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JEFF JACOBY

Arguable: Irish honors for Cuba’s Cromwell

PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images

A stamp released by Ireland’s post office, An Post, featuring revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

By Globe Columnist 

In the Arguable e-mail newsletter, columnist Jeff Jacoby offers his take on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day. Sign up here.

A stamp for ‘Stalin II’

Ireland’s postal service last week issued a commemorative stamp honoring Che Guevara on the 50th anniversary of his death. The 1-euro stamp features the famous portrait by Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, an image that has been emblazoned for decades on t-shirts, posters, hats, and jackets. A 2-euro postal card issued the same day also contains a quote from Guevara’s father, who was of Irish descent: “In my son’s veins flowed the blood of Irish rebels.”

Actually, in Che Guevara’s veins flowed the blood of a mass murderer and a sadistic terrorist. He was a fanatical zealot who celebrated the power of “unbending hatred” to turn a human being into “an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine.” He was Fidel Castro’s vicious henchman, a monster who helped usher in Cuban communism on a tidal wave of slaughter, a KGB-trained totalitarian who on occasion signed his letters “Stalin II.”

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Like his idol, Che Guevara attached no value to innocent human lives. As chief prosecutor of the new Castro regime, he set about exterminating opponents and dissidents with fervor, to the shock of conscientious attorneys who had believed the revolutionary leaders’ rhetoric about justice and democracy. In a chilling, infuriating 2007 book, the Cuban-born journalist Humberto Fontova describes how idealistic members of the Castro government’s new legal team were ruthlessly told the facts of life:

“What’s the holdup, here?” Che Guevara barked at a commissioner, José Vilasuso, as he stormed into his office in La Cabana. Vilasuso, an honorable man, answered forthrightly that he was gathering and assembling evidence and attempting to determine guilt. Che set him straight. “Quit the dallying! Your job is a very simple one. Judicial evidence is an archaic and secondary bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! We execute from revolutionary conviction.” José Vilasuso quickly fled.

Under the new order, Che emphasized, there was no room for human rights and due process of law. “To execute a man we don’t need proof of his guilt,” he declared. “We only need proof that it’s necessary to execute him.”

Of course Che was motivated by more than mere bloodlust. There was psychopathic cruelty as well:

One mother, Rosa Hernandez, recalls how she begged for a meeting with Che in order to try to save her 17-year-old son, who was condemned without trial to the firing squad. Guevara graciously complied. “Come right in, señora,” said Che as he opened the door to his office. “Have a seat.” Silently he listened to her sobs and pleas, then picked up the phone right in front of her. “Execute the Hernandez boy tonight,” Che barked.

HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

But why should any of this matter to Ireland’s postal authorities? Che Guevara had Irish blood. That’s apparently enough to get him honored on an Irish postage stamp. Who, I wonder, will Dublin honor next? Lee Harvey Oswald? Timothy McVeigh? James “Whitey” Bulger? They had Irish blood too.

This isn’t the first time an Irish government has been keen to honor Castro’s evil sidekick. In 2012, city councilors in Galway proposed to erect a statue in Che Guevara’s honor. Eventually the plan was blocked, perhaps in part because of an impassioned plea by Carlos Eire, a distinguished professor of literature at Yale. He attempted to explain the truth about Che in terms any Irish patriot ought to understand, likening the depraved butcher to a figure from Irish history.

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“To praise Che, one must overlook mountains of evidence concerning his crimes,” wrote Eire, who had fled Cuba as a child:

Everyone in Galway and Ireland should know this: Che has a lot in common with Oliver Cromwell.

Like Cromwell, Che proclaimed himself a liberator and felt justified in committing thousands of atrocities in a land other than his own, all in the name of a higher cause. Like Cromwell, Che stole everyone’s property too, for a sacred purpose.

As for reputation: Cromwell received plenty of good press and adulation from those on his side, just like Che.

To Cromwell’s admirers — and he had plenty who would eagerly build him monuments — the Irish people were inconsequential obstacles to a higher goal, or worse, despicable papist wretches who deserved no mercy.

At least one Irish politician is appalled by the new stamp. Neale Richmond, a Fine Gael senator, condemned the “terrible” decision to honor Che, “given his role as a barbaric interrogator, jailer, and executioner.” But the controversy has, if anything, boosted the stamp’s sales: The first run of 122,000 stamps sold out within days. Ireland’s postal service is gearing up to print more, as the blood of Che’s victims cries out from the ground.

