Martin and Malcolm and America

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That’s the title of a book I picked up the other day. It’s not that recent, but Is a useful comparison of the two men, their background, beliefs, and the way they responded to the challenges of the Civil Rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were about the same age (Malcolm X four years older), but came from very different backgrounds. King was from the black middle class, which influenced his point of view and strategy. He saw nonviolence as the best way for black citizens to get the same rights as anyone else, believing that appealing to the consciences of white people would persuade them to treat black people just as they treated whites.

Malcolm X came from the lower class. His father had been a minister working for civil rights along the line of Marcus Garvey, who had advocated a return to Africa for black people. Malcolm’s father died (it’s uncertain if it was accidental, or murder), his mother was left with eight children she had trouble supporting. They all got very hungry, she became demoralized because she had to accept help, and eventually had a mental breakdown. The children were put in foster homes and survived, but were deeply traumatized.

At least Malcolm was, and spoke bitterly about it in later life. He became angry and rebellious partly because of that, and partly because of the behavior of his white foster family. Not because they were overtly abusive, but because they frequently used the word “nigger”, completely unaware of how Malcolm felt about that. He lived an “integrated” life in that he lived with white people and felt controlled by them. By contrast, King had attended segregated schools and developed a sense of himself independent of immediate white control. Malcolm X also mentioned having wanted to become a lawyer, and being told by his high school guidance counselor that becoming a carpenter would be more realistic. He didn’t finish high school and became a hustler on the streets first of Roxbury, Massachusetts, then in New York City. He went to prison at about age twenty, where he was inspired to change his life.

Though King came from the black middle class, he wasn’t immune to racism, and experienced it fairly often in the form of rudeness that reminded southern blacks that they could be seriously mistreated without being protected by law or anything else. He later said he decided to hate all white people, but that his parents reminded him they were Christians and weren’t supposed to hate.

Malcolm X’s experience was in the north, and he remarked that he thought he’d have preferred living in the south where whites were very clear how they felt about blacks. Northern liberals, he said, would pretend to be friends with black people, then desert them. He pointed to his white foster family as people who meant well, but had no idea how he felt about anything.

King’s family believed in the value of education, Martin became very well educated. He said that he felt eternally in debt to white figures like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and blacks like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He was also indebted to his parents who sacrificed so he could meet the residence requirements to get his PhD. Once he became ordained he decided to return to the south, feeling that he could best serve the civil rights cause there. Not long after he had taken his first post as minister came the Rosa Parks incident, in which she refused to give up her seat in  a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white person, and was jailed. He was practically drafted into being a leader of the movement in Alabama and Georgia.

Before this he had joined the NAACP and made speeches about social justice. And after the Parks incident author James H. Cone makes clear that he wasn’t telling blacks to love whites. He assumed that blacks already did because they were predominantly Christian, and didn’t behave violently towards them. Instead, he was telling blacks they it was appropriate for them to stand up for their rights, that segregation was an evil system, and their courage could change it.

Which it did. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted most of a year, and the bus company eventually capitulated. That’s what made Martin Luther King Jr. a national figure.

Malcolm Little, as he was known then, went to prison in 1945 at the age of about twenty. He was still angry, to the point of being nicknamed “Satan” because he swore so much. But that changed when he was told to cool down, and his brother would show him how to get out of prison. At about the same time another convict told him to start using his brains and got him to start learning to read and write.

This prepared him for the message of Elijah Muhammed, who claimed to be a messenger from Allah, and that the white man was the devil. Because of his experiences, this was a message Malcolm was prepared to receive, and he put all his energy into self-improvement, now feeling like a valuable human being, which he had never felt before. He began writing to Elijah Muhammed, as well as his siblings and some hustler friends. When he was paroled in 1952 he went to Detroit to live with his brother, got a job, and began attending the Nation of Islam (Black Muslim) temple in the city, and converting to Islam. Not long after, he met Elijah Muhammed in Chicago, and received his “X” from him. The X was because the name Little was a white man’s name, and his African name was unknown. It wasn’t long before he became a minister, and did so well organizing the Detroit temple that he was sent to organize the temple in New York City, and then became a sort of trouble-shooter for Elijah Muhammed, traveling all over to speak and organize.

Malcolm X’s view of the civil rights issue was much different from Martin King’s. King had developed intellectually and culturally, and he believed most other blacks could do the same if given the chance. Malcolm X’s experience on the streets convinced him otherwise. Poor blacks couldn’t believe white society had any interest in treating them with respect because they’d never experienced it. King had experienced racism, but not as often or in as severe a form as Malcolm X and the poor people he spoke for. In his autobiography, which I read shortly after it was published, he tells of a conversation he had with a street person in New York City which other black leaders he was with didn’t understand at all, since the person was talking slang they’d never encountered. This separation was the basis of much disagreement between him and King. Malcolm X disliked the idea of integration because it seemed something that whites could give to or withhold from blacks. He came from the Black Nationalist tradition which insisted that black and white needed to be separated so whites couldn’t interfere with black lives.

In the late 1950s my siblings and I had a comic book about King, Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery bus boycott. So I knew at least a little about him and his activities, though I didn’t follow him or them closely. I did happen to be watching with my grandmother TV coverage of the March on Washington in 1963, and heard his most famous speech, I Have a Dream. It made my hair stand up.

I encountered Malcolm X’s autobiography not more than two or three years later, and was greatly impressed by it. I have never had to change my opinion that both were great men and incorruptible in a way that few figures since have seemed to be.

