Peggy Noonan’s ‘Bitter Clingers’ on Cuba

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Peggy Noonan’s praise for the Obama administration’s new Cuba policy has one particularly ugly paragraph that demands its own response. (I posted an initial criticism of her overall column on Friday, and this one paragraph has bothered me for the better part of two days, so I thought I’d add another word or two.) Noonan addresses the concerns of Cuban-Americans, who have rejected the deal in bipartisan fashion, ascribing their reactions to “bitterness” over the experiences of a generation ago:

In America, attention has rightly been paid to the Cuban-Americans of Florida and their reaction. They were cruelly displaced by the communist regime and forced to flee Cuba. They lost everything, came here penniless, and through gifts and guts rose to economic and political power. The oldest, who came in 1960, feel bitterness—and are loyal to that bitterness. Their children, a little less so, and the next generation less still. Because everything changes. You can’t let a foreign policy be governed by bitterness even when that bitterness is legitimate. Advice to the U.S. government: Attempt in time to create some kind of U.S.-Cuban framework whereby those whose property was expropriated can reclaim it.

There is some empathy in that paragraph, but also a good deal of insensitivity. First of all, Cuban-Americans don’t only live in Florida. Many do, but as the Wall Street Journal itself pointed out on Saturday, Cuban-Americans in Congress also represent Texas, New Jersey, and even West Virginia. More significant is Noonan’s failure to recognize that the communist oppression that drove Cubans to flee did not end in 1960. It continues today, brutally.

It is nice of Noonan to recommend that the Obama administration help Cuban refugees recover their stolen property. But opposition to the Castro regime extends far beyond concerns about wealth. Framing Cuban-American opposition to the deal in that way might suggest that it is motivated by pecuniary concerns. And framing opposition to Castro as the parochial concern of one small immigrant community ignores the reasons that millions of other Americans reject the Cuban regime.

Then there is that word: “bitterness.” It recalls then-Senator Barack Obama’s infamous “bitter clingers” remark, when he told a group of wealthy donors in liberal San Francisco that rural white voters in Pennsylvania are motivated by “bitterness”:

“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Obama said. “And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Noonan is essentially saying something similar: that the feelings of Cuban-Americans, while understandable, ought to be discounted because they are motivated by personal feelings, peculiar experiences, material interests, and resentment. (Obama, by the way, made the same point in his remarks on the Cuba deal, acknowledging the “passion,” i.e. not the arguments, of those who may oppose the deal. That is more polite than terms like “bitter,” but it remains condescending.)

There is an elitism here, and a corrosive one. We impoverish debate when we refuse to engage people’s reasoned arguments and reduce them to identity or interest-group politics. Cuban-Americans are not the first victims of this growing coarseness in our politics, and will not be the last.

Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the new ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.

Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak


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