Fidel Castro’s Legacy

After the death of any great historical figure, people conduct assessments of their achievements and failings. In the case of Fidel Castro’s legacy, the emotional reactions can be very strong on all sides of the political spectrum, even beyond the Cuban exiled community.

flag-smallerOne of the great Cuban patriots and independence activists of the 19th Century, José Martí, once famously declared that “Cuba and Puerto Rico are two wings of the same bird“, by which he meant that the two were destined to one day soar into freedom together as sovereign and independent nations. He was saying this from the standpoint of the 19th Century, when both islands still belonged to Spain and the Spanish-American War hadn’t yet snatched them from the Spanish empire. The mutual respect and love between the two islands, together with the huge cultural similarities, were so entrenched that when the Puerto Rican nationalists gathered in New York City to invent a Puerto Rican flag, they copied the Cuban flag and merely inversed the colors. To this day, Cuba is still the main country speaking frequently for Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination before the United Nations.

But the two wings of the bird would not take flight. What happened, instead, was that Cuba gained independence, was for a time a neo-colony of the U.S., and eventually people revolted against Americanization and rampant corruption under the Batista regime and went full communist. Its citizens may be sovereign, but they’re not exactly “free” to speak their minds, to freely associate and have their grievances heard, to read a free press, and other such signs that we normally associate with freedom. And Puerto Rico never gained its independence, its residents were given American citizenship 100 years ago, its nationalist movement was violently suppressed, and eventually they became indolent American consumerists like the people of the mainland. Puerto Rico is now beginning a process to be formally admitted into the union as one of the United States now that an economic crisis has revealed deep cracks in the undemocratic “commonwealth” status that it enjoys within the US.

But the naïve idealism of José Martí still resonates with many, and the death of Fidel Castro stirs very strong passions among many in the Boricua community. Some of the remaining independentistas are praying for Puerto Rico to produce its own Fidel. Others who, for decades, have heard the horrendous stories told by Cuban exiles, are terrified of that possibility. Outside of Miami, Puerto Rico received the largest amount of exiles from Fidel’s Cuba, and generations there grew up listening both to American anti-communist propaganda from the Cold War, and to the stories of the Cubans who survived atrocities, had their property seized, lost family members in public executions, etc.

Let’s start with the good. Fidel was anti-imperialist discourse in action, and in some ways he walked the walk … yet he allied himself with the Soviet Union, which was an imperialist project. To his credit, perhaps he didn’t have a choice, or else the Cuban people would have starved as they were isolated in a neoliberal world and suffered as a result of the US embargo.

All these decades later, the main (and perhaps only) positive aspects of his legacy that are undeniable are his role in helping to end apartheid in South Africa, and the availability of free, universal health care and education for his constituents. Some of his other anti-colonial efforts did not succeed as impressively as these.

Then there’s the bad: scarcity, poverty, lack of freedom, lack of democratic participation of the Cuban people in how their country is run, and homophobia.

The list of crimes of the revolution is too vast to cover in detail, but I will here focus on homophobic repression because it’s the most viscerally appalling and disappointing to me as a gay man on the left of the political spectrum. Anecdotes and testimonies of the abuse suffered in Cuba under Fidel have from time to time trickled through and shocked the LGBT community abroad. In the initial years of the revolution, gays were rounded up and put in forced labor camps and were constantly attacked and humiliated by Cuba’s national-socialist regime in its first two decades. Later when the AIDS virus spread among gay men, they were confined (“quarantined”, according to the regime) in special prisons. (To be fair, Stonewall did not happen until 1969 in America and life prior to Stonewall was also hell, and in deeply religious strongholds like Mormon Utah gays were still subjected to shock therapy well into the 70s).

One of the survivors of the labor camps–author Reinaldo Arenas–wrote an account which was later made into the movie Before Night Falls. The Daily Beast published a posthumous article in memory of Fidel remembering the atrocities of that era, citing Arenas’ account:

It was a sweltering place without a bathroom. Gays were not treated like human beings, they were treated like beasts. They were the last ones to come out for meals, so we saw them walk by, and the most insignificant incident was an excuse to beat them mercilessly.

