Commentary Magazine


Topic: Communism

Cuba and the Price of Normalization

Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

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Then news this morning that the Cuban government is finally freeing Alan Gross, an American unjustly imprisoned there for the last five years, is cause for celebration. The release of Gross, a Jewish aid worker who was trying to help the Cuban people, not to spy on their government, was long overdue and the seemingly lackluster efforts to free him by the Obama administration were discouraging. But the administration and the Cuban government obviously was interested in achieving something more than a prisoner exchange as they engaged in negotiations. The result of a reported 18 months of talks was not merely the end of Gross’s ordeal but the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba’s Communist government after more than a half century of conflict. This is something about which Americans should feel less than enthusiastic.

We are told that Gross’s freedom, along with that of 53 human-rights prisoners, is for humanitarian reasons and not part of a prisoner exchange in which Havana released another person (dubbed a U.S. “intelligence asset”) for three Cuban spies. But the real focus of American policy here was on President Obama’s goal of engagement with America’s foes. As with his outreach to Iran, the president’s belief that diplomacy can smooth out if not entirely erase our differences with dangerous regimes has become the engine of American foreign policy during his administration. Whether it is the failed attempts at resets of relations with the Putin regime in Russia or the long-running effort to appease the Islamist regime in Tehran, the point of American efforts is not so much the achievement of tangible goals or the enhancement of U.S. security as it is on the promotion of good will with nations that have little or no regard for U.S. values or interests.

In pursuit of this amorphous goal, the administration has made bargains, like the interim nuclear accord signed with Iran last year, that do little to promote U.S. goals but allow the president to keep talking with hostile nations. It is in this context that we must view any effort to normalize relations with a tyrannical Cuban government.

It should be conceded that the American embargo on Cuba, which can only be lifted by Congress and not by presidential fiat, has not been effective in isolating that country or in promoting change there. But even if we recognize that this is true, neither should the U.S. be blamed for the endemic poverty in Cuba. After all, many American businesses have obtained exemptions for conducting commerce there and virtually every other nation on the planet does have trade with Cuba. Poverty in Cuba is caused by Communism and the repression that is inherent in the system that the aging Castro brothers have imposed on this tortured island prison.

The arguments for opening U.S. trade with Cuba revolve around the idea that engagement will undermine the Communist system and the regime. It should also be noted that when you consider that America has intense economic relations with China, the world’s largest tyranny, the insistence on isolating a far smaller one in Cuba doesn’t seem to make sense. Seen from that perspective, President Obama’s decision to end 51 years of diplomatic estrangement and to open up trade with it will probably do little harm and perhaps lead to some good.

But there are two underlying dynamics to the decision that are deeply troubling.

The first is that this rapprochement has been achieved by blackmail by a vicious totalitarian state rather than an honest and open diplomatic process. Though we are supposed to believe that Gross’s freedom was incidental to the agreement, it’s clear that his unjust imprisonment raised the price of the payoff Obama was preparing to hand the Castros in order to achieve what he is claiming as a foreign-policy triumph. This is a clear signal to other tyrannies that Washington can be fleeced if a U.S. hostage can be held for ransom.

Second, while America’s efforts had not led to freedom for Cuba, it’s far from clear that what will follow the president’s decision will actually end the Cuban people’s long Communist ordeal. Here, the China precedent is both instructive and chilling. By cooperating in this manner the U.S. is going from a position of futile hostility against Communism to one in which it will be directly complicit in the efforts of this brutal regime to survive. Just as American economic ties helped the communists in Beijing to succeed where those in Moscow failed at the end of the Cold War, so, too, is it likely that all that will be accomplished here is an infusion of American cash and legitimacy that will give a failed, bankrupt yet vicious government a new lease on life.

Though he paid lip service to the cause of promoting freedom when he spoke today, as with so many of his foreign-policy initiatives, the president’s focus is more on repudiating longstanding American policies than on actually helping anyone in Cuba. Nor has he extracted a fair price for granting the Castros what they have been demanding for decades. At a time when Cuba’s main allies, especially Venezuela, are in extremis due to the fall in oil prices, this was the moment for the U.S. to get more than just the freedom of Gross. But, as he has done with the even more dangerous regime in Iran, Obama paid a lot and got nothing for the Cuban people.

We can hope that Cubans will benefit to some extent from this decision but it is doubtful that they will be freer or that their prospects for liberty have been improved. Though the end of the break with Cuba is not nearly as significant as it might have been during the Cold War, it does send a message to every other American foe that the U.S. can be bought off cheaply. That’s an ominous precedent for the nuclear talks with Iran and every other dangerous situation faced by the U.S. while Obama is in the White House.

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Lessons on Iran from the Fall of the Berlin Wall

This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I grew up against the backdrop of the Cold War. Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet premier for the first decade of my life. His 1982 funeral was represented the dour pageantry of the Soviet Union to which we had become accustomed. I was in the sixth grade when a Soviet pilot shot down Korean Air 007. In hindsight we learned that it was perhaps the closest the United States and Soviet Union had come to nuclear war in my lifetime. And, as a voracious reader, I grew up reading Cold War thrillers such as Fail Safe, Seven Days in May, On the Beach, and later The Charm School, and I also remember the debates in school about whether or not it was appropriate for kids my age to see The Day After when it first appeared on television. Walking around Northeast Philadelphia where I grew up, many buildings still housed these signs which somewhere along the years thankfully disappeared.

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This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I grew up against the backdrop of the Cold War. Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet premier for the first decade of my life. His 1982 funeral was represented the dour pageantry of the Soviet Union to which we had become accustomed. I was in the sixth grade when a Soviet pilot shot down Korean Air 007. In hindsight we learned that it was perhaps the closest the United States and Soviet Union had come to nuclear war in my lifetime. And, as a voracious reader, I grew up reading Cold War thrillers such as Fail Safe, Seven Days in May, On the Beach, and later The Charm School, and I also remember the debates in school about whether or not it was appropriate for kids my age to see The Day After when it first appeared on television. Walking around Northeast Philadelphia where I grew up, many buildings still housed these signs which somewhere along the years thankfully disappeared.

When I had my bar mitzvah back in 1984, like many of my peers, I was “twinned” with a Soviet Jew my age and encouraged to write to him. I quickly received a note back asking me not to write anymore because his family feared for their safety. Teachers and peers, meanwhile, would regularly go and protest Ronald Reagan’s “warmongering” and military build-up in Western Europe. Against the backdrop of all this, there were many who downplayed the importance of freedom even as it was denied to so many. The Soviet Union would be a permanent fixture of our world and that we just had to bargain with what was there rather than what we’d like to see. Cuba might be a dictatorship, but couldn’t we just applaud its health-care system? Maybe the United States was at fault in Nicaragua and the people truly wanted to be in the Communist orbit.

Then Berlin happened. It was my senior year in high school, and what a heady time it was, coming just months after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Despite what diplomats, teachers, professors, and news anchors told us, perhaps people really did want to be free. It’s hard to argue with hundreds of thousands clamoring to escape the prison in which their leaders had put them. Whereas many so-called sophisticated Americans had mocked Ronald Reagan for his “evil empire” remarks, those escaping from Soviet tutelage described his moral clarity as a shot of adrenalin to those seeking freedom and individual liberty.

How unfortunate it is, then, that history must repeat, that somehow those in power and those entrusted with American diplomacy have come to once again embrace moral equivalency and shirk moral clarity. We need look no further than Iran. Whereas many U.S. presidents have reached their hand out to the Iranian people, President Obama was the first to substitute a direct outreach to Iranians with instead the legitimization of the Islamic Republic, the regime which so oppresses them.

Part of this might be ignorance of his advisors. When one looks at the histories and explanations of the Islamic Revolution published in English, so many of these were commissioned against the backdrop of revolution by publishers who wanted an answer to how so many in the West were taken by surprise by the Islamic Revolution. The most popular of the resulting books—and those still used in universities—for example, Nikki Keddie’s Roots of Revolution and Ervand Abrahamian’s Iran Between Two Revolutions, treated the Islamic Revolution as the natural apex of Iranian political evolution. It might not have looked it at the time, but such a conclusion was nonsense. The Islamic Revolution was just as much an anomaly, one made possible by a confluence of events ranging from the shah’s cancer, Carter’s bungling, Khomeini’s exile from Iraq, and pure dumb luck on Khomeini’s part. It does a tremendous disservice to the Iranian people to treat the theocracy and regime imposed upon them by Ayatollah Khomeini as a permanent part of the Iranian political landscape.

The outreach Obama initiated led the president to downplay rather than offer moral support to the 2009 uprising inside Iran. Then, in order to grease his outreach, he offered Iran more than $7 billion in sanctions relief at a time when, thanks in part to sanctions, Iran’s economy was fast contracting. And that was even before the price of oil dropped precipitously, well below the level necessary to support the budget which Iranian leaders calculated.

Ronald Reagan ended the Soviet Union by forcing it to bankrupt itself. Obama was offered the same opportunity with a state just as hostile to the United States and chose to throw it a life raft. As we near a quarter century from the Berlin Wall’s fall, we should not kid ourselves by believing that it is somehow sophisticated diplomacy to preserve our adversaries or downplay the aspirations for freedom which peoples chafing under dictatorship hold. It is a lesson Obama and Kerry should consider as they work to cement their legacy on the backs of ordinary Iranians.

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Islamism’s Appeal to the Discontented

There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.

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There are striking similarities between Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who killed a Canadian soldier in Ottawa, and Zale Thompson, who wounded two New York police officers with a hatchet. Both were loners raised in North America with a history of drug use, petty crime, and apparent mental problems who turned for salvation to a radical form of Islam. Apparently motivated by jihadist websites, they each committed heinous acts of terrorism against what they mistakenly believed were the enemies of Islam. In this respect they were not that different from Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Chechen-American brothers who carried out the Boston marathon bombing in 2013.

Sadly we can expect more such “lone wolf” attacks in the future, which are almost impossible to predict and very difficult to prevent. One obvious line of defense is to maintain vigilant surveillance of the Internet–which is what the NSA was doing before some of its most successful programs were exposed and curtailed by the traitor Edward Snowden. People who regularly surf jihadist websites should trigger alarm bells somewhere. But even that will not keep us totally safe from such individuals who find in radical Islam the same kind of solace that previous generations of troubled loners found in extreme political movements such as Nazism, fascism, and Communism or in religious cults such as David Koresh’s Branch Davidians or in James Jones’s People’s Temple.

