While out delivering The Nugget recently, I listened to an episode of the American Spy Museum’s Spycast podcast, featuring Ric Prado. Enrique Prado was a covert CIA operative in Central America in the 1980s, as the Reagan Administration sought to build an insurgency to overthrow the Communist Sandinista regime, which had come to power in a revolution against the brutal Somoza government of Nicaragua in 1979.
Prado worked directly with the “Contras” as the counter-revolutionary insurgents were called. In the podcast interview, he praised the Contras as freedom fighters and said he was always 100 percent certain who the “white hats” were in the Central American conflict. The term hearkens back to old-time black-and-white Western movies where the “good guy” was readily distinguished by a white cowboy hat. The “bad guys” wore black hats.
This kind of unambiguous white hats vs. black hats view of the Cold War is not surprising coming from someone of Prado’s background and occupation. His family had fled Cuba in the face of oppression by the regime of Fidel Castro, who came to power in 1959 and swiftly unfurled a red banner and aligned with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. I’ve known a good number of Cubans who had the same experience, and, for them, all Communists are simply the bad guys — black hats — and anyone who opposes them wears the white hat in a very straightforward battle between good and evil.
Some other folks in a position to know can tell you that the Contras were no white-hats. As a friend told me, the hard core that had served Somoza were “the worst of the worst.”
Of course the Sandinistas were no white-hats, either. I vividly recall watching a Sandinista official scream into the face of a young woman at a Glendale Community College symposium back in 1984. She had, with remarkable poise, recounted how Sandinistas had thrown her brother to his death from a helicopter.
The Sandinista bigwig was red in the face, and spittle flew from his mouth as he pounded on a table and yelled:
“We kill people for the right reasons!”
They clearly had their own version of white hats vs. black hats.
Ambiguity is a liability when you’re in a fight; it’s probably necessary to see your adversary as an enemy and your enemy as just plain bad. But a good guys/bad guys paradigm doesn’t serve us well when it comes to politics in a republic, or the evolution and devolution of our culture.
America is in the midst of an identity crisis, seeking to define and redefine who we have been, who we are, and who we aspire to be. Different people have different understandings of the past and aspirations for the future.
For some, America continues to represent what Abraham Lincoln called the “last, best hope of earth,” a beacon of liberty and prosperity. For others, that image is a lie, covering up a dark history of a nation built on slavery and the expropriation of native lands. For some, America always wears a white hat, and they don’t want to hear about the dark things. For some, America wears a black hat, and the light is a flickering deception.
People generally struggle with paradox. It’s hard to recognize that good people can do bad things and that bad people can do good things, or that a national culture can contain within it both the exalted and the base. To quote Lincoln again, Americans have responded to “the better angels of our nature” and gifted the world unprecedented freedom and abundance. Americans have also fallen prey to our demons of prejudice, ignorance and violence. Sometimes our actions have been a tangle of high motives and low self-interest that can never be unwound.
It’s simpler and a lot more comfortable to just see white hats and black hats — but that kind of thinking only feeds our increasingly toxic political tribalism, which has eaten through the social fabric like a corrosive chemical.
If we’re going to navigate the challenges that we can all see ahead of us, we’d better learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, to challenge our own deeply held assumptions and recognize that we’re not living in a white hat/black hat world — and never were.