I want to discuss a topic that I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. It’s difficult to put into words, but I will do my best. It’s about the habit of mystification, a method of propaganda that is generally used by powerful institutions, people, governments and similar bodies and structures from actuaries and functionaries, to academics and punditry.
It is the art of narrating otherness purely through distinction, this creates mystical and seemingly impossible places, countries and people. It defines other things through its most extreme distinctions, whether such distinctions hold significance or relevance to the lives and experiences of the people or populace in question.
A good example of this is for instance the middle ages. Take something very extreme and in fairness, quite barbaric, such as the breaking wheel. The breaking wheel was an instrument of public execution that essentially involved controlling the populace by terror through a spectacle of very unpleasant violence wherein you ritualistically beat a condemned prisoner to death.
It was staged with dramatic showmanship, and would send a clear deterrent to the populace about who was in charge and what rules to follow. To a modern person, we look upon the spectacle, upon the distinctions, and we see a great horror. After all, how could people just stand there and look on? Why didn’t they rebel or riot? How did they get away with this abject tyranny for so long?
But ask yourself this, what will make people in 500 years think the same of you and how your society existed? We have people who sleep in the streets, children who mine conflict minerals, we pollute and destroy ecosystems for profit. We fill our air with poisons because it’s profitable, even though we have cheaper and more effective technology and infrastructure to prevent this.
Each year, millions of people get diagnosed with asthma, lung cancer, tuberculosis and similar problems simply because of how oil companies are good at protecting their bottom line by buying politicians and keeping nationalisation at bay.
We can replace hundreds of trucks with a single freight train. We can replace thousands of cars with a single bus or carriage. We can save future generations for ecological disasters, famines, resource wars and refugee crises just by implementing technology that we’ve had for over a century.
It is hard to get a clear estimate of just how many people that were killed by execution during the middle ages, and it also depends on how you count it. But we do know for a fact that it is not as high a number as some might think. This is because it worked.
Since these horrific punishments were intended to rule by terror, then it meant you needed to make an example of relatively few people in order to keep the rest in line. If this didn’t work, and they were simply looking to erase troublesome citizens, then there would’ve been very little purpose to such extreme violence. Ethics aside, it would’ve been a very wasteful habit both in terms of labour as well as resources.
When we look at folklore and the few surviving perspectives of peasant life in the middle ages, then we see a surprisingly idyllic life. It was certainly hard. Life expectancy was cut short by disease, famine, war and general lack of health and safety. But we don’t really see anything resembling a police state.
I wouldn’t want to be a peasant in the middle ages, it would’ve been an oppressive existence in many ways. You were under the lash of both landlord and clergy alike. But on the other hand, you had plenty of free time, lots of beautiful nature, music, poetry and community. Peasants found access to a wide variety of hobbies, crafts, festivals, traditions and not to mention friendships.
When you demystify life in the middle ages, then you realise that we probably had more things in common with the ordinary people there than we do differences, and that they would be just as successful at judging us as we would them.
In fact, even the idea that peasants were stupid just because they were illiterate would likely have been met with some pretty impressive comebacks. Do you play a musical instrument? Do you know how to brew your own beer? Or make your own medicine? Or navigate the woods without a map or a compass? Peasants were actually very smart and industrious, and even illiteracy is exaggerated.
Since peasants lived communally, you didn’t really need everyone to read, you just needed one or two people who could read things out loud. I know this for a fact since I knew a guy who was illiterate. His country didn’t get full literacy until after WW2, and even then it took a long time since the Nazis had destroyed everything and burned millions of books.
So what did he do when he needed to read something? He’d knock on my door. And before he knew me, he’d knock on someone else’s door. That’s why being a scribe was a specialist occupation in the middle ages. As long as two illiterate people had access to scribes, they could communicate with letters just as well as anyone else.
And it’s not that different from how people in modern times use email. Since I doubt you’d be able to fluently read raw unicode inputs.
And the easiest way to combat this mystification, whether it is about the past such as the middle ages, or perhaps a foreign country that is stigmatised by the media like Cuba or Iran, or whatever else, then it’s worth examining these places from the premise that people live ordinary lives there. They go to work, they talk to people, they have supper in the evening, they laugh at jokes and they put their hands in their pockets when they wait for the bus.
When you examine things with the premise that, if people live there and life seems pretty consistent, then chances are the place is more mundane than stories and sensational media would have you believe.
