Monthly Archives: November 2016

More reflections on Cuba

'This year my daughter qualifies as a doctor. Thank you.' Claudia Yilén Paz Joa via Cubadebate

‘This year my daughter qualifies as a doctor.
Thank you.’
Photo: Claudia Yilén Paz Joa via Cubadebate



Cuba is going through a period, not just a moment, a thrilling period of changes. I think they were changes that reality had been incubating, that were not born like Athena from the head of some god. They were born from the energy accumulated by a society that is capable of changing, and that is the proof that it is alive.

Eduardo Galeano, visiting Cuba in 2012.

It’s important to stress that Fidel Castro was not a doctor or nurse, nor was he a schoolteacher. So when the Cuban health and education systems are widely -and rightly- praised, it needs to be borne in mind that there is no single figure with whom it originated, nor a single figure maintaining it. These are things built collectively, and we should not fall into the trap of thinking that they begin or end with Fidel (who was well aware of this), and hence that their defence in the here and now is neither here nor there.

One frustrating thing has come to the fore for me in recent days. I’m not sure how best to describe it, but it is something like the luxury people afford themselves of applying universal criteria to a particular situation of which they only have a partial understanding, combined with a refusal to see how that particular situation fits in with a broader whole. It might be summarised and simplified as hypocrisy, but there is more to it than that.

Let us take the example of people of the repressive aspects of Cuba following the Revolution. I agree completely with the idea that you cannot excuse repression simply because it occurs under straitened and dangerous circumstances. But a lot of people, while acknowledging the fact of US imperialism, place it, and its consequences in Cuba, on a plane of equivalence to internal repression by the Cuban authorities.

Thus people say “Yes, US imperialism is terrible but even so…” I get the feeling that this ‘It’s terrible but..’ operates as the same kind of disavowal you hear in “I’m not racist but..” (and more genteel variations). The effect is to say: let’s set aside US imperialism for the moment.

But what justifies your decision to set it aside? What allows you to separate one thing from the other in this way? What actual values and principles underpin your criticism of Cuba at this particular moment?

In his book with Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro talks about witnessing, in the Sierra Maestre, the bombing conducted by the Batista regime with rockets provided by the US. He writes a message saying it will be his destiny to fight against the United States. Then, reflecting on this forty or so years later, he talks about the millions killed and mutilated in Vietnam, the destruction of the Vietnamese jungle with napalm, and:

the tortures in the prison at Abu Ghraib, the use of white phosphorous in Fallujah… Look at the dictatorships they imposed, the torturers educated by tens of thousands in institutions created for that in the US, those who ‘disappeared’ ten or twenty or thirty thousand Argentinians, whose children were stolen from them; I saw those who “disappeared” more than one hundred thousand Guatemalans- “disappear!”. If you add to this the repression in Chile and you add all the horrible things that have happened, a Dominican Republic in tremendous difficulties, with the Trujillo regime supported by the North Americans, created by them, the same as that of Somoza in Nicaragua…

One may be entirely at odds with the way that Cuba is run now, and how it was run with Fidel Castro in command. But I cannot see how an onlooker with little to say otherwise about the events Castro names above -which are all facts- can suspend these facts from view when considering Cuba, and leave it at that.

That is, if Fidel Castro was wrong, what was the right way of confronting this? I should stress: this does not mean Fidel Castro was right. It means that you have to have an alternative in mind, and one that goes beyond abstractions such as ‘movement from below’, or ‘respecting human rights’, and into concrete actions.

If you have no proposal -and I do not have any great solutions myself- then by default, you are saying the alternative is to submit.

This is not a matter of counterfactual history either. These facts are present in the here and now. It will not do to express admiration for Cuba’s health and education system whilst having nothing to say about a global dynamic that seeks to eliminate even the possibility that such achievements can be built or maintained anywhere. It will not do to be concerned about the oppression of LGBTQ people in Cuba -which was real, and horrific for those subjected to it, but major advances have been made- and yet have nothing to say, for example, about the disastrous consequences for LGBTQ people in Honduras following the US-backed coup in 2009. The continuum of life on this planet is not so easily split into discrete parcels. As Sartre said: we are all in the same soup.

