Propaganda

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Probably just about everyone bends the truth a little, but some people feel justified in just making things up if it will, in their opinion, advance their cause. Some of this is hard to detect, but some is absurdly easy, with a little thought.

One example is that of George Soros. That’s not his real name, as he freely admits. He was born György Schwartz, in Budapest in 1930. No doubt he changed his name for a sinister reason? Yes, he changed it because he was Jewish. What was happening to Jews in Europe in the 1940s?

Some claim he joined the Hitler Youth (and greatly enjoyed it), that he collaborated with Nazis, that he was a protege of Hitler. He was 14 at the end of World War II, barely old enough to join, and he DID pose as Christian with a Hungarian official who himself had a Jewish wife in hiding. You or I might have done the same had we been Jewish in that time and place. This sort of “passing” had previously caused great paranoia in Spain hundreds of years earlier when Jewish families had ostensibly converted to Christianity and married into the nobility, while continuing to practice the Jewish religion in their homes. That became a matter for the Spanish Inquisition. One might have thought people would have been somewhat less paranoid in the 20th century. Soros said later that he enjoyed 1944, when the Nazis took over Hungary, because he got to see his father’s heroism in saving a lot of Jewish people from the Holocaust.

Did he collaborate with Nazis? He accompanied the Hungarian official (something someone else would probably have done if he hadn’t), posing as his godson, as the official inventoried a Jewish property Nazis had taken over. He also took summonses to Jewish people, and warned that if they answered them they would be deported.

After the war he moved to England and attended the London School of Economics. After graduating, he moved to America and managed hedge funds, which made him very rich. Does this make him a Communist, as several have accused him of being? If he were, would he have contributed to setting up democratic institutions in eastern European countries after the fall of Communism?

But being Jewish, surely that means he’s a Zionist. Except that he has contributed to Palestinian causes and criticized the Israeli government, much to its irritation.

The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court was based on the idea that contribution of money counts as free speech, something conservatives applaud–as long as it’s CONSERVATIVE speech. It’s perfectly okay for billionaires to spend huge amounts on CONSERVATIVE causes. Apparently it’s heresy when they contribute to liberal causes. That’s Soros’s sin–that and (arguably) being Jewish.

Another example is the anxiety over Sharia law. This is customary law associated with Islam, and many people are anxious about Islam, especially since 9/11. Yes, there was a terrorist attack that killed 3,000 or so people then, and there have been a few other attacks in the USA that have been fairly horrible, but not on the same scale. Considering the amount of anxiety, it’s a bit surprising there have been so few. Especially when you consider that American retaliatory wars on Afghanistan and Iraq have killed at least hundreds of thousands and destabilized the whole Middle East. Muslims, especially of that region, have some reason to believe their countries have been targeted because (at least in part) of their religion, and have little reason to sympathize with our anxiety about them.

The anxiety has gone to the extent of state legislatures in this country outlawing Sharia law. Why would this be necessary? One commentator pointed out that Sharia law is already practiced in the USA–among Muslims. Nobody else is subjected to it. We have our own legal tradition, whatever its faults, and for Sharia to be applied to everyone, it would have to be imposed. Three to five million Muslim American citizens aren’t in a position to do that, even if they wanted to–and I suspect many of them don’t. Many probably came here for economic opportunities or to escape Middle Eastern violence. As long as they’re allowed to follow their own customs, I doubt they want to impose anything on anybody. The idea that Sharia would destroy the United States seems obviously false.

Even more recent has been the response of some conservatives to the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida shootings in the high school: that the students criticizing politicians for not passing legislation that might have kept them safe are actors, and that the shootings never happened. The same thing has been said about the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut; the difference in Florida is that the students in Parkland are old and articulate enough to speak for themselves. The students in Connecticut were too young. Conservatives see any attempt to take guns from the hands of the irresponsible as a threat to their own right to weapons.

This is another instance of paranoia. Taking guns away from anyone is worse than taking lives, even the lives of children. The position guns rights people are taking is that guns are necessary for self-defense. In some cases this is true–mainly in the case of soldiers and police–but even in these categories questionable shootings happen.