Later–too late, in my view–in 2010 during an interview with a Mexican journalist, Fidel assumed full personal responsibility for the abuses against the LGBT community. He did not exactly make amends, or go much further than to acknowledge his abuses. Instead, he said that the Communist regime had to foil so many attempts by the CIA and “traitors” against the revolution, that he was not “paying attention” to what was being done to homosexuals.

Many of his gay victims would denominate this “lack of attention” as reckless and inhumane, or accuse him of lying, and of having instead focused too much of his attention on homosexuals. In truth, his regime had become paranoid. Intellectuals, poets, artists and authors are frequently seen as a threat by authoritarian regimes, and the gay community has always and everywhere been a bastion of creativity, which raised suspicions among the austere Communists.

In the late 1970’s, homosexuality was decriminalized, and Fidel’s niece is today an activist who fights for the recognition of LGBT rights in Cuba. But is this enough? And can the revolution justify all these crimes, considering that its only two great successes in Cuba are top-notch universal free health care and education, which are also available in a few free-market countries that didn’t need an armed revolution? Cuba may be socially developed and its citizens may be healthy, eloquent and educated, but in terms of its economy, perpetually-dysfunctional Haiti is the only country in the Western hemisphere that lags behind Cuba. Surely people have a right to expect that such a great sacrifice as the revolution should have produced a country with living standards far above what is enjoyed by Cubans today.

Uruguay has even more of the social progress we see in Cuba (legalized cannabis, gay marriage), as well as a free market system that has made it one of the most prosperous, stable countries on the hemisphere whose citizens enjoy a first-world-level quality of life. Thousands of people didn’t have to die and freedoms didn’t have to be taken from people. Gays didn’t have to be criminalized. Ideology and collectivism didn’t have to replace humanity and individualism.

While we may admire how he was stalwart in his values, Fidel’s legacy, when assessed against how the world has progressed and when measuring the “sacrifices” versus the achievements, was mostly one of terror and authoritarianism.  Let’s hope that Fidel’s death will eventually prompt the kind of reform that will preserve the good things attained by the revolution, as well as secure freedom, democracy, and prosperity for the people of Cuba.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Happy Primate Pride Day

film-page-feature-image-front-main-stage-2In recent years, Spanish-speaking atheist bloggers and activists invented a new holiday in order to raise awareness about Darwinian evolution via natural selection and to challenge the shame that religionists experience around our simian origins. In making the announcement, the Blog Sin Dioses (the Blog Without Gods) published a manifesto with the following eight points:

1. We are proud to be members of the primate order. Inclusion in the primate group is not only a taxonomic aspect but also reveals the evolutionary relationship we have with other primates.

2. We are proud to “descend from an ape”–not a kind of current ape, an extinct one, but an ape after all. We are not ashamed of our evolutionary origin.

3. We wish to acknowledge the tireless and sometimes thankless work of paleontologists who have helped to decipher our evolutionary origins and we hope that the work of paleontologists will continue to be developed, as well as the dissemination of their research.

4. We want to recognize all biologists and conservationists working to help conserve current primate species.

5. We declare that human beings are not separate from nature, but are part of nature thanks to ecological interactions and our evolutionary origin.

6. We say that we are proud to be hominids and that our closest relatives are the African apes. Comparative anatomy and genetics show us this phylogenetic relationship and such a fact does not make us less human.

7. We want the knowledge of human origins revealed by science to be available in all schools and we denounce the blockade of religious fundamentalist groups.

8. We point out that the opposition of creationists to human kinship with other primates and to the theory of evolution is scientifically dishonest and responds only to doctrinal interests. Creationists have the right to believe what they want, but they can not pretend to ignore the fossil testimony, or the DNA, or pass their religious convictions as an explanation at the same level as science.

dr__zaius_by_brucewhiteThe new holiday has taken the Spanish-language blogosphere by storm, and this could not be a more morally urgent cause! Trump’s early and notorious disregard of scientific insight has been noted by The New YorkerScientific American (where an editorial piece expressed alarm at his “lack of respect for science”), and many other media outlets. We are entering dangerous times!