In far too many cases, my sense is that this criticism I have described is mere opportunism, and that it has nothing to do with a genuine interest in what Cubans actually think, what they have fought for and indeed continue to fight for, or even with a preparedness to try and reach the facts of the matter.

What is interesting for me here, and ironic too, is that when I was in Cuba I spoke with plenty of people about politics, not only in relation to Cuba (and yes, they were often very critical of how things were going there) and the US, but throughout the world.

What I found -and I see no need to claim that this is representative, but it is one of the abiding memories of being there- was that they were better at listening than me, better at asking questions than me, more knowledgeable about the world than me, and better at dialogue. On reflection now it seems to me that people in these parts are far too quick to luxuriate in the criticism of the absence of democracy and democratic culture elsewhere, when they have not even thought about building their own yet.

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Beacons of Human Rights

There are 10.3 million people in Haiti. The UN estimates that there are 130,000 people living with HIV there, of whom some 9,500 are children under 14.

There are 11.3 million people in Cuba. The UN estimates that there are 22,000 people living with HIV there, of whom less than 100 are children under 14. The prevalence rate among adults aged 15 to 49 is estimated at 0.3%. In Haiti it is 1.7%.

One of the biggest private investors in Haiti is Digicel, mostly owned by Denis O’Brien. Denis O’Brien, though an Irish citizen, is resident in Malta as he does not wish to pay more tax in Ireland. He owns newspapers and radio stations in Ireland, all of which spread the common sense that the country should be run like a business, that low corporation taxes are proper order, that public services should be privatised, and that public sector workers hold the country to ransom. The Beacon Hospital group, also owned by Denis O’Brien, is part of a major provider of private healthcare in Ireland.

Strangely enough, we do not hear a great deal in Ireland about the human rights of people with HIV in Haiti.


Beacon: Ireland’s capitalist paradise

The Beacon Hospital group has a hospital in Sandyford, built during the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, with tax break investments and Ulster Bank debt. Former Taoiseach and minister for health, Brian Cowen, is a non-executive director of the Beacon Hospital group. Its Deputy CEO, Brian Fitzgerald, was previously CEO of St. James’s Hospital, a public hospital. Its Chairman, Colm Doherty, was appointed managing director of AIB bank in November 2009, following the €21bn State bailout of the bank. He was paid €432,000 in salary, €707,000 in a termination payment, and a cash payment of €2m, following his ten months in charge.

Strangely enough, there is not much in the press as to why Ireland does not have universal healthcare.

The plain facts of Ireland’s two-tier health system -foremost among these the fact that wealth determines your health- seldom make headline news. We hear stories broadcast of its disasters, and in many cases these are followed by advertisements for the Beacon Hospital or the Blackrock Clinic. It all appears to have nothing to do with human rights.

What has made headline news, in the past two days, is Michael D Higgins’s -perfectly sensible and correct- statement on Fidel Castro’s passing. Apparently Cuba’s human rights record is the problem. The concern with human rights anywhere, on the part of Ireland’s media and political establishment, is news in itself. It is hard to recall any questions raised about Britain’s human rights record in Ireland -its death squads, its torture of prisoners, its shoot-to-kill policies- when the British head of state was given a lavish reception back in 2011. Nor for that matter when the Saudi flag was flown at half mast on official buildings following the death of its head of state. Well, questions were raised, but only by those habitually classified as troublemakers and malcontents. And they were ignored. As for Shannon Airport, used to transport prisoners to Cuba for torture -but in Guantánamo Bay- well, the rights of local people to sell sandwiches to US troops have to be borne in mind.

Whatever about Cuba and Fidel Castro, anything that appears as a challenge to capitalism, in capitalist societies, will either be demonised or incorporated by the mass media and commercial firms. It was not so long ago that a private health insurance provider in Ireland -Vivas- (even the name suggests a rally of revolutionaries) ran a TV ad campaign advertising its products, which, let us recall, are designed to allow people with money to skip the queue for healthcare, with a Fidel-like figure announcing a revolution in healthcare, to the acclaim of cheering crowds. No human rights concerns were raised.

You see, the current manufactured outrage about Michael D Higgins marking the death of Fidel Castro has absolutely nothing to do with a concern for human rights in Cuba and everything to do with making sure that the public at large doesn’t start getting any crazy ideas about socialism that an informed discussion might arouse.