King felt that justice transcended black and white, that all were simply human, and that integration was therefore his goal. He said that black and white had been put together in America at this time, and needed to work things out together. Malcolm X saw white people as evil, with few exceptions, though he began changing his mind in the last year or so of his life. King also saw beyond racism within the USA, and toward the end of his life began looking at injustice on the international stage, impelled partly by his view of the Vietnam war.

Malcolm X’s change of heart came partly because he was cast out of the Nation of Islam, partly because of jealousy of other less successful ministers, partly because he discovered Elijah Muhammed was corrupt and not interested in changing (Muhammed had been sleeping with his young “secretaries” and had produced several children out of wedlock). This was another trauma for Malcolm X, who had felt Elijah Muhammed to be his father, teaching him the right way to do things, including being very morally strict. Discovering his “father” was imperfect and didn’t wish to change was disheartening.

But it opened the door for changes for Malcolm X. He went on the Hajj to Mecca, and felt completely accepted there by white as well as black. He also visited African heads of state and got a more international perspective. On returning to the United States, he began his own organization to more fully take part in the civil rights struggle. He also went along with the view the national media liked, that he and King were opponents. Actually, at this time they had started to see each other as complementary, working towards the same goal from different perspectives and correcting each other’s mistakes. Malcolm X made a speech in Georgia, where most of King’s organization was, attacking King on several points, but afterward visited King’s wife to tell her he was attacking King because he thought that was how he could best help him. Malcolm’s being more extreme than King made King more acceptable to the powerful even as he became more radical.

1963 to 1965 was the time of King’s greatest popularity, the time of the March on Washington, his I Have a Dream speech, his reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills. After this he became increasingly disillusioned. He had believed that most whites recognized that racism was unjust, and that it was only a few violent bigots that blocked equal rights for blacks. When he began campaigning for civil rights in Chicago he began seeing that the whole structure of society was stacked against blacks, and very few whites wanted that to change. He remarked that he had been working so blacks could buy hamburgers in the same places as whites. Now he began to feel that his work needed to help blacks be able to AFFORD hamburgers.

Northern blacks were stuck in ghettos, and couldn’t get out. Few if any whites wanted blacks in their neighborhoods, and few wanted more than a token few blacks to get good jobs. Powerlessness encouraged blacks to indulge in alcohol and illegal drugs. The Nation of Islam encouraged them not to use the substances, but their program stopped there. Malcolm X remarked that if, after you stop drinking and drugging you’re still poor, not much has changed, unless you have a reasonable chance at good employment. Hardly anyone wanted black employees, no matter how qualified, for anything but menial work.

Where Malcolm X and Martin King most differed was over method of protest. King believed in nonviolence, rousing the consciences of one’s enemies with love. Kenneth Clark noted that this approach was difficult for many poor blacks, who naturally resented being mistreated. It was a good strategy in the South, though, especially in the age of mass media in which everyone could see on TV the brutality of the Southern response to the demand for rights. Malcolm X saw this method as encouraging blacks to be passive in spite of terrible mistreatment, though King was giving blacks the same message as Malcolm, essentially: stand up for yourself. You have the right to decent treatment and equal protection under the law.

But Malcolm X also had a point: that blacks had the right to defend themselves when whites brutalized them. Whites had never been reluctant to use violence against blacks and others. Cone points out that in American history there have always been “bad niggers” whom whites were reluctant to mistreat. Famous basketball player Bill Russell’s grandfather was such a person, driving the Ku Klux Klan away from his house after being threatened by them. The problem is, that’s not a good strategy for the whole country, in which blacks are no more than 13% of the population. Ronald Reagan, at the time Republican governor of California, made clear where he stood after the Black Panther Party asserted their right to bear arms in self defense by instituting gun control laws in the state.

Both leaders emphasized the need for education. King hired well-educated people to advise him, and took retreats during which problems could be studied and workable solutions proposed. Malcolm X said he wished he could go back to school at the level where he quit and cover everything he missed, eventually getting a degree. Whenever he had time he rapidly absorbed books he thought he could learn from.

It was tragic that Malcolm X was assassinated just after he had left the Nation of Islam and his point of view was still evolving. It’s impossible to know what he could have been and done had he lived.

This was also the time of King’s disillusionment. He felt the loss of Malcolm X as terrible, but he had himself begun changing his view. He began to see the civil rights problem as being economic as much as anything else, and that racism was destroying the promise of America internationally, as well as at home. He abhorred  the war against the North Vietnamese, who had cited the American Declaration of Independence in their constitution, as a war against dark skinned people controlling their own country. Many urged him not to criticize the war, but he felt that God had commanded it of him, and refused to back down. That, along with his work against the Northern white power structure most probably led to his own assassination. It’s also impossible to know what he could have been had he survived.

In the last years of his life he joined Malcolm X in condemning white America and telling us that if we don’t eradicate racism and other forms of brutality, we’ll destroy our nation. The destruction may not be obvious yet, but it’s clear that we haven’t (at least in sufficient numbers) changed out ways. Some will dispute that,  but it seems pretty clear that African-Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of the largest prison population on earth. That the country supposed to be the greatest democracy in the world has more prisoners than China or Russia ought to be alarming. China makes no pretence of being a democracy, Russia makes no more than a pretence.

Racism and class warfare are strikingly similar. Class isn’t always based on skin color, but the categories often overlap: dark skinned people are often in the lower class, which privileged classes have historically felt free to use violence against. Class prejudices have incited violence against striking factory workers or miners, regardless of color. That’s why Martin Luther King was organizing a Poor People’s march at the time of his death. He saw that race and class were closely connected, and more broadly, that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.

Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were totally committed to the struggle for civil rights. King said it was a privilege to suffer for a good cause, and trusted in God when he began denouncing the Vietnam war. He knew he was likely to die of violence, as did Malcolm X. The latter said, “If you don’t have a cause you’re willing to die for, erase the word ‘freedom’ from your vocabulary.”

While both were imperfect, they were also incorruptible: nothing could stop them from speaking their minds and organizing, except death. I think we yearn for people like that, and make heroes of people we HOPE are incorruptible. As far as I can see, no one in this country has adequately replaced them. We’re poorer because we lost them.

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Reducing Overpopulation

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There are too many people in the world, and they’re ruining it. This planet can comfortably support about two billion people. We have about 7 1/2 billion, and that makes a heavy contribution to environmental degradation. But there are historical solutions to this problem.

The Black Plague started in the Far East in the 14th century, and devastated both Asia and Europe. One estimate is 75 to 200 million died in Europe and Asia. In Europe, the estimates vary from 45-60% of the population. If the pre-plague population was about 80 million, about 50 million must have died. The plague continued to affect Europe and at least the Middle East for a long while, into the 19th century.

The time during which the plague was at its worst in Europe, 1347-1351, was terrifying; people felt it was the end of the world. But that turned out not to be true. In fact, it turned out that so much death created a financial bonanza for the survivors. There was much work to be done, and fewer people to do it.  Workers who might never have found good careers now did, and were paid better too. Something similar to the plague might be economically beneficial to the world. Fortunately, we have people who seem to be aware of the problem, and are working on a variety of solutions.

One strategy is to threaten North Korea. The government is certainly brutal and undemocratic, a good reason to dislike it, but it also has nuclear weapons (possibly with missiles capable of delivering them to our own country, and certainly to South Korea and Japan), chemical and biological weapons, and plenty of conventional weapons too. A war with them would ensure plenty of casualties, possibly enough to reduce population enough to save the world, more or less. But there are other such strategies in place.

One is to antagonize Middle Eastern countries. Progress has already been made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, but the real coup would be to start a war with Iran (possibly involving Saudi Arabia too). This would also have the advantage of being profitable for American suppliers of arms and military equipment. Propaganda against Muslims helps advance this strategy.

At home, initiatives to reduce funding for Social Security, Medicare (and healthcare in general), education, police, and firefighters will certainly cause more deaths and cripple the economy too, by not providing the workers for the kinds of jobs needing extensive training. Refusing to regulate guns, or at least to enforce the laws already existing may be only a minor contribution, are possibly a step in the right direction.

More effective measures are a new tax plan which reportedly benefits the wealthy disproportionately, as well as pollution. Pollution causes illness, especially among the lower classes, who can’t afford to live where they won’t be affected, and lack of health care can prevent them from making effective complaints about their situation. Recent legislation has made pollution more legal, a quieter way of reducing population than military action. The same applies to efforts to prevent their amassing enough wealth to challenge the status quo. Voter suppression and gerrymandering are part of this strategy.

Another strategy with increasing effectiveness is use of dangerous drugs. The pharmaceutical company that formulated OxyContin and aggressively sold it, advertising it as effective in pain control and not dangerously addictive, has resulted in an opioid epidemic. When addicts ran short of OxyContin, they discovered that heroin was cheaper. The result was an annual death toll comparable to that from auto accidents. We may not have seen peak efficiency of this method yet.

And that’s not counting alcohol or tobacco, which have been with us much longer, of course. Given enough time, deaths from illegal drugs may catch up with those.

Another strategy is to weaken central government, an area in which considerable progress has already been made. A private army (or secret police force) independent of the government has been suggested for the president. If that is established, can private armies for corporations and wealthy individuals be far behind? We may yet see organized fighting in the streets. Whether this would lead to a civil war (a particularly effective way to reduce population) is uncertain, but it would be gratifying to some. Private corporate armies could also suppress laborers’ demands for wages and working conditions. The Civil War of the 19th century also led to strong economic growth once it was over. Another might be similarly advantageous.

We can thank our current administration for legislation that will encourage population reduction, and for repealing over-protective regulations. Those actions, plus the strategies outlined above, may be the best way to make America great again.

Reducing Overpopulation

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There are too many people in this world, and they’re ruining it. A population of more than 7 billion when 2 billion would be a much better balance. If you had the power, wouldn’t you want to reduce the numbers to make it more pleasant for the rest of us? Fortunately, there are people working on the problem.

One strategy is to threaten North Korea. That government is certainly brutal and undemocratic, but it also has nuclear weapons and missiles that could possibly deliver them to our own shores. Even if they didn’t manage that, their resistance to a military attack would destroy South Korea, and probably Japan. This strategy might be enough in itself to significantly lower population, but there are others in place too, providing insurance.

Another strategy is too antagonize Middle Eastern countries. Progress has already been made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The real coup would be to begin a war with Iran which would also have the advantage of being profitable for American weapons companies and others supplying the military. Propaganda against Muslims helps advance this strategy.

At home, initiatives to reduce funding to Social Security and Medicare, police and fire fighters, as well as to education, will result in plenty of deaths, and cripple the economy too, providing fewer well-trained workers to take jobs requiring extensive training. Refusal to regulate guns, or at least to enforce already existing regulations is a relatively minor contribution, but may be considered a worthwhile example.

More effective contributions are made by tax schedules that one-sidedly benefit wealthy people and corporations, and by pollution. Pollution undermines the health of the lower classes before anyone else, and lack of health care prevents them from effectively complaining about their situation. Recent legislation makes polluting more legal A much quieter way of reducing population than employing military action. The same applies to preventing them from amassing enough wealth to challenge the status quo. Part of this strategy is to discourage them from voting through suppression and gerrymandering.