In an old article written for Darwin Day titled Darwin and the Planet of the Apes, I explored how PotA folklore has become a powerful and imaginative way in which pop culture explores the idiocy and arrogance of creationists. Trump’s threat to appoint people with strong anti-scientific values reminds us of Doctor Zaius, who was both Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith–and we should all be preparing to fight a good fight to protect the constitutional separation of church and state, and to promote teaching and respect for true science.

Posted in Atheism, Materialism, Naturalism, secular | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Happy Twentieth! – Shall we Banish the Ego?!

Peace and Safety on this Twentieth to all Epicureans and Humanists everywhere!

It gets parroted so often and by so many people seemingly in positions of moral authority, that many people never quite shake off the insinuation that the ego is bad, the insistence on “banishing the ego”. It’s such a hypocritical and empty teaching! I feel that it’s time to finally crush–nay, pulverize!–this false idol of “selflessness” with the hammer of philosophy, which wouldn’t be worthy of its name if it didn’t heal our moral diseases just as medicine that doesn’t heal the body is no good.

People should respect the ego, listen to the ego, gain insights from the ego, and–most importantly!–present legitimate grievances based on the needs of ego. Otherwise it’s difficult to have wholesome interpersonal relations. Perhaps PD6 is the best reference point to explain how the ego is a necessary and “natural good”.

In order to obtain protection from other men, any means for attaining this end is a natural good. – Principal Doctrine 6

How else will the world know that others are trampling on our civil rights? How else will our family members, friends or co-workers understand that we suffer when we hear certain remarks or jokes, when we are excluded from certain things, or when we are treated a certain way? Only totalitarianism and tyranny are served by this false doctrine that the ego is an evil that must be conquered. The serious moral difficulties generated by the unqualified, unevaluated repetition of the false teaching that ego is “bad” were considered in Philodemus’ Herculaneum scroll On Anger, where we discussed how there are:

… ennobling causes to which we can dedicate ourselves to channel our anger. Philodemus spoke of these when he spoke of “virtuous dispositions” underlying our natural and rational anger.

Anger, like all the other experiences tied to the “ego”, can serve a higher purpose and become virtuous (that is, productive of a life of increased pleasure). This is done by channeling our legitimate, rational and natural indignation into causes that help to heal and repair the world and the society, instead of qualifying anger and “ego” as immoral and applying value judgments to the victims rather than the perpetrators of injustice. When we do this, we are living authentically ethical and moral lives.

The so-called “ego”, our self-recognition in the mirror and in interpersonal relations, is an essential component of a human person and his or her dignity. Nature did not waste its efforts. Natural selection favored human beings with a sense of self for a reason. We have ego for a reason: the fact that only sentient beings have ego is an indication that the tangibles of ethics apply not to inanimate things but to sentient beings, for whose sake we have a tendency to be moral. We can only hurt, love, help, cooperate, abuse, and experience other realities pertinent to being ethical, with regards to other sentient beings. Ego is an essential point of reference in all morality.

The claim that we can be ego-less is false and sets an impossible and depraved standard before us, making people pointlessly “scale a hill of virtue” only to experience the detrimental fruits of a false teaching that breeds hypocrisy.

Let’s respect our Selves and not allow ourselves to be dragged into empty discourse in this manner.

Posted in Ataraxia, Humanism, Philosophy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On Building a New Left

I wrote about the American Right in a recent post … but it’s the Left I’m worried about in the post-election mayhem. A recent Las Indias blog titled El fin de la izquierda posmoderna hit the nail in the head as far as I’m concerned, on the state of the American Left. (Please use google translate to get a sense of what it says in the original Spanish).

The argument made by the author is that the American Left (or what passes for it: the Democratic Party) has become just another neoliberal party, and that it dresses up its Manonism and its neoliberal excesses behind the veneer of identity politics and political correctness. Yes, the Right has taken off the mask of piety, but the Left also has to take off its neoliberal mask! The author argues that the Left has to return to its roots: labor, production, good jobs, the need to build a robust middle class. Those are the universal concerns that unite most of us.

