance in human well-being in the history of the world – as the editors of Global Times defiantly argue. But if China wants to become known as a center of innovation and progress, not just a military superpower or a manufacturer, it will need to open further. Investors want to put money into a country with the rule of law. Creative people want to live in a country that allows them to read, write, think, and act freely.

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele, author of From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation, wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West–technology, innovation, entrepreneurship–without adopting its liberal values. ”We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with strip-tease.”

How much freedom can China’s rulers tolerate? How much repression will its citizens tolerate? How many ambitious, creative Chinese will leave the world’s largest market to find more creative freedom elsewhere? These may be the most important questions in the world over the next generation.

Party Control Lives on in China

Andrew Higgins of the Washington Post reviews a new book on the continuing power of the Communist Party in sort-of-capitalist China:

McGregor points out that ‘Lenin, who designed the prototype used to run communist countries around the world, would recognize the [Chinese] model immediately.’ Case in point: the Central Organization Department, the party’s vast and opaque human resources agency. It has no public phone number, and there is no sign on the huge building it occupies near Tiananmen Square. Guardian of the party’s personnel files, the department handles key personnel decisions not only in the government bureaucracy but also in business, media, the judiciary and even academia. Its deliberations are all secret. If such a body existed in the United States, McGregor writes, it ‘would oversee the appointment of the entire US cabinet, state governors and their deputies, the mayors of major cities, the heads of all federal regulatory agencies, the chief executives of GE, Exxon-Mobil, Wal-Mart and about fifty of the remaining largest US companies, the justices of the Supreme Court, the editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the bosses of the TV networks and cable stations, the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities, and the heads of think-tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.’

But not the Cato Institute, you betcha!

Tear Down This Wall … between the U.S. and Cuba

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a hearing today on the almost 50 year old ban on travel to Cuba. The ban is part of a broader economic embargo in place since the early 1960s that was supposed to bring about change in the island’s oppressive, communist regime.

Instead, the embargo and travel ban have needlessly infringed on the freedom of Americans, weakened our influence in Cuba, and handed the Castro government a handy excuse for the failures of its Caribbean socialist experiment.

I wrote an op-ed recently advocating change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, and delivered a talk on the same theme at Rice University in 2005.

Will Congress finally change this failed U.S. policy?

Berlin Wall Anniversary Links

The Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago this month, marking the collapse of Soviet communism. The anniversary is an appropriate time for stocktaking and for seeking to answer a number of questions associated with this historic event, its aftermath, and its continued influence.

  • Podcast: Why Russia must confront the criminal nature of its communist past.