Another strategy, in which great progress has been made, is the use of drugs. We’ve recently seen a pharmaceutical company formulate a pain medication called OxyContin, which it aggressively advertised as being highly effective without being addictive. When patients with chronic pain discovered this was not the case, they also discovered that heroin was cheaper than the prescription drug. Overdoses have risen to nearly equal deaths in auto accidents yearly. That’s not counting deaths from overuse of tobacco and alcohol. These have been with us much longer, of course, but given enough time deaths from illegal drugs may catch up. As long as there’s demand, there will be suppliers, a basic axiom of capitalism.

Another strategy is to weaken the central government. Considerable progress has been made here too, to the point that a private army for the president is being suggested. Can private corporate armies be far behind? That could lead to a civil war, which would probably be the most effective way to reduce population in this country, at least, and would be gratifying to some, just as it was in our previous Civil War, and in World War I. War encourages inventiveness, and we now have many ways of killing large numbers of people at once. We only need  appropriate excuses, and propagandists are quite adept at manufacturing those.

We can thank our current government for encouraging legislation that in turn will encourage population reduction, and also for repealing regulations that reduce the efficiency of population reduction. Perhaps the answer is to repeal ALL regulations. Anything to enhance efficiency in this area.

Lenin

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A biography of Vladimir Lenin shows his face on the cover looking very intense, even satanic. Conservatively inclined people will tell you he WAS satanic, maybe even literally. People more likely to sympathize with Communism (especially Soviet biographers) have often thought of him as a sort of Communist saint who would never have condoned the monstrous behavior of Joseph Stalin. Dmitri Volkonogov, the author who was granted access to archives in the former Soviet Union unavailable to most previous biographers, sees Lenin as more satanic than not.

Volkonogov says he himself was originally a Stalinist, and gradually became disenchanted and rejected Bolshevik totalitarianism, and confesses that giving up his view of Lenin was the last step in that process.

How did Lenin reach the position from which he could influence so many and inspire such different interpretations? It began with his older brother, Alexander, whose complicity in a plot to assassinate the Tsar, for which he was executed That must have made Lenin think about why Alexander had done it. Could his motivation have been as simple as revenge? To begin with, probably so.

Shaping his path was the times. Radicalism had become popular in Russia as many began to feel that the government was unjust and inefficient. Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel, What is to be Done turned him away from liberalism (which he condemned for compromising) and towards fanaticism, probably fitting comfortably with his anger over his brother. This seems to have been the first book he read which influenced his politics, well before he read Marx. Anger predisposed him to favor coercion and violence well before he could inflict those things on anyone. He could condemn the violence and coercion of the Tsarist government, but applied more extreme coercion himself when he came to power. Unwillingness to compromise hindered his ability to eventually run a government that could be supported by many different groups. He could control the Bolshevik faction, but no more than that until 1917.

Another influence was Sergei Nechaev, who had advocated terrorism as a revolutionary tactic (and been condemned for it by Marx and Engels), and who had served as model for for the main character of Dostoievsky’s The Possessed. The novel was based on a murder of a student by Nechaev, who was a conspiratorial revolutionary who favored overthrowing and exterminating authorities. Lenin condemned him too, says Volkonogov, but willingly used his methods whenever convenient.

Why did revolutionaries have such extreme ideas in Russia? Tsarism was an authoritarian form of government without the sort of checks and balances a democracy has. In addition, 19th century capitalism didn’t have a good record in its treatment of employees. Factory workers crowded into big cities, living in slums where they were subject to deprivation and disease. Dostoievsky’s novel Crime and Punishment gives a picture of the hard lives of the period.

But Lenin never experienced the plight of the urban poor. Though his great-grandfather had been a serf, his mother’s family were nobility, and his father (who died relatively young) was in charge of education in the city where Lenin grew up. After he died, Lenin’s mother received a fairly generous pension. Lenin practiced as a lawyer for less than two years, got bored with it (and didn’t make much money), and never worked for wages again. His mother supported him for much of his life, and so did the Russian Socialist Party, which he joined in his twenties, sometimes through legal contributions made to the party, sometimes by illegal ones. He was always, says Volkonogov, concerned with money, but always had enough to travel at will through Europe (where he spent most of his life after a term of imprisonment in Siberia) and living comfortably. Never having been poor himself, he lacked sympathy for anyone except professional revolutionaries like himself.

It’s interesting that, as Volkonogov observes, he aged rapidly after attaining power through the Bolshevik coup. That’s because he’d never had political power before, and relatively little responsibility. He loved traveling and taking vacations, which makes his behavior similar to (though not exactly parallel) Adolph Hitler, who notoriously had a hard time concentrating on work for long.

He also, according to Viktor Chernov, leader of the Socialist Revolutionary party, “…did not value the creative search for truth, he had no respect for the convictions of others, no feeling for the freedom that is integral to any individual spiritual creativity. On the contrary, he was open to the purely Asiatic idea of making the press, speech, the rostrum, even thought itself, the monopoly of a single party which he raised to the rank of a ruling caste.”

Lenin’s innovation to Marxist theory was to organize a revolutionary elite to start revolution in the name of the laboring class (proletariat). As it turned out, it was this revolutionary elite that became Lenin’s constituency. While his Bolshevik party was most popular after the spontaneous revolution in February 1917, which caused the Tsar to abdicate, that popularity didn’t endure through the Bolshevik seizure of power and the civil war. Another of Lenin’s innovations was to organize a state with only one legal political party. That party survived because it violently repressed anyone who disagreed with it.

