Deconstructing the New, Improved, Postcolonial White Man’s Burden
Carlos M. N. Eire
Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.
– Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden” (1899)
There he was, again, Che, my former neighbor, Cuba’s one-time Lord High Executioner. He lay in wait everywhere, around each and every bend of the road, ready to pounce on me in the most unlikely places as I made my way through Europe.
Il Che in tutti i colori e a prezzi esorbitanti.1
Being ambushed by demons would have been less disturbing. I know how to deal with them, even when they disguise themselves as angels of light. Holy water and sacred salt can take care of them, and so can a crucifix.
But Che? How can I deal with his godlike omnipresence? Nothing seems to repel his spirit, or keep it buried in the mausoleum Fidel built for him.
In Arles, where Vincent Van Gogh severed his own ear, Che t-shirts flapped in the wind at the entrance to a souvenir store. Like a messiah crucified between two thieves, Che glowered at everyone, trapped between a shirt that said “Vodka” and another that joked about dumb blondes.
In Bonifacio, Corsica, where Napoleon once spent a few months, a bewildered Che called out to me from a red scarf, asking “how did I get here?”
Amongst the Greek ruins of Paestum, by the temples of Poseidon and Hera, he vied for attention with replicas of ancient artifacts and idols.
In Dubrovnik where customs agents no longer check to see if one’s name is on a long list of enemies of the Yugoslav state, Che looked askance at me from a t-shirt worn by a long-haired teenage boy with an ear ring.
In Venice, a canal or two down from the church where the incorruptible body of Saint Lucy is venerated, he gave me the evil eye from a bottle of Che wine. Fortunately, the Bob Marley bottle beside it made me chill out instantly. The marketing geniuses who had bottled vino da tabola as Che and Marley wine not only made sure that the Rasta Reggae master looked stoned, but also wedged a picture of a huge cannabis leaf against his face.
Could this prove once and for all that Italy still has a monopoly on the sublime?
Could this also prove that there are still many people on earth clueless enough to believe that the Cuban Revolution is a good thing and that Che is a saint of sorts?
Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is “yes.”
And Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine whose nickname is a rough equivalent of today’s “Dude” has not only come to rule the world of kitsch, but also to embody the heinousness of the Cuban Revolution and the banality of the affluent world’s condescending attitudes towards it.
Never mind that turning Che’s image into merchandise is a betrayal of everything he supposedly stood for. And never mind that he would have probably imprisoned or executed each and every one of the spoiled consumers who buy Che paraphernalia thinking that he was a noble idealist and a nice guy, part Robin Hood, part Christ.2 That’s beside the point, and to be expected. Communists like Che have always laughed at the way in which capitalists easily become “useful idiots” and their own worst enemies. As Lenin put it: "the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them."3
So Che, a revolutionary who actually tried to do away with money when he was in charge of Cuba’s treasury, ends up as a marketing gimmick, with an internet store dedicated solely to the selling of Che trinkets, – a cyberspace emporium which boasts of “the largest collection of Ernesto Che Guevara merchandise found anywhere in the world.,” proclaiming that
The spirit and passion of Che Guevara have attracted a vast and devoted international following that avidly embraces Che as the definitive symbol of rebellion, a legendary leader of revolution, and a 20th Century cultural pop icon.4 Pop Icon indeed, and patron saint of all those racist bigots who believe in what Rudyard Kipling called “the White Man’s Burden.”
Allow me to explain: after three years of speaking to hundreds of audiences all over North America about my memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, and of fielding all sorts of questions, I have finally figured out what makes the Cuban Revolution seem like a good thing to many of the affluent white people I encounter: it’s all due to an updated version of old-fashioned colonial, imperialist bigotry.
