Thursday, April 29, 2010

Another way good liberals prove they're not DFHs

On "Countdown" on Tuesday, Keith Olbermann made Hugo Chavez the bronze winner of the "Worst Person in the World" competition. The basis? Chavez has taken to Twitter. This, apparently, is supposed to be inherently hilarious because of Chavez's (well-deserved) reputation for verbosity.

But why, you ask, a "Worst Person" award for it, a dishonor generally reserved for people who have done something either offensive or foolishly outrageous? The idea of Hugo Chavez limiting himself to 140 characters at a time may be amusing, but offensive? Outrageous?

Ah, you're missing the point. It wasn't that Hugo Chavez being on Twitter is offensive or outrageous - it's that it's Hugo Chavez. And his being on Twitter wasn't the actual point; rather, it was to gave KO the opening to describe Chavez as, his exact words, "quote President unquote of Venezuela" and "Comandante Chavez."

That is, his being on Twitter was just the excuse to indulge in a little Chavez-bashing, a little demonizing, something in which all good liberals engage from time to time to prove that they really are "serious" observers who haven't strayed too far from the foreign policy consensus and their disagreements, where they exists, arise more over matters of effectiveness and advisability, not from any fundamental difference in philosophy and certainly not from any questions about basic moral principles. And doggone it, to prove they are totally unbiased because they will criticize leftists!

They do it to show, that is, that they are not, absolutely not, DFHs.

Now, there certainly are grounds on which Chavez can be criticized - more on that shortly - but quite bluntly, the legitimacy of his position as president is not among them. He was elected in 1998, then elected again in 2000 under a new Constitution with 56% of the vote, giving him a six-year term. He survived a military coup (which the US endorsed and blamed on him) in 2002 and defeated a recall referendum in 2004, gaining 58% of the vote that time. In 2006 he was elected to a second six-year term with 63% of the vote. These votes have been conducted under the watchful eyes of international observers, such as The Carter Center, who have concluded that they were free and fair - something which even his opposition ultimately had to admit.

Regardless of what you think of him or his policies, Hugo Chavez is the president of Venezuela. He's no more "quote president unquote" than Shrub was - and considering our the 2000 election, he's a hell of a lot less "quote president unquote" than Shrub was for the first half of his presidency.

He is not the first to wear the mantle of "the leftist who liberals find it politically convenient to make a point of saying they hate," but he is one of the longest-lasting. So the good liberals will bash him, make him their convenient whipping boy, just to show how truly American they are.

They will, for example, decry his "increasingly authoritarian" rule, which, I said not quite six years ago now,
always seems to be "increasing" but never seems to actually get to being authoritarian.
Still, it is true that there are legitimate criticisms of Chavez that can be made in the area of civil liberties, but they do not arise from his being some "Comandante" or autocrat or the "would-be-dictator" of liberals' imaginations, but from the nature of social revolutions, revolutions which have a dark side that can emerge if you're not watchful. As an example of the idea, speaking of Jesse Jackson in a letter in August 1988, I wrote that
Jackson sees himself ... as the embodiment of a movement, the physical expression of a certain idealism, who’s working through the Democratic Party as a vehicle for that movement. ... [A] couple of years ago I was concerned that Jackson was developing a Messiah complex, starting to equate his personal advancement with that of the causes he espoused and represented. It’s a risk that any leader runs, especially one as overtly ambitious as Jackson.
I raised a similar concern about Chavez himself nearly three years ago: Discussing an article in "Time" magazine, I noted it said that Chavez's revolution has a weakness: "Its inordinate dependence on Chavez, its one-man-show aspect. If he were to leave the scene, there's a feeling the whole revolution would unravel tomorrow."

I argued that the article overstated the case,
but in a longer view, that is not an irrelevant concern. Rather, it is a risk run with any movement, with any attempt at dramatic change: the possibility of its turning, however unintentionally, into a personality cult that can't survive the symbol. The result is that both leader and supporters come to equate the benefit of the leader with that of the movement as a whole, and the leader who starts saying "they need me" more often and with more emphasis than "I need them" is starting down a road that may in the longer term undermine what they set out to achieve.

Venezuela is not at that point and is not close to that point - but it is not so distant from it that it can't be made out on the horizon.
I believe that condition, one of Venezuela not being an authoritarian state but still the idea of it developing into one not lying outside the range of possibility, remains true today. Yes, I am well aware of Chavez's recent aggressive and ominous moves against some opposition outlets; however, the fact is that opposition media seems always to survive and even thrive despite repeated reports of "the last anti-Chavez" whatever it was that time "being forcibly shut down."

The greater risk, I think, lies in two other developments: One is Chavez's success in winning a referendum eliminating term limits for elected officials, including the president. He pushed for it on the grounds that he needed "10 more years" to complete the work he started. That not only speaks to the "one-man-show" weakness but hints at another movement starting to equate the leader with the movement itself, always a risky prospect. The other, related risk, arises from the increasing evidence of corruption and cronyism in his administration, which is another sign of a movement with leaders who have become too self-referential.

I believe that Hugo Chavez genuinely believes in his social revolution. I believe he is truly interested in giving the poor a power and a voice which they have never had before. I believe he genuinely wants to cut poverty, to improve education, to feed the hungry. But to the very extent that the revolution becomes about him, to the very extent that there is no structure, no movement that exists independently of him and so will survive him, to that very same extent he will in the long run fail while possibly turning into precisely that of which his enemies accuse him in the process. And that, especially considering what he and his movement have both achieved and survived, would be a very great shame.

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