Politics & Policy

A taste for democracy, &c.

Once upon a time, many Westerners said that Asians had no taste for democracy, no aptitude for it. Democracy was something that Westerners did, and valued; Asians — why, they had their own values. They basically liked to be ruled; they were not so interested in self-government or individual freedom.

Kim Dae-jung, in his Nobel lecture (2000), said, “In the decades of my struggle for democracy, I was constantly faced” with the contention that “Western-style democracy was not suitable for Asia, that Asia lacked the roots. This is far from true.”

Even some Asians peddled the democracy-is-not-for-Asia argument. Ruling elites did so, of course. They had an interest in the status quo. But some ordinary people did too. I’d like to quote from a journal I wrote from Sharm El Sheikh in 2006. I wrote about a conversation that Robert Zoellick had with some of us journalists. At the time, he was deputy secretary of state; now he is president of the World Bank.

Zoellick has little patience for those who contend that democracy is not for the Middle East. He recalls being a teacher in Hong Kong, in 1980. He talked to his Chinese students about democracy, and they said, “Oh, that’s not for us — not for Asians. They have democracy in Japan, in some odd form, but that’s an exception.” And what has occurred in that neck of the woods? There is democracy in Taiwan and South Korea. And, to an extent, democracy in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines.

Yes. Western “realists,” as they like to style themselves, have basically shut up about Asia and democracy. About how people there don’t want a free press and an independent judiciary and all. But they yap as they always have about the Middle East.

In his second inaugural address — reviled by the Left and scorned by much of the Right — George W. Bush said, “America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.” Judging from the mail I receive, and from what I see on the Net, many Americans still like to pretend. I look forward to the day when even the most obdurate can pretend no more.

‐As you may know, President Obama has eased U.S. policy on Cuba. He has done this by allowing broader travel to the island and upping the limit on remittances that can be sent there. He did not seem eager to advertise his changes: The White House announced them at 5 p.m. on a Friday before a holiday weekend. (The following Monday was Martin Luther King Day.)

Furthermore, Obama made these changes without consulting Congress. You can understand why. The House is new. The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami. She cried loudly against Obama’s changes in policy, when they were announced.

We will leave the question of travel to Cuba for another time. As a rule, it benefits the dictatorship more than it does the Cuban people at large. (Otherwise, the dictatorship would not allow it, you can be sure.) I will address the question of remittances. Most people would say, “What could be bad about upping the limit on remittances? The more money in Cuban pockets, the better, right? It is only humane.”

Very little money ends up in Cuban pockets. It ends up with the state, the dictatorship. Indeed, remittances are one of its most important sources of revenue. Some analysts put remittances No. 2, behind largesse from Chávez’s Venezuela. Some put them No. 3, behind tourism. In any case, they are one of the most important sources of revenue.

And the dictatorship badly, badly needs the cash right now. They are facing a liquidity crisis. The new U.S. policy has helped them out.

From the beginning, Obama has sought to conciliate the Cuban regime. More broadly, he has appeared eager to ingratiate himself with the Latin American Left. You recall that he gave Chávez a soul-brother handshake, calling him “mi amigo,” his friend. You also recall that, when a constitutional crisis broke out in Honduras, Obama sided with the would-be Chávez of that country, Manuel Zelaya.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, was a different cat. He gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a Cuban political prisoner, Oscar Biscet. (Obama gave the medal to Mary Robinson, the Irish politician who presided over the Durban conference, that anti-Semitic jamboree.) Our “interests section” in Havana erected a mockup of Biscet’s cell, in order to dramatize his plight. We invited Lech Walesa to speak to dissidents, by video hookup. We attended gatherings in dissidents’ homes.

Our interests section was a haven for those daring enough to challenge the regime. We listened to these democrats, sympathized with them: were unquestionably on their side.

We also had a news ticker. Remember that? This device flashed information to Cuban passersby. It infuriated the regime, of course. But it gave Cubans a source other than the official media. Obama quickly shut it down.

He was going to try a different approach to Cuba. Bush had fashioned a program of carrots and sticks: If the dictatorship loosened in this or that way, it would get something in return. The Obama program seems all carrots — or all gifts.

For 13 months, an American citizen has been a hostage in Cuba. His name is Alan Gross, and he worked for a USAID contractor. The dictatorship has held him without trial, and even without charge. Rumor has it that he will be released in coming weeks. Good. In my view, appeasing a dictatorship is problematic on its own. But if you’re going to do it, you should at least have something to show for it.

Like a body. Preferably live.

‐Couple of days ago, I read that Joshua Bell had a recital in Bethesda, Md. (one of my hometowns, in a way). Bell, as you know, is the famed Hoosier violinist. And his Bethesda recital did not quite come off. Did not come off at all, actually. It was canceled because of a snowstorm. Bell, according to what I read, “showed up in the lobby of the theater and played a bit for the disappointed patrons.”

I thought of a story told by Schuyler Chapin at Bill Buckley’s table. One of Chapin’s many roles in life had been tour manager to Jascha Heifetz. One day, Heifetz was scheduled to play in South Dakota. Or was it North? I forget. One of the Dakotas, anyway. There was a terrible storm. Just a few people were able to show up.

Heifetz went to the foot of the stage and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, why don’t we just retire to my hotel and have a nice dinner?” A man in the back called out, “Mister, I drove for two hours in a blizzard to get here, and I’m not leaving until you sing something!”

(Heifetz, please know, was a violinist, not a singer — hence the charm of the story.) (Have I condescended? One of the hardest things to know, in writing, is how much information to give.)

‐For an article of mine in City Arts, go here. Under consideration: Renée Fleming (soprano), Miranda Cuckson (violinist), and Michael Hersch (composer).

‐One of the most striking things I’ve read in the last month came from David Thomson, the film critic. Of the actress Rachel Weisz, he said, “Yes, she’s Jewish and unwilling to do anything to mask it — including putting a damper on her vigorous intellect.” (The full article is here.)

“Unwilling to do anything to mask it”! Love it. (And Rachel.)

‐I quickly saw a headline: “Rep: Owen Wilson and girlfriend expecting a baby.” I thought, “That’s interesting. A congressman and his girlfriend are pregnant. That’s really not a problem in America? A sign of the times.” Then I read more closely: “Rep” was followed by a colon then “Owen Wilson . . .” Ah! We’re talking about the PR representative of an actor. That makes perfect sense.

Who would get married in Hollywood? Of course, the whole nation became Hollywood, some years ago . . .

‐I want you to know — or rather, I want those who care to know to know — that my NRO archive contains not only columns but Corner posts. Sometimes people will write and say, “Why haven’t you addressed such-and-such in Impromptus?” And the answer is — I have addressed it in the Corner (or not at all, true).

Anyway . . .




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