Saudi Arabia, Cuba, and Why Only Cuba’s Human Rights Record Is Worth Discussing

Cuba FlagMax Fisher is one of the shining stars over at Vox — very possibly the best person they have there. And he wrote a really useful discussion of the history behind Wednesday’s announcement, Nine Questions About Cuba You Were too Embarrassed to Ask. It is very much worth reading. But I want to discuss the small part of it that annoyed me. It was the seventh thing you were embarrassed to ask about, “I hear that Fidel Castro is a monster who did lots of terrible things. Is that true?” I don’t even like the question, which is prejudicial. And the initial answer just makes it worse, “Oh yes.”

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I’m not saying Castro was a great guy. But I’m not keen on the facile dismissal of him either. And that’s especially the case when George Washington, the father of our country, owned hundreds of slaves. And we haven’t exactly done ourselves proud since then. Right up to the present with Bush’s torture program and Obama’s drone attacks, it would not be hard to dismiss our leaders as “monsters.” But I know what many will say, “You are just putting the worst face on this! Washington freed all his slaves at his death; Bush was trying to keep us save; Obama is managing a war. Have some nuance, man!”


Saudi Arabia FlagNone of the Castro’s notable brutality took place early on in his regime. Isn’t it possible that his behavior was shaped by the fact that the United States — just a few hundred miles from his country — was trying to overthrow him and assassinate him? Of all the things I know him to have done, they were all done against people who could be reasonably claimed to be his enemies. That’s at least better than the United States has managed to do over the last couple of decades. So I have no problem claiming that Castro was an authoritarian dictator who oppressed his own people. How that exactly makes him worse than other rulers I can’t say. If the United States were signing a treaty with Saudi Arabia, I doubt very seriously that Vox would spend hundreds of words describing the brutality of that “friendly” regime.

Vox is really pushing this point. I suppose it is because they want to head off the argument that the embargo shouldn’t be lifted because the Cuban government is so terrible. So their argument is, “Cuba is terrible and that is why the embargo is a bad idea.” I get it. I even agree with it. I don’t think there is any doubt at all that if we had tried to befriend Castro (or Ho Chi Minh or many others) the situation would now be far better. But I think it comes off as extremely self-satisfied to run articles (by another great writer Matt Yglesias) like, Cuba’s Human Rights Record Is Terrible, No Matter What You Think of the Embargo.

Going through the list of things that the Cuban government did, what keeps occurring to me is that generally speaking, Cuba comes off as somewhat to much better than Saudi Arabia[1] — our longtime ally. But more than that, the biggest point made in both articles is that there is no press freedom in Cuba. This is something I think about a lot these days. What does it mean to have press freedom if you don’t use it? The Soviet constitution provided press freedom, it just wasn’t available on a practical level. Maybe the only reason that the United States doesn’t need to interfere with the press (not excessively, anyway; yet) is because the government knows it can depend upon our press to treat official enemies to a higher standard than our friends.

[1] Interesting, both Fisher and Yglesias discussed the treatment of LGBT rights in Cuba. Cuba has indeed been horrible about this. But no mention was made of the fact that the country has made major progress in this regard over the last two decades. The same cannot be said for Saudi Arabia.

Professional vs Regular Moderates

Lynn VavreckI don’t mind that elections are largely determined by people who don’t know anything about policy. Democracy isn’t pretty, but it is the best way I know for governance to muddle along. But what I most definitely do mind is when these ignorant people are held up as the best, most open-minded voters. They aren’t. They are just ignorant. As should be clear, I am not talking about conservatives. I may disagree with them and consider them intensely confused. But in general, they at least follow politics. I’m talking about the vaunted “moderate” or “independent” voters.

Back in May, my favorite political scientist, Lynn Vavreck, wrote, The Power of Political Ignorance. In the article, she reported on some research she had done. She gave voters a quiz to see what was going on in politics. It was nothing hard. It consisted of multiple-choice questions like, “What jobs does Joe Biden have?” She found that the less people knew, the more likely they were to split their votes between President and Senator. People in the bottom third of knowledge split their tickets three times as much as people in the top third of knowledge.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Why would people vote for two different candidates who are pushing opposing policies? In general, it is because they don’t know this. They are just voting for personalities or other whimsical criteria. The only world in which splitting a ticket makes sense is one in which political parties aren’t ideological. And that really has never been true. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Democrats had bizarre regional coalitions. But it was still the case that a Democrat in any given area was a Democrat.

As I indicated, I don’t have a problem with ignorant voters. For one thing, ignorance is a relative thing. Certainly someone could have great insights and not know that John Boehner is Speaker of the House. My problem is elevating such people to the status of the good. And this is done by those in the pundit class who fancy themselves as independent truth tellers. This would, of course, require that the candidates running have random policy positions, which is absolutely not true.

My favorite example of this kind of pundit is William Saletan. Two years ago, I wrote, Serious Centrist Saletan’s Selfishness. In that article, I discussed how Saletan, who considers himself a “moderate Republican,” is actually not a moderate. Just like almost all those professionals who use that moniker, he is a liberal on social issues and a conservative on economic issues. What’s more, the social issues are secondary to the economic issues — as they are with most people. So these professional moderates are really just conservatives.

So what we have are regular ignorant voters who truly are independent because they just don’t know any better. And we have professional “independent” writers who trump up the split ticket voters as a way of giving their own nefarious machinations the sound of reasonableness. In the end, the call for “open-mindedness” is just a call for more conservative economic policy, or at very least the same status quo that works great for the oligarchs. We’ve seen how great divided government works in the United States these last four years.