In the 1930s Nikolai Bukharin, who had been one of the powers in the party, married a much younger wife. After he was purged (tortured into confessing being a spy and other unlikely things) his wife was sent to the gulag. One of the other prisoners hated her because she was a Communist. This was strange for her because Bukharin’s wife had never met anyone who WASN’T a Communist. After only about twenty years the Communist elite had become totally isolated from ordinary Russian life.

So why did Lenin even begin a revolution if he wasn’t going to listen to the workers he claimed to represent? Volkonogov’s answer is hunger for power.

When I began reading about the revolution in Russia the narrative would say a little about the time between the spontaneous uprising that led to the Tsar’s abdication in early 1917 and the coup the Bolsheviks pulled off that October. It was mentioned that Lenin and his associates had ridden in a sealed train through World War I Germany, but it didn’t occur to me to ask how that came about.

The answer is the First World War. The war was too much for the Tsarist system, which began coming apart. Casualties were unprecedented and workers weren’t getting enough to eat, which prompted them to strike, as the only way they might gain any power to change things and survive. That’s why people rebelled and the Tsar abdicated. But the war continued, and Germany wanted Russia out of the war. They sent Lenin to Russia to get Russia to sign a separate peace, and supplied him immense amounts of money for propaganda. The plan worked better than the Germans probably had ever envisioned.

The Germans picked Lenin because he was totally against the First World War, and wanted it to be a Russian civil war instead, which would give him the chance of taking power. Not exactly a common sort of patriotism.He hadn’t foreseen the February revolution; he wanted to get to Russia to take the revolution over, and the Germans wanted him to do exactly that, to take Russia out of the war.  He wanted to start a revolution which he thought would rapidly spread over the whole world and create a utopia. The Germans wanted him to do exactly that (surmising that any government he set up couldn’t possibly last). A fortunate confluence of interests, which the Communists covered up. I never heard of German complicity in the Russian revolution until the last decade or so.

What Lenin was doing was against Marxist theory, which said that Russian society was too primitive to transition into socialism. So he can only have instigated the October coup to obtain power. That would explain the direction Communist Russia took. It would explain the Communist refusal to share power with any other political party (other than with one faction of the Socialist Revolutionaries, for a short time), to create a totalitarian tyranny even worse than Czarist Russia had been, and to imprison and/or kill anyone they considered an enemy.

They didn’t treat industrial workers, their supposed constituency, particularly well, but it was peasants especially they treated as enemies, requisitioning so much of the grain they produced that they created an artificial famine that killed millions. That was during the civil war. Even worse was collectivization, when peasants were forced to live and work together en masse, and forced to give up their property. Even before this the Communists had been punishing, if not killing, the kulaks, or rich peasants who were supposedly taking advantage of the others. Another way of looking at it was that the rich peasants were the ones who worked most efficiently and productively–and were punished for it. Before World War I Russia had been a net exporter of grain. They continued to export it after the Communist takeover, but at the expense of the peasants.

The Communist regime was extreme, but the things they did weren’t totally unprecedented. Catholics and Protestants had fought the bitterly destructive Thirty Years War in the 17th century over their respective beliefs. European settlers in America tried to enslave the inhabitants when they weren’t trying to exterminate them. They did similar things in Africa, Asia, and Australia as well, killing millions to exploit the natural resources of those colonies. And Europe enthusiastically persecuted the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust. As bad as Soviet Russia was from the beginning, others had done similar things, often in the name of high ideals.

Volkogonov asks how revolutionaries like Lenin justified the gigantic social experiment Soviet Russia became. He might also ask about the abrupt introduction of technology with the Industrial Revolution, which created a higher standard of living than almost anyone had ever known (for those who could afford it), while also destroying the livelihoods of people in traditional industries. Some people used to throw their wooden shoes (sabots) into factory machinery, from which we get the word sabotage. Until the 19th century most people farmed, and were self-supporting. By the end of the century, and well into the 20th century, many farmers were forced out of their farms and into factories to support themselves and their families. For some (perhaps immigrants especially), factories were an appreciated opportunity. Others disliked the way they were treated there (long work hours and poor pay in dangerous working conditions), and began to organize strikes and unions. The way industries reacted to strikes may not have been as extreme as the behavior of the Soviets, but one wonders how they justified maiming and killing their employees.

The Communists had no patent on violence, but theirs was highlighted more than American and western European violence. John Wayne’s comment that our ancestors were perfectly justified in taking the land of Native Americans because they weren’t doing anything with it is a good example of the attitude of our ancestors towards violence against anyone they didn’t happen to like. So are American interventions into the affairs of other countries, which we would never allow to happen to us.

On the whole, it’s amazing the USSR was able to last as long as it did. Many people, including the Socialist parties in other countries, condemned their violence and intolerance of other points of view. I think they must have managed to inspire a lot of people with their vision, though by the end of World War II that faith must have been wearing thin for many.

Joseph Stalin surpassed Lenin in monstrous deeds, partly because he stayed in power considerably longer. But Lenin had set the pattern, and Lenin seems to have had charisma that attracted many to him.

After Lenin had a series of strokes he could no longer function as a politician, and died about two years later unable to care for himself or talk. The Party elite decided to mummify his body as a sort of holy relic to inspire Communist believers. They also mummified his ideas, which were fanatically narrow to begin with.

Russia managed to survive World War II in spite of having to do most of the fighting. When Stalin died millions of people must have been relieved. But, having made Lenin an icon, the government couldn’t question anything he had done,  nor right the wrongs he had commited. Khrushchev denounced the actions of Stalin (many of which he’d been complicit in), but didn’t dare touch the Lenin idol. That’s why the USSR collapsed about 25 years ago. Hardly anyone could believe in it anymore. When Mikhail Gorbachev instigated Russia looking at its past too many crimes were uncovered. ` The Communist form of government could no longer be justified, and the government fell with almost no violence, surprisingly. Those in power couldn’t justify violent repression. Lenin and Stalin must have turned over in their graves.