Cuba is a good example there. Cuba is actually a very peaceful country, and the people there live ordinary lives. It’s true that the cold war and the US embargo caused immense economic problems, and that people often have to be very resourceful to survive, but to give you an example of how difficult it is for the US Government to stigmatise Cuba, I would use the example of the La Cabaña trials.
After the Cuban revolution, the new government held a series of trials of the old government. This included politicians, police chiefs, plantation owners, mercenaries, army officials, and similar people. The crimes they were accused of were things like torture, rape, extortion, murder, corruption and basically really nasty war crimes. It was like the Cuban equivalent of the Nuremberg trials.
They had citizens who oversaw the trials, they had public support based on a census of one million Cuban citizens, and frankly, as far as military trials go, they were very democratic. Most military trials do not permit judgement by civilian peers.
And the accused war criminals in question were found guilty of as many as 20,000+ murders. Involving everything from massacres in broad daylight, to outright torture.
As a result, a few hundred people complicit in these war crimes were executed.
In some ways it was of course very nasty and unpleasant. But in other ways I would argue that if you are part of a military dictatorship that kills 20,000+ of its own citizens, then maybe you run the risk of being tried for war crimes and sentenced to death at a time when most countries in the world still had the death penalty in military trials.
I think that if you torture and kill thousands of innocent people just because you percieve them as weak peasants who cannot fight back, and then suddenly find yourself with a blindfold and a cigarette, then maybe you’re not the most sympathetic individual of this story.
I’m not glad people die, in some principled sense I consider it a tragedy that it had to happen, but on some other level I also think they made their own bed. If you don’t want to be killed by a bunch of outraged revolutionaries, then maybe don’t murder and exploit people. Seems reasonable to me. I am ambivalent towards their fates.
Perhaps in some ideal world they could’ve found redemption, maybe there was something good in them… but I think it’s weird how an ideal world would have horrible war criminals to begin with, so not even idealism checks out here.
All in all, I am not entirely sympathetic to these martyrs of Batista’s dictatorship.
“I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed “an innocent”. Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason or crimes such as rape, torture or murder. I should add that my research spanned five years, and included anti-Castro Cubans among the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and elsewhere.”
— Jon Lee Anderson, Journalist for The New Yorker and author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life
The point I am making with this example is that even though these trials and executions happened in 1959, it is still the US Government’s go-to example of how Cubans live in a terrible police state.
A single event that affected a few hundred war criminals in a population numbering millions, over 60 years ago, is their sole narrative for Cuba’s supposed illegitimacy. Imagine if they held Batista to that standard.
In fact, here’s a photo of what the US Government was getting up to at the time, just so we know what a great and meaningful contrast they represent compared to all those police states around the world:
As you can see, the calm streets of Washington really beguile us towards what great wisdom that DC can offer in terms of civic wisdom and lawful governance. To think, the Cubans could’ve had all this, and yet they still decided to follow Castro. It’s bewildering.
And yet, if you live in Washington, is this what your life looks like?
Granted, if you live in a part of Washington that has “wood” in the name, then the answer is probably yes. But for most people, this is a very extreme example of what ordinary life is like. That cuts both ways is my point, and if we apply the same microscope to the US Government as the US Government does to Cuba, then Cuba is going to come out looking very democratic and peaceful compared to the guys who are killing their own citizens in a war on drugs, and that of people abroad in a war on terror.
It doesn’t just measure at a few hundred war criminals. Everything from the opioid epidemic in Florida, to the free fire zones of Afghanistan and Iraq have tallied deaths in the millions.
But because such violence is demystified, delivered in bite sized narratives on the news over the course of several decades, it doesn’t really feel like millions. And yet, in the same measure, by mystifying the Cuban revolution, suddenly a few hundred dead war criminals seem like a decades long repression campaign against some vaguely defined force of “dissent.”
Truth is, a lot of those “political prisoners” in Cuba aren’t in jail because they voiced an opinion, they’re often in jail because they voiced an opinion by setting fire to a police station.
And in some ways I can’t judge them. One reason I quit drinking is because I vandalised a police station. But in another way, I knew the risks and I accepted them.
Thankfully even when I’m drunk I’m actually really good at crime, so I got away with it.
Anyhow, I hope this has given you some things to think about, and how to confront media and doctrines that teach you that the world is a bad place.
The world is not a bad place, it’s just a troubled place. There’s a difference. Jerry Lee Lewis was bad. Johnny Cash on the other hand was troubled.
There’s always something to appreciate about the troubled.