Pardon me, dear readers. This is a long post. There is no internet link to the main text I’m posting, so no shortcuts are available.
And I can blame our in-house surgeon, Humberto Fontova. You see, I’ve been reading his latest book, “The Longest Romance,” and it keeps reminding me all too painfully of the disconnect that exists between realities in Cuba and perceptions of Cuba among the cultural elites in the so-called free world.
Humberto’s book has heightened my sense of alienation from the world I inhabit, and especially from the way in which so many so-called elites not only fail to see that the Castro Kingdom is not at all different from the Third Reich, Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, but rather see it as a great utopian experiment, in which we– those who were most unjustly screwed — are assigned the role of villains.
Recently, I was asked to answer a few questions by my employer’s fund-raising office. One of the questions was very carefully worded, and it addressed the nature of my work as a historian of two very different, yet similarly “sensitive” subjects: the history of Christianity and that of Cuba.
Political correctness demands that no one ever be offended. But what can one do when one deals with offensive truths, day in, day out, or when one embodies them? The questioner wanted to know.
Humberto has brought me to the brink of madness, in a very good way, with his wonderful book. (Mad as in “encabrona’o”, not as in “loco” or “tosta’o”). Humberto’s “Longest Romance” carefully outlines how all of us who have gone through the Castro Holocaust live in an insane Hitchcokesque dimension: we know what is true, but the world around us brands us as guilty of oafishness, petulance, and perjury, and denies us a hearing, even though we have plenty of evidence to prove our claims against the real villains.
We are all Cary Grant in “North by Northwest,” or Jimmy Stuart in “Rear Window,” or Jon Finch in “Frenzy.” But the difference between us and the characters played by those actors is that there is no happy ending, no unmasking of the error and deception, no release from madness. Not yet, anyway.
My answer to my employer’s questionnaire deals with this awful predicament in which we Cuban exiles — and most Cubans in Castrogonia — find ourselves. I wrote it before I began to read “The Longest Romance,” and at the time, I was feeling more than a tad disheartened about our predicament.
I almost felt like giving up, and seriously contemplated changing my name to Roger O. Thornhill.
But my intensified alienation made me realize that we can’t give up. No way. Never. We must persist. This ain’t no Hitchock film, for sure, but if we don’t stand our ground, and bear witness to the evil that drove us out and ruined our island nation, there will never be a happy ending, and none of us will be able to have a good death.
Maybe this post will make a difference. Maybe not. But it is necessary, for the record…. like the thousands of hours of testimony from Holocaust survivors that my employer stores in its marvelous library.
Here you go………
Question: Your work engages issues about which people often have passionate opinions: the history of Christianity, the Cuban Revolution. How do you facilitate critical discourse about these delicate topics while still maintaining a shared sense of civility, intellectual rigor, and generosity?
Answer: Passion and critical discourse are not antithetical, as I see it, but complimentary, even absolutely inseparable if one wishes to make any difference in this world.
Even more important: passionate opinions are absolutely necessary for a genuine shared sense of civility, intellectual rigor, and generosity in dialogue. Without passionate opinions in play, all you have is self-censorship and a tyrannical culture of political correctness in which no one is ever fully honest or fully willing to engage with those who disagree. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to make some people uncomfortable, to challenge them, and to try to get them to change their minds.
I have passionate opinions about the history of Christianity and the Cuban revolution, and I admit these passions openly, and this is what gives my writing and teaching a unique edge.
But dealing with Christianity and dealing with Cuba are two very different things. Dealing with religion does require a special sensitivity to shades of meaning and differences of opinion. Dealing with Cuba does not. When dealing with absolute evil, there are no shades of meaning, and it is imperative to shake up or offend those who side with injustice.
First, about religion, and Christianity in particular: The history of Christianity, or of any religion, can be a mine field. Religions claim to hold a monopoly on Truth (with a capital “T”), so all writing and teaching in religion can be a lot like dealing with a live electrical wire. You never know when you are going to get zapped, because the history itself is so complex, and so much of it is about disagreements, excommunications, schisms, persecutions, banishments, and every sort of discord, that you cannot help but rub some reader or student the wrong way when you touch on those subjects that they consider sacred in a very literal way.