But Communism isn’t the only form of government that has justified use of violence to repress anyone opposing it. It’s been more extremely brutal (or obviously brutal) than many others, but force is the basis for any government. Future governments may or may not follow the Communist ideology, or be as openly brutal. A case can be made that tyrannies will (or maybe already are) following the pattern of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which citizens didn’t even notice their degradation. That kind of tyranny is even more difficult to resist.

How many people would be willing to give up a high standard of living for the good of their country, or the rest of the world? In this country, at least, we’re very attached to our comforts, even with evidence that our comfortable lives are destroying the ecology that keeps us all alive.

Even the obvious wrong-doing of Communism was hard for some to admit. Much more subtle wrong-doing will continue to be defended by many only willing to see one side of the question. People who benefit from wrong-doing rarely condemn it. If revenge was what Vladimir Lenin desired, he got it. Too bad his revenge victimized so many people, as did the vengeance of many others. Much of the history of the world is the history of ideologues persecuting anyone disagreeing with them. I don’t think the ideologues are going away.

 

 

The Vietnam Documentary

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Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary about Vietnam is impressive, but various people have criticized it. A number of criticisms seem valid.

One is that, with all the many interviews in the film, only a very few explored the experience of the peasants, particularly of South Vietnam, whose experience of the war was long and arduous. The film concentrated mostly on the view of soldiers–American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese. One article noted that most soldiers served only for short periods, and didn’t stay in one place. Peasants, who didn’t have the luxury of moving (unless they left for a city to eke out a living in that environment), had to stay in one place and deal with soldiers of different allegiances, not to mention artillery, Agent Orange, etc. That gave a much different perspective, which arguably wasn’t represented in the movie.

Another criticism is that the broader perspective of Southeast Asia was hardly mentioned. The fall of the Cambodian government, due largely to bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail in eastern Cambodia and Laos, prompted the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge and their genocidal behavior. And while the presence of drugs in Vietnam, and the habits many soldiers brought back to the USA was mentioned, what wasn’t was that the CIA was largely controlling the trade in heroin, the opium being grown in the Golden Triangle, where, according to a NY Times article, some Chinese warlords settled after the Communists took over mainland China. The CIA, according to this article, has been involved in the drug trade since the Korean War.

The documentary hinted that the US had financial interests in Vietnam when it showed a clip of Richard Nixon explaining the Domino Theory and mentioning Vietnam’s nearness to Malaysia, from which we obtain rubber and tin, but never really talked about any financial motives for the American side of the war. Of course those who built military bases, military equipment and armaments must have made plenty of money, but there’s the question of whether there were natural resources we wanted from the country. I don’t know what they might have been, but won’t exclude the possibility.

Most of the reason for the war seems to have been ideological: The United States didn’t want any more successful Communist countries. There’s some debate about the situation, but briefly, the Communists under Ho Chi Minh had largely taken the country over by the end of World War II and wanted to remain independent. They had been a French colony, and the French returned after the war, trying to take the country back. The United States supported them in this, even though (most notably) President Eisenhower didn’t think the war winnable, and neither did Senator John F. Kennedy, an obscure figure at that time who later became president and committed the country to a larger military presence.

A friend, critiquing my previous post, defined the dynamic of our involvement as showing small left-wing countries who weren’t doing what we wanted that we could ruin them without suffering any great damage ourselves. Of course we DID suffer damage because of the war, but nothing like what the Vietnamese (both North and South) suffered. They lost 1-3 million people, many of them civilians, suffered ecological damage from substances like Agent Orange, and continuing problems from unexploded mines and artillery shells. The war also suddenly changed traditional patterns of life, often not for the better, as peasants who were displaced to cities often had to turn to prostitution and other corrupting practices to survive. A good many children of American soldiers were born to Vietnamese women, and probably weren’t well accepted. The USA lost 58,000 soldiers compared to millions of soldiers and civilians, and no damage to our land. Our damage was moral and psychological, primarily.

That’s not to minimize the suffering of our veterans, many of whom were physically and psychologically wounded. It’s only that far fewer of them were so badly damaged than the Vietnamese. That being so, US officials could see the costs of the war as acceptable, a “win” compared to Vietnam’s situation. That may have made us more willing to invade other small countries. The most notorious of these have been Iraq and Afghanistan, but there have been many others that we ordinary citizens have heard little about.

Much of the damage suffered by the USA has been division between people who found the war horrible and immoral, and other people who thought it justified and supported it more or less uncritically. Those divisions continue, and continue to cause distrust between people of different political beliefs, and between many people and their government. Many Americans thought their government would never lie to them. Few believe that any longer.

As my friend put it, it’s not accurate to talk about our involvement in Vietnam as a mistake that was based on good intentions. Our intention was intimidation. We made our point to other small countries, and then withdrew when it no longer suited us to fight. President Nixon had promised President Thieu that we would continue to supply the South Vietnamese army, but we didn’t. That’s at least partly because Nixon had his own problems with Watergate at the time, but things might not have been greatly different if he hadn’t. We never really cared about the Vietnamese, and when the war became too inconvenient, we abandoned them.

