Monday, October 27, 2003

Both Oxblog's Patrick Belton and Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds have concluded that a fascinating first-hand account of travelling through Cuba is in fact a searing indictment of that country's economic mismanagement and political repression. Oddly enough, I got a very different impression of the place from the piece. The Cuban countryside, it seems, is sadly poverty-stricken and backward. But it's not so much repressed as resigned--the people lead their simple, spartan, difficult lives as best they can, and many of them believe the government's propaganda simply because it's the natural thing to do. It is only those with unusual ambition, energy and initiative who chafe under the heavy hand of governmental regimentation. And what fraction of the population fits that description is far from clear.

Now, I don't deny for a second that Cuba would be better off with a freer economy and polity. I believe that idyllic ignorance does not exist, and that those who are satisfied with their lives only because they don't know of better alternatives are better off enlightened--even if they may end up sadder as a result. To me, knowledge and understanding are the essence of humanness, and mere uncomprehending bliss is no substitute.

But taking a moral position against such ignorance is not the same as objectively failing to recognize its existence, even its prevalence, in benighted corners of the world. Few peoples, for example, suffer more from their government than the North Koreans, who live under a regime of unparalleled cruelty and incompetence, who have repeatedly faced famine and starvation over the years, and who can be executed merely for trying to escape their vast national prison. Yet it's unlikely that all that many North Koreans, heavily regimented and information-starved as they are, can see through the official government's lies and blame their "Dear Leader", instead of the regime's numerous claimed foreign enemies, for the horrible conditions in which they live.

In fact, ignorance isn't even a prerequisite for ruinous political self-delusion. The Palestinians who continue to endorse the terrorist "armed struggle" that has impoverished and immiserated them, the former East Germans wallowing in "Ostalgie", the neo-luddite Westerners who shun the marvels of modern medicine, modern agriculture, and other modern technologies that have so improved their material living conditions--all are choosing to embrace choices that are objectively associated with severe hardship. It would hardly be surprising if many Cubans, insulated as they are from information about conditions elsewhere, choose to believe that their lives, their country and their leaders are every bit as great--relatively speaking, at least--as their government tells them.

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