And gun rights seem to apply only to certain segments of society. When the Black Panther party asserted their rights to carry guns and defend their neighborhoods some fifty years ago their actions instigated a gun control initiative by then- governor Ronald Reagan. While black criminals use guns (Chicago is frequently cited in this connection), there really aren’t many mass shootings by blacks. I can only remember one in Texas a few years ago. Mass shootings are almost exclusively committed by white males. Very few have been committed by Muslims, blacks, or Hispanics. And I just read today that most such shooters have been home schooled by religiously conservative parents. If true, that’s quite interesting. Why would that population be so angry?

Is all the paranoia on the rightwing side? Or all the propaganda? No, propaganda is practiced by anyone involved in politics on any level, and propaganda is designed to make people FEEL paranoid. That’s a very old trick. Divide and conquer doesn’t apply to just one political group. A bumper sticker on a nearby street proclaims that the car’s owner doesn’t believe the liberal media. Fair enough. I don’t believe the conservative media. But I DO believe in the First Amendment, which means I have to tolerate what conservatives (or others) have to say, whether I agree or not (and I often don’t). And they have to tolerate what I say.

But that’s one of the primary things that makes this country worth living in: we’re allowed to say what we believe. When we express our beliefs we may discover that some of them are stupid. I think that applies to everyone, not just conservatives or liberals. In the eyes of God most of us are probably not too bright.

And one of the things that makes us not too bright is taking our own beliefs without any grains of salt. Like most people, I like being confirmed in my own opinion. That doesn’t mean my opinion is right, so I have to be watchful that I’m not making stupid assumptions. It’s an easy thing to do, and I can be caught saying and thinking foolish things as easily as anyone else.

Many people are unaware of the history of religious wars in Europe. The Thirty Years War in the 17th century is considered to be the most destructive in history until the World Wars of the 20th century, and that’s one reason why our Founding Fathers decided religion had to be separate from government. Different denominations had used government to punish people they felt believed the wrong things. This had obviously caused resentment, and persecuted denominations took opportunities  for revenge. The obvious way to avoid such conflicts was to not allow ANY religious group to dominate any governmental institutions. Let them have their churches, mosques, synagogues, and private schools. Let them all be equal in the eyes of the law.

But there are always groups who want to tell others what to do. It’s popular now to chant the mindless motto, “Government is the problem.” The idea that human society can survive any time at all without being governed has been disproven over and over again. A society without regulation may create a powerful economy, but some of the activity instigated will be criminal, and some will be powerful people rushing in to fill a power vacuum. Criminals don’t want laws, and when people propose deregulation I think we should take a close look at how they plan to benefit. Allowing wealthy people to control political discourse means the wealthy will get what they want, often at the expense of the less powerful and wealthy, No wonder there’s a narrative that poor people are to blame for their poverty, and that they’re takers rather than makers. Believing that’s always true gives wealthy people the excuse to arrange things the way they want them, and mistreat poor people. There’s plenty of history to confirm that opinion: we can begin with the reasons for our Revolutionary War.

I think the most dangerous thing about propaganda is that it promotes the idea that people we agree with are good and those we disagree with are evil. That’s way too simple, and it’s an idea that can be manipulated way too easily. Propaganda is designed to make us frightened and angry and to persuade us of things that are against our interests. It’s easy to dismiss all conservatives or all liberals as propagandists; it’s much harder to listen to different voices dispassionately, and decide things on the merits of each case, rather than on the basis of our emotions. Conservatives often say liberals want to feel good. Of course that’s true. I just think it applies to conservatives too.

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Religion vs Humility

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Modern times have been characterized by a collision between religion and science. Not because what science said (at least at first) was necessarily so controversial, but because it was contradicting the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. That the planets revolved around the sun instead of the other way around was less a strange thing to say than a challenge to orthodoxy (literally “right belief”), a challenge that continues to reverberate more than four hundred years later. That’s because the Church was in the business of defining reality, and derived a lot of its power that way. When other voices were allowed to be heard, religious power was diminished.

