I would guess that Donald Trump has not read many of Leo Strauss's works on political philosophy, or even heard of the German Jewish émigré. But something about Trump's statement on the death of Fidel Castro put me in mind of Strauss.
Trump made clear that the only thing to be lamented about Castro's passing at the age of ninety was that it was so long in coming:
Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.
Fidel Castro's legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights. While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.
In the introduction to his Thoughts on Machievelli, Strauss similarly did not shy away from the most visible thing about Machievelli's teaching: that he was a teacher of wickedness (though he was much else as well for Strauss). Strauss labels that simple opinion "wholesome." And indeed there is something refreshing and healthy about the moral clarity to call evil by its proper name.
President George W. Bush was widely mocked by the sophisticates for labelling the Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union. But the only thing I can find to fault in that formulation is the failure to include Syrian dictator Assad in the list, as subsequent events have proven. (Bush's U.N. Ambassador John Bolton would eventually remedy that fault, and add both Syria and Cuba to the list.) When one hears warnings against "simplistic moral judgments," Jonah Goldberg observes archly, it is usually a good indication that "simple morality" is not on the side of those issuing the warnings.
IN SHARP CONTRAST to Trump, President Obama reacted with studied neutrality to news of Castro's death: "We know that this moment fills Cubans – in Cuba and the United States – with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families and of the Cuban nation."
"Altered the course of lives [and] families" is just a tad mild for the tens of thousands of political prisoners murdered and tortured in Castro's prisons for continuing to profess their Christianity and other departures from the enforced Communist orthodoxy, or the nearly twenty percent of Cuban citizens driven into exile by Castro, including thousands who lost their lives trying to escape. But Obama is content to let "history . . . record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure . . ." The better to avoid simplistic judgments.
Obama's response was, I suppose, preferable to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's swooning paean to Castro as a "larger than life figure" and "legendary revolutionary," not to mention "Cuba's longest serving president." Perhaps it did not occur to Trudeau that an extreme aversion to elections and political dissent of any kind might have contributed significantly to the length of Castro's rule.
For Green Party candidate Jill Stein, "Fidel Castro was a symbol of the struggle for justice in the shadow of empire." Get it, Castro was a good guy because he was an "anti-colonialist" who sought to free Cuba from the imperialist Yanquis.
Commit a "micro-aggression' on campus, especially if one is a white male, then hanging is too good for you. Characterizations of Donald Trump as a new "Hitler" fall trippingly from the tongue of sophisticated leftists. But don the mantle "revolutionary" or "anti-colonialist," and there is no crime too great to be forgiven or justified.
Jay Nordlinger recalls a lecture by Armando Valladeres at Harvard in the nid-'80s. Valladeres, an early supporter of Castro's 1959 ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista, quickly ran afoul of the regime due to his Christian faith. He spent 22 years in Castro's prisons, eight of them naked in solitary confinement, in a perpetually darkened cell, without even artificial light. How he remained sane, much less produced one of the great modern memoirs, Against All Hope, is barely comprehensible. He was repeatedly immersed in excrement and served food filled with glass and rat entrails.
This torture had only one purpose: to make Valladeres accept political rehabilitation. All he had to do was to renounce his beliefs and embrace Communism and he could return home to his family. But he refused.
The Harvard students heard all this. But they still challenged Valladeres with Cuba's superior medical system and 100% literacy. "It's all untrue – a pack of lies," replied Valladeres. "But even if it were true: Can't a country have those things without dictatorship, without tyranny, without gulags, without torture – with freedom?"
In fact, Cuba does have a superior medical system. But it is reserved for "medical tourists," bringing desperately needed foreign currency. A second tier, but still good, system serves the Party bosses, military officers, and approved journalists. But for the average Cuban, there are disintegrating hospitals to which patients must bring their own bedding, and even toilet paper. Aspirin, much less antibiotics, are hard to attain, and doctors are forced to reuse their disposable latex gloves. Many of Cuba's leading dissidents are doctors who tried to serve the island's impoverished population outside the decrepit medical system decreed for them.
BUT FOR THE "USEFUL IDIOTS" still captivated by fantasies of socialism in action, the reality of Cuba is irrelevant. For them politics is never about real world consequences, but rather a means of signaling one's "goodness." It is enough that Castro is a "symbol of social justice." Never mind that he amassed a personal fortune of a nearly a billion dollars, while those he ruled sank ever deeper into poverty and despair. (Castro's revolutionary disciple Hugo Chavez, who drove Venezuela to ruin, more than doubled Castro's self-enrichment in the name of "the people.")
The freedom of which Valladeres spoke always gets short-shrift from romantic leftists who have never known anything else, though few of the Hollywood celebrities and leftist intellectuals eager to be photographed together with Castro or Hugo Chavez ever leave their imperialist redoubts to go live in one of the workers paradises.
I can remember watching Ayaan Ali Hirsi being badgered by a Canadian TV host who demanded to know how she could say that the Muslim society in which she was forced into child marriage to an elderly relative and subjected to bodily mutilation was a greater evil than "imperialist" America, exporting its culture around the world. "Perhaps the difference is," Ali Hirsi replied calmly, but with icy contempt, "is that I have lived in an unfree society. You have not."
LENINISTS ARE FOUND OF SAYING, "You cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs." To which George Orwell famously quipped, "Where's the omelet?" Orwell's reply was particularly apropos with respect to Castro. Even by the low standards of socialist central-planning, Castro was an abject failure, notes Walter Russell Mead. "Under Fidel's dead hand, sugar failed, alternative crops failed, manufacturing failed." He created no industrial base.
Mead lists five right-wing autocrats who, unlike Castro left their countries much better off: Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, Spain's Francisco Franco, Taiwan's Chiang Kai Shek, South Korea's Park Chung. And some form of democracy has emerged in their wake. They committed terrible crimes – though none so terrible as Castro's – and had great accomplishments. But for Castro there were, in the end, only the crimes.
Above all, Castro sought to free Cuba from American domination. And to that end, he made two large bets, neither of which panned out. First, he bet on the Soviet Union as a patron, and benefitted, in return, from the equivalent of ten Marshall Plans in Soviet aid. But then the Soviet Union collapsed.
Next he bet on Venezuela, and was showered with cheap oil and massive subsidies from his disciple Chavez. But, in the end, Chavez only proved that even a country rich in oil and facing no American trade embargo cannot make socialism work in South America. The country cannot even produce toilet paper today for its own citizens, much less prop up Cuba.
The bottom line is that Castro leaves behind a country more desperately poor than the one in which he seized power in 1959. And it is one that will be even less capable of remaining free of American influence than it was in 1959. If permitted to do so, Cuban exiles in Miami would be able to buy up most of the island.
Latin American expert Marc Falcoff sums up the matter; As a result of emigration, low birth rates, and high suicide rates, Cuba will, a decade from now, have one of the oldest populations in the world. "An impoverished country disproportionately old, without friends or patrons, with few possibilities of recovery or rebirth – this is the achievement of Fidel Castro. . . ."
If that be "social justice," we should all pray for a lot less social justice.
And it must be accounted a blessing that the next president of the United States spared us mealy-mouthed platitudes about Fidel Castro's love of the Cuban people. Instead he pointed to his crimes against those same people in the "wholesome" fashion Leo Strauss would have approved.