One of the striking aspects of the history of terrorism, as I noted in my book Invisible Armies, is that radical groups tend to follow intellectual fads. Some of the first modern terrorists were motivated to hurl bombs in the 19th century because of their allegiance to Nihilism or anarchism. Those ideas were edged into irrelevance by the rise of Communism as the dominant ideology of the revolutionary set. In the 1960s-70s another wave of terrorists were motivated by admiration for the likes of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong. These were the “radical chic” revolutionaries such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Army Faction, the Weather Underground, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Their decline by the 1980s can be traced to the general loss of appeal of Communism. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was not easy anymore to find anyone willing to fight and die for proletarian ideals.

But by then another new ideology–Islamism–was already on the rise, offering the appeal of earthly paradise for troubled and disgruntled individuals eager to rebel against their society. Like these previous “isms,” Islamism offers the possibility of a meaningful and even heroic existence to young men otherwise doomed to live out their lives as nonentities. So potent is the appeal of this radical ideology that it even has some appeal to non-Muslims who convert simply so they can become terrorists or at least fellow travelers of terrorists. Oddly enough one of these converts is Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan Marxist revolutionary who once committed terrorism in the name of Palestine and then converted to Islam while sitting in a French prison.

History suggests that the appeal of Islamist ideology for adventurers and malcontents will only dim once it is definitively exposed to be as bankrupt a governing philosophy as anarchism or Communism. Unfortunately that will not happen anytime in the near future–groups such as ISIS, horrific as they may seem to most people, still maintain a potent allure for some no matter how many atrocities they commit, or perhaps because they are committing so many atrocities. Defeating ISIS and its ilk on the battlefield will not instantly or permanently remove their ideological appeal. But it’s a good start. Only movements that seem to have some chance of success are likely to draw many recruits.

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Historical Memory and the Rosenbergs

The belated announcement of the death of David Greenglass has renewed discussion of the notorious spy case in which he played a principal role. Greenglass was, of course, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg and it was his testimony that led in no small measure to the conviction and ultimately the execution of his sister and her husband Julius on charges of nuclear espionage against the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union. But even 61 years after their deaths and decades after even almost all of those who wrongly asserted their innocence have conceded that they were spies, Greenglass and not the masterminds of the Communist spy ring remains the villain of the story as far as most of the chattering classes are concerned. That was the upshot of Greenglass’s obituary in today’s New York Times. Though correcting the record on this point may seem a futile exercise, the willingness of liberals to carry on with the pretense that Greenglass’s evidence was somehow worse than the Rosenberg’s’ treason remains insufferable.

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The belated announcement of the death of David Greenglass has renewed discussion of the notorious spy case in which he played a principal role. Greenglass was, of course, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg and it was his testimony that led in no small measure to the conviction and ultimately the execution of his sister and her husband Julius on charges of nuclear espionage against the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union. But even 61 years after their deaths and decades after even almost all of those who wrongly asserted their innocence have conceded that they were spies, Greenglass and not the masterminds of the Communist spy ring remains the villain of the story as far as most of the chattering classes are concerned. That was the upshot of Greenglass’s obituary in today’s New York Times. Though correcting the record on this point may seem a futile exercise, the willingness of liberals to carry on with the pretense that Greenglass’s evidence was somehow worse than the Rosenberg’s’ treason remains insufferable.

Greenglass apparently died in July at 92 while living under an assumed name in a nursing home. But, as the Times points out, his willingness to cut a deal with prosecutors that enabled his wife to avoid incarceration in exchange for evidence about his sister and her husband, has become a symbol of family betrayal. But as historian Ron Radosh writes in his column in the New York Sun, the effort to treat Greenglass as beyond the pale stems from the lingering desire to diminish the guilt of the Rosenbergs if no longer to exonerate them.

The Times obituary did not recycle the old canards about the Rosenbergs’ innocence that were always transparent fictions but which were conclusively debunked by the publication of Soviet records after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the evil empire the spies served. But its main conceit was to harp on Greenglass’ post-trial statement that he was unsure whether it was his sister or his wife Ruth, another dedicated Communist, who typed the document sent to the Soviets containing the data he had stolen from the U.S. nuclear research facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico. This was treated in the piece as somehow evidence that Ethel, if not Julius, was actually innocent of espionage. Citing the ground breaking work of historian Ron Radosh, co-author along with Joyce Milton of the seminal The Rosenberg File, the Times attempts to bolster this bogus point as well as the claim that the material Greenglass and other members of the ring passed to Moscow was worthless.

But as Radosh writes today, these assumptions are completely false. Ethel Rosenberg was an integral member of the Soviet espionage operation who helped recruit her brother and sister-in-law to join her husband’s spy ring. Nor are there any grounds for assuming that the information they passed to Stalin’s henchmen was worthless. Greenglass’s description of the U.S. uranium bomb was highly useful to the Russians. So was the data about the lens mold of the bomb described at the Rosenberg trial and other material such as a detonator and a proximity fuse. The opprobrium directed at the Rosenbergs during their trial may have been in part a product of Cold War hysteria but there is no question of the depth of their betrayal and the damage they did to their country.

At the heart of all of these attempts to mitigate the justified anger of the American people at persons who spied for the Soviets is the lingering leftist illusion that what they did was a product of idealism. Though faith in the “socialist motherland” has long since faded, its vestigial elements still act to rationalize the actions of American communists who are thought to have been merely mistaken in their loyalties rather than having chosen to align themselves with evil against the cause of freedom. This attitude of tolerance toward communism is one that his still based not only on myths such as that of the Rosenberg’s innocence but also on the belief that those who backed Moscow’s cause did not irretrievably compromise themselves.

But even if this is among the last rounds to be fired in an old argument, these lies should still be refuted.

As Radosh writes, the Rosenbergs didn’t die because of McCarthyite intolerance or judicial misconduct but because they were, unlike Greenglass, dedicated communists who refused to cop a plea or even admit a modicum of guilt. They choose death so that they could be martyrs for the cause of the world’s greatest anti-Semitic power at the time and the homicidal maniac who ruled it. Doing so served Stalin’s cause and distracted the world from the anti-Semitic purge trials going on in Czechoslovakia even if it meant orphaning their children.

Greenglass may have been a villain to liberals like Woody Allen whose line about the spy in one of his movies closes the obits. But contrary to the conclusion of the Times, history shows that the real villains were all those, like the Rosenbergs, who served Stalin’s kingdom of death and oppression and those who sought to rationalize or lie about their crimes. To argue to the contrary is to dishonor the memory of the tens of millions murdered by the communists and the many brave people who resisted them during the course of a long and ultimately successful Cold War against evil.

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Pete Seeger and the Judgment of History

How do you separate musical icons from the politics that either ennobled or besmirched their reputations? The answer is that you can’t. And there’s no better example of this than singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger is being lionized in the mainstream liberal media as the troubadour of social activism whose songs were the soundtrack of the struggle for civil rights, social equality, and against the Vietnam War. Seeger had, by the time he died, ascended to the status of a secular saint and was considered great not just because of his music but because of his left-wing politics and his struggles during the McCarthy period, when he was blacklisted.

In this retelling of his story, Seeger’s actual beliefs were beside the point. Any criticism of his actions and affiliations was branded as intolerant or worse, a revival of anti-Communist fear-mongering. It is this Pete Seeger that America celebrated in recent decades. Though he could often be seen at left-wing demonstrations, even showing up at the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, the man who sang at Barack Obama’s first inaugural with Bruce Springsteen was no longer controversial. If he was not quite the Rosa Parks of folk song, he had become something fairly close.

But the complete truth about Seeger is not as simple as that. Seeger wasn’t merely affiliated with left-wing groups in his youth. He was an active member of the Communist Party (CP) and a loyal Stalinist who put his talent in the service of that conspiratorial and murderous movement.

So who was Pete Seeger? Was he the hero or the villain? The answer is that he was both. Or more to the point, he was a great musician who sometimes put himself on the right side of history and sometimes on the wrong one. Which is why the unalloyed tributes to Seeger being broadcast today on the networks and published in the mainstream media have it wrong. But the same judgment applies to some on the right who can’t see past his sins.

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How do you separate musical icons from the politics that either ennobled or besmirched their reputations? The answer is that you can’t. And there’s no better example of this than singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger is being lionized in the mainstream liberal media as the troubadour of social activism whose songs were the soundtrack of the struggle for civil rights, social equality, and against the Vietnam War. Seeger had, by the time he died, ascended to the status of a secular saint and was considered great not just because of his music but because of his left-wing politics and his struggles during the McCarthy period, when he was blacklisted.

In this retelling of his story, Seeger’s actual beliefs were beside the point. Any criticism of his actions and affiliations was branded as intolerant or worse, a revival of anti-Communist fear-mongering. It is this Pete Seeger that America celebrated in recent decades. Though he could often be seen at left-wing demonstrations, even showing up at the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, the man who sang at Barack Obama’s first inaugural with Bruce Springsteen was no longer controversial. If he was not quite the Rosa Parks of folk song, he had become something fairly close.

But the complete truth about Seeger is not as simple as that. Seeger wasn’t merely affiliated with left-wing groups in his youth. He was an active member of the Communist Party (CP) and a loyal Stalinist who put his talent in the service of that conspiratorial and murderous movement.

So who was Pete Seeger? Was he the hero or the villain? The answer is that he was both. Or more to the point, he was a great musician who sometimes put himself on the right side of history and sometimes on the wrong one. Which is why the unalloyed tributes to Seeger being broadcast today on the networks and published in the mainstream media have it wrong. But the same judgment applies to some on the right who can’t see past his sins.

It should be understood that his youthful infatuation with Stalinism was neither superficial nor a passing fancy. To his shame, he toured the country singing protest songs from 1939 to 1941. But he was not protesting the Nazis nor did he support those fighting them. Rather, he was part of the CP campaign conducted at Moscow’s behest that sought to combat any effort to involve the United States in World War Two. The Hitler-Stalin Pact had made the Soviets Germany’s ally until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union brought them into the war. Seeger remained a party member until the 1950s and even long after he abandoned it, he continued to refer to himself as a communist with a small “c” rather than an upper-case one.