Except for a few bastions of secular progressive critique (Bill Maher and the new atheist “saints”), the Left has been deaf and blind for years about the serious issues raised by political correctness. These issues have played out most eloquently in college campuses where “safe spaces” and “triggers” have been used as excuses to impose censorship and to ban legitimate discussions. See these pieces by Newsmax and Washington Post on the issue.

Closer to home, controversies about bringing the likes of Bill Maher and Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak at universities–whose presence religious, and particularly Muslim, students find “offensive”–have raised even more questions about the rise of Islamic, and sometimes Christian, fascism in our educational institutions. This is no metaphor or exaggeration. Universities should be places where people are free to raise questions, not spaces reserved for legitimizing religious tyranny and intimidation.

In a free and secular country, no religion should be above reproach and no group should be exempt from criticism. Such insinuations belong only in the context of totalitarian regimes.

By electing Trump, America has chosen to engage in a process of doing away with politically correct language–at least for four years. This was an initiative of the right, but those of us on the left can be just as politically incorrect as the most deplorable of trumpanzees: just ask Bill Maher. He has been one of the few consistent, true liberals on this issue. We do not have to be tolerant of intolerant religions and racist demagogues. I don’t owe the courtesy of tolerance to the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members would picket my funeral if I get killed in a hate crime.

Criticism of religion’s role in the public sphere (and even its inappropriate meddling in our private affairs) has oftentimes been a contentious subject. We can be sure that the next four years will bring new confrontations with religious bigots. Our society needs Epicurean moral guidance and parrhesia in public life.

Beyond that, the Left must rethink who it serves. As this Salon essay explains, we have lived under neoliberalism for decades without really questioning it or even naming it. When Hillary Clinton gets hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from Wall Street, and no one has access to what is being discussed in those circles, the Democratic Party and the values that it once stood for have been completely compromised.

Oh, and then there’s science and facts … since we’re arguing for a new Left and for parrhesia, we must take note of the fact that the renewed rise of the religious Reich and the fact-free retelling of narratives threatens to elevate the cult of ignorance to hegemony. Let’s all become naturalist philosophers! Let’s Make America Think Again!

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Raif Badawi, on Theocratic Nations’ Underachievement

“No religion at all has any connection to mankind’s civic progress.”

“Look at all the countries that are based on a religious ideology; look at their people and the generations born into it: What do they have to offer human civilization?”

Raif Badawi, imprisoned Saudi secular blogger

Posted in islam, Politics | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The American Right Takes Off the Mask of Piety and Good Morals

Donald Trump is the President-elect of the US. While many opinion editorials have been and will be written about the shocking results of this election, I wish to accentuate one positive aspect: it is obvious that the power of the Christian Right is waning, and that whatever moral legitimacy and moral authority the Christian Right may have had to previous generations, it no longer has.

Unlike the W Bush years, where a degrading campaign was run on hatred of LGBT individuals, this campaign did not appeal to the superstitious degeneracy of the Christian Right. It was just as bold and just as vile, but it did not seek to confer the mask of piety on racism, anti-women and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Our next First Lady will be an immigrant escort young enough to be the President’s daughter, and only a few weeks ago the entire world listened in shock as a very un-Presidential future President boasted about his predatory sexual behavior.

The hypocrisy does not end there. It’s clear that even those who feigned to be ashamed of Trump’s behavior still voted for him, and that although the Mormon Church–as usual–seems to have spent a huge amount of money in self-promotion and propaganda where it distanced itself from Trump in the news (Newsweek, Desert News, etc.) and making itself out to be a pro-family-values and immigrant-friendly Church that couldn’t possibly be for Trump … he still easily won the Mormon-majority state of Utah. The Mormons threw aside their “values” with no hesitation and voted for the pussy-grabbing, twice-divorced adulterer with a trophy wife.

As Bill Maher has accurately noted: the party of family values finally shows its true colors.

