On Tuesday we contemplated Anthony Bourdain, whose recent self-slaughter inspired hundreds of heartfelt eulogies by foodies – and others – around the globe. The smart set had lost one of its own, and the mood of the day was one of profound mourning. What torments, everyone wondered, had plagued the culinary genius? There was endless hand-wringing about the psychological anguish he must have suffered. Interestingly, very few of his necrologists so much as mentioned his 11-year-old daughter, Ariane, let alone paused to contemplate the very special and profoundly destructive kind of psychic affliction it is for a child, especially one around 11 years old, to lose a parent to suicide.
But that’s neither here nor there. We were talking about Bourdain’s superior attitude toward fellow celebrity cooks who made money in ways of which he disapproved. Over the course of his lifetime he worked for any number of major corporations – but in his view that was different than the kind of deals that people like Paula Deen made with major corporations.
Of course, Bourdain’s professed contempt for capitalism was the purest hypocrisy. Few practiced capitalism more successfully than he did. If he enjoyed sneering at capitalism, it was because he knew that such B.S. would only enhance his image with his fan base.
Meanwhile, however, as Humberto Fontova reminded us the other day, Bourdain had no such qualms about promoting Communism. He did multiple shows from Cuba for CNN and the Travel Channel (capitalism, anyone?). On the Travel Channel website, he had a page headlined Tony Bourdain’s Guide to Cuba. He led “junkets” to Cuba. All these activities, of course, put hard currency in the pockets of the Castro regime, thus helping it to hang on to life – and to continue to harass, jail, beat, torture, and execute political “enemies,” gays, and others. As Fontova noted, Bourdain concluded one 2011 Cuba program by telling the audience: “Yes, Go to Cuba!”
In his CNN episode on Cuba, he described Havana, whose dilapidated ruins testify to the destructiveness of Communism, as “unspoiled.” He went further than that, saying that it was “one of the more beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.” He claimed to dislike Communism but the most critical thing he would say about Castro was that he had “decidedly mixed emotions” about him. He also regurgitated the usual Cuban propaganda about the country’s supposedly great schools and first-class medical care (yes, for the nomenklatura). “In Cuba the religion is baseball,” he said. No mention of the fact that for decades after the Cuban Revolution, actual religious practice was suppressed.
“If only Bourdain had demonstrated 1/100 of his vaunted ‘spunk’ and ‘feistiness’ against a regime that jailed political prisoners at a higher rate than Stalin during the Great Terror, murdered more Cubans than Hitler murdered Germans during the Night of Long Knives, and craved to nuke his homeland,” commented Fontova. Bingo.
How time flies! It was over two years ago that we wrote about Russell Brand, whom we were about to describe as a “British comedian” before we realized that it’s been a long time since we actually heard him say anything funny.
No, Brand has long since transcended mere comedy. As we noted on June 8, 2015, he’s been more comfortable the last few years “posturing as a crusading champion of the downtrodden and a heroic enemy of The System.” His 2014 stand-up show was entitled Messiah Complex, for which this world-class egomaniac should at least get credit for truth in advertising. The show was a tribute to some of his heroes, among them Che Guevara. And the book he published the same year was called Revolution, in which he expanded upon his enthusiasm not only for the “morally unimpeachable” Che but also for Fidel Castro.
Lately Brand has been busy plugging a new book about his history of addiction. The book’s publisher describes it as a collection of lessons learned from “fourteen years of recovery” from addiction to “heroin, alcohol, sex, fame, food and eBay.” The author himself calls it a “manual for self-realization,” adding, with an uncharacteristic touch of what sounds like – can it be? – humility, that his “qualification” to offer up these life lessons “is not that I am better than you but I am worse.”
But don’t worry: that quote notwithstanding, Brand appears to be as much of a crusading know-it-all as ever, no less convinced than before that – despite his admitted inability, over a period of years, to stay on track and keep his own house in order – he takes a back seat to no one when it comes to diagnosing the planet’s ills. In other words, while he’s escaped dependency on booze and drugs, he’s still hooked on himself. And the media, perversely, can’t kick the habit of reporting on his every pearl of wisdom. On October 25, for example, the BBC’s website carried a story headlined “Russell Brand: Society is collapsing.” (It’s not every day you see a headline like that on any website’s “Entertainment” section.)
