January 28, 2004

It is in the spirit of Tania that I say, PATRIA O MUERTE. VENCEREMOS

Nat Hentoff continues to hammer away at Castro's most recent crackdown on dissidents. This piece is about the 10 "independent librarians" among the Cuban dissidents, who were sentenced to 20+ years in the gulag for circulating subversive literature like 1984 and Animal Farm. At the recent American Library Association meeting in San Diego, a proposal to introduce an amendment calling for the release of the librarians was, Hentoff says, overwhelmingly defeated by a show of hands among the 182 council members.


It's a shame that librarians around this country have a leadership that mocks the ALA's Library Bill of Rights, which requires its members to "challenge censorship" — but refuses to call for the release of 10 librarians among Castro's prisoners of conscience, who indeed challenged censorship.

I was unable to find the text of the report anywhere on the web. (There are several ALA Cuba-related documents here, but unless I'm mistaken not the specific one Hentoff cites.) According to Hentoff it carefully avoids calling for the release of the dissidents, though it does, rather humorously in the context of the unmentioned defeated amendment, urge the Cuban government to "eliminate obstacles to access to information imposed by its policies." The ALA's president claims the vote and the resulting mixed message "shows that people are able to work out differences of opinion and come together on a joint statement." On the face of it, it's hard to see how the "release the librarians" measure could have been controversial, but apparently it was, and the usual compromise (remain silent) seems to have been adopted.

Now the ALA is, I'm sure, a fine organization, but in my Illuminati pack they rank a bit lower (in terms of total power and influence) than the Girl Scouts of America, though a bit higher, perhaps, than the California Tomato Commission. What I'm saying is, the Masons or the Vatican they ain't. So I very much doubt they have much clout or power over any given totalitarian dictator, nor do I imagine that the contents of their yearly report, whatever they might be, is of very great import in the general scheme of things. Still, Hentoff can't have been the only one to wonder aloud: "what is the ALA leadership thinking?"

I don't know the answer, but I'd guess its position is to some degree informed by the views and politicking of anti-independent librarian activist Anne Sparanese, Hentoff's frequent sparring partner on this issue, and a member of the ALA's policy-making council. (According to this, she's also a member of the Venceremos Brigade. This organization is often confused with the revolutionary Maoist-terrorist Venceremos Organization led by Stanford professor H. Bruce Franklin in the early 70s; they're not the same, though they emerged from the same broad cultural-political milieu and though some have claimed that there were connections between them. Either way, though, VB has always been a pro-Castro organization by all accounts.)

"Deep in our hearts, we know these people are not librarians," she writes, and proceeds to lay out the anti-independent librarian case. It seems to me that repression is repression, whether or not the librarians are "real." It shouldn't warm the civil libertarian heart, much, to learn that these people have been imprisoned merely because of their political views and affiliations rather than for their library activities. I agree that an organization like the ALA ought properly to resist pressure to become politicized, though the argument might have more force if it wasn't propounded in such a thoroughly political document. And I'll concede that the situation is a bit more complicated than Hentoff's summary suggests. But come on: given the choice between objecting to the repression and jailing of Orwell-distributing dissidents on the one hand, and tacitly approving of it on the other, it's hard to imagine opting for the latter, especially under the auspices of an organization that purports to champion freedom of expression and to oppose censorship. It is, at least, ironic. At any rate, this will add a whole new dimension to this year's Banned Books Week.

(In fairness,I must note that she lands at least one punch, on the subject of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay: "they aren’t librarians either, but maybe if they said they are they could get our attention." Good one.)

Like many in her intellectual tradition, Sparanese detects strains of freedom within totalitarianism which we in the west, pretensions to the contrary, are denied:

Despite the fact that we as librarians prize them highly, political rights – for instance, intellectual freedom – is only one of a constellation of human rights, some of which Cuba respects in greater measure than the United States (e.g. universal health care, universal, free education, certain economic rights.)

That's a line I used to hear quite often from CISPES types in my student days; and I'm told they used to say similar stuff by way of exculpating Pol Pot in a previous era. It's a common sentiment among contemporary Castro apologists, and not just the librarians among them. Hardly less ironically, in an even earlier era, on the basis, in part, of a similar line of thinking, the literary luminaries of the Fabian society gave their blessing to Stalin and Socialism in One Country. Never mind about all those "bourgeois rights" like freedom of speech or association. Personal liberty isn't everything. The collective utopian omelet cannot be made without breaking eggs or intellectuals or kulaks or phony librarians. I think that's the idea, and it's still quite a bad one.