To many liberals as well as the stalwarts of the old left, this is nothing for which he should apologize. Liberal revisionism has transformed the vicious Communism of this era from an anti-American and anti-democratic conspiracy into a romantic expression of support for human rights. As such, Seeger and many of his comrades were able to bask in the applause of subsequent generations rather than having to atone for having been a proud apologist for one of the worst criminals in history as well as for the mass murder and anti-Semitism that was integral to Soviet communism. While isolationists like Charles Lindberg and other apologists for Hitler never lived down that association, Stalinists like Seeger had a rough time in the 1950s but were ultimately honored for their disgraceful behavior.

That is infuriating, and for many conservatives like Pajama Media’s Ed Driscoll, unforgivable. The honors showered on the elderly Seeger serve only to deepen the bitterness of those who not unreasonably believe the adamant refusal to tell the truth about this chapter of Seeger’s life—both in the news media and in documentary films about him—undermines our ability to take a full measure of the man, and is an insult to all those who take seriously the eternal struggle against the enemies of freedom.

And yet there is more to Seeger than these two inconsistent narratives. As historian Ron Radosh, a former banjo student of the singer as well as an indispensable chronicler of Communism, movingly wrote in 2007 in the New York Sun, Seeger had, by the end of his life, finally understood the magnitude of some of his earlier errors. As Radosh wrote, Seeger admitted that he was wrong never to have protested Stalin’s tyranny and atoned in part by belatedly writing a song denouncing the gulag.

Ultimately, as with all artists of every stripe, history will judge Seeger more for the quality of his music than his politics. As Paul Berman wrote today in the New Republic, songs like If I Had a Hammer or Where Have All the Flowers Gone, not to mention We Shall Overcome, will deserve to be sung a hundred years from now no matter what Seeger believed about communism. His legacy is far messier than most of the tributes will admit. But to listen to his vintage recordings or those of the groundbreaking folk group “The Weavers” to which he lent his tenor voice and banjo is to hear a great artist and a genuine voice of American culture. It is that Pete Seeger, and the not the sanitized liberal icon or the Stalinist front man, who will be remembered.

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Portrait of Denial: ‘The Nation’ and Communist Spies

Revelations about the content of the former Soviet Union’s archives about spying in the United States ended some long-running intellectual arguments. After decades of denying that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg or Alger Hiss were guilty and pretending that the Communist Party of the United States was not a Soviet front, a lot of people on the left had to shut up. The anti-anti-Communist point of view about the Cold War was discredited, but for the publishers of The Nation, the impulse to wave the old red flag is still strong. That often leads them, as well as some other sectors of the left such as the New York Times, to pretend as if backing the totalitarian, genocidal, and anti-Semitic regime that ruled Moscow was an innocent romantic phase that all true liberals went through. But as bad as that deplorable tradition might be, the decision of The Nation to publish material about Communist espionage as if the Venona Files had never been published is nothing short of bizarre.

That’s the only way to regard their recent publication of a review of a history of the post-World War Two Bretton Woods economic conference that devotes a considerable amount of space to defending the lost honor of Harry Dexter White. White, the senior Treasury Department official who led the U.S. delegation to Bretton Woods, was exposed as a Soviet spy a long time ago. As John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, the pre-eminent academic experts on Communist spying and the Soviet archives, write on their Washington Decoded blog, James Boughton’s effort to vindicate White is embarrassingly short on evidence if not completely mendacious. There isn’t any reasonable doubt that White provided information to Soviet intelligence and did what in plain language amounts to spying for Stalin.

Which leads is to ask why The Nation even bothers engaging in this dead-end argument. The answer tells us something interesting about the role the past plays for the contemporary left.

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Revelations about the content of the former Soviet Union’s archives about spying in the United States ended some long-running intellectual arguments. After decades of denying that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg or Alger Hiss were guilty and pretending that the Communist Party of the United States was not a Soviet front, a lot of people on the left had to shut up. The anti-anti-Communist point of view about the Cold War was discredited, but for the publishers of The Nation, the impulse to wave the old red flag is still strong. That often leads them, as well as some other sectors of the left such as the New York Times, to pretend as if backing the totalitarian, genocidal, and anti-Semitic regime that ruled Moscow was an innocent romantic phase that all true liberals went through. But as bad as that deplorable tradition might be, the decision of The Nation to publish material about Communist espionage as if the Venona Files had never been published is nothing short of bizarre.

That’s the only way to regard their recent publication of a review of a history of the post-World War Two Bretton Woods economic conference that devotes a considerable amount of space to defending the lost honor of Harry Dexter White. White, the senior Treasury Department official who led the U.S. delegation to Bretton Woods, was exposed as a Soviet spy a long time ago. As John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, the pre-eminent academic experts on Communist spying and the Soviet archives, write on their Washington Decoded blog, James Boughton’s effort to vindicate White is embarrassingly short on evidence if not completely mendacious. There isn’t any reasonable doubt that White provided information to Soviet intelligence and did what in plain language amounts to spying for Stalin.

Which leads is to ask why The Nation even bothers engaging in this dead-end argument. The answer tells us something interesting about the role the past plays for the contemporary left.

You might think that having the most liberal president since Jimmy Carter would free The Nation from their commitment to keep fighting the old ideological battles. There are, after all, a host of contemporary arguments to engage in that, notwithstanding the weakness of the left-wing case, are not vulnerable to disproof by incontrovertible historical evidence as is the case with the delusional effort to defend White. Yet after so many years of pretending that Soviet infiltration of Washington in the 1930s and 1940s was a figment of the imagination of demagogic right-wing anti-Communists, keeping the flag of denial flying is their way of asserting that being left wing means never having to say you’re sorry.

Doing so can be dismissed as a mindless loyalty to their past as a publication, but one suspects there is also something else at work. Admitting the truth about Communist espionage doesn’t validate contemporary conservative critiques of other traditional left-wing positions on the economy like the minimum wage or the folly of socialized medicine and its forerunner, ObamaCare. But at The Nation, the notion that any cracks in what in another era would have been called party solidarity undermines all their beliefs still seems to prevail.

Why else would they bother beating the dead horse of espionage denial if not for the fact that doing so somehow bucks them up in the idea that the right is always wrong, even when it is obviously right.

Liberals often accuse conservatives of living in the past and acting as if the Cold War never ended. Sometimes they have a point on that score, but what this episode teaches us is that the left is far more addicted to their Cold War anti-anti-Communism than anyone on the right has ever been. Being honest about the past requires conservatives to admit that not everything done in the name of anti-Communism was correct or even honorable. At the very least, it should also require liberals to drop the pretense that American Communism was a benign faith that was untainted by its association with Stalinism. It’s too bad The Nation isn’t grown up enough to do even that much.

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China’s National Identity

China scholars Orville Schell and John Delury are, of course, right that China needs a new national history which is not built around victimhood. For too long, as they note in the Wall Street Journal, Chinese students and ordinary citizens have been taught that their modern history began in 1843 with China’s humiliating capitulation to Great Britain in the First Opium War. This was followed by the creation of quasi-colonial “concessions” by the European powers and later Japan–a trend accelerated by China’s costly losses in future wars against the West (the Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion) and Japan (1894-1895, 1933-1945). Schell and Delury write that:

it is time for China and the more vociferous propagandists in Beijing to move beyond declarations about China’s “one hundred years of national humiliation.” That period has come to an end. The world has changed, China and the West have changed, and a new narrative is necessary for China to achieve its declared aim of equality and a “new type of great power relationship.”

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China scholars Orville Schell and John Delury are, of course, right that China needs a new national history which is not built around victimhood. For too long, as they note in the Wall Street Journal, Chinese students and ordinary citizens have been taught that their modern history began in 1843 with China’s humiliating capitulation to Great Britain in the First Opium War. This was followed by the creation of quasi-colonial “concessions” by the European powers and later Japan–a trend accelerated by China’s costly losses in future wars against the West (the Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion) and Japan (1894-1895, 1933-1945). Schell and Delury write that:

it is time for China and the more vociferous propagandists in Beijing to move beyond declarations about China’s “one hundred years of national humiliation.” That period has come to an end. The world has changed, China and the West have changed, and a new narrative is necessary for China to achieve its declared aim of equality and a “new type of great power relationship.”

Unfortunately, the chances of the current government in Beijing taking their advice are slim indeed, for the very simple reason that a major part of the rationale for the Communist Party’s monopoly on power is to excise China’s supposed history of humiliations. This was the same rationale, incidentally, as the Nationalist regime that the Communists overthrew. Both ideologies grew out of the attempts by early 20th-century leaders such as Sun Yat-sen to create a modern Chinese renaissance–both Chiang Kai-shek and his rival, Mao Zedong, were profoundly influenced by Sun Yat-sen.

Ironically, Mao’s heirs have completed Sun’s mission: Today China has not only the world’s largest population but also the second-largest economy, and within a few years it will surpass the U.S. economy in total size, if not in per capita wealth. China also has the second-largest military budget on the planet, and is growing increasingly powerful in East Asia and influential as far away as Latin America and Africa. By any standard, China has done spectacularly well since it began to shed its Maoist economy straitjacket in 1979. But its leaders cannot shed their ideological commitment to China as victim–an embattled state picked upon by powerful neighbors such as Japan and the United States–without calling into question their own fitness to rule without benefit of elections.

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The Czech Coup to the Berlin Airlift at 65

Andrei Cherny begins his history of the 1948 Berlin Airlift with the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. Though the outpouring of support for America around the world was overwhelming, Cherny says the reaction in Berlin stood apart. Berliners instinctively started pouring into the street near the Brandenburg Gate, and soon there were 200,000 of them. One stooped, elderly woman was asked by onlookers why she was crying. “I love Americans,” she said, then stood straight and smiled. “You see, I was a girl during the Airlift….”

Yesterday was exactly sixty-five years since General Lucius Clay, the American military governor in Germany after World War II, told Colonel Frank Howley, the American military governor of Berlin, “Frank, I’m ordering some planes in,” beginning the Berlin Airlift. In the postwar division of Germany, although Berlin sat in the Soviet zone it was divided with the Western powers and ruled by a joint command. The Soviets grew increasingly suspicious of what they believed to be a Western intent to unify Germany by, among other tactics, outcompeting the Soviets in the capital. After the introduction of a Western currency in West Berlin, the Soviets withdrew from the joint command and cut off Western land access to the city.