“People,” Brand told BBC scribe Steven McIntosh, “are starting to recognise that the reason they feel like they’re mentally ill is that they’re living in a system that’s not designed to suit the human spirit.” They’re frustrated over having to “work 12 hours a day,” over having to “live in an environment that is designed for human beings from one perspective but not from a holistic perspective,” over the fact that they’re “[b]reathing dirty air, eating dirty food, thinking dirty thoughts.”
The people Brand is apparently talking about are those who live in the Western world today; and the system in question is therefore democratic capitalism. Given Brand’s heavily documented enthusiasm for Castro, Che, and other Communists, we can only suppose that he is unfavorably comparing life in the West today with life under various Communist countries, past and present. Donald Trump’s recent speech to the South Korean parliament drew a striking contrast between the freedom, prosperity, and respect for the individual that characterize life below the DMZ with the deprivation, fear, and despair of life under the tyranny of the Kim family regime. Brand’s comments to the BBC are apparently a through-the-looking-glass version of Trump’s speech. Yes, the British funnyman appears to be saying, South Korea may look okay enough “from one perspective,” but life in places like Cuba and North Korea is better holistically. Got that?
Brand told McIntosh that he had no intention of going into politics, but that determination didn’t keep Brand from penning a Huffington Postpaean last May to Labour Party chieftain Jeremy Corbyn. Now, Corbyn is a guy whom even many Labour stalwarts consider to be way over the line. Corbyn, an enemy of NATO and fan of Castro’s Cuban Revolution and Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution, is a Communist in all but name; but for Brand, he’s a man who combines “principles” with “common sense and compassion,” who has kept his “integrity perfectly preserved,” and who is, all in all, a “caring socialist leader” who has kept it together despite being the target of a “hegemonic narrative singularity.” No, we don’t know what that means either.
The headline could hardly have been more repulsive: “When Communism Inspired Americans.” It appeared in the New York Times on April 29. The article, by Vivian Gornick, was an unashamed exercise in nostalgia for the good old days of American Stalinism.
The piece was reprehensible, but it should not have been surprising. After all, the Times, which is often referred to as the Gray Lady, has often, over the decades, seemed to deserve, rather, the nickname “The Lady in Red.” Recall, for example, that it was the home base of none other than Stalin-era Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, this website’s own mascot, who, as we wrote in our mission statement, “did more than any of his contemporaries to spread Soviet propaganda under the guise of news – and to discredit colleagues who dared to tell the truth about the brutality of Stalin’s regime.”
Duranty, as we pointed out, “defended the Gulag (in which millions died), the forced collectivization of peasants (ditto), and the 1938 show trials (used by Stalin to wipe out potential opponents). He also vigorously denied the reality of the Holmodor, the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine, which was deliberately engineered by Stalin and which also resulted in millions of deaths.” Malcolm Muggeridge, who had been a Moscow correspondent at the same time, later maintained that the Times had published Duranty’s pro-Stalin propaganda even though it was “so evidently nonsensically untrue” not “because the Times was deceived” but because “it wanted to be so deceived.”
And Duranty was just the beginning. As Frances Martel noted at Breitbart, Duranty’s “style of fabrication” about Communism “continued well into the 1960s when writer Herbert Matthews leveraged his newspaper’s influence to promote the Cuban Revolution.” Throughout Castro’s reign, Martel observed, the Times “regaled Castro – who sent thousands, including Christians, LGBT Cubans, writers, and dissidents generally, to labor camps and killed thousands of others using firing squads – as a ‘victorious guerrilla commander in 1959’ and lauded the alleged ‘medical advances’ and ‘racial equality’ of communist Cuba in November when the Cuban government claimed Castro had finally died.”
The Times‘s publication of Gornick’s April 29 piece reminds us that the paper hasn’t changed its stripes. Nor has Gornick. The author of a 1978 book called The Romance of Communism, what she offered in her Times piece, all these decades later, was basically a thumbnail version of that book. She didn’t exactly defend or deny any of Stalin’s atrocities – she just swept them under the rug. Or, rather, she acted as if she and her family and their intimate circle of Communist Party members in New York had been totally unaware of all these well-publicized crimes against humanity until Khrushchev gave his so-called “secret speech” in February 1956. Yet despite those crimes, she sought, just as in her 1978 book, to depict mid-century American Communists not as totalitarians or world-class dupes but as moral exemplars – indeed, as the very noblest of souls.