Republicans Look Bad But Don’t Suffer

GOP SuicideThe Wall Street Journal editorial page just figured out that King v Burwell might be bad for Republicans, A Post Obamacare Strategy. As you may recall, King is the latest in a torrent of lawsuits against Obamacare designed to kill the law by any means possible. In this case, it takes a single phrase from the bill — one that conflicts with many other phrases in the bill and the bill itself — and uses it to claim that the government cannot provide subsidies on federally run healthcare exchanges. It is the kind of lawsuit that would have been laughed out of court forty years ago. But now with people like Scalia, who spout right-wing talking points from the bench, anything is possible. I often wonder if a lawsuit mightn’t get traction if its legal reasoning was simply, “We don’t like it!”

What The Wall Street Journal is concerned about is that suddenly throwing over five million people (it might be as high as 13 million) off their health insurance might be bad politics. They noted that even though it is all the fault of Obama and the Democrats “the public may not notice the difference once the press corps discovers a cancer patient or two who can’t afford her Obamacare plan without taxpayer support.” Meagan Hatcher-Mays at Media Matters is a little optimistic, however, when she wrote, WSJ Just Realized the Anti-ACA Lawsuit It’s Pushing Could Be Ruinous for Americans — Including Republican Voters. The conservative paper only thinks that it will be a temporary problem and soon people will see how much benefit they get from not having insurance. (The people at The Wall Street Journal are amazing: they are so insulated from most of America that they actually believe this dreck.)

There is really only one way that King would hurt the Republicans: the presidential election of 2016. It is likely that if the court decides to strike down the subsidies to those who get their healthcare on federal subsidies, the Republicans will be blamed. People will wonder why Republican controlled legislatures across the nation don’t do something to help the millions of people they are harming. This will be far worse than these same legislatures rejecting the free money of the Medicaid expansion just to thumb their noses at the president. Taking something away seems far worse than never giving something in the first place. The nation as a whole will look on this and be reminded just how awful the Republican Party is.

But other than the election of the president, I don’t see any problems for the Republicans at all. Let’s start with the fact that most governors are elected on off-years. So they can already depend upon a conservative electorate — older and richer and unlikely to have been negatively affected by this. But most of these states have Republican legislatures because the people (stupidly) support them. Just look back at Kansas this year. Sam Brownback has pretty much destroyed the state and yet he still won re-election by over 3.5 percentage points. So where the Republicans are strong now, they will continue to be strong. Harming millions of middle class Americans is the sort of thing that has gotten them elected in the past and it will continue into the future.

So sure, King might give the Republicans a little bit of bad press. Of course, even it won’t be the bad; just look at how the country has moved on from the torture report. It might hurt them a little bit in Congress and will reduce how well they do in the run for the White House. But it’s not even significant, much less catastrophic. And let’s not forget: if the economy tanks in the first half of 2016, our next president will be a Republican. It doesn’t matter how much the party actively harms the nation.

Ukraine in Context

Owen JonesOur nation joins the United States in invading Iraq on a false pretext, effectively destroying the country and killing hundreds of thousands in the process. Israel is allowed systematically to violate UN resolutions, building illegal settlements and annexing Palestinian land. Our great ally, the “witch”-beheading, hand-chopping dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, invaded Bahrain (at the request of Bahrain’s dictatorial regime, of course) to help suppress a struggle for democracy and human rights. The United States launches drone attacks in sovereign nations like Pakistan, in direct defiance of the country’s Parliament, killing countless civilians.

If Russia, or other countries deemed unfriendly, acted in this way, the calls for action would be deafening. When foreign nations commit acts of aggression, it provokes a sense of “we have to do something” in the West; so it does in other countries when we commit similar acts, too. But “rogue state” is not a term that applies to countries that violate international law, but rather to those that have failed to bend to the will of the West.

That is not to suggest that these attacks on the international order provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It would undoubtedly have happened anyway. But they are all symptoms of the same phenomenon. International law is treated by Great Powers as a convenient stick to beat opponents with, to be discarded when it is inconvenient.

—Owen Jones
The Hypocrisy of the Great Powers Is on Display Again in Ukraine

Édith Piaf

Edith PiafOn this day in 1915, the great singer Édith Piaf was born. The French Billie Holiday! Stylistically, they are rather different. But they are both highly emotional singers, with tragic lives to back it up. Piaf spent much of her childhood living in her grandmother’s brothel. At the age of 14, she began working with her father as a street performer. She continued in this line of business until she was discovered at the age of 20, when she began working nightclubs. She quickly rose to stardom, but died at only 47 of liver cancer.

It’s better just to listen to her music. Let’s start with one of her biggest hits, “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.” I love its resolve. I just wish it didn’t include the payoff line, “Aujourd’hui, ça commence avec toi” (“Today, it begins with you”). That seems to cheapen it. I want it to be a statement about who she is, not what relationship she now finds herself in. Regardless, it is wonderful:

Here is another hit, “Milord.” Exactly what happens in the song is not clear. So let me give you my take. The singer is a woman who works at a cafe as a server. She has seen this rich gentleman walk past before with a beautiful woman on his arm. But the woman is not there today. The server entreats the gentleman to sit down and tries to cajole him out of his sadness. And by the end of the song, she has him dancing around with her. It is very beautiful:

The next song, “Hymne à l’Amour,” Piaf actually wrote the lyrics to. It was written to her lover, after he died in a plane crash on his way to visit her. You don’t need to know the lyrics. It is just one of those “I would do anything for you” songs. You get everything from the performance:

And let’s end with Piaf’s signature song, “La Vie en Rose.” The lyrics are also by Piaf and it is pretty similar in content to “Hymne à l’Amour.” Life is rosy when he looks into her eyes. I think the reason the song works so well is simply that there is nothing quite so compelling as a sad woman singing of hope. Here she is singing it in Nine Boys, One Heart:

Happy birthday Édith Piaf!