The Fallacy of Relative Political Evil

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I finally saw Missing, a 1982 film about political violence in Chile, staring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. It won an Oscar, was nominated for many more, and won 8 other awards at various film festivals.

It has to be one of the most effective film attacks on the military state I’ve ever seen — the nightmare of random violence is overwhelming — the effect of which is to make it impossible to ever think a kind thought about General Pinochet and his regime, the rule of which is made out to be the reincarnation of Hitler complete with concentration camps and mass killing.

All very compelling and effective except for one thing: it subtlety portrayed communists as angels and the driving force for right-wing violence as capitalism. It was not overt but there are enough scenes in which the screenwriters tip their hand. It happened in just a few moments in the film, and it makes suspect both the facts of the film and the moral sincerity of its makers.

A youth, for example, speaks of the glorious things that the Allende regime was doing: “They were trying something new,” that newness being the very old racket called socialism, which at that point in history had killed perhaps 100 million people. The robotic U.S. ambassadors are seen as mouthpieces for American business interests, and in a ridiculously cliché way.

Yes, there was a dearth of consumer goods before Pinochet’s coup, we are informed, and yes, after the coup there are more products on the shelves to dazzle the disgusting minds of materialists — and Spacek is disdainful of this achievement in an “Earth Day” sort of way. But otherwise the image you get of the pre-Pinochet regime is that it was creating a heavenly utopia of poetry, art, and universal love — the very enactment of Woodstock in Latin America.

You would swear from the film that some two-headed serpent arrived to the country to destroy the glorious garden of socialist Chile: the two heads being U.S. military might plus capitalism. A quick look at Wikipedia confirmed my own suspicions that something is wrong with this picture. This Allende guy nationalized industry, seized land, centralized and nationalized education and health care, gave out welfare to political friends, and inflated the money supply, leading to a crashing of the entire economy, massive debt and default, 140% inflation, empty grocery stores, and a revolt by every property owner and business interest in the country.

Are we supposed to believe that there was no violence involved in all of this? No human suffering? I don’t find that credible. Even if everything in the film is true about Pinochet, one would like to know the fullness of truth here. I don’t know. But the experience of watching prompts me to reflect on how intriguing it is that both left and right see only immorality and criminality in other people’s ideologies. These people should be honest with themselves and come to terms with the Black Book of Communism.

The dynamic between right-wing and left-wing violence is impossible to untangle to the point that blame can be definitively established. In case after case, the right (whether interwar Italy, Chile in the 1970s, Israel or the U.S. today) says it was protecting the country against a left-wing threat, and there is probably truth in that but to what extent is that real prospect of communist violence used as a cover for a power grab? The left (you fill in the countries) says it was protecting people against a right-wing threat, and there is probably truth here too but to what extent is the prospect of violence used as a cover for another power grab?

When Clinton in the U.S. was running things, we received a long series of press releases on how the FBI was protecting us against gun-totting neo-Nazi skinheads plotting attacks against women and minorities. Thank God for Clinton and Co.! When Bush was running things, we received a long series of press releases on how the regime was continually involved in stopping violence plotted by Islamic extremists who plotted to bomb subways and airplanes and wreck out way of life. Thank God for Bush and Co.!

The upshot of all this propaganda is that we should be grateful and subservient to the regime in power above all else. By the time you find out the threat was exaggerated or even invented, no one is interested in it anymore, and there were in the meantime 10 other claims of impending violence. The scholarly books debunking the whole thing come out 5 and 10 years later.

In this way, the left and right work hand in hand to do the thing the state wants most: expansion, regardless of the cultural and political climate. Where should the libertarian stand in this? We should oppose all violence and be skeptical of any claim from anyone in charge of our lives and property. We should be willing to believe the worst of right-wing states or left-wing states. And we should avoid, insofar as it is possible, feeling affection for any regime or fully believing any claim from ideologically blinded partisans of one state or another.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of www.Mises.org.

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