A lot of people have believed this was terrible, especially after the concept of evolution became known, as if humans could define the tools God (or His representatives) were allowed to use. What it really represents, though, was the overreach of religious authority, which claimed to know things it didn’t. That’s the reason for so many scientists having become atheists, I think: they’re repulsed at the power grab–which doesn’t stop some of them from trying to grab power themselves.

That’s at least part of what’s behind climate change denial, for instance: a backlash against science, partly by religious people who believe they ought to have more power and influence, and partly by the wealthy who derive THEIR power from the coal and oil industries, and are threatened by the possibility of green energy.

At about the same time that the Church was having its issue with Galileo, the Thirty Years War was demonstrating just how destructive religions could be when going to war, an example the American founders took seriously when separating church and state. The American Revolution was occurring about the same time Fundamentalism became important in both Protestantism and Catholicism as a reaction against new perspectives and as a sign of great insecurity. If one’s faith can move mountains, why should it be bothered with the idea of evolution?

Scientific analysis didn’t end with astronomical observations. It was applied to study of the Bible too, and the analysts discovered that the supposed Word of God was extremely inconsistent. Bart Ehrman, who has made a career of studying the history of the Bible, and who personally went from being a conservative evangelical to being an agnostic, points out that (for one thing) the book of Genesis has two different creation stories that disagree with each other, and the New Testament is possibly even less consistent. In one Gospel Herod murders all boys in his kingdom beneath the age of two, forcing Jesus’s parents to take him to Egypt. No other Gospel mentions this, as if they either hadn’t noticed, or had forgotten. And there’s no historic record of any such thing. That’s only one inconsistency. There are many more. Ehrman’s point is that writers of the New Testament weren’t concerned with historical accuracy (history as a discipline had only barely begun, and probably no more than ten per cent of the Roman Empire was literate), but with making a theological point. What a lot of that point was becomes clear with the Gospel of John, in which Jesus declares, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no man comes to the Father except through me.” Only Christians are henceforth going to be allowed power.

Which is why a lot of Fundamentalists feel so injured: their power has been taken away by defining their perspective as nonsensical. They naturally dislike this.

But wasn’t humility supposed to be a large part of the Christian message? No, humility wasn’t a virtue many religious leaders aspired to when Christianity became the state religion of ancient Rome, nor do many of the most vocal aspire to it now. Political and religious leaders often share a trait: they like to tell other people how to behave and what they’re allowed to believe. Denial of the human part in climate change (for instance) becomes part of religion, just as do religious prohibitions of homosexuality (I think it’s worth noting that Jesus never commented on this) and other things religious people don’t like. Scientists at least aspire to be impartial, though they don’t always achieve it; a lot of religious leaders don’t even aspire to it.

The lesson I derive from this is that humans tend to be power-hungry. Even Christianity, supposed from the beginning to be a religion of love, also became very early a religion that believed no one else had the truth. They may have possessed a truth that few or none other had, but their declaration of this had an ugly side: anti-Semitism has already begun by the time the New Testament is complete.

And anti-Semitism and related bigotries continue today. Those are things extremists like, and we happen to have an extremist president who stirs up and reflects a lot of our country’s baser passions. There are people on both ends of the political and religious spectrum who would gladly start another Inquisition if it would enhance their power. The president represents part of this tendency, as can be seen when he denounces “fake news” or anthropogenic climate change. He’s using the same weapon science has used against religion: discrediting the point of view of anyone you disagree with, though I suspect that initially there was less malice on the part of science. That sort of behavior should have nothing to do with either religion or science, and does only because of the shadow side of human nature. We don’t like being humble.

There’s a saying that science doesn’t care what you believe. That’s science as it ought to be, but isn’t always. Nature, on the other hand, REALLY doesn’t care what you believe. If we are believing the wrong things, especially about our duty to the natural world, nature is very likely to let us know. If the climate scientists are right, there is likely to be a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth at that time.

 

Tipping Point?