Here at Yale, it is rare to see any student offended, but it happens. Usually it is an atheist or skeptic who is offended by the fact that the professor actually believes all of the “nonsense” that he or she studies. Seldom, if ever, is it a case of a student who is offended by the professor’s specific beliefs. In contrast, out there, in the public sphere, offending is inescapable when one deals with religion, and quite common. For proof of this, visit this website, in which I am compared to Satan: http://www.puritans.net/bookreviewwaragainstidols.htm
My approach to teaching and writing about all of the disagreements in Christian history is to approach every position from the inside, that is, to place myself inside the skin of the people who are putting forward and defending a specific “Truth.” Quite often, my students and readers have a difficult time discerning what I believe, personally. If students ask, I tell them to come see me after they graduate. (Only one student has taken me up on that offer in my four decades of teaching). If readers ask, I tell them plainly. Respect for other’s beliefs is absolutely necessary in order to succeed as a scholar and teacher of religion. But this doesn’t mean that one has to hold back from passing judgment on evil and injustice. Nor does it mean that one should hide one’s passion for religion itself, for the power of belief, or – more significantly—for the conviction that there is much, much more to this world than meets the eye or that scientists will ever discover.
As far as Cuba is concerned, my passion gets me into constant trouble, for two reasons. First, because politics is as much of a live wire as religion and –since the audiences I address on this subject are not academic – I am not shielded by an academic mantle. It’s a jungle out there in the public sphere when it comes to Cuba: discourse red in tooth and claw. Second, because I refuse to consider it a delicate subject, and actually intend to get under the skin of those who are complacent or complicit with an evil totalitarian regime that is not much different from the Third Reich, save for the scale of its horrors.
This is not to say that academia is any more genteel when it comes to Cuba. On the contrary: it’s not Darwinian at all because of brutal censorship. There is no chance to compete or struggle for survival. The bias in favor of the Castro dictatorship is so extreme in scholarly circles that those academics who criticize the Castro dictatorship simply do not survive. Had I chosen to study Cuban history, I would have most probably been ostracized and marginalized. The reasons given for my marginalization would all sound very professional: lack of balance, narrow perspective, lack of critical distance, and so on… But the truth is that no one who dares to challenge the pro-Castro status quo ever succeeds in History or Latin American Studies.
Here is what I think about Cuba under the Castro brothers: it is Hell on earth. It is a sinkhole of repression, corruption, injustice, and of all of the most reprehensible vices imaginable. It is the very antithesis of civility, intellectual rigor, and generosity, a gigantic slave plantation where no one is allowed to deviate in the least from the directives of their masters.
What else can one say about a country where having a copy of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in one’s possession is illegal, and where books are routinely confiscated and burned? Or about a country where apartheid is still the rule of the land, where the natives are denied access to the same rights, goods, and facilities as tourists and foreigners, and in which racism is still rampant?
Ironically, those of us who dare to point out these harsh truths are often accused of being uncivil, intellectually compromised, and lacking in generosity. For some in my audiences, when I am speaking about Cuba, and my own experiences, it seems absolutely correct that my books should be banned in my native land and that its government should have officially proclaimed me an enemy of the state.
In brief, here is the situation I face when speaking or writing about Cuba: civility and critical discourse are defined in a very peculiar and insidious way. Civility means ignoring all of the human rights abuses and praising at least some of the great “accomplishments” of the so-called Revolution, no matter how unjust or hollow they are. Critical discourse means acknowledging that the biased and sometimes absolutely fabricated history written by pro-Castro scholars in Cuba or elsewhere is of equal or greater value than the history I experienced first-hand.
One analogy may help place some perspective on my plight. Imagine anyone who suffered under the Nazis being asked to praise the wonders of the Third Reich or to accept the Nazi take on history. Or, imagine anyone in our own society who would dare to praise anything about the Third Reich, or about apartheid in South Africa. They would be instantly ostracized and marginalized.
Ironically – and sadly – while it is inconceivable to force anyone in our culture to have a “balanced” view of the accomplishments of the Third Reich or to accept a Nazi perspective on history, or to acknowledge the benefits of South African apartheid, it is required in academia and also in the public sphere for anyone who speaks or writes about the Castro regime, and especially of those who were victimized by it, to be “balanced” and to accept lies and pure propaganda as history.