Noam Chomsky accurately explains how consent is manufactured in the US by corporate-owned media. Trump received an exaggerated amount of undeserved attention in the media, even in spite of his lack of substance–probably the only thing consistent in Trump’s repertoire. Liberal Rachel Maddow seems to have been one of the few mainstream reporters who contradicted the “official narrative” according to which the Trump did not represent true Republican sentiment, particularly in its most bigoted expression.

Politics is now reality television, and we can expect it to be just as trashy and vulgar. The next four years will be entertaining, even if at times terrifying. Let’s now grab the popcorn and sit back. Welcome to the season finale of America!

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Antinous: the Man-God Who Rivaled Jesus in the 2nd Century CE

1,886 years ago, in Oct 28 of the year 130 of Common Era, a young man from Bithynia (in today’s northwestern Turkey) drowned in the Nile while touring all the provinces of the Roman Empire under the wing of his lover, the then most powerful man on Earth: Emperor Hadrian.

If Antinous had not been the emperor’s lover, if he had not been as beautiful as Adonis, and if he had not died by drowning in the Nile on the day of Osiris’ passion and death, his death would have been uneventful and quickly forgotten. But the priests of Egypt believed that anyone who drowned in the Nile was a demi-god, and his death during Osiris’ festival prompted the immediate syncretism of the new Man-God with Osiris. Also, Hadrian was so moved with grief that he “cried like a woman”, and a few days later established on the banks of the Nile where his young lover had died, the city of Antinoopolis as a cult center for the new Man-God.

Antinous Mondragone

Antinous Mondragone

Within a few years, thanks to Hadrian’s very active promotion of the cult, the face of Antinous became the best preserved–and probably the most beautiful–face from antiquity that we can still behold via sculpture. The Antinous Mondragone is still considered one of the most beautiful and highly-appraised sculptures on Earth. The remains of one ancient, Roman Antinous bust recently sold for 23 million dollars, and coins and other paraphernalia to this gay icon remain in circulation now that Antinous has been re-sacralized and has a small following of modern polytheists.

Many Christians (and others) have questioned the sincerity of ancient faith in Antinoos, but the fact is that his cult was in actuality serious competition for early Christianity, and that it survived for centuries long after the death of Hadrian in the year 138. If the faith had been feigned out of fear of the emperor, the cult would not have enjoyed such a long-standing history after Hadrian was gone.

Some of the ancient Christians who criticized Antinous’ cult for its “debauchery” (code for the homosexual nature of Hadrian and Antinous’ relationship), admitted the supposed miracles of the god and had to resort to peculiar kinds of apologetics, a fact which demonstrates a vitality and credibility that other Pagan cults apparently lacked. Origen even admitted that Antinous was a real spirit (though not a god) who could perform miracles, and that his followers merely had not had the “luck” to know Jesus. Trevor Thompson, in the conclusion of his Antinoos, The New God, said:

The cult of the new god Antinoos swept across the Mediterranean basin in less than a decade and continued to exist into the fourth century. For Origen, Antinoos was a real “daimon” with actual power. Belief in Antinoos or Jesus depended in most cases on the circumstances of one’s birth and the training received. Very few have the opportunity to examine religious claims. Most believe what they have been told.

The pagan philosopher Celsus also criticised it for what he perceived as the debauched nature of its Egyptian devotees, arguing that it led people into immoral behaviour, in this way comparing it to the cult of Christianity, which demonstrates that both the Jesus and the Antinous cults were perceived in a similar light.

Early Christians also claimed that the cult only grew because of the emperor’s favor, but what are we to make of the wealth and corruption of the early church leaders who, from the time of Constantine, enjoyed imperial material favors. Both in terms of possible lack of sincerity (that is, ulterior motives–like advancing Greco-Roman identity in Egypt), and in terms of instigating a cult through material favors, Hadrian is not all that different from Constantine and the other Christian Roman emperors–except that, having “cried like a woman” when he lost his lover, he must have been very sincere in his love of Antinous. Even the Christian History Institute admits in Controversial Constantine about the–to this day, sainted–emperor:

… The second letter informed the bishop of Carthage that funds would soon reach him for distribution to “certain specific ministers of the lawful and most holy catholic religion,” and also assured him of protection against elements disruptive to the catholic church …

Constantine’s religion is from first to last that of an autocratic ruler of an empire secured by military might—and still overwhelmingly pagan.