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Andrei Cherny begins his history of the 1948 Berlin Airlift with the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. Though the outpouring of support for America around the world was overwhelming, Cherny says the reaction in Berlin stood apart. Berliners instinctively started pouring into the street near the Brandenburg Gate, and soon there were 200,000 of them. One stooped, elderly woman was asked by onlookers why she was crying. “I love Americans,” she said, then stood straight and smiled. “You see, I was a girl during the Airlift….”

Yesterday was exactly sixty-five years since General Lucius Clay, the American military governor in Germany after World War II, told Colonel Frank Howley, the American military governor of Berlin, “Frank, I’m ordering some planes in,” beginning the Berlin Airlift. In the postwar division of Germany, although Berlin sat in the Soviet zone it was divided with the Western powers and ruled by a joint command. The Soviets grew increasingly suspicious of what they believed to be a Western intent to unify Germany by, among other tactics, outcompeting the Soviets in the capital. After the introduction of a Western currency in West Berlin, the Soviets withdrew from the joint command and cut off Western land access to the city.

The West, led by the United States, could not simply accede to this bullying and leave the Berliners in their care to the Soviets. “We shall stay, period,” said President Truman. The only way to get to their sector of Berlin, however, was now by air. And so American warplanes were loaded with food and coal and flown every day into the city for a year.

The Berlin Airlift sent the right message simultaneously to Germany, the free world, and the Stalin regime. And as much as it remains a splendid show of American resolve and ingenuity, it cannot be considered in a vacuum. The Berlin blockade was the result of Soviet fears of an encroaching Western-led economic recovery that would discredit the Soviet system lagging behind in adjacent sectors of postwar Europe. And that had much to do with the European Recovery Program, better known simply as the Marshall Plan, which was crafted and debated throughout the previous year but signed by Truman in April 1948.

The bitter winter of 1947 had made it clear that Europe had more to fear from a collapsed Germany than a resurgent one. Truman once and for all put an end to the Morgenthau Plan–agreed to by a fading FDR who later claimed to have no memory of signing onto the plan at a bilateral summit with Winston Churchill–to raze Germany and set the country back decades, if not centuries, on economic development and industrial capabilities. The Marshall Plan commenced the recovery of Europe, Germany included.

But the Marshall Plan (and the ongoing 1948 discussions that would result in the establishment of NATO the following year) must also be understood in the context that produced this sense of urgency that essentially created the postwar military order. And no one event did as much to shake the West out of its relative complacency than the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia barely a month before Truman signed the Marshall Plan.

The culmination of the coup, in February 1948, served as the wakeup call. The Czech government was made up of Communist and non-Communist ministers, and the Soviet loyalists had thoroughly infiltrated the country to the point where they were ready to force a confrontation. Scheduled elections were looming in a few months, but non-Communist ministers worried that by then the Communists would have the game rigged and there would be no way to hold free elections. So they forced a crisis by resigning from the government en masse, hoping to get more than half the ministers to resign, breaking the quorum. They failed to get enough ministers to step down, essentially leaving posts open for their enemies, and Communist control was further solidified.

That was the end of a coup three years in the making, however. Evelyn Gordon wrote earlier about the free world’s abandonment of Czechoslovakia before World War II, but they again abandoned it after the war. Dwight Eisenhower famously refused to race the Soviets to Berlin at the end of the war because he thought the German capital to be of mostly symbolic value, and the war in the Pacific wasn’t over. But he also believed that he had no business making “political” considerations when his job was to make military decisions. The postwar fate of a city was, in Eisenhower’s mind, strictly political.

He used that same justification not to press forward to liberate Prague. In 1945 the American troops arrived on the Czech border, where Eisenhower said they would stop. Marshall agreed. General Patton did not, and with the outbreak of fighting between Czech insurgents and German troops within the country Patton was able to get Eisenhower to press on. But Eisenhower halted the advance fifty miles from Prague when the Red Army was 200 miles away.

It was a terrible mistake. The Allies shared military occupation of Czechoslovakia, but the refusal to liberate Prague had both practical and symbolic consequences. Symbolically, “We sold the country down the river,” Igor Lukes quotes an American diplomatic official saying regretfully. “We could have liberated Prague. After the war we spent a lot of time trying to convince the Czechs that they weren’t part of the East Bloc. But no matter what we said the Soviets came to Prague first.”

The practical effects were worse. With the exiled Czech president out of the country during the war and Prague open for the taking, Communists and their sympathizers were able to get a major foothold in governance and security–which was exceptionally important, obviously, for the Soviet efforts at establishing the iron curtain and putting Czechoslovakia on their side of it.

There was blame enough to go around, including from Czech officials too willing to play ball in the early postwar days with Stalin. But those officials learned a lesson from Yalta: if the Western powers were willing to sell out the Polish government in exile after fighting a war ostensibly over the invasion of Poland, they would be willing to sell out the Czechs too. Of course, the Polish fate more or less awaited the Czechs anyway, because Western leaders were not the only ones naively putting their faith in Stalin’s word.

The refusal to liberate Prague ultimately consigned a generally pro-Western country to Soviet police-state terror. It taught the West the importance of geopolitical hinge states as well–a lesson Stalin didn’t need. And it stands as a reminder, sixty-five years later, of the moral incoherence and strategic folly of forgetting who our true allies are.

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Hollywood Plays “Let’s Make a Deal” with Chinese Communist Censors

In 2007, Cracked devoted one of its beloved lists to “The 7 Least-Faithful Comic Book Movies.” Given the proliferation of comic book adaptations to the big screen, and the famously high standards of the fans of each graphic novel, competition was no doubt fierce. The piece opens: “Look, Hollywood, we understand that film is a different medium than comic books. We realize that changes must be made, storylines streamlined, art design massaged.”

“But,” the author adds, “there are some films that we cannot forgive.” Indeed, high standards for authenticity are one thing, the understandable desire of fans to see a film that shares more than a title with its namesake is quite another. And so some artistic alterations in one version of the new Iron Man film are sure to raise eyebrows among viewers. Even more notable, however, is why those changes were made. The Washington Post reports:

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In 2007, Cracked devoted one of its beloved lists to “The 7 Least-Faithful Comic Book Movies.” Given the proliferation of comic book adaptations to the big screen, and the famously high standards of the fans of each graphic novel, competition was no doubt fierce. The piece opens: “Look, Hollywood, we understand that film is a different medium than comic books. We realize that changes must be made, storylines streamlined, art design massaged.”

“But,” the author adds, “there are some films that we cannot forgive.” Indeed, high standards for authenticity are one thing, the understandable desire of fans to see a film that shares more than a title with its namesake is quite another. And so some artistic alterations in one version of the new Iron Man film are sure to raise eyebrows among viewers. Even more notable, however, is why those changes were made. The Washington Post reports:

Even the nerdiest comic-book fan would be surprised to learn what cutting-edge technology secretly fuels “Iron Man’s” action-packed heroics: a milk-grain drink called Gu Li Duo from China’s Inner Mongolia.

That’s according to the Chinese version of the new blockbuster, which was released here complete with other surprising (read: odd and, at times outright nonsensical) footage inserted by producers to win the favor of Chinese officials.

If aesthetically jarring, the gambit has paid off handsomely. “Iron Man 3” raked in more than $64 million in its first five days and broke Chinese records with its May 1 opening-day haul of $21 million.

It’s a sign of how eager Hollywood has become to court China’s Communist Party leaders, who maintain an iron fist over the country’s booming movie market.

No fan of the film industry will be overjoyed at Hollywood selling its soul to the Communists for some imperialist-capitalist cash, but if it’s just Iron Man drinking some Mongolian milk, where’s the harm, right? Well, the Post continues:

This is how an invading swarm of Chinese soldiers in last year’s “Red Dawn” suddenly became North Koreans. And how Bruce Willis’s character mysteriously came to spend much more time in Shanghai than Paris in last year’s “Looper.” And why the outbreak sparking the zombie apocalypse in Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” this summer has been rewritten to originate from Moscow instead of China.

U.S. producers often spin such tweaks as an attempt to appeal to Chinese viewers. But experts say their more crucial target is the Chinese government’s 37-member censorship board, which each year approves just 34 foreign films for Chinese screens and reviews all their content. With China becoming the world’s second-largest box office market last year, failing to make that list can mean the loss of tens of millions of dollars.

U.S. film executives have described a process that involves heavy negotiation and wooing as they try to win approval. To please the authorities, studios have been willing to add Chinese actors, locations and elements to their cast, adjust release dates and tweak plot points to flatter or at least avoid offending Chinese officials.

So it’s not just a few minor changes for a few bucks. It’s an all-out garage sale of souls for gobs and gobs of money. “Tweak plot points to … avoid offending Chinese officials” is a pretty mellow way of saying “change the whole point of the movie because the Chinese Communists are offering us so much money that we honestly forgot American audiences even existed and c’mon what would you do and don’t be so naïve.” Which is the real message from studio execs.

And in fact it draws attention to something about the entertainment industry that has been impossible not to notice lately: purely in terms of entertainment value, movies are being not just outrun by television, but lapped and left in the dust. And one aspect of this may have something to do with it: television series, especially on cable and certainly on premium channels, treats their viewers like adults. I don’t mean with sex and violence, or the creepy objectification of teenagers that unfortunately shows no signs of abating. But in terms of intellectual engagement, these days films treat viewers like they’re idiots while television shows treat viewers like they already understand the world.

Long before Red Dawn’s Chinese invaders morphed into North Koreans, the Arab terrorists in the original Sum of All Fears–released in 2002–were dropped in favor of neo-Nazis after objections from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Yet over on network TV, before Sum of All Fears was released Americans were already watching 24, which depicted Islamic terrorists as Islamic terrorists–a fact which CAIR was none-too-happy about either. Accusations of “Islamophobia” were lobbed at the current Showtime hit Homeland, which also portrays Islamic terrorists as Islamic terrorists, and doesn’t blame America for everything that happens. As such, it’s infuriated some on the left. But the show rolls along.

Of course the obvious difference here is money. Film studios have much to gain from appeasing Communist censors, whereas television shows just don’t have the same market. How ironic that in pursuit of the almighty dollar, Hollywood and the Communists embrace censorship, and each other.