Across the water, meanwhile, it appears that BBC news is, like its Irish counterpart, far more devoted to the question of human rights in Cuba than ever it was to the question of human rights in that part of the UK where its government ran death squads and tortured prisoners. I note it is far more devoted to the question of human rights in Cuba than ever it was to the British government’s plans for the UK army to opt out of the European convention on human rights. I see them, and I see all the grandstanding media commentators and columnists with Oxbridge degrees masquerading as the guardians of true left values. They all deserve to be swept away by a hurricane, like the one in the final pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

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Notes on finding things out about Cuba


‘Raul is dead’

This is about Cuba, but about access to accurate information more generally.

There are many claims made about Cuban society, history and politics, and Fidel Castro in particular, that are bizarre and untrue, but they are intended to perpetuate a negative image, not only of Castro and Cuba, but also of any challenge to capitalism. There are also many such claims that offer a negative image of Castro and Cuba because they are true.

It is always important to distinguish myth from reality, but particularly important, I feel, in relation to Cuba, precisely because the US sought to make an example out of it, to teach peoples around the world what would happen if they mounted resistance to capitalism. Part of this entailed circulating myths about it.

Contrary to the notion that we have landed rather abruptly in a ‘post-truth’ society, the dominant picture offered up of Cuba in Western societies has always been a deliberate distortion. Of course, in order to make the distortion convincing it is necessary to provide elements of truth.

Let’s recognise that this distortion has been a means of propagating indifference to the miseries inflicted on the Cuban people by US imperialism, and of justifying the miseries inflicted. What is more, this distortion has always ignored the remarkable efforts of the Cuban people in seeking to overcome these miseries, and preferred to present them as mere pawns in the game of a malevolent Castro.

Let’s recognise, moreover, that a key purpose of the miseries inflicted was to undermine support for Castro and the Cuban Revolution both inside and outside Cuba.

None of this should be taken as seeking to diminish any of the shortcomings or excesses of the Cuban Revolution, which are real and considerable. But it is important not to repeat myth as fact. The trouble is that separating myth from fact, not least in this particular case, requires work, attention, inquiry and discussion.

Let me give one example. A while ago, a British writer made the claim on Twitter, repeating a claim on the US website The Daily Beast, that George Orwell was banned in Cuba. To me this claim did not ring true. And so I asked a Cuban journalist -one who had recently published articles criticising government policy- to confirm. He said it was false.

When I brought this claim to the attention of the writer in question he said, in high-handed dismissal, that the journalist was unreliable because there was no freedom of expression in Cuba. So, I went and gathered substantial evidence that the claim was false. Now it was also the case that there had been so-called ‘independent libraries’, apparently funded by the US Interests Section in Havana, which had been the subject of investigation by the Cuban authorities. And so it had been claimed that ‘Orwell was banned in Cuba’ because Animal Farm and 1984 were supposedly among the titles being circulated by these ‘libraries’. Well, the point is that all this requires time and effort to unpick and get to the truth, and in the end I was not able to complete in good time what I set out to do. As such, I ‘lost’ the argument.

Let’s take the particular example of ‘freedom of expression’ in Cuba. It is all very well to say that there is insufficient freedom of expression in Cuba. In fact, it is true. But it will not do to claim, on the one hand, that you are in favour of freedom of expression, but on the other, you propagate myths with indifference to the facts or the potential effects of what you are propagating.

Let’s take another example, that of LGBT rights. It is unquestionably true that LGBT people were imprisoned and oppressed following the Cuban Revolution. But it is also true that Castro acknowledged his responsibility in this regard and that substantial progress has been made. Once again, it takes time and effort to get to the truth, not least because there are many who are all too happy to perpetuate the idea that there has been no progress and that the country is irredeemable in this regard (until, of course, it converts to neoliberalism), but also because there is a language barrier and information can be difficult to access. This morning, I spent a couple of hours reading different reports on the treatment of people with HIV, and interviews with Mariela Castro of the National Centre for Sexual Education. The picture to me seems a positive contrast to many of the claims being made. But I am not interested in producing rosy pictures to confirm my own desires, so I need to look at it further. And I might write something about it, or, I might not, given other commitments.