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Has a tipping point arrived with the shootings in Parkland, Florida last week? I don’t know. One thing that makes it possible is that the victims weren’t elementary school children too young to articulate what they felt. They were high school students, and many of the survivors are already 18, or soon will be, so will be able to vote in the elections this year. A number of them have vowed to work for gun control, and have flatly contradicted the same old sentiments about it not being time to talk about the problem and people kill people, not guns.

But there will be plenty of resistance. The NRA has plenty of money to spend fighting anyone who would restrict gun manufacturers and sellers in any way, and no doubt they’ll be calling these kids “liberals” or “communists” before long. I wonder if being trapped in a school with someone trying to kill you for a couple of hours isn’t a good way to be converted to liberalism–unless conservatives take these students seriously and enact some serious reforms. That may not happen unless a lot of Republicans get voted out of office in November over the issue.

But the shooting reminded some young people, on the eve of their being able to vote, that their elected representatives haven’t been serving them. If their representatives prefer not to, it would be nice to see them pay a political price.

But they will try hard to prevent that, and by not changing more than they can help. They’ve already proposed armed guards at schools in Florida, even though that probably wouldn’t be especially effective–it wouldn’t be hard to take armed guards by surprise–and probably wouldn’t be possible to guarantee that the guards wouldn’t do shootings themselves. Veterans aren’t always trustworthy, and how much will school districts be willing to pay armed guards to make sure they get good ones? The idea of putting a lot of guns in schools means there would be more chance for accidents or for people having nervous breakdowns (or other unfortunate circumstances) would have access to guns at times when they shouldn’t. I’m not so sure teachers should have to think about whether or not they could kill a student, either. That’s a question that would have to be asked if teachers were armed.

A post found on Facebook by a veteran says that getting rid of automatic weapons (except for the military and police), including automatic hand guns, would be effective. Those are weapons specifically designed to kill people, and aren’t needed in a civil society. To the people who say they need weapons to resist a tyrannous government, he replies that the government has much more potent weapons. That kind of resistance being successful is extremely unlikely.

Part of the reason for so many shootings in recent years seems to be that a number of men (shootings are almost exclusively a male crime) feel insecure about their masculine privileges being taken away in a time of great income inequality and instability. Insecurity breeds resentment, and if resentment gets extreme, it leads to violence.

Gun enthusiasts say that someone who wants to kill will find a way, whether with a gun or a knife. True, but killing is much easier with a gun, especially one with a large magazine that can get off many shots in a short time. Last year a shooter in Las Vegas was able to kill 58 and injure some 500 in a relatively short time. That’s what automatic rifles can do. Automatic pistols don’t have magazines as big, but they’re easier to conceal. And a large percentage of shooting deaths come from handguns.

Other suggestions (from the other side of the aisle) include getting licensed just like everyone must to drive a car, and to get insurance. That would go with tests to make sure gun owners were psychologically stable and knew how to store, care for, and handle their weapons. Making people liable for weapons they left where irresponsible people could take them would motivate people to be more careful. With the right to bear arms should come responsibility, just as with driving cars. Such laws wouldn’t be perfectly enforced, especially immediately, but neither are laws regarding cars. The author of the post on Facebook suggested that driving race cars on public streets at 140 miles an hour is probably not a great idea. Neither is allowing just anyone to play with guns.

It will be interesting to see how successful the students of the high school in Florida will be in trying to combat the influence of the NRA. If they eventually are successful, will they decide to take on other examples of behavior by large corporations that most people dislike? Polls have discovered that ordinary (non-wealthy) Americans have very little influence over governmental policies, and it’s pretty certain that wealthy people generally prefer it that way. One of the things about these students is that they come from a fairly well-off community. They probably won’t be as intimidated by great wealth as many people.

If they manage to get substantive reform in Florida, and possibly even nationally, what might they take on next? Big pharmacy, which price-gouges on medications needed by many ordinary people (insulin, for instance)? Or pollution?

If this is a tipping point, maybe we’ll find our society beginning to become more democratic. That doesn’t mean democratic as in the Democratic party necessarily, but democratic as in listening to everyone, and not just the people with a lot of money.

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.

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.

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.