During the rise of socialism in the early 20th century, a term emerged from among European communist commentators and leaders to describe those individuals—largely British or American—who had but a faint conception of the nature and intentions of the ideas being enacted in Russia at the time, yet who praised it without reservation as noble and progressive. The term that they chose, appropriately crude, was “useful idiots.” This particular class of politicians, commentators, essayists, playwrights, activists, and celebrities who praised the rise of socialism in this way were not unique to that time. Though the names and faces would change with the years, the same types of personalities would come to praise the rise of fascism under Mussolini and the Nazis in the 1930s—that is, until they cowered at the sight of the ideas that they praised being put consistently into practice in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the fields of Dachau, in the prison camps of Siberia and the vacant villages of Central Asia. Journalists, artists, and intellectuals have long reveled in cavorting with the world’s oppressors. Sadly, despite the consistent reproach of history, they continue now, unabated, to grasp at hollow appearances in mourning the loss of a petty tyrant in Hugo Chavez.
Hugo Chavez’s fourteen years as president of Venezuela were marked by falling living standards for the poor, manipulation of oil production to keep energy prices high and Chavez rich, the embezzling from the oil industry of more than $100 billion dollars by Chavez and those close to him, the promotion of drug kingpins to high ranking public office, stacking of the Supreme Court with judges who handed unprecedented power to Chavez time and again, the imprisonment of a federal judge who dared to rule against Chavez’s regime, the imprisonment and punishment of those who criticized him in the press, the suspension of broadcasting licenses of stations that dared to criticize him, his provision of moral and material support to groups that vowed to murder US citizens, provision of training grounds for Hezbollah, encouragement of and alliance with the murderous Islamic Republic of Iran, Chavez’s performance as mediator between Hezbollah and drug cartels in Mexico and Ecuador, the exacerbation of cartel violence in Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia, and the attempt to abrogate the Venezuelan people’s right to vote, instituting himself as president for life. This, as with any enumeration of crimes committed by dictators, is but an abbreviated list that neglects the daily injustices performed by such a man and his regime.
Granted: Chavez was far from the worst dictator in the world—even among those living today. Nonetheless, it is imminently appropriate to pronounce unequivocal moral condemnation on a regime that denies the freedom of its own people and promotes the initiation of force abroad. It is thus surprising to witness the outpouring of sympathy and regrets from such publications as the New York Times, Huffington Post, The Nation, and the Guardian, as well as individuals such as Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), Joe Kennedy, actor Sean Penn, filmmaker Oliver Stone, and President Jimmy Carter. They refer to his concern for the poor without reference to his economic policies that drove up the cost of living, to his expropriation of oil dollars for social welfare programs without reference to the way in which his price gouging drove up the cost of food and basic necessities, and to his ‘hero[ism]’ without reference to his total mockery of the electoral system and the will of the Venezuelan people.
In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the mining magnate Francisco D’Anconia said, “Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.” It is fair to say the same of what a man finds heroic. His vision of a hero is the summative incarnation of his moral values and the standard by which he measures his own actions in life. What, then, does it say of Oliver Stone to deem such a man as Chavez to be “heroic”? What does it say of Jimmy Carter to admire Chavez’s “vision” when faced with a picture so disheartening as judges imprisoned and journalists living in fear? What does it say of Carter that he wrote a more amicable, praiseful statement at Chavez’s death than at the death of his 1980 presidential opponent Ronald Reagan? Finally: what role do such eager purveyors of praise play in the promotion of dictatorship?
At the side of each of history’s most brutal dictators has stood an enabler, one who seeks control not over men’s bodies but over their minds. For every Attila, there is a Witch Doctor. For every one who seeks control over men’s bodies, there is one who seeks control of their minds. For every destroyer of bodies, there is a destroyer of souls (sometimes, whole universities of them). Dictatorships of the modern world are not achieved simply by brute, physical force. For every tank, there is a treatise. For every bullet, an idea—a concept of man and his role in this world: to whom his life belongs, whether and to whom he should sacrifice, who should be obeyed, and how he should know it. A culture is defined by its ideas and the individuals who shape them, and those who give vocal support for the world’s oppressors should receive the same moral condemnation as those who support them economically and militarily. Fortunately, the solution is a simple one: never neglecting to pronounce moral condemnation in the face of atrocity, never pardoning the unpardonable, and adhering always to the principles of reason and individual rights. As the philosopher Leonard Peikoff wrote, “To save the world is the simplest thing in the world. All one has to do is think.”