Time to deconstruct!5
Those who praise the Cuban Revolution do so for all sorts of reasons, which are too numerous to catalogue. But no matter what reasons are given, supporters of the Cuban Revolution tend to fall into two categories: the true believers and the closet colonialist bigots. The believers are very serious folk who covet your property, and would eagerly take it from you if you gave them the chance. The accidental Kiplingesque bigots, in contrast, love their own property and therefore normally extend to all other landholders of their own kind a grudging or envious respect. Since they are usually most keenly interested in enjoying all the benefits of a free-market economy and the blessings of democracy, they have no interest in revolutions, at least in their own fortunate countries. But they do tend to love revolutions elsewhere, and to admire figures like Che. Of course, they love him because they think that he fought against those who exploited the poor without realizing that they themselves were the target of his rage, for they, too, are exploiting plenty of people all over the world. This blindness to their own faults makes them safe enough to have as neighbors, for they tend to believe that the confiscation and redistribution of property is only necessary in other countries, especially in the third world, where the dark-skinned people tend to live.
The first type of Che and Fidel admirers–the genuine revolutionaries-- are a very small, select group in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia/New Zealand, but can be found in greater numbers in poorer countries, especially in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. These are individuals who believe in communism and see it as the only just solution to humankind’s many ills. In the so-called third world, where many believe in all of the lies and false myths scattered abroad by Fidel Castro’s regime, faith in communist ideology is fueled by dreams of improvement. In brief, their poverty drives them to believe in Marxist/Leninist or Maoist or Castroist ideology, and in false representations of .the improvements brought to Cuba by Fidel’s regime.
In Europe and North America, within the very heart of the capitalist world, these genuine communists are now a vanishing species. For these lonely few, and for the hopeful “third world” communists, the Cuban Revolution is not just good for the Cuban people, but for everyone on earth: Fidel’s Cuba is a global paradigm and great step forward in the struggle against capitalism. As one die-hard Marxist viewer of the PBS American Experience documentary “Fidel Castro”put it:
I think Castro and the people of Cuba have made remarkable achievements... I feel, for the advance of Socialism and the eventual realization of Communism, the dictatorship of the proletarian, as realized by Castro, is entirely needed...Hopefully soon enough we in the nation [United States] can match the will and steadfast dedication of Castro and the Cuban people and end the horrific exploitative and deviating nature of Capitalism as realized in this nation.6 These folk who believe in collectivist communist ideology – and therefore condemn private property and free enterprise – also loathe the basic liberties that are taken for granted by those who live in democratic free-market societies. For them, the “liberties” of capitalist societies are empty concepts that mask the exploitation of the proletariat, and, in contrast, the repressive totalitarian regimes of the old Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and Fidel’s Cuba represent for them the greatest achievements in human history.7 These revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries do not have to be racist bigots, though some of them are, in spite of the principles they espouse. What defines them is not their attitude towards “peoples of colour,” (since many of them fit into that category), but their commitment to communist goals.
Since bona-fide, hammer-and-sickle-wielding communists have dwindled after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, but supporters of the Cuban Revolution have not, one must ask: why it is that there are still so many in the capitalist world who idolize Che and find present-day Cuba an exemplary society despite all its well-documented record of human rights abuses?
This is where Kipling and his white man’s burden enter the picture . In a nutshell, the hard, sad truth is that whether they know it or not, or whether they like it or not, all non-Cubans living in affluent countries who praise Che or Fidel or the Cuban Revolution but refuse to live in Cuba or to actively engage in bringing about the same kind of communist revolution in their own country are really bigots at heart, not much different from Rudyard Kipling or any other old-fashioned imperialist, colonialist racist. They are also hypocrites, to boot, for unlike Kipling, they publicly abjure prejudice toward any “other” and scold anyone else who argues that the end always justifies the means.