Communism is every bit as vile an ideology as Nazism. Stalin took more even lives than Hitler. But while no self-respecting American newspaper would publish an old Nazi’s affectionate memoir of the Third Reich, the Times has always treated Communism differently. If Gornick’s piece wasn’t a good enough reminder of the Times‘s double standards on the Berlin and Moscow versions of totalitarianism, the newspaper actually published yet another such piece only a couple of weeks later. We’ll look at it tomorrow.
In 2003, Howard Zinn was described as “the most influential historian in America.” As of that year, his book A People’s History of the United States was selling 128,000 copies annually; total sales have now topped two million. What a remarkable coup this was for Zinn, whose parents were working-class immigrants from Russia and Ukraine and whose father worked as a fruit peddler and ditch digger. Had Zinn’s parents not emigrated to America, any child of theirs would have grown up as a peasant under Communism. And if that child had grown up to be half as outspoken as Zinn, he’d soon have ended up either in the Gulag or in front of a firing squad. That the son of such a couple could end up as a prominent historian and a wealthy man is a tribute to the reality of the American dream.
But Zinn himself didn’t see it that way. Indeed, perhaps the best way to sum up his life goal is to say that he was out to destroy Americans’ belief in the American dream. For Zinn was a Communist. And he wasn’t just any Communist. He was a very active Communist who belonged to a New York branch of the Party and attended Party meetings five nights a week between around 1949 and 1953.
And that wasn’t all. He taught informal courses in Communism to other Communists. He participated in various Communist front groups, such as the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee and the International Workers Order, and in a number of Communist-infiltrated organizations, such as the American Veterans Committee. Although, as noted, he ceased being active in the Party during the 1950s, his political views remained the same, as evidenced by his enthusiasm for the Castro revolution in Cuba.
As many observers have noted, the timing of Zinn’s involvement in the Party is interesting. He wasn’t one of those who joined the CPUSA in the 1920s or 30s, when ignorance was still a credible excuse and some of Stalin’s worst atrocities remained in the future. No, he joined up after the Ukraine famine, after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and after the USSR’s postwar occupation of Eastern Europe. By the time he signed up as an agent of the Kremlin, it was clear to any well-informed Westerner that Josef Stalin was a thoroughly evil piece of work, fully on a par with Hitler, and that the people living in the Soviet Union and its satellites were the helpless, terrorized subjects of a monstrous tyranny.
Zinn would later go on to become a prominent academic and a leader of the anti-Vietnam movement. We’ve already written here about his friendly wartime visit to Hanoi with Father Daniel Berrigan, a fellow Communist. But it wasn’t till A People’s History came out in 1980 that Zinn became famous.
When Fidel Castro first came on the scene more than half a century ago, the New York Times famously disgraced itself by serving as his chief PR tool. When he died a few hours ago, the Times again brought shame upon itself with a jaw-droppingly fawning obituary headlined “Fidel Castro, Cuban Leader who Defied U.S., Dies at 90.”
Let’s make this clear: Castro wasn’t a “leader”; he was a totalitarian dictator. But the Times, alas, has plainly never gotten over its schoolgirl crush on him. The first paragraphs of its obit, which carried the byline of Anthony DePalma, were studded with the kind of words customarily used to eulogize heroes and saints. Castro was a “fiery apostle of revolution.” He was “a towering international figure.” He was a man who “dominated his country with strength and symbolism from the day he triumphantly entered Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, and completed his overthrow of Fulgencio Batista by delivering his first major speech in the capital before tens of thousands of admirers at the vanquished dictator’s military headquarters.”
DePalma’s account of the events of that day fifty-seven years ago was nothing less than nauseating – useful stoogery at its purest:
A spotlight shone on him as he swaggered and spoke with passion until dawn. Finally, white doves were released to signal Cuba’s new peace. When one landed on Mr. Castro, perching on a shoulder, the crowd erupted, chanting “Fidel! Fidel!” To the war-weary Cubans gathered there and those watching on television, it was an electrifying sign that their young, bearded guerrilla leader was destined to be their savior.
Accompanying all this laudatory prose were photographs (we’ve reproduced them here) that seemed to have been selected with the objective of showing Fidel at his most glamorous, rugged, and heroic.