Posted by Dr. Frank at January 28, 2004 11:20 PM | TrackBack

Man, I was completely with you until you generalized the moral. You really can't "make an omelet," forget utopian, a merely digestable one, without breaking a few eggs; for one thing because it is mathematically impossible to maximimize for two variables at once, and for another, because, though it's a whole hell of a lot, personal liberty isn't *everything*, and even if you think it is, it is highly likely that you will think it is not one thing, but a family of things that can and do come into conflict with each other. I know that your point is really about the way people make excuses for the bad behavior of Castro and other pets, and I completely agree about that, but those things that they say, in particular "...can't make an omelet..." are specifically wrong, not generally wrong... and are not good reason to go off the deep end into the "torts and courts" kookiness, which is kind of where the closing note sounds like it's going.

Posted by: spacetoast at January 29, 2004 12:19 AM

This feels a bit like a fish-in-the-barrel shoot. How many serious "Castro apologists" are there any more? (I mean outside of the Bay Area, in the real world). Sure some Lefties keep the Cuba thing alive. I'm personally a bit sick of it, especially the Peace and Freedom Party. But aside from that weird Lefty subculture, the only people who still care centrally about Cuba are the Jorge Mas Canosa types in Miami, who truly are neo-fascists who long for the Battista days. If the CISPES (Communities in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, an 80's group that opposed US funding of Salvadoran death squads and the D'Aubuisson gov't) folks you knew argued in favor of Castro, okay, but I don't think it's fair to bring in Pol Pot because there are rumors people argued for him, too. I think that's a low blow, unless you're sure people defended Pol Pot. And even if some did, that doesn't mean it was a popular opinion.

And back in the 80s the economic rights argument made sense. What Central American country would you have rather been an average citizen of in the mid 80s: Guatemala? El Salvador? Panama? Would you rather have lived in Haiti or the DR? No one in any of these countries OR Cuba had civil liberties, and except for Cuba we supported all of the dictatorial regimes. But at least in Cuba you had health care and you were literate. And ironically, it's that standard of literacy that gives the Cubans a real good shot at having a successful democracy when Castro finally goes.

Posted by: Nick at January 29, 2004 01:04 AM

At the risk of generalizing -- if Cuban "free" health care is anything like the Soviet was (and there's little reason to believe it's better -- for the masses, at least), they get what they pay for. In other words, if you require mildly complex (by Western standards) surgery, you're a goner. But then, lifespan isn't everything either.

Posted by: JB at January 29, 2004 01:11 AM

Spacetoast, at the risk of revealing myself to be more of an ignoramus than I'd like to be, I confess that not only was the closing note not (intentionally) heading towards "the 'torts and courts' kookiness," but that in fact I don't really know what the 'torts and courts' kookiness is. So maybe I was heading there after all. I'm not sure.

As you say, the point is about the way people tend to excuse repression, crackdowns, and so forth when it suits their purposes. There is great consistency there. The omelet formulation goes way back in the tradition of using banal slogans to justify atrocities. Its origin has been variously attributed to Lenin, Goebbels and Stalin, though I wouldn't be surprised to learn that its use in that way predates them. Most notoriously among modern journalists, Walter Duranty used it to justify Stalin's famines. I think it's a pretty safe bet that when someone says "you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs" in a political context, they are about to try to excuse the inexcusable. Most likely anyway. It is the signature phrase of the political mass murderer, his propagandists, and his apologists. Maybe I'm wrong to detect a hint of that spirit in Ms. Sparanese's letter, but I don't think I'm far wrong.

Nick, there certainly are still Castro apologists out there, and not just in the Bay Area, though they're a dying breed. Pol Pot and other third world nationalist revolutionaries in the Maoist mold were indeed exculpated and their depredations downplayed by with-it types in the generation 68 while it was still fashionable to do so. The idea that individual rights are merely a bourgeios fetish which can be trumped by "collective rights" in service of the proper grand world-transforming scheme runs pretty strongly through the radical extremist culture as I have observed it firsthand and secondhand through quite a bit of reading. If I had a dime for every young radical back in the 80s who told me soberly that even if they actually had happened (that is weren't exaggerated or fabricated propaganda), Stalin's crimes were probably "worth it" because there was no other way for the Soviet Union to industrialize so quickly, well, I'd have at least enough to buy you a domestic beer next month. (I will, too, if you come around.) Identifying them as "CISPES types" is accurate, but it's not a comment on CISPES specifically. Whether or not it was purely or partly a radical chic pose, it was a way at looking at things that seemed to be pretty common among people who identified as leftists, communists, what have you, most of whom I met through punk rock related activities or through my ultra-red CISPES girlfriend. I first heard the "bourgeois rights" phrase from her, in response to the Sandinista press crackdown. It seemed weird then, and it seems even weirder now when I think back.

Again, maybe I'm wrong to see that sort of thinking in the radical librarian rhetoric.

It is fish-barrelling, certainly. All I really wanted to do with the post was to fill in the background to Hentoff's article, which, though I agree with the sentiments, seemed fairly propagandistic in that it didn't bother to allude to the opposing side's argument.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at January 29, 2004 01:57 AM

"I mean outside of the Bay Area, in the real world"

Nick, that's my line.