In sum, anyone from the affluent world who thinks that the repressive, soul-crushing, collectivist nightmare that calls itself the Cuban Revolution is good for Cubans but not for themselves is implicitly admitting that they are superior to Cubans in some way, be it morally, economically, intellectually, culturally or racially. It makes no difference how the differences are parsed; anyone who says that the Cuban Revolution as something that is good for Cubans but not for themselves necessarily implies that Cubans are somehow different and that they are undeserving or incapable of enjoying the same political, social, and economic rights, either because they are in some way inferior or less developed, or because they are construed as simpler, purer, abnormal or uncivilized in some essential way, much like Rousseau’s noble savage. And no one can dispute the fact that most of those who tend to hold such views or who invest capital in Cuba’s tourism industry, or go there as tourists happen to be Europeans and North Americans of European stock who think of themselves as white and of Cubans as “people of colour.”
8 So, for any of these white folk to say that Cubans are much better off living under a brutally repressive totalitarian regime that stifles all dissent is to wallow in bigotry of a racist sort.
Ironically, then, Rudyard Kipling, the ultimate spokesman for colonialism, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907, turns out to be the intellectual and spiritual forebear of today’s politically-correct ideologues, and of anyone who defends the so-called accomplishments of Che, Fidel, and the Cuban Revolution.. In February 1899, when the U.S.A. claimed ownership of what was left of Spain’s empire, Kipling published "The White Man's Burden" in McClure’s Magazine. Most readers and critics on both shores of the Atlantic took the poem at face value, as a defense of imperialism and a direct appeal to the colonialist aims of the United States, which seemed so eager to civilize the new-caught wild folk of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Cynics everywhere detected no small amount of self-effacing sarcasm in Kipling’s imperialist anthem, but it mattered little.9 The literalist interpretation won out, and to this day even the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica still sums him up as being “chiefly remembered for his celebration of British imperialism.”
It may come as a surprise and a great shock to anyone who defends the virtues of the Cuban Revolution to hear that they are similar in outlook and attitude to Rudyard Kipling, a dead white male who embodies so much political incorrectness. But the obscene, undeniable truth is that there is virtually no difference between anyone alive today who says that Fidel and Che have done great things for Cubans and anyone in days of yore who argued that the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Belgian, Dutch, French, and United States empires were a blessing to all of the benighted “coloured” folk around the world, those “new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child.”who weren’t gifted with European genes. Kipling’s racism has been updated and cloaked in a different sort of rhetoric, but it is still very much alive and perhaps even more loathsome. Ironically, then, many of those who prefer to think of the present age as “post-colonial” and whose constant point of reference is respect of “diversity” or “otherness” turn out to be racist colonialist bigots after all, often without realizing it, in spite of themselves. Their bigotry and racism does not lead them to conquer other people, but it does cause them to think that those who live outside of the industrialized world can only gain better lives through a different kind of imperialism-- an ideological one. So they are willing, even eager to see “lesser” folk subjected to all sorts of repression at the hands of their own “enlightened” or “visionary” despots. Their new, improved white man's burden is selfish rather than selfless, for their goal is not to “send forth” their progeny to civilize the savages, but rather to approve of all sorts of atrocious dictatorships in the name of progress, so they can vacation in such places and enjoy the commercial rewards they eventually reap from the cheap labor and the travel bargains that such tyrannies produce. The only burden they bear is one they often don’t see or feel at all: that of their inconsistent and hypocritical ethics.
This new postcolonial colonialsim is also an updated version of what could be called the Mussolini principle, that is, the condescending affirmation that some people are incapable of achieving much for themselves without a dictatorship to guide them. It wasn’t that long ago that many northern Europeans and North Americans believed in the bogus claims of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and praised him for making the Italian trains run on time. The chief assumption behind such an affirmation was that Italians, like all “swarthy” Mediterraneans were somehow incapable of achieving efficiency without brute force. Today’s postcolonial neocolonialists are not much different. They may pat themselves or each other on the back for being open-minded about strong “visionary” leaders like Fidel, who whip into shape an otherwise disorderly people, but just like Mussolini’s supporters in the past, they are really only giving a peculiar twist to all sorts of prejudices.10 In some ways, then, this postcolonial neocolonialism is much more insidious than that of Kipling and his age, for it masquerades as its opposite while condoning all sorts of horrors that in many cases turn out to be much worse than those perpetrated by the old imperialists.