That was a moral mistake. I think it may have been a strategic mistake too. If we had been willing to help former colonies become independent we might never have had to have a Cold War with Communist Russia and China. According to the documentary, Ho Chi Minh became a Communist because of Lenin’s writings on colonialism. The USA didn’t have to accept the role the Communists cast us in. After all, we fought a revolutionary war ourselves, and left behind our colonial past. We could have conceivably had a hegemony based on friendship instead of power, where we persuaded various countries to do what we wanted instead of all but destroying some, and more or less forcibly meddling in the internal affairs of others.

Instead, we took on the role of the foremost colonial power, previously Great Britain (though other colonizers behaved no less viciously, only on a smaller scale), and repressed any small country whose behavior we didn’t like.

At one time, much of the world looked up to us. After the past seventy years I think fewer do, and we’ve managed to make ourselves hated in much of the world. We didn’t have to do that.

 

Vietnam

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The first episode of Ken Burns’s series on Vietnam came on last night. I was pretty fascinated at details of the history, but not too surprised at the general outline. I wasn’t around when the war began, but became aware of it in the early sixties, when it began alarming a number of adults around me.

By now I think it’s generally accepted that Vietnam was a bad mistake for our country to make, which didn’t stop us from making it again. One of the talking heads in the movie says that it was part of the end of colonialism, which in retrospect seems pretty obvious, but at the time was confused with the problem of Communism, about which there was a wave of paranoia. The movie quotes a letter Ho Chi Minh sent to President Eisenhower, saying that the Vietnamese wanted the same things Americans did, and that he shouldn’t take the Communist aspect of Vietnam’s politics too seriously.

It’s curious that Eisenhower’s diary is quoted as saying he didn’t believe a war could be won in that theater, but he assisted the French, who were trying to get their colony back, anyway. First he sent supplies, then helped pay for the war, eventually up to 80% of the cost. After the battle of Dien Bien Phu the French left entirely, and the USA stayed on.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu is an example of how the Vietnamese were underestimated by their Western opponents. The French commander, says the movie, set the battle up on purpose to destroy the North Vietnamese army (Vietnam had separated into north and south at this time), but the commander set up the base in a valley, and apparently didn’t even try to keep the Vietnamese from taking a superior position in the surrounding hills. The army managed to put numerous artillery pieces in place and camouflage them. By the end of the battle, the French had lost 8,000 out of 11,000 troops, and the commander had committed suicide. The Vietnamese had lost three times that number, but realized they could beat anyone trying to reconquer their country.

The situations aren’t exactly parallel, but that battle reminds me of what the Russians did to beat the Germans in World War II. It wasn’t just that the USSR was a huge country, and inhospitable, but that the Russians were willing to suffer immense numbers of casualties to win. Besides Vietnam being a small country, the situation differed in the Vietnamese fighting a primarily guerrilla war, though that was also an important part of the war in Russia. But the Russians fought many more conventional battles than the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese only committed to conventional fighting when they were sure they could win.

John F. Kennedy was in Vietnam in 1951 and didn’t buy the story the French were peddling about their ability to subdue the rebels. He told constituents later that unless the USA could convince the people there that we were as interested in justice and their independence as they, we wouldn’t be able to prevail against them. At some point, he changed his mind, and the first episode didn’t clearly explain why.

Ho Chi Minh was portrayed in the first episode as being determined, but relatively moderate. Others in the politburo were more radical, ruthlessly purging opponents, even people who had fought with the Viet Minh. Burns points out, though, that they were no more brutal than the French.

In the 1950s, when the USA became involved in the war, there was considerable paranoia about Communism, and it’s quite true that Communists often didn’t behave very nicely. Our country entered the war to try to make sure that Communism didn’t spread further into Southeast Asia from China. We had already fought in Korea (where China assisted the North Koreans at great cost), and were unable to salvage more than a draw. So there was some legitimate concern, but there was also not enough thought about an important question: why would any country be attracted to Communism?

It took over in Russia because the Czarist government became ineffective. It wasn’t what most probably wanted, but the Bolsheviks managed to impose themselves.

In China it was because of ineffective government too, as well as a legacy of colonialism. Foreigners, including the USA, had been meddling in the affairs of the country, and few people liked that. In Vietnam it was very simply colonialism: the French had invaded the country and put the natives to work without much respect for their wishes or abilities. Since our country too has a history of being a colony and rebelling so we could manage our own affairs, it’s a question why we couldn’t understand and assist another country who wanted exactly the same thing as we. A question, but not a very mysterious one.

Burns gives us a clue in the first episode, in which he has a clip of Richard Nixon trying to explain the domino theory. China is just to the north of the countries of the peninsula, North Vietnam has a Communist government, there’s concern about Laos and Cambodia too, and if they fall, Malaya, with its tin and rubber would be at risk. Nixon may not have meant to say it, but that gives the game away: we want raw materials and cheap labor from those countries, and it’s more convenient for them to be dominated by a Western nation.

Vietnam was divided into north and south largely because Russia and China didn’t want to fight anyone at that time. Without the backing of those countries, Vietnam couldn’t fight, so Ho Chi Minh had to agree to the division. The French and whoever didn’t like the Communists had to leave the north, and the Viet Minh were to leave the south. Ngo Dinh Diem, who was from the north, became the president of the south. Like Ho Chi Minh, he hated the French, but he also hated the Communists, who had put him in prison and killed two of his relatives by burying them alive. When he took over he became adept at maneuvering the USA, which knew that if a promised election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win. Because Ho was a Communist, our country was stuck with Diem, and we wanted to set up a “legitimate” government in the south, and not have Communists dominate the whole country. But the South Vietnamese weren’t happy with that. There were radicals left there to oppose the Diem government, and they were being badly treated, so the North decided to do everything they could to help get rid of Diem.

