Bernie, Cuba, Literacy, and Ill-Gotten Gains

I’m finding the dialogue of the deaf over Bernie and Cuba exasperating. I’m not going to comment on the details–on the “first-order issues,” we might say. What I want to say is that it helps to clarify the underlying issue and make some relevant distinctions.

The basic issue is that Cuba is supposed to be a dictatorship, which is evil, but Bernie is praising it for increasing literacy, which is good. Assume (for the sake of argument) that Cuba is a dictatorship, and dictatorships are evil. The puzzle is whether you should ever praise an evil thing for doing a good thing; it’s a puzzle whether (or how) good things can ever arise from evil things. Put slightly differently, it’s a puzzle whether evil agents should ever get credit for any of the good they do (or seem to do), given the discredit they deserve for the very great evil they do.

This is a very loose formulation that makes all kinds of controversial assumptions, but I take it to state the basic intuition on the anti-Bernie side of things. The same intuition is shared but applied differently by leftists when we’re told not to praise Bloomberg’s reductions of the crime rate in New York because it was done through stop and frisk, or not to praise Israel because it’s good on gay rights or good at biotechnology, etc.

Another application of the same basic idea is the exclusionary rule in criminal law, which, in criminal trials, rules out the use of evidence gotten by unconstitutional means, even if the evidence would have been probative had it been gotten by constitutional means. Etc. There are probably a million other applications. The root idea is that some forms of evil nullify any good that might be thought to arise from them, and/or nullify the credit that evildoers can claim for bringing about whatever good they bring into the world, whether accidentally or deliberately.

Try this six-way distinction on for size.

  1. Evil must never be done that good may come.
  2. The “good” that comes through evil means is utterly illusory.
  3. The good that comes through evil means is diminished in value, or discounted by the evil used.
  4. The good that comes as by-product of evil is tainted by association with the evil, hence is either (a) utterly illusory or (b) diminished in value.
  5. Causal outcomes that are brought about by evil means are illusory.
  6. Causal outcomes that are brought about by evil means are often the subject of propagandistic deception.

Claim (1) is a prescription; the others state descriptive facts. Claims (2)-(4) are normative claims in addition to stating descriptive facts. Claims (5) and (6) are purely descriptive. As an abstract matter, I happen to accept (1), (3), and (6). Claim (5) strikes me as stupid. Claim (2) strikes me as too strong. Claim (4) strikes me as mistaken.

Now apply the schema to Bernie and Cuban literacy.*

  1. Literacy must never be brought about by evil means.
  2. The value of the literacy that comes about by evil means is utterly illusory.
  3. The literacy that comes about by evil means is diminished in value.
  4. The literacy (or “literacy”) that comes about by a regime that employs evil means is either (a) utterly illusory, or (b) diminished in value (even if the literacy itself was not brought about by evil means).
  5. Cuban “literacy” that was brought about by evil means was never actually brought about. Because evil was involved, it simply never happened.
  6. Cuban literacy that was brought about by evil means was lied about and exaggerated by the Castro regime.

I can think of other relevant distinctions to make. For instance, there’s the issue of how to conceptualize the causal role of the American embargo on the Cuban economy. But let it go. It’s above my pay grade. Doing this for free is evil enough.

Obviously, my aim here is not to get into a big debate about Bernie and Cuba per se.  You-all can fight about that on your own. I just want to point out that if you want to have a fight about Bernie, Cuba, literacy, dictatorship, and evil, for God’s sake get clear on which of (1)-(7) you’re asserting (or denying). If you’re asserting/denying more than one of them, get clear on how they relate to each other. And if you’re making (or denying) structurally similar claims about anyone or anything else, make sure the whole package coheres.

What you don’t want to do is say that Cuban literacy is bullshit because Cuba is a dictatorship, but Israeli wineries are wonderful places to visit, even if they came at the price of a little ethnic cleansing.  Or it’s OK for Castro to wield dictatorial power over Cuba, but not OK for Michael Bloomberg to do it over New York. Or it’s terrible to praise communists for the good they claim to have done, but OK to praise Christopher Columbus for bringing us the fruits of civilization. Or you have break some eggs to make an omelette, but not if you’re making poached eggs. Etc.