One of the reasons for Antinous’ cultic success had to do with the intense syncretism, which is based on being abducted into the Osirian mythical cycle–according to which there was a perpetual war between the green god of vegetation who brought life to the Nile and the red desert god Set–and based also on the foundational document of his cult, the Obelisk, which says:

All Gods and Goddesses
Give Him the Breath of Eternal Life
That He might breathe
As One Who Is Eternally Young!

antin-steleOne of my initial assertions in this article was that Antinous represented a real and legitimate threat and competition to early Christianity. I realize that this may be unthinkable to some people today, but one piece of archaeology remains to be considered here. This relief from the Man-God’s holy city demonstrates the extent to which the highly-syncretistic cult in Antinoopolis wove both Dionysian elements (the grapes on his left hand, and keep in mind that Dionysus was believed to have been resurrected like Osiris and Jesus) as well as Christian elements (the cross on his right hand) into itself. Here, we see the youthful Antinous (identifiable by his typical hairstyle) holding both symbols. It seems like, for some time, the versatile Antinous was also being interpreted as a Christ figure. In fact, all the resurrected Men-God were considered Savior figures who secured afterlife benefits for their followers who were initiated into their mysteries.

Antinous as a Unit of Value

thHadrian used Antinous to promote Pan-Hellenistic values and to unite his empire. It seems to me that in the cult of the last Greco-Roman God, the spiritual and the carnal coexisted in harmony and a unique sex-affirming humanist and hellenistic spirituality flourished during the last decades of the pre-Christian era. Unfortunately, the Antinous cult also copied the salvific and other-worldly theme in whose context he emerged and got mixed into grave amounts of unrestrained superstition.

The value of Antinous is not just aesthetic, and in terms of historical curiosity. Clearly, the events that led to Antinous’ deification will never happen again. It’s impossible to imagine Presidents Putin or Obama–while married to their respective wives–inviting people to worship their dead gay lover from a faraway province of their empires who died and was deified by local shamans, and even founding a city in his memory … and being taken seriously by thousands of faithful for centuries. Antinous comes from the last period of history when these things were possible, and is recent enough that he might be a good case study–like Mormonism and the cargo cults–to understand how new gods and new cults come to be. It’s not difficult to imagine how the cults of beautiful Adonis, Attis, or royal Osiris (who was believed to be a Pharaoh from the very first Egyptian dynasty) came into existence, if we take Hadrian’s yearning and love story into account.

I learned about Antinous while reading the novel American Gods, by the amazing fantasy author Neil Gaiman, which is now being turned into a series that will air next year. I later read Royston Lambert’s 1984 account of his life titled Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous. The cult has a modern following of (mostly) Queer polytheists, and Antinoopolis is described as “the Gay Jerusalem” in the Ecclesia Antinoi website, with the mystery and fertility cult aspects sometimes taking a second seat to modern LGBT identity politics.

As for an Epicurean assessment of Antinous: his deification did not fit Epicurean theology, and it seems like Lucian made passing jokes about the Antinous cult. In fact, I think Antinous might have a place within LGBT and secular humanist discourse as a kind of parody religion similar to the Pastafarian tradition–one that says something about the nature of belief, of power, and of religious privilege, not to mention about the ironies of history.

However, unlike the Spaghetti Monster and because he’s rooted in history, the cult of this risen Man-God has a much more fascinating story and posed a threat so serious to early Christianity, that numerous Church Fathers had to write apologetics against it, and some–like Origen–even considered him to have real spiritual power. It’s extremely rare to find a Christian apologist humbling himself in this manner before a Pagan god: only by understanding Antinous as a legitimately feared rival cult, can we explain how he extracted a testimony of his supposed godlike power from a Church Father.

Posted in Christianity | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment