Martyrs or Victims?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Alvaro Vargas Llosa discusses a weeks-long hunger strike by Cuban political prisoners and public shows of support in the streets of Cuba by "Ladies in White." Although he holds that the world has been riveted by the drama for weeks, I must confess that this is the first I've heard of it. But then the story has had to compete for attention with Barack Obama's crusade to make the United States more like Cuba (much to Fidel Castro's pleasure).

Two things about this article pique my interest.

First, Vargas notes that during the hunger strikes:

[A] group of women symbolically dressed in white are also putting their lives on the line by taking to the streets day in and day out against the Castro brothers, whom they consider the murderers of [Black Spring prisoner Orlando] Zapata and those who might follow. The Ladies In White -- mothers, wives and sisters of the Cuban political prisoners incarcerated in the 2003 crackdown -- have been kicked, punched, headlocked, dragged through the streets, insulted and arrested by mobs of government thugs. And they have not flinched. [bold added]
If any time seemed especially ripe to lend moral support to Cuban dissidents or aid an overthrow of the communist dictatorship there, now certainly does. Vargas hopefully notes the rise of civil society in Cuba.

Second, Vargas grapples provocatively with the concept of "martyrdom." He makes a valiant effort to understand it, but stops just short of fully grasping why the actions of the hunger strikers and the Ladies in White are good. Vargas is correct to look at the origin of the term and its etymological root in the ancient Greek word for "witness," but seems unclear on precisely what these martyrs are witnessing.

Vargas ends his column amazingly close to the mark with, "As witnesses, they are testifying the truth -- indeed a deadly truth," but the following shows that he remains only tantalizingly close, thanks to the Christian influence on the historical development of the concept:
In his "Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion," Robert Wuthnow states that "a crescive society, one that is weak but on the rise, produces martyrs like those of early Christianity." Their willingness to die "affirms the priority of culture over nature, law and civilization over biological self-interest."
No. What the Cuban prisoners and protestors have witnessed is the fact that, without freedom, there can be for man neither cuture nor nature, neither civilization nor self-interest. These pairs of things are not opposed, but of a piece, as Ayn Rand, who herself escaped from the prison that was Soviet Russia spent much effort making known:
Intellectual freedom cannot exist without political freedom; political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom; a free mind and a free market are corollaries." ("For the New Intellectual," in For the New Intellectual, p. 25.)
Freedom cannot be properly understood, intellectually defended, or enjoyed for very long until more people come to realize that economic and intellectual freedom are two sides of one coin, and why this is so. To the point here, what good is physical life for anyone who cannot think or communicate freely? Rule by criminal gang, as in Cuba, is anything but "nature" or "self-interest."

So long as the hunger strikers remain in prison for their beliefs, they are being deprived of their lives in the proper, human sense of mental and physical freedom: This means that in terms of their own survival as rational beings, the hunger strikes merely hasten what the government is slowly doing to the strikers anyway. They are not sacrificing anything for their beliefs, but demonstrating that life in any sense proper to man is impossible without freedom. The Ladies in White are, probably more than they realize, correct when they call the Castros murderers.

Let's support freedom in Cuba, but let's not mistake the actions of the strikers for the sin, human sacrifice, of their captors. Insofar as the strikers are making a stand for freedom, they are martyrs in the honorable sense of upholding that principle. But it is not this principle that may cause them to die. The cause is the victimization of the strikers by cowards who excuse their imprisonment on altruistic and collectivist grounds, and who leave them only starvation as a means of illustrating what they already know to be true.

The Cuban hunger strikers are both martyrs for freedom and victims of statism.

-- CAV

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