That’s about where the first episode stopped. The USA in the mid to late fifties has been supplying the South Vietnamese army and sending military advisers there, but hasn’t yet begun sending troops in any number. Burns points out that the advisers are getting the South Vietnamese army ready for conventional warfare, but that North Vietnam has no interest in fighting a conventional war.

I was reminded of a newsletter I used to receive in my early teens. I don’t recall the name or author of it, but I remember him drawing (not with great facility) cartoons of Jesus looking sad. He also pointed out that the United States has been more inclined to support dictatorships than democracies in its history, in contrast to our own history and stated ideals. Vietnam was the first war in which those practices came back to bite us. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last.

Liberals vs Fascists

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It was between 25 and 30 years ago that one of my acquaintances told me he thought Adolph Hitler was a liberal. I was totally taken aback, and didn’t say anything because I didn’t know WHAT to say. Now I think that opinion comes from propaganda, but a lot of people would disagree.

What can be pointed to as liberal in what Hitler did? Innovation in propaganda? Even if that’s valid, he was greatly influenced in that department by American advertising. What else is there?

Many people blame most of the bad things that happened in the past century or so on liberalism. I disagree. Of course liberals are as guilty of failing to live up to their ideals as anyone, and I think that failure is probably responsible for much dislike, but I subscribe to psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich’s view of the political spectrum: that it relates to sexual health, and that there are both conservative and liberal extremists whose behavior is very similar, and whom Reich considered to be sexually unhealthy.

His view was that since sex is a very sensitive subject for most people, children are often trained to repress sexual feelings. Repression isn’t just a mental or emotional thing, but is manifested physically in chronically clenched muscles which physically hold sexual feelings in. Nobody can totally repress such feelings, but when their muscles are chronically tight in large parts of the body the sexual feelings that are able to escape have some sadism to them. Sexually repressed people are those who foment the most violence, Reich thought, and devised methods of treatment to help people feel more comfortable with their sexuality.

One of these methods was to manually loosen the muscles of various parts of the body. He had some notable success with those methods, as did Dr. Ellsworth Baker, one of his students. Unfortunately, publicity about his methods was often negative, so few if any practice his treatment now.

In the last few decades it’s become popular in some circles to blame liberals for all extremism, which isn’t exactly an objective view. It has been liberals who have worked for civil rights of all kinds, and rarely conservatives. The people who lynched black people in the 19th and 20th century weren’t liberals. They were people using violence to prevent another group claiming its rights. Conservatism is usually defending the status quo, or trying to return us to a golden age. Liberals (at their best) work for a golden age in the future. Their version doesn’t usually include violence–unless it’s by extremists.

Communism as practiced in Russia (and later elsewhere) was certainly extreme. Many people identify it with socialism; actually, it was only the most extreme form of socialism. After all, socialism can’t be THAT bad. It has worked very well for wealthy people, as witness the bail-outs of the banks and other industries after the 2008 recession. In other words, from the conservative point of view, if Robin Hood takes from the poor and gives to the rich, that’s fine. It’s only the opposite that’s evil.

We’re seeing this distorted view lately with the “alt-left” being blamed for the violence at Charlottesville and other places. As one of my Facebook friends told me, when people come to protests carrying baseball bats and dressed in protective gear, they’re obviously looking for violence. I pointed out to him that this included the right-wingers who had also shown up for the protest, at least in Charlottesville.

This raises a question: do conservatives believe in the right to defend one’s self? For everybody? Or only for some? There was already some question whether conservatives would be comfortable with black people openly carrying guns as some whites do. I haven’t viewed any videos of the Charlottesville protests, and haven’t read anything much about other such recent events, but one article quoted people from Charlottesville who attended without weapons or other protection and were conducting themselves nonviolently as giving credit to “alt-left” people who stood with them as preventing them from being killed or badly hurt. Of course the right-wing propaganda makers portray them as starting the trouble, but the nonviolent protesters there deny that. Considering also that when people speak of terrorists in this country they usually mean Muslims, even though right-wingers have allegedly committed more terrorist attacks, I get the distinct impression that violence by one end of the political spectrum is considered perfectly fine, while violence by the other is to be condemned.

There’s plenty more propaganda like that. One article says an antifa organization advertised for protesters, especially young women. I hope that’s not true, but whether or not, it suggests that lefties are less sincere than righties. Though I don’t see being sincerely violent and racist as being a particularly good thing.

Another says that antifa are organized and have plans for a revolution. The irony of this one is being put out by teaparty.org. As if THEY aren’t organized and calling for some kind of revolution.

I hear now that antifa is now officially considered a “gang”, at least in California, where they (or some of them) have allegedly indulged in violence and looting. I HOPE this means that only violent antifa members will be prosecuted, and that right-wing violence will also be stringently policed. Propagandists are trying to prevent the latter, though.

But if the antifa, “alt-left”, or anyone else tries to keep neoNazis, white supremacists, or anyone else from speaking their minds, as they have the constitutional right to do, they’ll be playing right into the hands of the right-wing bigots who would gladly do the same to them. That’s a rather foolish strategy, possibly being pursued by people unable to predict long-term consequences.

There are a lot of us who don’t like fascism, and want to do what we can to prevent it at a time when it seems a large minority (including some in high office) want to encourage it. But to be effective, we have to be smart. Fighting them violently will only turn us into the equivalent of them, which propagandists are already trying to say we are. Let’s behave better than that.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s was effective in large part because they planned carefully and were STRICTLY nonviolent. That meant their protesters often got maimed or killed, but it made clear who they were and who their tormentors were. Maybe that’s what we liberals (and especially WHITE liberals) need to do.