The new postcolonial neocolonialists love to invoke a rhetoric of benevolence and of compassion for the other, just like Kipling’s imperialist white man. But at least the old imperialists were very much aware of their bigotry and made no effort to hide it. How did this come to be? How has such bigotry endured for so long, undetected by the political-correctness police? The problem is that the police are the worst bigots, in spite of themselves, and that the prejudices they harbor are as thick as trees in an ancient forest, and hard to uproot.
My own encounters with ignorant prejudice began right away, as soon as I set foot in the United States. First came the startling questions from my American schoolmates and their parents.. “You had bathrooms in Cuba?” “Do you know how to use toilet paper?” “You had televisions and radios?” “You used forks and knives?” “You had schools?” “You know how to read?” “Was it hard to get used to pants and shoes?” “Why don’t you look like a Cuban?” “How did you ever get into this honors class?” And so on. Then came the history and geography lessons in school, which gradually revealed to me why I was bombarded with so many stupid and offensive questions. Every history and geography book that I read as a student in American classrooms dealt with all of Latin America as a single, undifferentiated whole, as a place where nearly everyone was poor and dark-skinned and everything was owned by a few incredibly wealthy families who exploited everyone else through corrupt dictatorships. If there were any illustrations in these textbooks at all, they tended to be photos of poor, half-naked peasants and their primitive hovels, or of ancient Inca or Aztec sites, or of uncivilized natives who wore loincloths and still hunted with bows and arrows. Every now and then I found a photo or two of Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro in these textbooks, with a few cars on the streets, but the lesson remained the same, in spite of the visual evidence of prosperity and civilization offered by these rare illustrations: all of Latin America was owned by a few wealthy families who exploited millions upon millions of starving, grass-hut-dwelling, illiterate peasants. Modern buildings and conveniences such as those depicted on photos of Rio and Buenos Aires were extremely rare and always limited to the privileged few or to foreign tourists. If Cuba was mentioned at all, it was usually described as a place where everyone toiled at cultivating sugar cane and tobacco –except for those few selfish landlords who did nothing but exploit the labor force, of course. The only two photos I ever saw of Cuba in an American textbook seemed odd to me. One photo showed the Morro Castle in Havana harbor, an old Spanish fortress with a prominent lighthouse, which served to identify the spot where the Maine was blown up. The other showed a half-naked Afro-Cuban peasant plowing with a team of starving oxen, offered as proof positive of the pigmentation and the poverty and deprivation that were the lot of 99.99% of the Cuban people.
I should hasten to add that all of these textbooks used in my American classrooms were written and published before Fidel Castro hijacked Cuba in 1959 and that they bore a closer resemblance to his distorted version of Cuban history than to the truth. Thanks largely to these lousy textbooks and the false information they conveyed about Latin America and Cuba, the image of himself that Fidel would later promote abroad as the hero who saved Cuba from utter destitution and illiteracy was easily mistaken for a fact.
