I have a friend who talks in absolutes. Once I asked him what he thought of a certain person we both knew, and he answered this way: So and so was "an evil, evil, evil man." I waited my usual two beats and asked, "If so and so was an evil, evil, evil man, what then was Hitler?" My friend had absolutely no answer.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem I have with Ronald Reagan and all things Nicaraguan. I could go along with him if he said there has been an erosion of civil liberties under the Sandinista regime, that the presence of Cuban military advisers was troubling and that the United States could not countenance the spread of a Marxist revolution elsewhere in Central America, especially Mexico.
But Reagan says no such thing. In a recent radio address, for instance, the president referred to "the communist dictatorship in Nicaragua." He said, "Nicaragua today is an imprisoned nation condemned to unrelenting cruelty by a clique of very cruel men, by a dictator in designer glasses and his comrades, drunk with power and all its brutal implications."
The president went on to say that the Sandinistas have "stripped the Nicaraguan people of their rights," but added that the real "theft of liberty took place years ago" -- presumably 1979, when the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza was overthrown and the Sandinista government installed. Reagan then added that the Sandinistas were persecuting the church and have "arrested, interrogated and tormented" Protestant ministers and lay people. As for Nicaragua's "tiny population of Jews," it was "bullied and driven out." The shocking adjectives do flow: brutal, cruel, communist, dictatorship, imprisoned, bullied. There could be no place worse than this.
But there are. Lots of them. And some of them are to be found smack dab in Central America. Nicaragua is no democracy, but neither is it a totalitarian dictatorship, communist or otherwise, and in terms of human rights it would rank somewhere right behind Costa Rica -- and ahead of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or Panama. As for the loss of liberty, the president has something of a point. Things have certainly gotten worse in the last year, but they are nowhere near as bad as they were under the Somoza dictatorship. And the "tiny population of Jews" was not "bullied and driven out." That, as the president must know by now, is a canard.
So why does he say these things? Does he believe what he says or does he not care what he says? If it's the former, why don't those neoconservatives who abhor imprecision in both language and thought simply take the president aside and tell him that his language is extreme? If he does not care what he says then the president is showing contempt not only for the truth, but for his audience as well. Again, someone ought to say something.
The answer may well be that Reagan's language is extreme and absolute because he believes that eventually it will all be true -- that a Marxist government will sooner of later have a Gulag, persecute its Jews, harass the church and be implacably hostile to the United States and its interests. Rather than say that, though, he telescopes time: it has already happened.
But it hasn't, and it may not. Ironically, the rhetoric is of a kind found in Marxist tracts -- overinflated, absolutist and based on historical determinism. The trap for both Reagan and his implacable enemies, the Marxists, is that their language vaults them over all the intermediate steps -- all those places where accommodation is possible -- and takes them straight to the spot they think is pre-determined by history.
Hype is forgiveable and exaggeration standard fare in Washington. The danger comes when super- heated words drive out moderation, when constant repetition of a falsehood becomes truth and that truth is proven by the words themselves. George Orwell saw the danger. He wrote, "But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." It seems it already has.