To be sure, DePalma went on, after his first dozen or so (long) paragraphs, to acknowledge the negative aspects of Castro’s rule. But these obligatory doses of truth about what was, in fact, a thoroughly monstrous regime were brief, grudging, and muted. Every mention of something less than admirable, moreover, was paired with yet more sickening – and baseless – words of praise. For example: “His legacy in Cuba and elsewhere has been a mixed record of social progress and abject poverty, of racial equality and political persecution.” Social progress? Racial equality? Utter hogwash. For the zillionth time, furthermore, the Times served up the ubiquitous, ridiculous lie that Cuba, under Castro, has undergone astounding strides in education and health care.
It’s not really surprising to see the Times serving up nonsense like this. It is rather unexpected to see Anthony DePalma signing his name to it. DePalma – who left the Times in 2008, and presumably filed a draft of this obit some time before that – is the author of The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times, in which he doesn’t pull any punches about Castro being a bloodthirsty tyrant – and about the key role the Times played in making him an international icon. One wonders how much editorial tweaking DePalma’s piece has undergone since he first filed it.
Once upon a time, people referred to the New York Times – with a straight face – as “the newspaper of record.” Now, that phrase is increasingly likely to be uttered with a smirk. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Times‘s publisher and executive editor felt compelled to express public regret – sort of – for its appallingly slanted coverage of the recent U.S. presidential election and to promise “to report America and the world honestly.” But this obit oozes dishonesty – an eagerness to whitewash Communism and lionize dictators that, unfortunately, seems to be written into the Times‘s DNA. DePalma’s article should go down in the record books as a classic in useful stoogery.
UPDATE, November 30: The Times has actually posted a whole feature about the history of its Castro op-ed. It turns out, indeed, that many hands other than DePalma’s were involved.
As we saw yesterday, Sixties radical Tom Hayden, who died on October 23 and was remembered in one obituary after another as a champion of peace, was, in fact, the very opposite of a peacenik.
Here are a few more highlights. In a 1967 article in the New York Review of Books, he served up detailed prescriptions for organized urban bloodshed. That same year, contemporaneous observers blamed his incendiary rhetoric for “causing nearly a week of rioting” in Newark. During the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, he encouraged civil disruption in the form of “spreading nails on a highway” and firebombing police cars. At Berkeley in 1969, he led a “training center” where would-be revolutionaries were taught to use firearms and explosives. Also in 1969, he took part in a “war council” in Flint, Michigan, at which he and some of his comrades officially declared war against America and called for “violent, armed struggle.”
To be sure, after the madness of the 1960s dissipated, Hayden shifted gears. In the 1980s and 90s, he got himself elected to the California legislature, taught courses at Harvard, UCLA, and elsewhere (despite having no degree beyond a B.A.), and gave speeches at innumerable universities.
But he remained a radical rabble-rouser. In 1996, quick as ever to embrace a trendy left-wing cause, he wrote his own book on environmentalism, The Lost Gospel of the Earth, even though he had no expertise whatsoever in the field and absolutely nothing original to say about it. Echoing Kirkpatrick Sale’s vapid, ultra-PC Conquest of Paradise (1990) and other recent contributions to the genre, Hayden drew an embarrassingly crude contrast between the perfectly saintly American Indians and the unwaveringly evil Europeans. “His descriptions of Indian virtue and wisdom,” wrote Vincent Carroll in a review for the Weekly Standard, “are no less monochromatic than his most gullible exhortations on behalf of the Viet Cong – if anything, they are more so.”
And so it went. In 1999, Hayden encouraged street riots to protest World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. In 2001, he blamed the 9/11 attacks on American imperialism. In 2005, ever eager to socialize with America’s enemies, he met in London with Iraqi terrorist leaders; afterwards, his naivete as intact as it had been decades earlier, he wrote an article painting these ruthless jihadists as gentle, peace-loving patriots. When Hugo Chávez died in 2013, Hayden wrote: “As time passes, I predict the name of Hugo Chávez will be revered among millions.” In 2014, he declared in an op-ed that the Cuban Revolution had “achieved its aim: recognition of the sovereign right of its people to revolt against the Yankee Goliath and survive as a state in a sea of global solidarity.”