A mind is a difficult thing to change

When House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot by a gunman at a congressional baseball practice, it took more than three months of surgery, intensive care, and rehabilitation before he was able to return to the House of Representatives. He came back just three days before the horrific massacre in Las Vegas, which triggered widespread cries for new and tougher gun control.

But not from Scalise, lamented Washington Post reporter Paul Kane in an essay last week. From the Louisiana Republican:

. . . there would be no emergency-room conversion on gun rights, not even after repeated surgeries to try to clear out the shattered bullet that had slashed across his pelvic region. Nor would he embrace the Affordable Care Act or the more liberal goal of single-payer, government-provided health insurance for all as he benefited from some of the best medical care in the country.

Kane appeared bemused by Scalise’s failure to reconsider his long-held views on guns and health care, after having come so close to death at the hands of a rampaging would-be assassin. He expressed the same puzzlement about Senator John McCain, who had recently been jolted by a devastating brain-cancer diagnosis. The Arizona senator, too, wrote Kane:

. . . faced multiple rounds of why-isn’t-he-different-now questioning over the summer and early fall. When he cast his vote to let debate proceed on the repeal bill, McCain, getting some of the world’s best cancer treatment, allowed a bill to advance that would take health care away from more than 20 million people.

Kane’s description of the Republican proposal to reform Obamacare is tendentious (“take health care away from more than 20 million people”). But what to make of his apparent dismay that McCain and Scalise didn’t overturn their long-held stands on major policy questions because each man underwent a personal crisis?

Does Kane imagine that these men came to their views on topics as weighty as gun control and Obamacare without ever having thought seriously about them? Would he have more respect for a member of Congress whose political and philosophical approach to a major piece of legislation was grounded, not in sober consideration about what is best for the country under the Constitution, but merely in emotion and impulse? Scalise told Kane that his opposition to most gun-control efforts “are based in decades of understanding and studying the history of our country,” and reading about the Founders and the Bill of Rights. Agree or disagree with where Scalise comes down on the issue, isn’t that the kind of regard we should want serious public officials to give it?

To be sure, a large swath of public opinion tends to be fickle. People who don’t think much about public affairs may be easily swayed by sensational stories or emotional shocks. But members of Congress, like journalists who closely cover politics and public affairs, are much more likely to know what they think about important legislative topics and to hold their views firmly. “In matters of life and death, most politicians don’t change stripes with an emotional reaction,” writes Kane. “More often than not, they don’t change their ideological positions. If anything, they amplify those beliefs.”

Of course some people in politics are nitwits who have never thought earnestly about anything except their own ego and aggrandizement. And, yes, politicians are sometimes only too willing to follow the crowd or take the path of least resistance.

But on the whole, elected officials don’t lightly abandon positions on big issues. Nor do the pundits and analysts who follow them. That is one reason why campaign donations have less influence on the votes of members of Congress and other officeholders than cynics and government watchdogs often assume. In broad terms, donations are given to candidates because of the views they already hold; candidates don’t hold their views because of the donations they were given.

Here’s what is impressive: when an individual’s position changes for the best possible reason: Because the evidence was too clear to resist.

None of us likes to acknowledge having been wrong, and that goes double, or triple, for people who are in the business of studying public issues and know what they think. Most of us are good at disregarding arguments that weaken our strongly held beliefs; we’re pretty good, too, at underscoring data that support what we already believe.

“In political debates we assume wisdom resides with us and not our opponents,” wrote Peter Wehner, a longtime Republican Party insider, in a recent column about confirmation bias, including his own. “There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that; it’s the reason we hold the views we do.” But it makes it hard to view our own judgments honestly, all the more so when emotions run high.

So we should pause in real admiration when someone not only concedes that she was wrong about a hot-button issue, but lays out the data proving it. That’s what statistician Leah Libresco, a former newswriter at FiveThirtyEight, did in a Washington Post essay earlier this month.

Her piece bore a dramatic headline: “I Used To Think Gun Control Was The Answer. My Research Told Me Otherwise.” Writing in the immediate wake of the Las Vegas massacre, Libresco began by recording how frustrating she had always found the politics of guns and gun violence:

I wished the National Rifle Association would stop blocking common-sense gun-control reforms such as banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes, and all the other measures that could make guns less deadly.

Then, my colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States, and I wound up frustrated in a whole new way. We looked at what interventions might have saved those people, and the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence.

Almost every conventional item on the gun-control wish list, she was forced to conclude, would not do what anti-gun activists claimed. “It seemed less and less clear that one broad gun-control restriction could make a big difference,” Libresco was forced to admit to herself. “By the time we published our project, I didn’t believe in many of the interventions I’d heard politicians tout. I was still anti-gun, at least from the point of view of most gun owners. . . . But I can’t endorse policies whose only selling point is that gun owners hate them.”

