What do Helmut Kohl and Elián Gonzáles have in common? What could possibly unite the destinies of the huge former Chancellor of Germany, who for so many years dominated European politics and played the part of senior statesman on the global stage, and the little boy whose only political role so far has been as pawn in the hands of fading right-wing Cuban fanatics in Miami?
Back in November of last year, we talked about how the legacy of the Cold War still dominates the news in one way or another. In recent weeks, we’ve been struck yet again by how persistently this theme keeps playing itself out in events that, on the face of it, have nothing to do with each other—like the stories of the German Chancellor and the Cuban six-year-old.
The tale of Kohl has been treated by the media largely as a simple story of political corruption, yet another sordidly familiar instance of secret donations to a political party, presumably in exchange for policy favors. But once or twice, even the U.S. press has noticed that there’s a bigger story here. What marks out the case of Kohl is that it represents the end of an era not just in German politics but in the whole world order. Kohl refuses to accept that he did anything wrong because, in his eyes and those of other Christian Democrats, those political donations weren’t meant to line his pockets (something that even his harshest critics seem to accept) or even to further party-political interests. His own political career and the dominance of his party were meant to serve a larger cause: protecting Europe in particular, and the world in general, from communism.
That, in fact, was a self-professed and commonly perceived function of center-right parties not just in Germany but elsewhere in continental Europe. The “collapse of communism” has pretty much deprived those parties of that function and their special place in European politics. German Christian Democracy may now go the same way as its Italian counterpart did a while ago.
Christian Democracy—in sharp contrast, say, to conservatism in the United States—at least had some basic commitment to a “social” market, to certain principles of social welfare and labor standards, and in Germany, up to a point, even to “co-determination.” With strong Communist parties in some parts of Western Europe “before the fall” or, in West Germany, with communism on its very doorstep, concessions like that no doubt seemed indispensable, in order to maintain a bulwark against communism. Once that motivation had gone, capital was free to choose more unfettered expressions.
At a time when the old Christian Democracy no longer has its main reason for existence, even social democrats in Europe have gone down the “free” market road of neoliberal “globalization.” In these circumstances, it’s not inconceivable that various kinds of disaffection may find even more sinister, extreme right outlets. Although Germany, unlike Austria, seems to have some deeply rooted resistances to this kind of development, the fact that the Freedom Party of Joerg Haider in Austria got a larger share of working-class votes than any other party, including the Social Democrats, is not unrelated to the European changes we’ve been talking about.
Sooner or later, better political options will have to emerge, but one way or the other, Germany seems to be in the throes of a political realignment, as the Cold War legacy shakes out. The disgrace of Helmut Kohl, a classic creature of the Cold War, is just another symptom.
In the United States, of course, the politics of the Cold War has played itself out very differently. We don’t intend to go over that familiar ground here, or to repeat what every MR reader knows all too well about the role of Cuba in the demonology of the Cold War in the United States. But it’s worth commenting on one aspect of the latest bizarre chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations (apart from the transparently cynical abuse of that young child by right-wing emigrés).
It’s obvious that the fate of Elián Gonzáles, like that of Helmut Kohl, has been shaped by the Cold War and its tenacious legacy. But it has been shaped in a way unique to the United States. We think we can safely say that nowhere else in the world could anything like this happen. People in other countries who are used to politics being about something real, however awful, must surely be mystified by this spectacle.
This is a uniquely U.S. story—not because it’s uniquely evil (though it’s more than bad enough) but because it’s uniquely absurd. Maybe by the time MR readers see these Notes, the matter will have been resolved. But however it ends, we still have to ask how anyone could take seriously the claims of Elián’s Miami relatives—with the possible exception of the police, who ought to have locked them up for kidnapping? How could Congress give them credence? How did this become a political issue, as if the welfare of the nation depended on keeping this boy away from his father in Cuba? If what happened to this child weren’t so heartrendingly sad, if the behavior of his emigré relatives wasn’t so cruel and even criminal, and if the antics of some U.S. politicians (not to mention judges or nuns) weren’t so scandalously irresponsible, it would be hard to keep a straight face.
To us, this almost unbelievable story is symptomatic of (among other things) the complete debasement of mainstream political discussion, the shallowness and hypocrisy that passes for politics, in the United States. This is a country where public debate about burning substantive issues is, as we all know, practically nonexistent. Instead of, say, health care we get “family values.” Whatever other historical reasons there may be for this, the Cold War, with its effective prohibition of dissent, has to take a large proportion of the blame for the now long-standing and deeply ingrained habit of avoiding real political debate about real issues, and its replacement by the politics of empty symbols and moralistic gestures.
Elián Gonzáles has had the misfortune of getting caught up in the lingering Cold War in more ways than one.
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