Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Limits of Discourse

Noam Chomsky has said that one of the chief functions of the media in the Western democracies is to set the terms of acceptable discourse. It has been my experience that this is true, and it came to mind yesterday when I read the following headline on the Yahoo site. "Legacies bind aging Castro, Pinochet."

It could be argued that this is true. After all, both men are apparently near death, and both leave behind controversial legacies. However, something more is connoted by that particular headline. The verb "bind" suggests that the men are fundamentally the same, ruthless totalitarian dictators who have oppressed their peoples. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Castro is undoubtedly a dictator. There is no question about that. However, he is a benevolent one, and he has endeavored to create one of the more egalitarian societies in the world. Everyone gets an education. Everyone gets enough to eat. Everyone has access to adequate health care. That can't even be said about the United States. The restrictions on things like freedom of expression are not severe, and I would argue that political oppression is no worse than it is in the United States. Of course, there are limitations. Those who have special talents and abilities that are highly valued might resent the fact that they aren't permitted to exploit these talents and abilities for personal gain. Many of Cuba's top athletes certainly resent the fact that they aren't permitted to travel to the US to make the big bucks, and I don't understand why Castro doesn't just let them go. But that underscores the weakness of Castro's regime. The egalitarianism that characterizes it was imposed from the top down instead of being implemented from the bottom up. As a result, I expect that it will die with Castro, especially under pressure from the US.

Not only was Pinochet a ruthless dictator, he was also a de facto agent of the United States. When he overthrew the Allende regime, he tortured and killed thousands, and installed a repressive regime that did not permit much dissent at all. Even worse for the larger population, he implemented Milton Friedman's economic austerity regime, enriching many international corporations, mostly American, at the expense of the populace. The poor and unfortunate in Chile were denied food, medical care and education. In that sense, it was pretty much the opposite of the situation in Cuba and, when an objective history of Spanish-speaking America is written a couple of hundred years down the road, Castro is bound to come off better than Pinochet.


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