Libresco did go on to suggest interventions aimed at protecting specific categories of potential victims, and there was no hint in her words of any newfound warmth for the NRA. But that doesn’t minimize her essay’s impressiveness, or the example it sets for the rest of us. Everyone pays lip service to the ideal of following facts where they lead, especially when they upend our preconceptions. Few of us actually do it. More of us ought to try.

George Washington and the birth control mandate

My column on Wednesday, ICYMI, discussed the controversy over birth control and health insurance. Under the Affordable Care Act, contraceptives must be supplied by employers (through their health insurance plans) with no copays or no out-of-pocket costs. That raises grave concerns for some churches and other religious institutions, and I praised the Trump administration for expanding the narrow exemption allowing employers with sincere moral objections to avoid the contraception mandate.

My larger point was that no such mandate should exist, period: It isn’t the role of the federal government to decree that private parties — employers, insurers, pharmacies — must sell birth control at no cost. Birth control is a sensitive, stormy subject for many people; understandably the contraception mandate has attracted huge attention. But in my view there should be no diktat from above commanding any medical product or prescription to be dispensed without charge. Americans don’t expect to get free aspirin, cold medicine, blood-pressure meds, or Epi-Pens. By what logic should birth control pills, Depo-Provera, or diaphragms be handed over at no cost?

There is a school of thought that wants all health-care products distributed for free, as I was reminded in a flood of messages from Bernie Sanders epigones. The belief that government can unilaterally order goods and services to be provided gratis to all who want them is an old and popular delusion. But in the real world, products must be produced, and if they aren’t produced by the private sector, most of them won’t be produced at all. “Free” prescriptions wouldn’t be much use if manufacturers and pharmacies were forced to go out of business because they couldn’t earn a profit.

The overwhelming majority of Americans, I think, have no trouble realizing that the socialist fantasy — “everything for free!” — is lunacy. But I worry that the traditional American accommodation for religious dissent isn’t nearly as ingrained. After my column appeared, I heard from countless readers outraged at the suggestion that there should be any exemption for employers with grave religious or moral objections to providing birth control. The free exercise of religion is a right explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution, but many American liberals are willing to cut no slack for employers’ conscience claims. Over and over I was told that there shouldn’t be any leeway in the birth-control mandate — that employers who don’t want to be complicit in subsidizing a procedure or product about which they have serious qualms should just keep quiet and suck it up.

This isn’t health care policy; it’s culture-war bullying. It’s why the Obama administration rammed through the birth-control mandate in the first place: Not because birth control was rare or expensive, but because the administration saw itself “in a war” — those were the words of former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius — with anyone who resisted the left’s views on sex and reproduction. As I noted at the time, this was not the first example in American history of religious believers being treated with hostility by their government:

In the 18th century, to mention just one example, authorities were determined to break the resistance of Quakers, who refused on principle to swear oaths of allegiance or serve in the militia. The Continental Congress passed a law branding any man who resisted the oath an enemy. Massachusetts tried to starve Quakers into submission; Virginia doubled their taxes.

But no less a leader than the commander-in-chief — George Washington — urged that the dissenters’ concerns be accommodated. Whether their convictions about oaths and militia service were right or wrong could be debated, but respect for other people’s claims of conscience was integral to a culture of freedom. “I assure you very explicitly,” Washington wrote to the Society of Quakers in 1789, “that in my opinion the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire that the laws may always be as extensively accommodated to them, as a due regard to the protection and essential interests of the nation may justify.”

Are traditional Catholics and others with religious apprehensions about contraception right or wrong? That can be debated. But absent some desperate public-health necessity, there is no reason those apprehensions cannot be, as Washington urged, “extensively accommodated.” Birth control and health insurance, valuable as they are, do not go to the essence of American pluralism. Religious liberty, on the other hand, is the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights. And respect for conscience is the hallmark of any decent society.

Wild Wild Web

Bringing in the pineapple harvest.

Don’t mow the lawn. Scythe it.

All the cool chimps are sticking grass in their ear.

Revolutionary War veterans who lived long enough to be photographed.

Is there anything the Japanese won’t eat?

It was inevitable: The Harvey Weinstein ‘Downfall’ parody.

The last line

“Then she remembered she had forgotten to give him her address — or to ask him for his — or to tell him that her youngest boy was named Bill, too.” — Langston Hughes, “Early Autumn” (1950)


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.