It must have been with a heavy heart that ThinkProgress’s Zack Beuachamp recognized the need to run a headline like “Why Democrats Shouldn’t Eulogize Hugo Chavez” — a heart afflicted, one can only presume, by the sort of resigned irritation that a parent shows when apologizing for the unruly behavior of his children. But my goodness does Beauchamp have his work cut out. I’m in agreement with John Podhoretz, who reacted with bemusement an hour after Chávez’s death: “You know, I live in an epistemic bubble. I thought most leftists believed Hugo Chavez was an evil man. I’m learning that is not true.”
Me too, John. I had perhaps expected some lionization from those among my friends and acquaintances on the British left — the inspirations for Comrade Jack, in other words – and from the usual Hollywood lightweights. But the brazen sorrow that has emanated from people who really should know better has been depressing as hell. Jimmy Carter, who, somehow, was once president of the United States, lamented that he had come “to know a man who expressed a vision to bring profound changes to his country to benefit especially those people who had felt neglected and marginalized.” Sure, Carter said, there were problems with Chávez. But Venezeula’s president displayed a “bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments” and possessed “formidable communication skills.” Generally, ”formidable communication skills” do not serve to mitigate the behavior of tyrants, although one can perhaps understand why that particular asset might be one Carter admires in others . . .
Carter’s eulogy, which claims “the gains made for the poor and vulnerable” as being paramount, highlights something I noticed yesterday while watching my British friends debate whether Chávez was Good or Bad. That is that they have a neat debating trick: Insert the words “national health care” or “anti-imperialist” into a conversation about politics and all other concerns immediately vanish. It served to remind that one must never underestimate the tendency of leftists to ignore all but “good intentions,” nor the progressive movement’s insidious, reflexive disregard for process and propriety. (“But he paved the roads and brought clean water!”) Such was well summed up in an extensive apologia by New York University “history teacher” Greg Gandin. Gandon took to The Nation, America’s prime outlet for semi-closeted fans of socialist authoritarianism, to declare that he was “what they call a useful idiot when it comes to Hugo Chávez.” This concession was just one part of a revealing bout of honesty in which Gandin announced that:
Chávez was a strongman. He packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances. But I’ll be perverse and argue that the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.
Ah, that useful little “but . . .” trick, again. On the Huffington Post, another academic, Joseph A. Palermo, was irritated that “conservatives and right-wingers” disliked Chávez and had the temerity to describe him as a “strong man” or Communist. “The simple fact remains,” Palermo writes, that “Chávez, who died of cancer at the age of 58, was the only president of Venezuela in modern memory who did ANYTHING for the poor people of that country who make up the vast majority of its nearly 30 million citizens.” His conclusion? “Elite voices will vilify him, but a far larger number of people will see him as a hero.”
Palermo is right. The elites at Human Rights Watch are indeed quite happy to characterize Chávez as a bad egg. “Hugo Chávez’s presidency (1999-2013) was characterized by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees,” the outfit declared. He “seized control of the Supreme Court and undercut the ability of journalists, human rights defenders, and other Venezuelans to exercise fundamental rights.” Other words that the right-wingers at HRW use liberally when discussing the man: “intimidate,” “censor,” “imprisonment,” “arbitrary,” “abused,” “discrimination,” “seized,” “government reprisals,” “forcibly detained.” The remaining 2,759 words are no kinder, either.
The reaction of the progressive press was no better satirized than by a British humor website, the Daily Mash, which titled its contribution ”Guardian readers pay tribute to man who would have banned the Guardian” and concluded that, to many, Chávez was a “heroic figure whose bravely authoritarian regime stood up to America and journalism.” The parody finished with a haymaker of a line:
Ken Livingstone, George Galloway and Gerry Adams all said he was a great man, which is pretty much all you need to know about Hugo Chavez.
Indeed they did. George Galloway, whose once-flush Dictators Club is looking decidedly spare these days, reacted exactly as you might imagine: “Farewell Comandante Hugo Chávez champion of the poor the oppressed everywhere. Modern day Spartacus. Rest in Peace,” Galloway tweeted. His fellow traveler Ken Livingstone, whose tenure as mayor of London should be regarded by all as a blot on the British escutcheon, termed Chávez a “friend and a comrade.” Gerry Adams, whose greatest contribution to my country of birth was to blow parts of it up — killing scores of innocent children in the process — concluded that Chávez “dedicated himself to building a new and radical society in Venezuela.”
Over in Hollywood, the usual suspects lined up. Sean Penn “lost a friend I was blessed to have.” Oliver Stone took a few moments out from rewriting history to “mourn a great hero.” Michael Moore took to Twitter to say “nice” things about a man he claimed would be wrongly remembered. Roseanne Barr: “Ruling Classes hated Hugo Chavez. RIP.” And in Washington, Democratic congressman Jose Serrano tweeted: “Hugo Chavez was a leader that understood the needs of the poor. He was committed to empowering the powerless. R.I.P. Mr. President.”
Good for Zack Beauchamp and for ThinkProgress for telling the truth about Chávez (including a mention of his execrable anti-Semitism). But that it needs to be said at all is a shame indeed, and that a prominent progressive outfit needs to warn its friends not to lionize a dictator speaks volumes.