How to sum up the life of a man who combined moral depravity with sheer doltishness? Carroll made a couple of good points in his review of The Lost Gospel. Citing Hayden’s “dreadful sanctimony and self-absorption” and air of “moral superiority,” Carroll wrote: “one continuously marvels that a man of Hayden’s superficiality has played such a prominent role in left-wing political thought for more than 30 years.” But we can’t say we’re too surprised: after all, Hayden was far from the only narcissistic, barricade-charging ideologue of the 1960s who was treated as a cultural hero in the decades that followed and whose fatuity, ferocity, and malice were transformed, in his obituaries, into wisdom, peacefulness, and love.
In recent months we’ve cast a jaundiced eye at the avalanche of stoogery that has surrounded the so-called “opening” of Cuba – what’s been called the “thawing” of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Part of that “thawing,” as we’ve seen this week, has been a mass pilgrimage of TV and movie producers to the prison island. On Monday we noted that some sequences of the newest installment of the Fast and Furious franchise are being filmed in Cuba; yesterday we reported on the release of Papa Hemingway in Cuba, a feature that was shot there in 2014. While receiving lukewarm to poor reviews, the picture has nonetheless occasioned some pretty idiotic (if unsurprising) commentary about Cuba.
Take Eliza Berman, who, in a puff piece for Time, fatuously echoed the Castros’ own B.S., blaming the island’s disastrous economy not on Communism but on the U.S.: “Because the embargo restricted the import of American goods to the island, much of the country has maintained the appearance of being somewhat stuck in time—not least of all thanks to its 1950s-model cars. This allowed for the majority of the film to be shot on location rather than on artificial sets.” (It’s not surprising to discover that Berman is a very young lass and that her 2007 Yale B.A. is in that ridiculous non-field, American Studies.)
Helen T. Verongos, writing in the New York Times, may have been entirely correct to say that the film “bristles with authentic detail, down to the very typewriter Hemingway used,” and that the producers’ ability to arrange for shooting in Cuba “was a feat of diplomacy, financial and otherwise.” But it would’ve been appropriate, we think, to include some acknowledgment of the nature of the political system with which the producers worked their supposed diplomatic magic.
Verongas’s “feat of diplomacy” remark wasn’t a one-off. Even as they panned the movie, many reviewers praised its producer-director, Bob Yari, for pulling off a supposed coup – namely, getting Cuba’s government to let him film there. It took Cuban-American writer Humberto Fontova to point out the sheer absurdity of this take on the situation. Hemingway, after all, whether you love his fiction or not, was a fervent supporter of Castro’s revolution, which he called “very pure and beautiful.” In fact, recently uncovered documents show that, for a while there, he was actually a KGB spy (albeit a lousy one). From the very beginning, the Castros recognized Hemingway as one of their own; they turned his house into a museum, have maintained it assiduously ever since, encourage tourists to visit it, and are eager to publicly underscore, at every opportunity, their cozy connection to the Nobel Prize-winning author.
Letting Yari make his film in Cuba, then, was a no-brainer. It’s perfect pro-Cuba propaganda. And, as Fontova stresses, nothing matters more to the Cuban regime than propaganda. Fidel himself bragged early on that “propaganda is the vital heart of our struggle”; the CIA has credited Cuba’s government with “creating the most effective propaganda empire in the Western Hemisphere.”
To be sure, Yari’s picture leaves out Hemingway’s service to the KGB. To quote Fontova, “it also omits what could have provided the movie with some of its most dramatic scenes. I refer to Papa Hemingway as honored guest and charmed spectator during many of Che Guevara’s firing squad murder marathons, while gulping his especially-made-for-the-celebratory-occasion Daiquiris.” But of course such scenes – the absence of which from the movie was noted by absolutely none of the critics linked to at the review-aggregating sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic – would’ve damaged the images of both Hemingway and Cuba. And we couldn’t have that, could we?
In recent months, we’ve seen Time Magazine, or what’s left of it, celebrating the charm and quaintness of poverty in Cuba and worrying that the opening up of relations with the U.S. will bring increasing economic opportunity and with it – gasp! – that dreaded phenomenon known as income inequality. Meaning that at least some people will no longer be dirt poor.