In sum, if people are actually interested in knowing the reality of the situation, as opposed to convenient high-handed dismissals depending on the source, if they actually care about what happens in Cuba and its consequences for the rest of the world, they ought to make some sort of concerted effort to find out, rather than seek out some snappy summation to cement whatever view they hold most convenient.

PS: Readers are likely to recall examples from their own encounters with news media, of major political figures from Western governments speaking about how this or that crime attributed to Muslims did not correspond to the ‘true Islam’, or the ‘real Islam’. They may wish to gather examples, in all the coverage concerning Fidel Castro and Cuba, of similar figures speaking about how Cuba does not correspond to ‘true socialism’. I imagine they will find none, since the image of Cuba, the one media outlets produce, is, as far as they are concerned, a faithful representation of ‘true socialism’, and, as far as they are concerned, any such question regarding what socialism constitutes can now be consigned to the dustbin of history.

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The Home With No Keys

I was surprised by the death of Fidel Castro. I had expected him to live to 100 at least. That expectation was heightened from witnessing so much lap-frotting down the years from news outlets anticipating his imminent death.

Today I have seen a lot of people give their verdict on Cuba based on a short visit. When I was in Cuba, a woman there gave her verdict on Ireland based on a short visit. I didn’t like Ireland, she said. I was in Leixlip for three months. I stayed in a house there. It was so lonely and cold. Here in Cuba we have scarcity, but we have solidarity.

We had arranged to meet, in front of the Cathedral in Havana, because her son had asked me to deliver some things to her. There was a book fair on that day, and to thank me she gave me an anthology of Gabriel García Márquez’s journalism (there’s a great piece in García Márquez’s book on all the assassination attempts on Fidel). It felt like far too much, since it had been no trouble for me to bring along a consignment of trainers, chocolates, painkillers, razorblades and pens. It also felt strange since I can’t imagine anyone in Ireland giving a book to someone they didn’t know for performing a small favour.

That meeting came to mind by chance a few hours before the news came that Fidel Castro had died. I remembered what she said about the house in Leixlip after I did a translation of a poem by Marcos Ana.

Marcos Ana

Marcos Ana

Marcos Ana, a Spanish poet, died on Thursday. ‘Marcos Ana’ is a pseudonym: Marcos was his father’s name and Ana his mother’s. He was from a poor family of day labourers. He went to the front in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, aged 16, then joined the Spanish Communist Party. His father was killed the following year, in a bombing raid by the Condor Legion of the Third Reich. Marcos Ana wound up in a concentration camp, and was then sentenced to death for murder, and later had the sentence commuted to 30 years in prison, because he had supposedly committed the crimes as a minor. He spent 23 years imprisoned under the Francoist dictatorship.

The image below shows him in Cuba, with Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother. He kept this photo on display in his house.


When Che Guevara was found in Bolivia, the poems of Marcos Ana were found in his rucksack.

Marcos Ana wrote this poem (my translation):

My home and my heart
(dream of freedom)

If one day I go out into life
my home will have no keys:
always open, like the sea,
the sun and the air.

Let night and day come on in,
and the blue rain, the evening,
the red bread of the dawn;
The moon, my sweet lover.

Do not let friendship halt
its steps at my threshold,
nor the swallow its flight,
nor love its lips. No-one.

My home and my heart
never closed: come on in
birds, friends
the sun and the air.

I don’t have much to say about Fidel Castro’s death right now. My feeling is that it would be better to let the general outpouring of idiocy pass. I am talking about the kind of people who have nothing to say about US imperialism in Cuba- invasions, terrorist bombings, swine fever, dengue, and a crippling embargo- and yet feel free to hold forth on human rights in Cuba.

I am talking about the kind of people -in Ireland- whose political and religious forebears backed the efforts of the Condor Legion that wiped out Marcos Ana’s father but who, ignoring such facts, feel free to talk about democracy in Cuba.

I am talking about the kind of people who would have you believe that progress -in the form of free healthcare, or free education, or the right to culture- is a gracious concession from capitalism, and likely just around the corner once the unions have been properly buried and public institutions subjected to market forces, rather than something won through the flesh-and-blood struggle, the solidarity and the conscious striving of many millions, with their symbols of defiance and resistance, and, among them, the poems of Marcos Ana and the example of Fidel Castro.