One thing I think I disagree with about your comment though, is that I'm not sure how much of being marginally better off as a Cuban (vs., say, a Salvadorian), would really be *caused* by Cuba's having a marginally better govt. and how much is caused by just generally different cultural/historical patterns--that is, the kind of stuff that would've mitigated the badness of the Castro regime in the first place.

Posted by: spacetoast at January 29, 2004 02:11 AM

Maybe you're just making fun of me, but "torts and courts" kookiness is the libertarian non-answer to the question about what kind of mechanisms ought to protect citizens. Theoretically, we don't need, say, to regulate toxic emissions because if, say, some kind of pollution gives me cancer, I can just go find out "who did it" and take them to court, and that will be enough to make sure people can't pass the costs of polluting on to me, in cancer form, because they know I can sue them. Contrast with "big-brother command & control statism," which I favor in the pollution case.

Posted by: spacetoast at January 29, 2004 02:23 AM


It's kind of hard to see if the librarians are holdover "revolucionarios", since I think a lot of the subtleties you describe are absent from Hentoff's article. I made a brief mention of the Peace and Freedom types being a major annoyance, and I meant it. God, are they tiresome. In my personal experience at organizing meetings, they tend to be interested mostly in hearing themselves denounce oppressors and argue endlessly over procedure. They're the type of people who always want to "vote on whether you're gonna vote," as you once put it, rather than actually putting together a realistic plan for achieving their (supposed) political goals.

You're certainly on to something in the omelet-referencing habit. I read on another website recently (I can't remember which now) a quote from Rosa Luxembourg: "I see the eggshells, now where's this omelet?" I personally think this kind of thinking has been used by people all over the political map to justify "expediency". While the 80's punk rockers were using it to defend the outrages of leftist regimes, Reagan was using it to justify support for the mujaheddin and Saddam Hussein. That didn't work out so well. Nowadays, it sounds like the defenses of our allies the House of Saud and Pervez Musharraf.


Sorry to encroach on your turf. I have a love-hate relationship with my homeland in the East Bay, and it sometimes manifests itself in these kind of snide swipes. It's all part of the grieving process of moving to New Jersey.

Posted by: Nick at January 29, 2004 03:26 AM

my mother is a [retired] librarian. the idea of her speaking out against ANYTHING [except maybe abortion :\] is laughable. however, i'm still sure she would've voted for an amendment calling for the release of the 'independent librarians,' had she been asked.

Posted by: anne at January 29, 2004 03:50 AM

Is it funny yet that librarian quietism is a political issue?

Posted by: spacetoast at January 29, 2004 04:48 AM

Space, I think it is. (Funny already that librarian quietism is a political issue, I mean.) I will always love the sentence: "deep in our hearts, we know these people are not librarians." I wasn't making fun of you, but now that you've explained it, I think I have heard someone drone on and on about it before. For better or worse, I can't seem to get very interested, positively or negatively, in that kind "theory."

Nick: like I said, I doubt that many of the 182 librarians are revolucionarios. But from what I know of Ann S., she at least seems to be one. Thanks for turning up a Rosa Luxemburg quotation I hadn't heard, or had forgotten.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at January 29, 2004 06:18 AM

So where are the Pinochet apologists who pop up here from time to time? You know, the ones who say that all that torture, all those disappearances, all the murdered dissidents were mere details of the glorious Chilean Chicago School revolution...

Posted by: Jason Toon at January 29, 2004 07:02 PM

"Certain economic rights"? I can't but wonder what those "certain" rights are in the economic sphere that Cubans have and Americans lack.

I'm also rather concerned that the fact of "universal, free education" is somehow distinguished from its content or character. (Of course, isn't education in the US up to and including high school both universal and free? Am I to believe that everyone in Cuba gets a free college education? Hah.)

Posted by: Sigivald at January 30, 2004 11:27 PM


"Universal, free fill-in-the-blank" needs to be seen in the context of what the society can otherwise provide. That's why I mentioned other Central American and Caribbean nations in my comparison to Cuba above, and why comparing Cuba to the US is silly. You can postulate any economic system you want for Cuba over the last 40 years, and they still wouldn't have the GDP per capita of the US. You can also compare using measures (or "metrics" as the policy wonks say now) like life expectancy and death rates in infancy and childbirth.

Again, my assertion was simply that, during the Cold War, virtually no one in that part of the world had civil liberties as we would recognize them, largely because of political systems supported by the two superpowers -- that is, unless you believe that Dominicans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans liked being brutalized, impoverished and killed by the likes of Trujillo, Duvallier pere et fils, and Somosa. So if you're going to have to publicly support the Leader, you might as well do it somewhere where they teach you to read and let you see the doctor, and there's really no question that those kinds of services were more available in Cuba than the other countries I've mentioned during the Cold War.

Posted by: Nick at February 1, 2004 01:56 PM
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