On December 29, the Washington Post joined in the wailing. The focus of Nick Miroff‘s 2000-word piece was on Havana’s Alamar neighborhood, a public-housing project that’s home to some 100,000 people. Miroff made a point of the fact that the buildings are all covered with mildew. To Miroff, the mildew was plainly a feature, not a bug. For the message he wanted to get across was that this slum, this eyesore, is in fact a wonderful place, because it “is arguably Cuba’s most equal place,” where “everyone pretty much has an identical apartment.” And identical mildew.
Miroff quoted a septuagenarian bus driver who fondly recalled helping to build what the old man called a “model city.” “We had everything then,” the busman maintained. “Everyone looked after each other.” In other words, they were rich – not in money, but in Communist solidarity. They were dreaming the dream.
No more. Today, Miroff lamented, “ideological foundations are cracking, and new uncertainties are coming — perhaps none larger than whether the egalitarian values of Castro’s revolution will be swept away by rising inequalities and the breakdown of Cuba’s socialist welfare state.”
Let’s pause for a moment over that last line: “the egalitarian values of Castro’s revolution.” Note that Miroff wasn’t quoting or paraphrasing somebody here; he was, in his role as a reporter for the Washington Post (not The Nation or The Daily Worker), presenting as an objective fact the notion that Castro’s revolution was, and is, characterized by “egalitarian values.”
Granted, with the obvious exception of the Castro family and perhaps a few people in their immediate circle, pretty much all Cubans are equal in a number of ways. For one thing, they’re all unfree. They’re all living in a totalitarian state. They’re all prohibited from leaving. They’re all in danger of being imprisoned if they criticize the government. In these ways, yes, they’re all equal. Somehow, in Miroff’s mind, all this oppression adds up to something that deserves to be described with the word “values.” Because, you see, everybody’s oppressed. Well, hurrah.
Of course, the main kind of equality Miroff is concerned with is economic equality. Are Cubans really economically equal? Yes, because most of them are dirt-poor. Zero is equal to zero. Then again, a not inconsiderable number of Cubans – namely, those who have positions of power in the government, those who are preachers and enforcers of all that wonderful equality, if not (as in the case of the Castros themselves) living symbols of it – are markedly better off than most of their countrymen. A few are even prosperous by Western standards. And, again, when you get up to the top level, to the Castro clan and a very few others, you’re looking at people who, by any measure, are downright rich.
But fine, let’s forget for the time being about those privileged few and focus instead on the penniless majority. These are, after all, the people whom Miroff was really writing about. And what Miroff was lamenting here, quite plainly, was that, half a century into the revolution, some of these desperately poor people are finally starting to climb up out of poverty – not because Communism has at last proven to work as an economic system, but because, on at least a small scale, the state is introducing free-market reforms.
Most rational people, most decent people who actually cared about the well-being of others, would view this sort of change as positive. Terrifically positive. Not Miroff. “Communist Party elders,” he wrote, “want to keep a lid on market forces, but with every incremental opening, yawning income gaps emerge.”
Yawning income gaps! The horror! If Miroff didn’t agree with those Party bosses, he would never use such a ridiculous term. And note that term “elders.” Whom was Miroff referring to here? He was referring to a bunch of thugs who never were elected to anything by anybody, but who have run Castro’s island prison for decades, keeping a lid not just on market forces but on freedom in all its forms.
“Younger Cubans do not seem too troubled” by these new developments, Miroff admitted. No kidding! Could it be that many of these younger Cubans not only are not “too troubled” by the yawning income gaps, but that they in fact look upon the new spark of economic development in their grim, shabby, garbage-strewn rusted hulk of a country with something that might actually be described as hope? Is it possible that they don’t love being poor as much as slumming American visitors like Miroff enjoy the spectacle of them being poor? The idea seemed alien to Miroff, who was busy wringing his hands, plainly sharing the “fear” of Cuban “authorities” that “these disparities” – that is, the yawning income gaps – “bear the seeds of social tensions, resentments and crime.”
If you’ve never heard of Andy Garcia’s 2005 film The Lost City, there’s a good reason. The movie – which Garcia produced, directed, and starred in, and which he spent 16 years trying to get off the ground – was rejected by the Hollywood studios, snubbed by the film festivals, savaged by the mainstream media, and banned in several Latin American countries.
Why? Because it actually presented a historically accurate picture of pre- and post-revolutionary Cuba – a picture utterly at odds with the images proffered for the last half century by Castro’s propaganda and embraced by useful stooges in the American news media, academy, and entertainment industry.