For this kind of people, the dream of freedom stops at keys to a house. What the rest of us have to fight for is the home with no keys. Hasta siempre.


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A Note on ‘Narcissism’

For God knows how many months now Donald Trump has been denounced in liberal media and by public figures for his narcissism. He is a narcissist, says Michael Moore, for example, who makes feature documentaries where he is the central character.

Well, maybe he is. I am intrigued though about where this preoccupation with narcissism comes from. I’m no expert on psychoanalysis but from what I recall narcissism was a term that described a tendency, or maybe a striving, inherent in everyone but one that could prove destructive if it could not be somehow transcended. So there is something that sounds a bit wonky to me when someone in particular is identified as a ‘narcissist’.

To me (yes, to me) what seems more important is the fact that Trump is the ultimate incarnation of a greedy capitalist pig (with apologies to pigs). So I wonder why It is self-regard, and not greed, that seems the more deplorable characteristic.

One possibility is that the charge of narcissism is one of the few things you have left in a world where greed is taken for granted. If everyone is compelled to be greedy then no-one needs to be, as they say, called out on it.

Once you assume that the capitalist market is a fine invention then you can view greed in instrumental terms, the way Adam Smith did: who cares if he wants to make as much money as possible if by doing so he contributes to the greater good?

This is a viewpoint shared not only by the likes of the Heritage Foundation but also by someone like Barack Obama. But Obama and the like are able to present this as an endeavour in the service of the greater good, and anyway it seldom gets challenged by whoever is interviewing him or writing about him.

What must make Trump so obnoxious, in this regard, is how he does not play along with this game and instead boasts about how rich he is. It also appears that quite a lot of people like him for it. Maybe they feel a sort of inner liberation from having someone say: I’m really rich, I do whatever the hell I need to to get even richer, and no, I don’t give a shit about anyone, and neither should you if you don’t feel like it.

Then it comes as a shock to people who believe in the magic of representative democracy that so many people in the privacy of the polling booth, where no-one is ever going to judge you as a narcissist, think to themselves: I’m having some of what he’s having.


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The Marks of an Enemy

'The millionaire worker' By El Roto, El País. Title: 'Populism'

‘The millionaire worker’
By El Roto, El País. Title: ‘Populism’

Do you ever wake up and think: a bit more cruelty in my life would be just the thing?

Maybe you don’t think that. Maybe you think: there are some people who need a good dose of proper order. They may not like it, but it will be all for the best. You have to be cruel to be kind.

Maybe you joke about shooting some group of transport workers who are threatening to go on strike. Or maybe you hear someone make the joke and you chuckle at the audacity of it.

Some man says it, on the radio, on the TV, or in the news report you read. Maybe you feel a kind of admiration for him. Is he not the kind of fellow who will tell it like it is?

Does he not seem like the kind of fellow who is needed to put these politicians, or these public sector workers, or these Eurocrats, back in their box? What would it be like to have that kind of power?

LOVE HIM OR HATE HIM. That is how the news feature on his latest ‘controversial’ remarks begins. Reading that, which do you feel more of towards him – love, or hate?

Michael O’Leary is the CEO of Ryanair. He recently spoke at a Fine Gael breakfast fundraiser. He makes jokes about shooting cyclists. He says the EU seeks to become some sort of fucking communist Valhalla. When workers are protesting in airports, he stands in front of them and courts publicity for himself, promoting cheap fares.

Lots of people think he should be the head of government in Ireland. That he should be sent over to Brussels to negotiate with Europe on our behalf. Maybe you think that behind closed doors, things are different. All this is a front, a persona. He does not really mean those things and he is far more circumspect and canny, far more in tune with good business sense and pragmatism. You imagine that he is only riling people up because it serves his own ends, his bottom line. You could be right. Maybe this makes him all the more admirable to you.

Is there not something alluring about appearing disgusting to so many people, but concealing secret virtues that no-one really knows about, and can only speculate about?

A couple of days ago, RTÉ, Ireland’s public broadcaster, ran a feature, on its daytime TV show, on people in Doonbeg, County Clare who were celebrating Donald Trump’s victory.

