The New York Times has an amusing article today about how Bashar al-Assad, and his well-dressed wife, Asma, tried to buff their reputation in the West with the help of avaricious public affairs consultants and credulous journalists. As the article notes: “In March 2011, just as Mr. Assad and his security forces initiated a brutal crackdown on political opponents that has led to the death of an estimated 10,000 Syrians, Vogue magazine ran a flattering profile of the first lady, describing her as walking ‘a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles,’ a reference to her Christian Louboutin heels.”
The author of that embarrassing Vogue article, Joan Juliet Buck, explained that Mrs. Assad was “extremely thin and very well-dressed, and therefore qualified to be in Vogue.” Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, apparently no longer thinks that article was such a hot idea. She has taken it off Vogue’s web site and explained to the Times: “Like many at that time, we were hopeful that the Assad regime would be open to a more progressive society. Subsequent to our interview, as the terrible events of the past year and a half unfolded in Syria, it became clear that its priorities and values were completely at odds with those of Vogue.”
It’s good to hear that mass murder, even when overseen by the expensively attired and perfectly coifed, is “at odds” with Vogue’s “values,” whatever those might be. But only someone so intensely focused on her Manolo Blahniks as Wintour could possibly have missed the copious signs that the junior Assad, like his odious old man, was not exactly a paragon of virtue even before the start of last year’s uprising–indeed the whole reason the uprising started was because of the harshness of his rule.
The most dismaying thing about this whole sorry episode is how common it is. If only Assad were the first dictator to receive the red-carpet treatment from the New York-Los Angeles A list. But he’s not. It is hard to top the many hosannas tossed at Fidel Castro, for one, stretching all the way back to Herbert Matthews of the New York Times, who notoriously aided his quest for power in the late 1950s by describing him in a series of articles as an FDR-like figure striving for a “new deal for Cuba” that was “radical, democratic and therefore anti-Communist.” By that point Matthews was following in the already well-worn footsteps of John Reed (who lionized Lenin) and Edgar Snow (who did the same for Mao). While writing a history of guerrilla warfare, I had cause to re-read the descriptions of Mao from Snow and other starry-eyed Westerners, and it is even more outlandish than the nonsense recently penned about Bashar Assad. Snow actually suggested that Mao–who would go on to become the worst mass murderer in history and had already, by the late 1930s, revealed his dictatorial and murderous streak–was a “Lincolnesque figure” who was “a moderating influence in the Communist movement where life and death were concerned.” Similar praise has rung in the ears of Ho Chi Minh, Josip Broz Tito, Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe, and countless other despots.
What is it in the Western psyche that compels so many of the seemingly well-educated and liberally-minded to heap so much effusive praise on Third World rogues and murderers? I have no idea, but whatever it is, it is a strong urge, and one that, alas, will not end even with the retraction of a few fawning profiles of Bashar Assad.