In a 2006 article and his 2013 bookThe Longest Romance: The Mainstream Media and Fidel Castro,exiled Cuban writer Humberto Fontova took on the movie’s cockeyed critics. Among them was Stephen Holden of the New York Times, who called Garcia’s picture an “ode to the Havana of pre-Communist Cuba” and mockingly claimed that, in the film’s view, “life sure was peachy before Fidel Castro came to town and ruined everything.”
Nonsense: as one Cuban exile commentedat the Amazon page for The Lost City, “The film makes no bones about the need to remove the (then) dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista but also unequivocally shows that what happened next was far worse for all involved.”
Ridiculing Garcia’s focus on Havana’s “posh pre-revolution nightlife” and the relative invisibility of the “impoverished masses of Cubans who embraced Castro as a liberator,” Holden sneered that the film’s political dialogue was “of the junior high-school variety.” Fontova’s reply: “It’s Holden’s education on the Cuban revolution that’s of the junior high-school variety.” In fact The Lost City was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005), a former Castro supporter who went into exile in the U.K. in 1965 – in other words, a man who knew a good deal more about Cuba than Stephen Holden does. Garcia, also born in Cuba, emigrated with his parents to Miami when he was a boy; he, too, knows more about Cuba than Holden does.
Holden also sneered at what he called the film’s “buffoonish parodies of sour Communist apparatchiks barking orders” – his implication apparently being that the henchmen of Castro’s revolution couldn’t possibly have been so…well, so unpleasant. Fontova’s reply put Holden in his place: “It’s no ‘parody,’ Mr Holden, that the ‘apparatchiks’ Garcia depicts in his movie incarcerated and executed a higher percentage of their countrymen in their first three months in power than Hitler and his apparatchiks jailed and executed in their first three years.”
But Holden wasn’t alone. Among the many other critics who ignorantly disputed the film’s historical accuracy (don’t worry: we won’t catalog all of them) was the Village Voice‘s Michael Atkinson. For him, The Lost Citywas “a pro-old-guard, anti-revolutionary elegy – like a rumba-inflected Gone With the Wind.” (Note the twisted comparison of Castro’s revolution, which enslaved millions, to the Union victory in the U.S. Civil War, which freed millions of slaves.) The film, complained Atkinson, “bemoans the loss of easy wealth for a precious few. Poor people are absolutely absent; Garcia and Infante seem to have thought that peasant revolutions happen for no particular reason – or at least no reason the moneyed 1 percent should have to worry about.”
Fontova’s reply: “What’s absolutely absent is Mr. Atkinson’s knowledge about the Cuba Garcia depicts in his movie. His crack about that ‘moneyed one per cent’ and especially his ‘peasant revolution’ epitomize the clichéd idiocies still parroted by the media about Cuba.” In fact, half a century of Castro propaganda to the contrary, the Cuban Revolution was no peasant uprising; it was engineered by students, engineers, and the like who belonged to the middle and upper classes. Aside from Castro’s own PR, as Fontova points out, most Americans’ major source of information about pre-revolutionary Cuba is the movie Godfather II, which erroneously depicts Batista as a U.S. puppet and his country a combination workhouse for the poor and playground for local billionaires and American mobsters.
During the last couple of years, the wealthy and successful British comedian Russell Brand has been amusing himself by posturing as a crusading champion of the downtrodden and a heroic enemy of The System. Last July, Sean McElwee wrotein Salon that “Russell Brand may be the most famous anti-capitalist in the world.” Last year, Brand toured with a stand-up show entitled Messiah Complex, in which, as he told Jimmy Fallon in an interview,he talked “about people like Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Gandhi and Jesus and what made them such splendid fellows.” Che, Brand elaborated, “worked very hard and did some great things for ordinary people.” Fallon, disgracefully, agreed: “Absolutely, yes! You need more people like these people.”
Yes, more people like Che, who set up Cuba’s first forced-labor camp, ordered over 500 summary executions of ideological opponents, arranged with Khrushchev to bring nuclear missiles to Cuba, and was the person most responsible for the destruction of the formerly thriving Cuban economy.
