On Tuesday night, after word broke that Venezuela’s President of 14 years Hugo Chavez had died, it didn’t take long for the thunderous and hyperbolic condemnations to roll in from right-wing commentators, politicans, pundits and Twitterers.
Chavez was “parroting Cuban Caudillo Fidel Castro’s personal life and party line,” a “human rights violator extraordinaire,” “the latest in the long line of Caudillo, the strongmen who have been the scourge of Spanish America.”
And Fox News’ Greg Gutfield called Chavez out on air for being a “bad man…who demonized America.”
My personal favorite was right-wing strategist Alex Castellanos arguing with someone who took exception to his celebration of Chavez’s death by saying “I have no respect for hitlers. Do you?”
All of that instant condemnation made me wonder about how we go about evaluating leaders from other countries, and what it says about us as Americans, winners of the natural lottery that makes us citizens of the world’s lone superpower.
In 2003, Gallup asked people if they knew the name of the current Russian President. 40% volunteered the name Vladimir Putin, over 70% knew the “leader of Cuba” was Fidel Castro, but only 6% correctly named the Prime Minister of Canada, who was, at the time Jean Chretien (Now, Stephen Harper). If the average American citizen knows of a world leader, the odds are it’s because he has been cast as a villain in our national drama.
Many of the people we cast in that role are truly monstrous — Saddam Hussein comes to mind — but what kind of knowledge is it to know simply and only that someone somewhere is a Bad Guy?
There are two different kinds of understanding one might have of a foreign leader. One is a body of substantive knowledge about a country and its politics, the institutions that constrain or define its political life, its history and culture and the various strains of public opinion and national myth that shape what happens there.
And then there is a determination about whether said leader is “good” or “bad”, that resembles in its own strange way the movie critic’s ultimate judgment: the thumbs up or thumbs down.
And it occurred to me in the wake of Chavez’s death, that when it comes to the leaders of the rest of the world, we are, most of us, critics who haven’t even see the movie.
I couldn’t tell you a whole lot about about Russian politics; how elections work, how federalized its system is, the basics of its constitutional structure, but I know that Putin is a repressive thug. In other words I know relatively very little about Russia, except I *do* know whether I approve of its leader. When you stop and think about it, that’s a bit odd.
I remember a few years back when I spent a week in Turkey, and talked to a wide range of people I met about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He is, in Turkey, both a deeply polarizing and popular figure, who has led that democratic nation for 11 years. He is a populist of sorts who many urbane liberal Turks I met compared to George W Bush in his bluster and reliance on a highly religious socially conservative base, but he also has managed to establish the primacy of the civilian government over the Turkish military in a way that seemed to me both unprecedented and transformative for a nation that had witnessed 3 military coups since the days of Attaturk.
And as the trip wrapped up, I remember thinking at some point that I was somehow failing because I wasn’t able to come up with a simple judgement: where did I stand on Erdogan? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
And I felt the same way after spending a week in China, where the complexities of the Chinese state managed to shatter almost every category of analysis I had going in. When I got back from China and people asked what I thought, my response was invariably: it’s complicated.
To say another country or another country’s leadership’s record is complicated is not to issue an apology for wrongdoing. We shouldn’t simply be neutral in the face of beatings and disappearances and state repression or bullying. But condemnation and outrage are no substitute for knowledge about the world and other countries’ politics which are tangled and complicated just like our own. And I can’t help but think there’s a relationship between our tendency to know nothing about a country other than if they are bad or not, and the fact we spend more money on defense than the next 13 countries combined.
If all we see are Hitlers we will forever be at war.
So rather than render a final judgment today on Chavez’s legacy, I want to explore where he really lies, in the contested ground between villain and saint.