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Front Page Magazine

 

Cuba Libre?

April 29, 2009

By Theodore Dalrymple

Perhaps no tyranny in history has enjoyed such a good press, and for so long, as Cuba under the Castro boys. When it comes to Cuba, restrictions on freedom of opinion, thought and expression, which have been both severe and long-lasting, are suddenly deemed by liberals to be unimportant, of no fundamental significance in their assessment of the regime: though the Brooklyn Museum has only to be prevented from showing pictures of the Virgin Mary surrounded by blobs of elephant dung – without any private institution being prohibited from showing them - for the cry of 'Intolerable censorship!' to go up.

Why should the Cuban tyranny be given, even now, such an easy time in at least some sections of the press? It may sound frivolous, but I think it has something to do with the weather.

Equality of penury (that does not amount to starvation) does not seem quite so bad when you can live so much of your life outdoors. Having myself lived in hot climates, I can attest to the fact that you need far less in them by way of clothes and furnishings than in cold, or seasonally-variable, ones. If Cuba had a Rumanian or Bulgarian climate, for example, the regime would have been swept away by now by angry mobs who had had enough.

The climate enables intellectuals to project on to Cuba one of the many desires that spring eternal in the human breast, namely that for the simple life. This desire – that life should be devoid of all the complexities that make it so difficult for us to enjoy anything uninterrupted for long – is very old. Here, for example, I quote from Dr John Coakley Lettsom’s History of the Origin of Medicine, published in London in 1778:

In the simplicity of primaeval days, when man was not oppressed with labour, enervated by luxury, nor disquieted with care; one may imagine that his life would flow on, almost untroubled by disease or pain, until his days were terminated in extreme old age, by the gradual decay of nature….

Here is another medical example, from a peculair poem called The Microcosm, by Abraham Coles, MD, published in 1866:

From gluttony and criminal excess, Make enough our rule, nor more, nor less.

Now let me quote from an article that appeared in The Guardian, Britain’s left-leaning liberal (and only serious) newspaper. It was by a teacher of Latin American history at University College, London, one of the country’s elite institutions, Helen Yaffe, in reply to an article in the same newspaper to the effect that closer links with the United States might spell the end of the Castro regime: "Will he" (Dr Yaffe asks the author of the article in her reply) "accept the Cuban people’s right to be different – to develop an alternative to the western model of consumerism"…?

Behind this question is an implied deep misanthropy, and it would be churlish (as well as dishonest) of me not to admit that I sometimes share it.

Of course, the Cuban people, as she puts it, have not been consulted on the question of whether they want consumerism or not; they do not live in a competitive political system, and have never been asked to pronounce on the matter. Their bare sufficiency has been imposed upon them by their philosopher-king of the last half century.

Now I am the first to admit that consumption of material goods as the main goal of life does not seem sufficient for a life well-lived. Not long ago I stayed for a few days in Beverley Hills and watched people who were obviously very rich wandering about in exclusive stores, looking for clothes and suchlike that in no possible sense could they have been said to need. Nor, to judge by the looks on their faces after they emerged from stores with their purchases, did they really expect much happiness from their further accumulation of Gucci gewgaws. On the whole, I had seen more gaiety in the slums of Kinshasa.

Furthermore, I have not been unhappy during those periods of my own life when I have been deprived, for geographical reasons, of consumer choice. Those times have tended to be the periods of my life when I had personal servants: and the time that those servants freed from daily chores was infinitely more luxurious than all the consumer goods in China.

In other words, I am not any great fan of consumption for consumption’s sake. It is a curious feature of the consumer society that people who spend so much of their energy upon consumption are not very good at it: at least not in the sense of being discerning and discriminating. It is a paradox that, while so many people spend so many hours in consumer societies shopping for clothes, so few people are well-dressed.

What Dr Yaffe fears, I suspect, is that if the Cuban people were given the choice, they would behave like everyone else. They would opt for Krispy-Kreme Donuts and other abominations. They would drug themselves with mindless and stupid entertainments; they would clog the deserted and crumbling streets of Havana with cars, thus destroying a lot of the city’s charm; the first fruit of freedom would be pornography.

This is not only aesthetically alarming, but ideologically, or philosophically, threatening. It drives a stake through the heart of any optimistic philosophical anthropology. If man were good, he would use his freedom to live well, to reflect on serious matters, to create beauty; instead of which, he goes in for pop music, bad food, drugs that render him idiotic, cheap sensation, violent films and the easiest sex possible.

This is all the more terrible because vulgarity, stupidity and the taste for the meretricious, triumphs so quickly when they are given the opportunity to do so. In other words, continued support for the Cuban Revolution is really the traditional middle and upper class horror of the lower orders in a new guise. And, of course, Fidel Castro is nothing if not an hidalgo.

 

 
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