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A May Day Reminder of OWS’s Failure

Last year, May Day was a cause for celebration for members of the group Occupy Wall Street. Even though they had been evicted from their home in Zuccotti Park several months prior, the movement that was created there had spread nationwide. Liberals hoped that OWS would become their version of the Tea Party. They were willing to look over the squalid conditions at OWS camps in New York and nationwide, the rampant vandalism, and most troubling, the rapes and sexual assaults that took place there while fellow liberals were simultaneously fear mongering over Republicans’ imagined “war on women.” On the second May Day since its formation, the movement, which portrayed itself as the voice of support for the bottom 99 percent of Americans, has fractured over some members’ desire to translate that vague declaration of support into disaster assistance for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. 

The aftermath of Sandy left unprecedented destruction in the New York area, and to its credit, the Occupy movement stepped in to provide much-needed coordination and relief with the formation of Occupy Sandy. In November I spoke to a local rabbi who had been coordinating relief for elderly residents trapped inside a high-rise apartment complex that wouldn’t end up meeting someone in a FEMA jacket for a full ten days after the storm. The response from government officials was shockingly meager and private organizations like Occupy Sandy were left trying to provide food, water and medical attention to those hardest hit by the storm. 

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Last year, May Day was a cause for celebration for members of the group Occupy Wall Street. Even though they had been evicted from their home in Zuccotti Park several months prior, the movement that was created there had spread nationwide. Liberals hoped that OWS would become their version of the Tea Party. They were willing to look over the squalid conditions at OWS camps in New York and nationwide, the rampant vandalism, and most troubling, the rapes and sexual assaults that took place there while fellow liberals were simultaneously fear mongering over Republicans’ imagined “war on women.” On the second May Day since its formation, the movement, which portrayed itself as the voice of support for the bottom 99 percent of Americans, has fractured over some members’ desire to translate that vague declaration of support into disaster assistance for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. 

The aftermath of Sandy left unprecedented destruction in the New York area, and to its credit, the Occupy movement stepped in to provide much-needed coordination and relief with the formation of Occupy Sandy. In November I spoke to a local rabbi who had been coordinating relief for elderly residents trapped inside a high-rise apartment complex that wouldn’t end up meeting someone in a FEMA jacket for a full ten days after the storm. The response from government officials was shockingly meager and private organizations like Occupy Sandy were left trying to provide food, water and medical attention to those hardest hit by the storm. 

Occupy Sandy was soon consumed with the same problems that plagued the movement that was full of catch-phrases but little in the form of tangible plans or organization. This hilarious segment on The Daily Show about class divisions at Zuccotti Park illustrates just how hypocritically ineffective the movement was at extinguishing inequality even within its own ranks. In the face of reality, many Occupiers learned just how impossible it would be to translate their ideals into reality. The New York Times reports:

The original Occupiers who remain have not just mellowed, they have abandoned some of the hallmarks of the organization, given up as unwieldy in a disaster situation. Occupy Sandy’s “free store” on Staten Island was closed in part because people took advantage of it, said Howie Ray, who runs a volunteer hot line for the group. The nightly roundup e-mails of their work, part of a commitment to transparency, have halted because they were impractical and time-consuming, Mr. Ray said.

Many of those initial divisions were exacerbated by the efforts of those behind Occupy Sandy. According to the Times, many in the original Occupy movement were troubled by their Occupy Sandy counterparts’ “deals with the devil” in the form of working with and accepting donations from corporations like Home Depot and governmental agencies to provide relief to those most desperately in need. Some in OWS were willing to sacrifice their idealism for the sake of the greater good while others in the group, called the “core” of OWS by a member quoted by the Times, would much rather spend their time participating in drum circles at protests.

While the tragic fate of the 94 million victims of Communism were remembered yesterday, conservatives should take heart that here in the United States, the closest thing to Communism in decades, Occupy Wall Street, has destroyed itself over divisions over just how much they’re willing to help those in need. If that’s not a better representation of the true face of Communism, what is?

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Remembering the Victims of Communism

As it does every year, The Volokh Conspiracy blog reminds us today that May 1 should be known as Victims of Communism Day. I heartily agree. Though we don’t hear much about workers’ solidarity in the struggle against capitalism on this date any more, the generation that has grown up in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall may have lost touch with the fundamental reality of what the Communist nightmare cost humanity in the last century.

As Ilya Somin first noted back in 2007:

May Day began as a holiday for socialists and labor union activists, not just communists. But over time, the date was taken over by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and used as a propaganda tool to prop up their regimes. I suggest that we instead use it as a day to commemorate those regimes’ millions of victims. The authoritative Black Book of Communism estimates the total at 80 to 100 million dead, greater than that caused by all other twentieth century tyrannies combined. We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day. It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the twentieth century’s other great totalitarian tyranny. And May Day is the most fitting day to do so. I suggest that May Day be turned into Victims of Communism Day….

The main alternative to May 1 is November 7, the anniversary of the communist coup in Russia. However, choosing that date might be interpreted as focusing exclusively on the Soviet Union, while ignoring the equally horrendous communist mass murders in China, Cambodia, and elsewhere. So May 1 is the best choice.

It’s little surprise that the Catholic Church’s designation of May 1—the feats of St. Joseph the worker—as a date to commemorate the victims of Communism had little traction. For decades anti-Communism in this country was wrongly associated with the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and blacklists of left-wing artists.

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As it does every year, The Volokh Conspiracy blog reminds us today that May 1 should be known as Victims of Communism Day. I heartily agree. Though we don’t hear much about workers’ solidarity in the struggle against capitalism on this date any more, the generation that has grown up in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall may have lost touch with the fundamental reality of what the Communist nightmare cost humanity in the last century.

As Ilya Somin first noted back in 2007:

May Day began as a holiday for socialists and labor union activists, not just communists. But over time, the date was taken over by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and used as a propaganda tool to prop up their regimes. I suggest that we instead use it as a day to commemorate those regimes’ millions of victims. The authoritative Black Book of Communism estimates the total at 80 to 100 million dead, greater than that caused by all other twentieth century tyrannies combined. We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day. It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the twentieth century’s other great totalitarian tyranny. And May Day is the most fitting day to do so. I suggest that May Day be turned into Victims of Communism Day….

The main alternative to May 1 is November 7, the anniversary of the communist coup in Russia. However, choosing that date might be interpreted as focusing exclusively on the Soviet Union, while ignoring the equally horrendous communist mass murders in China, Cambodia, and elsewhere. So May 1 is the best choice.

It’s little surprise that the Catholic Church’s designation of May 1—the feats of St. Joseph the worker—as a date to commemorate the victims of Communism had little traction. For decades anti-Communism in this country was wrongly associated with the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and blacklists of left-wing artists.

Some wrongly resented any attempt to honor the tens of millions who died at the hands of the Communists as somehow diminishing efforts to remember those who were slaughtered by the Nazis.

Others deprecated any measure that would sharpen the ideological differences between the West and the East as something that would undermine détente with the former Soviet Union (the same reason some on the left were slow to embrace the cause of freedom for Soviet Jewry). Other liberals felt that any talk of Communist atrocities or the captive nations of Eastern Europe would justify the War in Vietnam (where the American defeat added hundreds of thousands to the toll of Communist atrocities) or later bolster Ronald Reagan’s efforts to stand up to Soviet expansionism and eventually topple the Wall.

Sadly, the collapse of Soviet Communism, a bizarre nostalgia for the bad old days of totalitarianism, has emerged in Eastern Europe and Russia. Here in the West, radical chic heroes like Che Guevara, who was deeply implicated in mass murders after Castro seized power in Cuba, remain popular icons on T-shirts worn by kids who have no idea who or what they are glorifying. This is an offense to history and to the memories of the millions who were sacrificed on the altar of Marx’s mad experiment.

But there is more to this issue than mere sentiment or a desire to refight the political battles of the past. In the 21st century, freedom faces different foes than it did in the 20th, but the stakes are the same. As mad as it might be today to envision radical Islam gaining the kind of power that Communists once possessed, a lapse of vigilance on the part of the West could have unimaginable consequences. If an Islamist regime in Iran is allowed to posses a nuclear weapon or if Islamist governments in Arab countries escalate their war on non-Muslim minorities, anything is possible.

We should remember the victims of Communism for their own sake, but we must continue the struggle for freedom for the sake of uncounted millions whose lives will hang in the balance in the future.

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Stalin, Memory, and Moral Restoration

Today is the 60th anniversary of the death Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. There are many ways to mark such an occasion, though you could hardly do better than this Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photographic tribute to Stalin’s victims. As the introduction notes, at the height of the purge period, Stalin’s henchmen were executing 1,000 people a day. And the anniversary comes this year at a time when Stalin’s vision for society, the fear and terror of totalitarian Communism, lives on in North Korea.

Recalling Stalin’s crimes is important, if repetitive, because it seems to be what the world failed to do with Stalin’s mentor, Vladimir Lenin, who created the system maximized by Stalin and who should also be remembered as a monstrous criminal, only one with fewer victims than his protégé. At any rate, one person who has chosen the wrong way to remember Stalin’s death and legacy is exactly who you might expect it to be: Vladimir Putin. Reuters reports:

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Today is the 60th anniversary of the death Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. There are many ways to mark such an occasion, though you could hardly do better than this Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photographic tribute to Stalin’s victims. As the introduction notes, at the height of the purge period, Stalin’s henchmen were executing 1,000 people a day. And the anniversary comes this year at a time when Stalin’s vision for society, the fear and terror of totalitarian Communism, lives on in North Korea.

Recalling Stalin’s crimes is important, if repetitive, because it seems to be what the world failed to do with Stalin’s mentor, Vladimir Lenin, who created the system maximized by Stalin and who should also be remembered as a monstrous criminal, only one with fewer victims than his protégé. At any rate, one person who has chosen the wrong way to remember Stalin’s death and legacy is exactly who you might expect it to be: Vladimir Putin. Reuters reports:

Support for Stalin has risen in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gutted the social safety net, damaged national pride and left many Russians longing for the perceived order and stability of the Communist era.

But Lev Gudkov, director of independent Levada Center polling group, said the biggest shift occurred after Putin came to power in 2000 and “launched a comprehensive program to ideologically reeducate society”.

“Reeducate” is certainly an appropriate term for the ruse. And how successful have Vladimir Putin’s efforts to clean up the image of a tyrannical murderer been? He’s made some progress:

In the same poll, 47 percent of respondents said Stalin was “a wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity”. And in a Levada poll last month, 49 percent said Stalin played a positive role, while 32 percent said it was negative – roughly the opposite of a 1994 Survey….

