On Chavez and Laughland


After a day of tension, with opposition leaders and voters wondering just what the hell was taking so long, Hugo Chavez conceded defeat late last night; a surprising development considering the record of the Chavista-controlled CNE and the raft of legitimate questions about the accuracy of previous election results (pdf). As could be expected, Hugo's concession prompted his supporters at home and abroad to point to this as proof that Chavez presides over a democracy little different than our own (Chavez too immediately made this point: "His respect for the verdict, he asserted, proves he is a true democratic leader.") So one of the Huffington Post's house bloggers asks sarcastically if "dictators lose elections?" First: Many people have called Chavez a dictator, though I am not one of them. Second: Yes, sometimes dictators do lose elections (Pinochet did, the Sandinistas did). Before you too celebrate the flowering people's democracy of Venezuela, consider that Chavez's opponents braved serious threats and intimidation from government forces and ignored an onslaught of pro-regime propaganda when voting to reject the rewriting of the constitution. (In the Venezuelan version of authoritarian democracy, pro-government propaganda was ceaseless pumped into Caracas subway stations in the run-up to the referendum, while state television channels like ViVe and VTV act as sock puppets for the government.)

Daniel Larison, a contributing editor at The American Conservative, takes exception to my piece on this weekend's elections in Russia and Venezuela. Larison wouldn't typically waste valuable blogging time debating such ridiculousness, declaring that my comments on the Sovietization of Russian society and the Sandinistaization (clunky, I know) of Venezuela wouldn't ordinarily "merit much comment." But when I try to tell my "audience why they should care about what happens in the domestic politics of other countries"—I am a journalistic imperialist, it would seem—I cited a silly Putin apologia in the The American Conservative by British writer John Laughland. So allow me to borrow a technique of Mr. Larison's and dismiss his criticisms of my column as not worthy of attention, while going right ahead and offering the response that he clearly doesn't deserve.

Putin's reelection, Larison says, "is a fact that should be viewed with some dispassion." (Er, why exactly?) And it is important to look to cranks like Laughland to "provide some balance and perspective about Putin's regime, about which there have been more than a few breathless and hysterical Reason articles in the past." (He's talking to you, Cathy.) Honest John Laughland merely "seeks to get past caricature and vilification." Unfortunately I can't find my copy of the TAC article, and it is neither online nor in Nexis (though I seem to recall him describing Putin's "taut" body). Either way, Larison cruelly debunks my argument by bolding this line from the Laughland piece: "Putin specifically referred to the abandonment of ideology during his long talk with us." Well, I'm glad that's settled. So after a few pages of softball questions, a steady regurgitation of Kremlin talking points (without critical comment) and comparisons between United Russia and your average European Social Democratic party, Larison comments: "If that constitutes a 'defense' of Putin, we have watered down the meaning of apologetics pretty thoroughly."

Well yes, it is pretty clear that Laughland is defending Putin from the cruel biases of the Western press. Larison might have found it helpful to explain to his readers that John Laughland, the man providing "balance", has quite a colorful history of defending the indefensible. Before contributing to the American Conservative, Laughland was a major player in the International Committee to Defend (or provide balance to the unfair coverage of) Slobodan Milosevic. The Economist described Laughland's "human rights" organization as one that frequently "defends dictators": "[Laughland's group] sends observers to eastern Europe, usually to elections, who produce lengthy, annotated first-hand reports, with controversial (critics say bizarre) interpretations of events…Mr Laughland used to have more colleagues. In the early 1990s, sticking up for patriotic east European leaders against politically correct criticism from naïve human-rights outfits was bold, but not batty. But the group lost almost all its supporters when it threw its weight behind people like Mr Milosevic. Another leading member, Christine Stone, has also written approvingly of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe." Click here for Laughland's own counterbalance to the Western media's irrational Mugabe hatred.

Here, Laughland is attacked in the Guardian for adding balance and nuance to the struggles of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Here another Guardian columnist calls him the "PR man to Europe's nastiest regimes." Blogger and Tufts University professor Dan Drezner debated Laughland and offered this "three word assessment: Completely, totally nuts." The left-leaning academic blog Crooked Timber questioned Laughland's claim that Western interest in the human rights situation in Darfur was a cover for another oil grab, leading it to question just about everything else he has ever written.

But other than that, how dare I suggest Laughland wrote a sycophantic, pro-Putin piece.