Coherence is easier praised than achieved. But it’s worth a try.

*I wanted to add asterisks to the numbers below to differentiate them from the numbers above, but I don’t know how. Sorry.

4 thoughts on “Bernie, Cuba, Literacy, and Ill-Gotten Gains

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. Irfan, let us try to distinguish between the facts and the laudatory comment by Bernie Sanders about Fidel Castro’s literacy campaign. It is a fact that such a campaign took place and that roughly 700,000 people or thereabouts benefited from the campaign. Could one in good conscience praise the person or group who initiated the campaign? Perhaps, but the answer could be a bit paradoxical. Literacy seems to be an important good, so in that sense the above-mentioned campaign accomplish an important good. But that good is diminished when we learn that many of those who participated in the campaign were forced or coerced to “volunteer” for the campaign. Nevertheless, many did volunteer out of good will and enthusiasm after the fall of Batista’s corrupted regime. Moreover, the literacy campaign was a vehicle of indoctrination used by Castro and his underlings to exaggerate and mischaracterized the so-called virtues of the revolution, where they exalted and implemented as a matter of policy the Robin Hood syndrome of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, and the vices of the previous Batista’s authoritarian regime. Ironically, by the same reasoning that Sanders praised Castro one could also praise Batista for having promoted rural schools in Cuba helping to lower the illiteracy rate in the island prior to 1959. In addition, Castro’s campaign was also used as a vehicle to increase and establish the personality cult of the supreme leader, namely “Comandante en Jefe.” A “supreme leader” he was for nearly 50 years of a ruthless oligarchical and authoritarian regime.
    But let us be clear about it, to use the emotively charged term “evil” to describe Sanders’ praise is an exaggeration and a misnomer. Should he be criticized for his insensitive and offensive way of expressing his admiration for a questionable policy? I would argue so. Actually, the subtext of his behavior is even more offensive and characteristic of many coryphaei on the left who are ready to praise the policies of the authoritarian regime in Cuba, but who argue that they do not support the same policies here in the US. I wonder why? Is it because Cubans are so uncivilized that they could not do any better? Bernie’s praise is insensitive and hence offensive because he omits the nuances and vices involved in the campaign, (and the regime too), and also because his subtext is rather paternalistic, to say the least. His message is loud and clear: what is good for us is not good for Cubans. Cuban-Americans and those in the island deserve equal respect and consideration, no more and no less than that.


    • Your comment is perfectly consistent with my post. I know very little about Cuban history except the basics, and don’t claim to be competent enough in it to debate it with anyone (least of all Cubans). I was just coming up with a conceptual scheme designed to clarify in general terms what the debate is about, or should be about.

      In terms of my scheme, I was asserting (1), (3), and (6) as general truths about meta-ethics without explicitly asserting them about Cuba. You’re asserting (3) and maybe (6) about Cuba. So we’re just talking about different issues. (I wish I could have typographically distinguished the top list from the bottom list, but I couldn’t figure out how.)

      The one claim that I regard as genuinely preposterous is (5) from the top list. But you go out of your way to reject (5) as applied to Cuba, so we’re not disagreeing there.

      It is a fact that such a campaign took place and that roughly 700,000 people or thereabouts benefited from the campaign.

      I think we agree that a fact has to be accepted as a fact; its ethical assessment is a separate matter. I have encountered people who think that because Cuba is dictatorship, it literally cannot have made anyone literate as a purely factual matter.That seems preposterous, whether applied to Cuba or anything else. Whether Cuba improved literacy or not is a descriptive, factual matter. Whether it should have done so in the context of a program of indoctrination is an ethical one. Obviously, it shouldn’t have. But my main point is that the two things should be kept distinct: it did improve literacy; it shouldn’t have done so in the way that it did.


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