Nowadays, efforts to debunk the criticism and clean up Stalin’s image are a fixture of bookshop shelves, and school notebooks decorated with Stalin’s photo went on sale last year – something unthinkable at that time.

In Volgograd, the city where Putin celebrated the 70th anniversary of the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad last month, local authorities now allow the city to be referred to by its old name at annual anniversary events and on five other days every year.

It should go without saying—though Putin’s antics suggest that it does not—that the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991 is still a relatively recent event by historical standards, and that Russians are ill-served by any effort to keep them bound up in the lies of Putin’s imagination. In the July 2012 issue of COMMENTARY I reviewed Leon Aron’s book on the fall of the Soviet Union, and mentioned that Aron critiques the poison that Putin injects into the bloodstream of a still-recovering nation by whitewashing the crimes of its past.

Aron writes in the book of the great responsibility on the shoulders of the political leaders who inherit any revolution. The public, after all, must go back to some semblance of normal life for the new state to have a chance. “People have to make a living, to care for families, and so they leave the public square to the political class, which at this early stage cannot be but a moral centaur: half forward-looking human and half beast of the past,” Aron writes. Here is Aron’s description of the process that Putin has interrupted:

One could, with greater or lesser precision, assess the damage to Russian culture from everything that was blown up, burnt, lost, thrown out, and spoiled under the Soviet regime, the writer Boris Vasiliev wrote in January 1989. From the starved-to-death great poet Alexander Blok to those who were lost to Russia because of forced emigration: Bunin and Rakhmaninov, Repin and Chaliapin, Shagal and Kandinsky. But who, Vasiliev asked, could ever calculate the moral loss inflicted by the regime? Those who led the moral revolution were well aware of the vastness of the distance that must be traveled before their work was completed. As the sociologist Vladimir Shubkin wrote in April 1989 in the leading liberal magazine Novy mir: “We have miles to go before the public morality is restored … before we even approach what might be called the moral Renaissance.” He was right, of course. Sixteen years later Vladimir Putin–then a mere president, soon the “National Leader”–called the demise of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.

Pundits have, in recent years, grown noticeably impatient with those who bring up the Cold War past, and implicit (and sometimes explicit) in their disinterest in the topic is the question of why it is necessary to again recount what the West fought to defeat in the Cold War. The attempt to even partially rehabilitate Stalin’s legacy is one answer that sadly, in 2013, still bears repeating.

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Historical Ignorance and Utopian Dreams

There is something almost charming about the left’s habit of using childish name-calling in the service of declaring their political opponents to be intellectually unserious. And so we should probably have expected nothing less (or nothing more) in Michael Lind’s Salon essay explaining why he has moved away from the American right. But conservatives shouldn’t be deterred by the headline, “Right-wing dreams of demented utopias,” because it isn’t at all clear that Lind knows what the word “utopia” means.

Lind, the author of a clumsy and error-riddled new book on American economic history, sets out to demonstrate that conservatives have inherited the left’s predilection for the pursuit of transformative utopian politics. But, as one might expect, Lind ends up making a powerful case against his own thesis.

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There is something almost charming about the left’s habit of using childish name-calling in the service of declaring their political opponents to be intellectually unserious. And so we should probably have expected nothing less (or nothing more) in Michael Lind’s Salon essay explaining why he has moved away from the American right. But conservatives shouldn’t be deterred by the headline, “Right-wing dreams of demented utopias,” because it isn’t at all clear that Lind knows what the word “utopia” means.

Lind, the author of a clumsy and error-riddled new book on American economic history, sets out to demonstrate that conservatives have inherited the left’s predilection for the pursuit of transformative utopian politics. But, as one might expect, Lind ends up making a powerful case against his own thesis.

The intellectual dishonesty comes early and often, beginning with this gem: “Before the cult of gun ownership became identified with the far right, there was a far left that idolized communist revolutionaries like Che and was fond of quoting the mass murderer Mao: ‘Power grows from the barrel of a gun.’”

You’ll notice that Lind makes two obvious mistakes here. First, he confines support for Second Amendment rights to the “far right,” but of course he could simply have a look at the polling data that shows this contention to be ridiculous. But more useful for conservatives is that Lind likens support for gun ownership to the support for “mass murderer Mao.” This is instructive: leftist radicals, even by Lind’s own recitation, support mass murder; conservative radicals support the right to own a firearm.

This sort of moral equivalence reasserts itself throughout the piece. Later, when explaining why modern liberals are more rational than conservatives, Lind writes:

Unlike utopian movements, campaigns against specific evils — the sale of assault weapons or the death penalty, for example — are attempts to eliminate specific, limited evils, not efforts to remake society as a whole according to this or that supernatural or secular scripture.

Note the equating of the sale of rifles with the death penalty and the categorization of “the sale” of guns—not the use of guns—as a “specific evil.” Additionally, what if those reformist bullet point campaigns that Lind loves so much are part of an attempt to overhaul or “transform” the country according to an ideology? For example, when Barack Obama said in 2007 that “We will stand up in this election to bring about the change that won’t just win an election, but will transform America,” was Lind not at all concerned that this wasn’t exactly the language of a man set out to achieve limited aims? When the following year he said his own nomination was “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” did Lind notice that the leader of his new party was a messianic demagogue? Too subtle, perhaps.

As for the three “utopias” Lind says conservatives have tried to establish in recent history, he doesn’t provide much detail of what those utopias were supposed to look like, so the reader may actually miss the fact that Lind is making it up as he goes along. Apparently unable to distinguish Plato from Augustine, Lind advances his belief that the religious right was a utopian project. The second utopian movement, according to Lind, was the neoconservative movement–which Lind says had nothing to do with transforming America anyway. And then there was the libertarian utopian project, which gave us the Tea Party. All three failed, says Lind.

The libertarian utopian movement, according to Lind, is led by people like Paul Ryan. You know, the guy who supported last night’s tax-hiking compromise, voted for TARP and the auto bailout, and supported the expansion of Medicare. What do you suppose will happen when Lind learns more about Paul Ryan than his name, and discovers Harry Reid’s pro-gun rights record? It’s almost as if the world is a more complex place than leftists are ready to accept. I, for one, dream of a political sphere in which leftists like Lind can progress beyond name-calling and bad history and simply partake in an honest debate. Call me a utopian.

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The Nobel Peace Bribe and Bureaucratic Self-Congratulation

In 2009, when Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it was pointed out that his nomination for the award almost perfectly coincided with his inauguration as president–that is, he was given the award not for anything he had done, but rather for what the Nobel Committee wanted him to do. Hoping for American surrender in the Middle East and capitulation in the war on terror, the Nobel Committee assumed Obama shared their penchant for appeasement and decided to nudge him along.

Since there are often candidates for the prize that actually deserve it, this did not go over all too well. Yet the Nobel Committee has done exactly this again, awarding this year’s Peace Prize to the European Union for what it hopes the union will–or, more accurately, won’t–do. The commission ostensibly gave the EU the prize for completing European integration and reconciliation after the two world wars, stressing that today war between France and Germany is unthinkable. Of course, as Max noted, the Second World War may have revolved around the violence and depredations in Western Europe, but peace was delivered by Americans and Russians most of all. (Speaking of Russians, this has been a momentous year in the Russian people’s willingness to challenge the thugocracy of Vladimir Putin; was there no Russian thought worthy of the prize by the Nobel Committee?) As the New York Times reports, the committee was open about the real reason for the prize:

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In 2009, when Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it was pointed out that his nomination for the award almost perfectly coincided with his inauguration as president–that is, he was given the award not for anything he had done, but rather for what the Nobel Committee wanted him to do. Hoping for American surrender in the Middle East and capitulation in the war on terror, the Nobel Committee assumed Obama shared their penchant for appeasement and decided to nudge him along.

Since there are often candidates for the prize that actually deserve it, this did not go over all too well. Yet the Nobel Committee has done exactly this again, awarding this year’s Peace Prize to the European Union for what it hopes the union will–or, more accurately, won’t–do. The commission ostensibly gave the EU the prize for completing European integration and reconciliation after the two world wars, stressing that today war between France and Germany is unthinkable. Of course, as Max noted, the Second World War may have revolved around the violence and depredations in Western Europe, but peace was delivered by Americans and Russians most of all. (Speaking of Russians, this has been a momentous year in the Russian people’s willingness to challenge the thugocracy of Vladimir Putin; was there no Russian thought worthy of the prize by the Nobel Committee?) As the New York Times reports, the committee was open about the real reason for the prize:

Thorbjorn Jagland, the former Norwegian prime minister who is chairman of the panel awarding the prize, said there had been deep concern about Europe’s destiny as it faces the debt-driven woes that have placed the future of the single currency in jeopardy.

“There is a great danger,” he said in an interview in Oslo. “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating. Therefore, we should focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.”

Asked if the euro currency would survive, he replied: “That I don’t know. What I know is that if the euro fails, then the danger is that many other things will disintegrate as well, like the internal market and free borders. Then you will get nationalistic policies again. So it may set in motion a process which most Europeans would dislike.”

When Jagland warns of the dangers of disintegration and the reemergence of borders and “nationalism,” he is concerned first and foremost with preventing the revival of democracy and sovereignty–two things he neither cares for nor truly understands. The lessons some Eurocrats have learned from the Continent’s battle with fascism and communism is to give a centralized government more power over its citizens.

Jagland also explains that the Continent may be dealing with an economic crisis, but that economic crisis was caused by the United States in his expert opinion, so no one need bother with Greek debt or French socialism. Speaking of Greece, how do they feel about this year’s award winner? Not great:

“I think it’s unfair,” said Stavros Polychronopoulos, 60, a retired lawyer, as he stood on Friday in central Syntagma Square in Athens, where residue from tear gas fired by the police during demonstrations on Tuesday to protest a visit by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, still clung to the sidewalks.

“The leader of the E.U. is Germany, which is in an economic war with southern Europe,” Mr. Polychronopoulos said. “I consider this war equal to a real war. They don’t help peace.”

So some Greeks think they’re currently at war with Germany, in part due to the very lack of sovereignty and self-determination that Jagland credits for its contribution to European peace.

And then there’s another problem: who will accept the award on behalf of “Europe”? The Times notes that the European Commission, European Council, and European Parliament are fighting over the honor. This is, in a way, perfect, since it shows that not even the mostly unaccountable bureaucrats running the EU can keep the peace among themselves.