The locals were buzzing with pleasure about Trump’s election. The parish priest made an appearance, admitting to have said prayers for him to win. The interviewer asked about all the offensive remarks Trump had made during the campaign.

I do not recall, since I only watched it the once, if it was the priest or someone else, who said in response that Trump had had a bad first half, but that he had come good in the second half to pick up the victory. He seemed to suggest that you have to play dirty sometimes, so that you can come good in the end.

It was a brief window onto the same country where the press presents men who murder their partners and children first and foremost as ‘pillars of the community’.

The worst part of the video for me was when they picked out the one dissenter. She was the one person who was not pleased with Trump’s victory. She muddled through with the mildest and politest of objections. When I watched, it felt to me like all the eyes in the room were searing into her, that all the jaws in the room had gone rigid, that the air in the room had gone dead while she was speaking, all conveying the message to her: don’t fuck this up for us.

Later I thought: was I right to think such a thing? Maybe the same person, if pressed afterwards, after the sing-song the locals put on for Melania, on whether she felt any pressure, would have said: not at all.

She might have said, I said all I had to say and I was happy with what I said. No, I suppose he is not a sexual predator or a racist or any of that, I am surrounded by great people here and I hope he will come good in the end.

And then I thought that that kind of denial, that kind of outward expression of hope for a silver lining, in spite of the glaring evidence to the contrary, and this feeling of not knowing at all what someone really thinks: these are the marks left by the winner, by the enemy.

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On That Choice

I found myself watching a live video feed on Facebook, waiting for Hillary Clinton’s Press conference to begin. There were five or maybe 10 minutes of a shot of 12 American flags,and there were peppy, ‘socially conscious’ tunes playing in the background as people waited. The camera then turned on the left of the chamber, where there were two secret service agents or maybe corporate lawyers in suits, standing around. After a minute or so of enduring this I abandoned my morbid curiosity and went off to raid what remains of the children’s Hallowe’en stash of sweets.

What was I waiting for? I expect nothing of Hillary Clinton and there I was, lingering so that she would provide it. From what I could pick up off Twitter and news reports a little later, nothing she said was in line with my expectations. There were a couple of things, though, that give me some pause for thought. She said that American constitutional democracy demands continuous participation, and not just voting.

Coming from the professional politician par excellence, atop a Wall Street-funded machine that uses polling data and focus groups in place of real democratically organised institutions and that exists only to make sure that the decisions that matter are kept safely in the hands of the ‘experts’ and that the range of issues up for public debate is kept as small as possible and within the narrowest parameters possible, the remark is not without a hint of piquant irony.

She also said, calling for (the racist misogynist conman liar and thug) Donald Trump to be given recognition as the president, that people in her country had to cherish the principle of the peaceful handover of power. One might add here that this principle is not deemed to apply, by the state department that she used to run, to other countries. Such as Honduras. Or Chile, where her trusted friend Henry Kissinger had other ideas, or in Palestine, where Clinton supported placing a population under brutal siege because of the government it elected, and rued the fact that more had not been done to subvert the elections.

For all that, I still find myself regretting the fact that Trump won and Clinton lost, simply because the effect of a Trump victory will be far worse on the lives of people who did not elect him, on the tens of millions who voted against him because they knew the licence his victory would give to the resentments of White America.

In this regard, it is one thing for such people to demand of their own accord that they be recognised as American citizens the equal of anyone else in the country. It is quite another for them to be told by the likes of Hillary Clinton that since they are Americans, the President of White America is their President too, and that he should be welcomed with an open mind.

Once Clinton and her colleagues, along with the US political, military and media establishments, have seen to it that Trump is safely ensconced in the White House, the siren warnings from those quarters about fascism and Nazism will peter out to silence. The idea that Russia is pulling the strings of the US President will die before it is even born. What once appeared (and what are in fact) Trump’s dangerous predilections will be boiled down to appear as occasionally infuriating eccentricities. Perhaps common cause will be found, across the ‘political divide’, for the chanting of USA! USA!, against some foreign devil or some band of local malcontents, and it may begin to dawn on people that many of those warning of the threat from barbarism were part of the barbarism all along.

In the choice between socialism and barbarism, it is already too late, but then again, it always was.

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