I think they call this “baby-eating empiricism” [response to reader]

[One must oneself become foolish to talk to a fool. Engagement with anyone requires shared terms of engagement. Two parties with zero shared concepts could hardly begin to communicate. And for obvious reasons, it is easier to approximate the fool’s own terms than the reverse. This poses two sorts of problems. Either: One ends up saying things that aren’t quite correct but might be close enough for present purposes—as we might instruct children that the “socks like to go in the drawer” for the purpose of teaching tidiness. The risk is that the hearer apply the lesson beyond that purpose—as the child may claim socks for friends and be ridiculed by schoolmates; Or: One finds oneself making banal points in language that very obviously “tries” not to sound that way—ringing forced or pedantic, etc. The below post risks the second type. But the position engaged is so pervasive as to obligate me. (And I want to nail the sad shot).]

Miami expatriate types always respond to pro-revolution talk by arguing: You can’t know anything about Cuba until you visit there, maybe even live there, “under the regime.” For me, the latest example comes from “Babalu” of babalublog.com. (His is one of the best anti-Castro sites around; and it’s terrible.) He imagines, in one of multiple emails sent to convince me that he doesn’t care what I’m convinced of: “As far as Im [sic] concerned, unless youve [sic] lived it [i.e., Cuba], you have no idea what it actually is.”

This is flawed on some key levels:

(1) First, the argument supposes that—like a kind of god—my own experience is somehow more privileged than anybody else’s. I have no reason to think this. This being said, even if it were true that only a person who has “lived” something has a right to thoughts about it, this still wouldn’t rule out that I could use his opinion as a basis for my own. (Call this a kind of “vicarious experience.”) One can absorb this through testimony, encapsulated in such forms as written and oral discourse, polling, etc.

Indeed, if we could never make assumptions based on the related, second-hand experience of another, human life would become impossible: My boss just told me to file some contracts. For all my experience tells me, he may have been fired 5 minutes ago without my knowledge, ceasing to be my boss and thus unable to give me orders; maybe these are not actually contracts, but forgeries; maybe I’m supposed to throw them away and not file them. These are all possibilities, and since I haven’t “lived” in the person of my (alleged) boss, or a witness to any firings or contract-strikings, I cannot say for sure they aren’t true. To perform my job—that is, to eat—I have to assume that what this guy tells me about his own “experience” (even if he “tells” me it implicitly—by not saying otherwise) is basically correct. It is unclear why Cuba should be approached in a manner different from all other arenas of human life.

(2) Consider any discipline or profession which requires one to have opinions on “world events”—Political Science, journalism, etc. Members of these disciplines claim to “know” things about dozens of countries to which they’ve never actually been. Indeed, to truly “know” Cuba one must know something at least of the U.S., Spain, the Soviet Union and West Africa. And to know of the USSR, in turn, one must know of all the Eastern satellites; and of Spain, one must know France and Mexico (etc.). Who has been to, much less “lived under” all of the implicated “regimes”? Specifically, the history of Cuba is bound up with the histories of other nations. But nobody alive has “lived” since the very births of these nations; one can “experience” history, but not histories.

(3) Even among the now-living, nobody shares precisely the same parcel of experience as anyone else. I may as well say to Babalu: “Unless you have ‘lived under’ the precise circumstances that have shaped me, and led to my views on Cuba, you have no idea about them and cannot say anything about my Cuba posts.” Indeed, for Babalu, which Cuban would qualify to speak of his nation? No Cuban has experienced Cuba, and being Cuban, in every last one of its full and varied dimensions. “Cuba” includes the city of Baracoa—to speak of the one is, in part, to speak of the other. But lifelong Baracoans have not “lived” as Santa Clarans or Havanans. Nor have Cuban men “lived” as Cuban women, etc. On Babalu’s assumption, then, nobody could ever legitimately speak of Cuba (nor any other subject).

(4) Even if Babalu’s basic point were correct, a person’s “lived” experience is not nearly, nearly enough for credibility—even when experience leads one to correct ideas. This is because truth is not just a bunch of “facts” bundled together. One must—if she wants to say something non-trivial—go on to interpret one’s experience: to qualify, rank, and evaluate these facts, and place them into context. If my having to rely upon others’ experience of Cuba is an epistemic ‘handicap,’ it is more than washed out by the much greater handicap, facing everyone at all times, of having to determine which facts among the millions presented by “experience” are significant, and later, what all of it means. (Someone who catalogued and measured all of the angles in Cuban hospitals (edges of tables, corners of walls, etc.) might know many thousands more “facts” about Cuban hospitals than I; it would not follow that he is more credible on the health care system.)

(5) Babalu’s criticism confuses how one acquires one’s opinions with whether those opinions are actually true. This commits the elementary logical “fallacy of origins,” equating a thing (or the value of a thing) with where it came from (or the value of this). These are two different elements and should be evaluated separately.

For it is certainly possible for me to hold the correct view of Cuba even if I am “in no position” to do so. Short of “liv[ing] it,” I could still make a lucky correct guess about what the country is like; heck, I could divide up a dartboard into positions about Cuba and just happen to hit the right one. In these cases, Babalu could critique my knowledge-gathering techniques, even be right about them, but he wouldn’t be on topic—because the topic is not my technique but rather What is the case about Cuba.

The point is that: To refute a position, you have to do more than just say, “Oh, what would somebody like you know about it?” You actually have to put in the work, construct the case, argue against it. Babalu may agree on principle, but he didn’t act upon it in this forum when he had the chance.

(6) Finally, by every reasonable measure we have for discerning it, those “living” Cuba most directly—its present citizens—seem to favor the system in its basic features overwhelmingly. This claim is a “big” one not because its all that hard to verify but because so few are looking. Thus, it warrants its own post, to arrive soon.


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