There’s also the minor point of America’s role both in propping up NATO and in keeping much of the world free from the anarchy that likely would prevail if the U.S. took the same attitude toward security and defense as does the EU. In other words, though Europe is at peace currently, we have yet to arrive at a time at which Europe is responsible for that peace.

Although the Times story reads like the Onion, it is neither satirical nor particularly funny. Europe’s turn away from democracy, sovereignty, and identity undermines the West’s dedication to freedom around the world. Additionally, the EU’s dismissive approach to self-defense means either the world becomes less secure or the United States shoulders even more of the burden. A collection of welfare states becomes a welfare continent, though since most Eurocrats couldn’t lose their jobs if they tried, the attendant skyrocketing unemployment will be a curious statistic to them, and nothing more.

This future is also unlikely to be particularly peaceful. But the EU knows full well that if needed, the U.S. will help set things right so that nameless, faceless bureaucrats can once again take credit for someone else’s success.

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Former Maoists Stalk Dutch Election

Like bees swarming to a honey pot, Europe’s extremist parties have wasted no time in seizing upon the Eurozone crisis to garner an electoral boost. In Greece, back in June, an assortment of unreconstructed communist and neo-Nazi parties won 101 out of 300 possible seats in the election. Next week, it’s the turn of the comparatively sensible (and far more prosperous) Dutch to decide whether they want a government based on prudence, or one based on protest.

Although a small majority of Greeks opted, at the very last moment, for a center-right coalition, political debate in the run-up to their election was dominated by talk of an extremist victory. That has also been the case in The Netherlands. For weeks, the Dutch press has been ruminating on the likelihood that the far left Socialist Party will triumph on September 12.

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Like bees swarming to a honey pot, Europe’s extremist parties have wasted no time in seizing upon the Eurozone crisis to garner an electoral boost. In Greece, back in June, an assortment of unreconstructed communist and neo-Nazi parties won 101 out of 300 possible seats in the election. Next week, it’s the turn of the comparatively sensible (and far more prosperous) Dutch to decide whether they want a government based on prudence, or one based on protest.

Although a small majority of Greeks opted, at the very last moment, for a center-right coalition, political debate in the run-up to their election was dominated by talk of an extremist victory. That has also been the case in The Netherlands. For weeks, the Dutch press has been ruminating on the likelihood that the far left Socialist Party will triumph on September 12.

It’s certainly been a heady period. Just a year ago, Emile Roemer, the leader of the Socialist Party, would have been pleased with a mention of his name in the media, never mind the following encomium from the pages of The Economist, whose correspondent described him as an “eternally smiling man who casually shrugs off euro-zone rules on budget deficits and promises to preserve the generous Dutch welfare system.”

However jolly Roemer may seem — some Dutch journalists have affectionately nicknamed him “Fozzie Bear” — it needs to be remembered that his party is rooted in an ideology of misery and terror. Before becoming the Socialist Party, the party’s name was the distinctly chilling Communist Party of the Netherlands – Marxist-Leninist. The “Marxist-Leninist” suffix was the “scientifically” acceptable euphemism for Maoism, an especially brutal form of totalitarianism that caused the deaths of at least 60 million people. Members of Marxist-Leninist groups regarded China, rather than the Soviet Union, as the cradle of socialist hopes — and when China’s market reforms propelled the country onto the dreaded path of “revisionism,” the more zealous of these zealots transferred their loyalties to Enver Hoxha’s Albania, a country where the communists ruled in a manner similar to North Korea.

Though Holland’s Socialist Party no longer talks about Marxism-Leninism, it hasn’t totally abandoned its associated symbols, just tried to make them a little easier on the eye. The party’s logo resembles an overripe tomato crowned by a communist star. As for its policies, these are a throwback to the days of the New Left, along with a more recently acquired enmity towards the European Union.

Most worrying of all, the likely Foreign Minister in a Socialist Party government is an ardent anti-Zionist named Harry van Bommel. Van Bommel’s hatred of Israel is not a mere footnote in his career; in common with other European leftists, opposition to “Zionism” is one of his defining characteristics as a politician. In January 2009, he led a protest in the center of Amsterdam against Israel’s defensive military operation in Gaza. As van Bommel bellowed his support for a renewed intifada against Israel, his fellow protestors began chanting a charming ditty that is sometimes heard at Dutch soccer matches: “Hamas, Hamas, Joden aan het gas” (“Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.”)

Bram Moskowicz, a prominent Dutch attorney, promptly filed a complaint with the Dutch justice ministry, accusing van Bommel of inciting violence and promoting discrimination against Jews. Responding to Moskowicz, van Bommel denied that he’d heard the anti-Semitic chant. That was a naked lie, as demonstrated by this clip on YouTube. At about 1:25, you can clearly hear the mainly Islamist demonstrators behind van Bommel chanting about gassing the Jews with real vigor.

It’s reasonable to assume that a Dutch Foreign Ministry under van Bommel would exercise similar vigor in undoing the policies of the previous incumbent, the academic Uri Rosenthal. The son of Holocaust survivors, and the husband of an Israeli citizen, Rosenthal turned The Netherlands into the most pro-Israel and pro-American member state of the European Union. In January 2011, he confronted a liberal church organization, ICCO — described by one leading member of the Dutch Jewish community as behaving like a “state within a state” ­– over its use of public funds to support the US-based website, Electronic Intifada, as well as a speaking tour by the site’s editor, Ali Abunimah, who, like van Bommel, favors the destruction of the state of Israel.

Are we really faced with the prospect of a Dutch government whose policies will include withdrawal from NATO, a boycott of Israel, and support for the anti-austerity movements which have mushroomed in opposition to the EU (an outcome which, incidentally, Margaret Thatcher predicted long ago?) Until last week, the answer was yes. However, the Socialist Party’s fortunes have since taken a dive. As Reuters reports from Amsterdam, there is a general consensus that the two victors in a series of televised debates were Marc Rutte, the caretaker prime minister who leads the center-right VVD party, and Diederik Samsom, the leader of the moderate Labor Party, the PvdA. Like the Greeks, the Dutch may have realized that however attractive the politics of opposition may be in times of strife, these cannot be sustained in government.

If the Socialist Party crashes next week, it will be another sign that Europe’s leftists have failed to capitalize on the wave of protest that coalesced around the Iraq war a decade ago. At the same time, the key word is “if.” On Wednesday night, we’ll know whether we can breathe easy.

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Why Is North Korea So Poor?

The answer should be stunningly obvious, but don’t tell Reuters. In the course of an article about the divergent fates that await victorious North Korean athletes and those who have failed, comes this:

The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

It really takes an intellectual contortionist wearing blinders to miss so utterly the reasons for North Korea’s failure: it’s a totalitarian state that holds its own citizens in contempt. International sanctions may target the North’s weapons program but, if sanctions were waived tomorrow, the only beneficiaries would be Kim Jong-un and the military. The food distribution system is not defective, just misaligned. After all, it was the regime and military that benefited when the Clinton administration shipped food aid to North Korea. The regime maintains the Songbun, a social classification system that marks North Koreans for life. A tiny few benefit; most are disposable.

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The answer should be stunningly obvious, but don’t tell Reuters. In the course of an article about the divergent fates that await victorious North Korean athletes and those who have failed, comes this:

The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

It really takes an intellectual contortionist wearing blinders to miss so utterly the reasons for North Korea’s failure: it’s a totalitarian state that holds its own citizens in contempt. International sanctions may target the North’s weapons program but, if sanctions were waived tomorrow, the only beneficiaries would be Kim Jong-un and the military. The food distribution system is not defective, just misaligned. After all, it was the regime and military that benefited when the Clinton administration shipped food aid to North Korea. The regime maintains the Songbun, a social classification system that marks North Koreans for life. A tiny few benefit; most are disposable.

Nor was North Korea’s economic decay a passive process. Rather than invest in expanding the economy, the North Korean leadership siphoned all investment into its million plus man army. There is no better illustration today of the human cost of communism and dictatorship than the juxtaposition between North and South Korea.

Reuters may have thought that their explanation of North Korean woes to be a throwaway sentence, a bit of background for those who do not the poverty that blankets North Korea today. When it comes to North Korea, however, there can be no way around blame: The responsibility for North Korea’s dire situation rests solely and completely on its murderous, totalitarian regime.

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Remembering the Evils of Communism

An often-debated subject, especially among scholars on the right, is the discrepancy between the considered history of the crimes of Communism and those of Nazism. Both were totalitarian and evil, but there are far more victims of Communism than Nazi fascism–yet we shun one completely but make some room for the influence and ideas of the other; European governments outlaw one but not the other.

Two current debates illustrate this divide. Last month, in what appeared to be a public relations stunt to distract pro-democracy protesters in Russia from the neo-Soviet behavior of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s new culture minister touched off a national debate when he proposed–as someone does every so often there–that the state bury Vladimir Lenin’s body once and for all. The Soviet founding father currently lies in a glass coffin in Red Square. The fact that Lenin inhabits a shrine rather than be returned to the dust of the earth, where he belongs, has turned the phrase “Lenin’s tomb” into a sort of shorthand for the torn nostalgia of Russian society.

The other such debate, the subject of an interesting story in today’s Washington Post, is over whether, how, and where Germany should build a new Cold War museum. Neither society appears to have much taste for the totalitarianism that oppressed them throughout the 20th century, but the West’s victory in the Cold War cannot be so easily simplified in two countries that were divided–in Germany’s case, literally–about the issue as recently as the early 1990s. In Russia’s case, burying Lenin would be an act of tremendous psychological weight and exertion. In Germany, it is much the same:

Here at Checkpoint Charlie, where Soviet and American tanks once aimed at each other separated by 30 yards, Cold War tensions are still running high.

An international group of scholars, backed by Berlin’s center-left city government, wants to build a Cold War museum on a rubble-strewn plot of land here, arguing that one of the best-known sites of confrontation between the capitalist West and the Communist East should not be abandoned to tourist touts and vendors selling Red Army hats.

But a group of conservative politicians, seared by memories of the divided city, says the plans for the museum are overly sympathetic to the Communists. They want to go elsewhere in the city to build a museum that they say celebrates freedom….

“It’s a scandal to have hot dog stands and people in fake uniforms,” said Konrad Jarausch, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was born in Germany and is leading the effort to build a museum at Checkpoint Charlie. “What the city needs is a museum on the same level of some of the museums that deal with the Third Reich.”

