19 December 2014

Tyrannophobia and its discontents

In my immediate anger over Sony Pictures' cancellation of a film I never wanted to see, I reflected that it was too bad that the U.S. had no diplomatic relations with North Korea, since that left Americans nothing of Kim Jong Un's here to attack. While my own anger was exacerbated by Paramount Pictures' cowardly refusal to make Team America: World Police available for replacement screenings, I think I've found a sense of perspective by observing Republicans' apoplexy (excepting Rand Paul, at least) over the prospect of the U.S. normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Led by reactionaries of Cuban descent, particularly Senators Rubio and Cruz, the Castro haters are treating this initiative of the Obama administration as no less craven a capitulation to tyranny than the suppression of The Interview. Somehow I don't see it that way, but why should that be? Why am I less offended by the prospective opening of normal relations with a bloodstained tyranny than with with the bullying of a Hollywood studio by another bloodstained tyranny and its online auxiliaries? Actually, there are some fairly obvious reasons to see the two cases differently. Nothing is lost to us by normalizing relations with Cuba, apart from the exiles and reactionaries' capacity for moral self-congratulation. Nor has Cuba recently attacked American interests -- to clarify, Sony Pictures is an American-run subsidiary of the Japanese-owned Sony conglomerate -- or interfered with the Internet, unless you count the censorship of Cuban browser capacity that's inevitable in any modern dictatorship. On a psychological level, since Fidel Castro's retirement in favor of his less charismatic brother, Cuba's cult of personality is less of an affront to American sensibilities than North Korea's, where Kim Jong Un is a Pharaoh for our time. Most importantly, the American rapprochement with Cuba comes with no obligation on the part of American citizens to hold their tongues regarding the Castro brothers. Rubio and Cruz and all the exiles and all their friends have just as much right to denounce the Castros and their Communist government as they ever had. The main reason I find their outrage unreasonable compared to the outrage over the suppression of The Interview is that the Castro-haters are self-evidently unsatisfied with merely criticizing the Castros.

To explain myself, I use "Castro-haters" as a descriptive rather than a pejorative term, since history has given good reasons to hate the brothers. They are tyrants; however legitimate their siege mentality in the face of a longterm American threat, they're unjustified in regarding all opposition to their regime as giving aid and comfort to the imperialist enemy. If the U.S. can hold elections in the middle of a civil war, no country's government has any excuse to refuse reasonable challenges to its continuation in office. On some less visceral level I suppose I hate the Castros or something they seem to represent, but I separate myself from "Castro-haters" whose opposition to the brothers and their party is irreconcilable. Here's a crucial distinction: however Seth Rogen may have felt personally about Kim Jong Un prior to this week, and no matter how much the North Koreans willfully misconstrue his intentions, I'm pretty certain that The Interview does not advocate the assassination of Kim or the overthrow of his party by the U.S. government. The film is not a policy recommendation. Meanwhile, the Castro-haters want nothing short of the overthrow of the Castro brothers and the Communist party in Cuba, and while they're neither crazy nor brave enough to propose "liberating" Cuba by force they insist that American policy keep regime change as its ultimate goal. That's the unreasonable part, just as it is every time the U.S. makes regime change anywhere a policy goal.

Americans are sensitive enough to the subtleties of pop culture, even if subtlety is probably the wrong word to describe The Interview, to see that Rogen's film is not propaganda for regime change. In our eyes, at least, the Guardians of Peace's reaction to the film is insanely disproportionate to its offense, but that's only keeping with North Korea's description of the project as an "act of war" since its inception. I suppose that on some level The Interview is an expression of a characteristically American tyrannophobia, but while the perfect tyrannophobe may be outraged equally by both North Korea and Cuba, though that may make him merely a virulent anti-Communist, tyrannophobia for most of us is a relative thing. Few here would argue that, outside the military, there are circumstances when we have an obligation to obey authority's positive commands without question, or that our collective existence requires the emergence of a ruler entitled to command unconditionally. Such beliefs may come more naturally to older, more "organic" cultures, but I suppose every culture has a line beyond which rulers become tyrants and must be opposed. The American difference may be a tendency to see threats to our freedom in tyrannies anywhere else on Earth, and an assumed prerogative to propagandize against them, either to advocate their overthrow or simply to let them know what we think of them. It shouldn't surprise us if other nations see our habit, whether expressed by governments, corporations or individuals, as a breach of a certain international comity upon which world peace depends, or simply as a withholding of a respect to which all nations and their governments are entitled. This seems to be the crux of the Interview controversy: Kim Jong Un demands a degree of respect, or the Guardians of Peace demand it for him, that would make Rogen's film unimaginable,while Americans, if not other people around the world, feel morally entitled, if not morally compelled, to withhold that respect from rulers like the Kim dynasty -- or the Castro brothers. For the moment, the Guardians have upheld Kim's honor by force; hacking, apparently, is the new form of "no gun, no respect." By doing so they've violated many Americans' sense of honor, which is staked on our ability to speak out against anyone on Earth who offends us. The sequel to this chapter will most likely be more interesting than anything Seth Rogen can imagine.


hobbyfan said...

The latest that I've seen in headlines, Sam, is that North Korea wants the US to assist them in conducting an investigation, claiming they have nothing to do with the hackers. Hmmmm. Makes ya wonder, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

Of course the "Castro haters" want to overthrow Castro's regime - so they can replace it with one of their own. They don't want to change anything for the better as far as the Cuban people are concerned. What they want is to go back to the way things were, with them owning most of the land and employing most of the people at low wages, no benefits and lousy working conditions - just like they were before Castro.

Castro & Bro might be evil, but have you considered the idea that they may actually be the lesser of two evils here?

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon: Not every Cuban exile is nostalgic for the Batista regime. Some were opponents of Batista who proved unwilling to accept communism and/or the Castro brothers. The exiles might be more liberal politically than Batista or the Castros, but we probably can assume them to be economically if not socially conservative, and likely to throw out a baby with any bathwater dirtied by Fidel and Raul.