I don’t know what Canadian and European textbooks were like at the same time, but given current attitudes towards Fidel’s Revolution in those countries, and given the fact that most of the European publishers of my memoir have refused to use my photo on the cover of their translations because I “don’t look Cuban enough,”–as they put it- I assume their distortions were not very different from those I encountered here in the United States. Given their enthusiastic investment in Cuba’s tourism industry, and their wilful blindness to human rights abuses on the island, one must assume that many Canadians and Europeans tend to think of Fidel as a very benevolent paterfamilias who rescued his childish people from an awful fate. Take, for instance, this incredibly naive observation penned by Brian Wilson, Labour Member of Parliament for Cunninghame North, in the United Kingdom:
Cuba's primary service to the world has been to provide living proof that it is possible to conquer poverty, disease and illiteracy in a country that was grossly over-familiar with all three. That is a pretty big service. The fact that it has been delivered in the face of sustained hostility from an obsessive neighbour makes it all the more stunning.11 Acceptance of the Cuban Revolution as a good and wondrous thing rests squarely on a flawed mythology of Cuba’s past and all of the misconceptions it engenders, including those utopian ones that naively proclaim the Revolution’s total conquest of poverty, disease, and illiteracy. As there is a yin, so is there a yangin the Big Lie about Cuba, and you can’t have one without the other: the yin is the lie that tells you Cuba was a very poor country with millions and millions of starving, illiterate, disease-ridden peasants; the yang is the lie that tells you that all of those ills have been vanquished and that Cuba is now some sort of egalitarian New Jerusalem, where there are no tears left to wipe. It’s this yin-yang, warp-and-woof, alpha-and-omega binary teleology that makes the Big Lie so big, and so believable in the minds of many; it is wish fulfillment of the highest order for anyone who wants to believe in the altruistic utopian dream of collectivism.12
In sum, the very success of the Revolution depends on a binary belief system founded on lies about Cuba’s history, past and present, and on paternalistic, condescending, bigoted opinions about third world people, who, of course, are no longer “half-devil, half-child” but rather “half-monk, half-child”: selfless natives who are so fully satisfied with the crumbs thrown to them by a totalitarian regime that they will happily live like monks and nuns, selflessly, always true to their vows of poverty and obedience, totally unconcerned about their rights as individuals, and totally thrilled with the fact that some greater “visionary” or “principled” paternalistic entity is looking out for their best interests, which, naturally, they can’t discern for themselves. One viewer of the PBS documentary “Fidel Castro” summed up the ying-yang argument and this new, improved, postcolonial racism quite openly::
Everyone below the age of 50 don't know [sic] about the conditions of Cuba before Fidel. When a revolution is successful there is a reason and the reason in Cuba was poverty. Without the strength of Castro, Cuba will fall into decline searching for a direction and will come under the fold of the United States just as it was in the 40s and 50s.13 In many ways, this condescending view of Cuba and Latin America is very similar to that which Westerners have long cultivated towards the so-called “Orient”, that is, all the lands East of Europe. Though many scholars and leading intellectuals have embraced the critique of these attitudes raised by Edward Said in his grounbreaking book Orientalism, the same sort of correction has yet to take place in regards to Latin America. What Said critiques in Orientalism is not the idea that there are differences between cultures, but rather the conceit that the West was ever a detached, objective observer. The imperialist West has long projected many of its prejudices into its studies of other peoples, he argues, and its so-called objectivity needs to be seen for what it really is: a well camouflaged “political doctrine” that always supports an agenda. According to him, European study of the people they were colonizing was a “cultural apparatus” often laden with “agression” and “judgement.”14
What issues forth from “Orientalist”-type reigning assumptions about Cuba is a muddle-headed, condescending praise of the Cuban Revolution as a beacon of hope for the human race. Never mind the lack of freedom and the constant repression that suffocate every Cuban. What they need is a strong leader who will lead them out of poverty by redistributing all the property and prohibiting private enterprise. So what if they can't speak their minds openly or criticize their rulers? So what if they only have one newspaper to read and it is published by the Central Committee of the Communist Party? So what if there is constant censorship of every form of scholarship or artistic expression? So what if everyone is forced to go to rallies? So what if children are required to perform several weeks of “volunteer” agricultural slave labor every year? So what if they are penalized and discriminated against for attending church or religious instruction? So what if there are forced labor camps and torture cells and constant executions? So what if people simply disappear in the night never to be seen again, or are beaten and kicked by mobs, or are imprisoned without trial for the crime of “potential delinquency”? So what if Cubans are not allowed to travel freely and are also prohibited from setting foot in the same establishments and beaches frequented by the affluent tourists from the outside world? So what if accepting tips or “gifts” from tourists is a criminal act? That is what is best for them in the same way that working the cotton fields in the summer heat was the best thing for "colored" people here in the United States.