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An often-debated subject, especially among scholars on the right, is the discrepancy between the considered history of the crimes of Communism and those of Nazism. Both were totalitarian and evil, but there are far more victims of Communism than Nazi fascism–yet we shun one completely but make some room for the influence and ideas of the other; European governments outlaw one but not the other.

Two current debates illustrate this divide. Last month, in what appeared to be a public relations stunt to distract pro-democracy protesters in Russia from the neo-Soviet behavior of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s new culture minister touched off a national debate when he proposed–as someone does every so often there–that the state bury Vladimir Lenin’s body once and for all. The Soviet founding father currently lies in a glass coffin in Red Square. The fact that Lenin inhabits a shrine rather than be returned to the dust of the earth, where he belongs, has turned the phrase “Lenin’s tomb” into a sort of shorthand for the torn nostalgia of Russian society.

The other such debate, the subject of an interesting story in today’s Washington Post, is over whether, how, and where Germany should build a new Cold War museum. Neither society appears to have much taste for the totalitarianism that oppressed them throughout the 20th century, but the West’s victory in the Cold War cannot be so easily simplified in two countries that were divided–in Germany’s case, literally–about the issue as recently as the early 1990s. In Russia’s case, burying Lenin would be an act of tremendous psychological weight and exertion. In Germany, it is much the same:

Here at Checkpoint Charlie, where Soviet and American tanks once aimed at each other separated by 30 yards, Cold War tensions are still running high.

An international group of scholars, backed by Berlin’s center-left city government, wants to build a Cold War museum on a rubble-strewn plot of land here, arguing that one of the best-known sites of confrontation between the capitalist West and the Communist East should not be abandoned to tourist touts and vendors selling Red Army hats.

But a group of conservative politicians, seared by memories of the divided city, says the plans for the museum are overly sympathetic to the Communists. They want to go elsewhere in the city to build a museum that they say celebrates freedom….

“It’s a scandal to have hot dog stands and people in fake uniforms,” said Konrad Jarausch, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was born in Germany and is leading the effort to build a museum at Checkpoint Charlie. “What the city needs is a museum on the same level of some of the museums that deal with the Third Reich.”

The site at present is a tourist destination, complete with food vendors selling–apologies in advance–“Checkpoint Curry.” It may sound insensitive, and obviously so, but it’s not all that straightforward. I recently visited the new 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in Manhattan, and due to its park-like atmosphere and city location, it does not feel solemn, somber, or especially evocative of the magnitude of the tragedy. It has also, predictably, become a tourist destination–though that is not an entirely bad thing, as many people from all over the world pay their respects regularly.

But Professor Jarausch has made the essential point: historical crimes must be honestly reckoned with. Though this can heal a society’s old wounds in a way time alone cannot, it’s also painful. In his profoundly moving new history of the run-up to the Soviet Union’s collapse, which I reviewed for the current issue of COMMENTARY, Leon Aron tackles this with precision. I wrote:

Aron offers a fully rounded portrait of the moment when the Russian people, for the first time in nearly a century, were directed by their own modernizing regime to look in the mirror of glasnost. Mikhail Gorbachev’s administration said there was no way the country could move forward with the restructuring Gorbachev sought without first understanding its past. The problem was that “the road to self-discovery, now deemed vital to the country’s revival—indeed, her survival—was found to be full of vast gaps.” Censorship had been locked in place since 1921; secrecy had been the foundational doctrine of the empire.

That empire of secrecy and lies was Lenin’s foremost legacy. It is why fully burying that legacy may in fact require fully burying Lenin himself. Though Germany may seem farther along this road, the discussion has brought to the surface lingering resentments on both sides. The pro-democracy side wants to call Communism and its crimes heinous; but that would mean so designating the operational ideology of the East German state, and its citizens, many of whom are still alive. Unification itself was far from unanimous, and therefore solidified, rather than soothed, many an East German’s bitterness.

Are they just being sore losers? They will say they have been gracious enough in defeat, and that this is more they can say for the victors now asking to pour salt in their wounds. “Everything has its history, including history,” John Lukacs wrote. And the history of Communism is monstrous; it should be remembered this way.

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Reagan’s Capacity to Think and Act Anew

In a recent post, I praised the 19th-century journalist and essayist Walter Bagehot for his subtle mind and intellectual honesty. These qualities stand out because among the most difficult challenges in politics is not allowing truthful inquiry to become subordinate to one’s allegiance to a political cause, a political party, or a political ideology. It’s harder than we think, and rarer than we would wish, to find individuals who are open to a new set of facts, especially when they run counter to settled ways of thinking.

I thought about all this while recently watching an American Experience documentary on the life of Ronald Reagan. It covered a lot of ground, of course, but in the context of this discussion, one thing stood out: Reagan’s willingness to adjust his thinking in light of new circumstances. What I have in mind is Reagan’s attitude toward the Soviet Union.

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In a recent post, I praised the 19th-century journalist and essayist Walter Bagehot for his subtle mind and intellectual honesty. These qualities stand out because among the most difficult challenges in politics is not allowing truthful inquiry to become subordinate to one’s allegiance to a political cause, a political party, or a political ideology. It’s harder than we think, and rarer than we would wish, to find individuals who are open to a new set of facts, especially when they run counter to settled ways of thinking.

I thought about all this while recently watching an American Experience documentary on the life of Ronald Reagan. It covered a lot of ground, of course, but in the context of this discussion, one thing stood out: Reagan’s willingness to adjust his thinking in light of new circumstances. What I have in mind is Reagan’s attitude toward the Soviet Union.

Ronald Reagan is rightly considered one of the West’s most vocal and courageous critics of Soviet communism. Hatred for totalitarianism was, his biographer Edmund Morris said, among the very few hatreds Reagan ever held. In 1983, in a speech before the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan referred to the U.S.S.R. as an “evil empire.” Such blunt language from an American president, even though true, caused outrage among the political class. Reagan, it was said, was a saber-rattler, needlessly provocative, reckless and even war-like. The vilification came in waves. But Reagan didn’t much care. He spoke the truth as it was — and in doing so, he inspired dissidents across the globe and re-moralized American foreign policy.

Fast-forward to May 1988, when Reagan toured the Soviet Union after having participated in several summits with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. When asked whether the Soviet Union was still an “evil empire,” Reagan said no, it wasn’t. “I was talking about another time,” Reagan said, “another era.” And he was quite right.

President Reagan knew that the Soviet Union was hardly a model democracy. In fact, he made a point of meeting with more than 100 dissidents during his trip. The New York Times reported at the time, “In a reflection of the Kremlin’s irritation with President Reagan’s plans to dramatize human-rights issues during his visit to Moscow, a senior Soviet official said … that a planned Presidential meeting with Soviet dissidents would be an unwelcome breach of superpower protocol… Mr. Reagan’s determination to press the human-rights issue in Moscow loomed as a potentially disruptive issue on the eve of his arrival. Moscow has traditionally resented what is seen here as an unwarranted and intrusive American assumption of moral superiority.”

Still, the circumstances in 1988 were profoundly different than they were in 1983. Mr. Gorbachev was a Soviet leader — the first Soviet leader — Reagan (and Margaret Thatcher) could do business with. Reagan eventually signed sweeping arms control treaties that went far beyond anything the Nuclear Freeze Movement had ever called for.

It’s worth noting that Reagan, who had been a reviled figure by the left, was excoriated by some conservatives for going soft on the Soviet Union. He was accused of being a “useful idiot for Soviet propaganda,” for losing his way and succumbing to the chimera of arms control agreements. (It should be said that the criticisms of Reagan from conservatives was not nearly as widespread as it was from liberals.)

But what we saw in Reagan was quite a rare thing among politicians — a man of deeply held convictions who even while maintaining those convictions was willing to adjust his thinking in light of new developments. He was able to perceive the core realities of his time and align his views and policies to them. And so one of the most principled and ideological presidents in American history also turned out to be among its most flexible.

During his presidency, Reagan’s critics said he was simple, shallow, and unreasonably stubborn. In fact, he was a person of impressive depth, a man of many parts, and reasonably stubborn. It simply took some people a bit longer than others to understand that.

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Allen West’s Reckless Rhetoric

Republican Representative Allen West, a Tea Party favorite from Florida, weighed in on President Obama’s 10-year security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In the agreement, Obama pledged continued support to Afghanistan once NATO combat troops leave in 2014. “I look at what happened between President Obama and President Karzai as a 1930s, Chamberlain, Hitler moment,” Representative West told radio host Frank Gaffney. “There is not going to be peace in our time.”

I’m not quite sure what this analogy is supposed to prove. Is Karzai supposed to be Hitler? Whatever complaints one has with Karzai – and I have plenty of my own – he’s clearly no Hitler, and he doesn’t appear to have designs for world conquest.

As a general matter, the Chamberlain-Hitler-appeasement analogy is much overused and is often a sign of lazy thinking, as is the case here.

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Republican Representative Allen West, a Tea Party favorite from Florida, weighed in on President Obama’s 10-year security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In the agreement, Obama pledged continued support to Afghanistan once NATO combat troops leave in 2014. “I look at what happened between President Obama and President Karzai as a 1930s, Chamberlain, Hitler moment,” Representative West told radio host Frank Gaffney. “There is not going to be peace in our time.”

I’m not quite sure what this analogy is supposed to prove. Is Karzai supposed to be Hitler? Whatever complaints one has with Karzai – and I have plenty of my own – he’s clearly no Hitler, and he doesn’t appear to have designs for world conquest.

As a general matter, the Chamberlain-Hitler-appeasement analogy is much overused and is often a sign of lazy thinking, as is the case here.

Representative West, it’s probably worth pointing out, also recently told a town hall meeting that “there’s [sic] about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party who are members of the Communist Party,” referring to their membership in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. (West’s defense of his comments can be found here.)

This is not simply an unfortunate comment but an ugly one. Communism is associated with immense and even incomprehensible humor horror, from the estimated 65 million deaths under Mao in China; to the more than 20 million Russians who perished under Stalin and Lenin; to the almost two million Cambodians – comprising around one quarter of the entire population – who died under the Pol Pot regime. Communism has been responsible for forced labor, slavery, starvation, mass executions, and wholesale slaughter. Surely West must know this. And so for him to characterize his (very) liberal colleagues as Communists, and then to defend the claim, is a form of slander.

West would do himself, his party and his cause a world of good if he decided to jettison the corrosive and insulting rhetoric.

 

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