Last year Brand also came out with a book, Revolution, in which he described himself as “a big fan of Castro and Che Guevara” and called Che “dear, beautiful, morally unimpeachable.” Michael Moynihan’s review of the book for The Daily Beast was aptly headlined “Russell Brand’s Revolution For Morons.” Revolution, Moynihan wrote, is “a meandering and pretentious mélange of student politics, junk history, and goofy mysticism.”
Not long after Moynihan’s review, exiled Cuban writer Humberto Fontova weighed in on Brand’s Che-worship. Refuting the romantic notion of Che as a dedicated revolutionary who cared nothing for creature comforts or the products of capitalism, Fontova quoted a vivid description of Che’s beachfront mansion:
The mansion had a boat dock, a huge swimming pool, seven bathrooms, a sauna, a massage salon and several television sets….One TV had been specially designed in the U.S., and had a screen ten feet wide and was operated by remote control. This was thought to be the only TV of its kind in Latin America. The mansion’s garden had a veritable jungle of imported plants, a pool with a waterfall, ponds filled with exotic tropical fish and several bird houses filled with parrots and other exotic birds. The habitation was something out of A Thousand and One Nights.
Fontova said that he wouldn’t bother debunking “Brand’s idiocies on Cuba” except for one fact: those idiocies, as it happens, “perfectly mirror the ‘enlightened,’ even the mainstream, version of Cuban history, however amazing and asinine it sounds to actual Cubans who lived it or to any person who bothers to investigate the issue beyond what issues from Castro’s agents of influence, on the payroll and off.”
Among other things, Brand echoes the familiar line that Castro actually improved conditions in Cuba; on the contrary, writes Fontova, Cuba under Batista had “a higher per capita income than half of Europe, the lowest inflation rate in the Western Hemisphere, the 13th lowest infant-mortality on earth and a huge influx of immigrants.” Nor was the country anything like the wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S. government and/or U.S. corporations that Brand thinks it was (an image promoted for decades by the media, and by movies like Godfather II): “in 1959 U.S. investments in Cuba accounted for only 14 per cent the island’s GNP, and U.S. owned companies employed only 7 per cent of Cuba’s workforce.”
Part of Brand’s self-branding as a revolutionary on multiple fronts has been his clothing business. He sells his own line of sweatshirts, which, he has claimed, are made in the UK, with all profits going to charity. This now turns out to be untrue. On June 5, the Mail reportedthat the shirts are, in fact, made in Bangladesh by workers earning 25p an hour and working up to eleven hours a day, and that only £1.37 of the purchase price of a £65 sweatshirt goes to charity. And apparently what counts as “charity” in this case is the Trew Era, a “trendy East London cafe” owned by Brand himself that opened in March of this year. His lawyers, responding to the Mail‘s disclosures, describe the cafe as a “community social enterprise project.” Last year, noted the Mail, the website of Brand’s schmatta business “said the money from his merchandise would go to the Russell Brand Foundation”; this statement no longer appears on the site, and British authorities that oversee charitable enterprises have no record of the existence of any such foundation.
To be sure, it could be argued that Brand is actually doing his Bangladeshi sweatshirt-makers a service – he’s providing them with jobs, however menial and poorly paid, that are better than nothing and that may prove to be a stepping-stone to something better. And, on a larger level, the sweatshops they work in, which also produce apparel for major UK labels, may represent a step toward a stronger economy for Bangladesh. But that’s precisely the kind of argument that Brand has been shooting down for a couple of years now in his fatuous rants against capitalism and globalization.
Unsurprisingly, critics of Brand responded to the news of his Bangladesh sweatshop by calling him a hypocrite. And they’re right. If this isn’t hypocrisy, what is? Nor is this the first time he’s faced accusations of hypocrisy. Last December, for example, while taking part in a rally for more affordable housing in London, he “flew into a rage” when Channel 4 reporter Paraic O’Brien suggested that Brand himself “was part of the housing problem because the super-rich buying up property in London were driving up prices for everyone else.” His own £2 million home “in trendy Hoxton, east London,” it emerged, was “owned by a firm based in a tax haven.”
Perhaps it was British columnist Nick Cohen, writing in October 2013, who served up the definitive verdict on Russell Brand:
He writes as if he is a precocious prepubescent rather than an adolescent: a child, born after the millennium, who can behave as if we never lived through the 20th century. He does not know what happened when men, burning with zealous outrage, created states with total control of “consciousness and the entire social, political and economic system” – and does not want to know either.