Long ago, our grammar teachers taught us something called synecdoche.
Most of us have long since forgotten about it, but in speech and writing, synecdoche is the substitution of the part for the whole, and sometimes the whole for the part.
“All hands on deck,” is the common example. We say we want “all hands” on deck, but most of us understand “hands” to mean whole sailors.
A whole-for-the-part example would be “France lost to Italy,” meaning, in scaled-down specificity, the French team lost to the Italian team.
In the history of official American relations with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, synecdoche has been more than a figure of speech. It’s been a catastrophe. For nearly 50 years, writers have misrepresented Castro as Cuba.
Journalists, historians and others have talked about “the United States against Cuba,” “U.S. antagonism toward Cuba” and “poor U.S.-Cuban relations.” These synecdoches simplify relationships, condense news and inevitably let the Cuban tyrant off the hook. How? Every example falsely assumes that Castro speaks for Cuba, that our dislike for him is a dislike for Cuba, that Castro is Cuba.
Who is served poorly by this sloppy talk? The 11 million Cuban people, who have no say in how they are ruled and who rules them. The U.S. government has no antagonism toward them. We Americans have nothing against Cubans. And the Cubans are Cuba, not Castro (or his brother).
If the headline is, “U.S. punishes Cuba,” many readers will sense, first, that big and powerful America is hurting tiny, defenseless Cuba. Maybe we should be nicer to Cuba, is a likely American reaction. The reason for the “U.S. punishment” of “Cuba” becomes secondary to the David and Goliath image.
Castro could shoot down unarmed civilian airplanes in international air space, execute men who tried to flee his oppression, or arrest journalists and librarians simply for writing or reading, but that would be lost in the news.
The news is the synecdoche. It’s President Bush against President Castro, not the U.S. government in solidarity with the Cuba people. The weak brains (there’s another synecdoche for you) thrive on the simplicity. They can take only one concept at a time.
It’s Bush against Castro. The dim bulbs reason: If I don’t like Bush, I must root for Castro. It’s a personality contest. Never mind that Castro’s police state allows 11 million Cubans no freedom. I’m in this for the synecdoche.
Novelists, philosophers, filmmakers, actors, singers, even “linguists” who should know better have embraced the Cuba synecdoche.
Though Castro stands for nothing good, they celebrate the dashing way he stands at all, and they try hard to forget the 11 million who suffer daily because Castro promised freedom in 1959, methodically locked up the nation in 1960 and then officially broke all his promises in 1961.
Synecdoche absolves the personality worshippers. If Castro is Cuba, there can’t be anything wrong with holding his hand, can there?
But no matter how you write it out, holding Castro’s hand isn’t holding the hand of Cuba. It’s holding the hand of secret police, censors, jailers, executioners and all the other mercenaries of totalitarian repression. Holding Castro’s hand is siding with tyranny and torture.
Here are some headines from yesterday and today’s papers:
Does anyone really believe most Cubans fear a U.S. attack? Does anyone believe most Cubans dismiss the U.S. call for democracy? Isn’t it possible that most Cubans are praying for someone, even the U.S., to “take advantage” of Castro’s health crisis?
Does anyone believe most Cubans hope Raul Castro continues the dictatorship forever? That’s what those headlines imply.
That’s what sociopathic synecdoche gets us.
SEE ALSO: Castro and the magic billboard.