Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Who Cares About Flowers, Where Have All The Stalinists Gone?

Tom Lehrer pays a richly deserved tribute to all those battlers against injustice who enter combat armed only with banjos and camouflaged with nothing but broken grammar and plaid shirts. Good stuff.

Returning to the subject of Pete Seeger, I looked through many of the essays and tributes to him trying to learn when, or whether, he ever regretted his years as a loyal Communist during the era of Stalin. Did he break with his old comrades after the Budapest Uprising, or the Berlin Wall, or the Prague Spring?  Or anything at all?

No such luck.

According to a New York Times article from 2007, the best Seeger ever did in the way of a denunciation was this:
But in fact, Mr. Seeger, 87, made such statements [denunciations of Stalin] years ago, at least as early as his 1993 book, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” In the book, he said in a 1995 interview with The New York Times Magazine, he had apologized “for following the party line so slavishly, for not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader.”

His 1993 book? Stalin died in 1953. Couldn't Seeger have come to a conclusion a little sooner than 1993?

I've read that Seeger joined the Communist Youth League in 1936, and the main Communist Party USA in 1941. So, he spent up to 17 years of his Party career under the leadership of Stalin. (I say ‘up to’ because Seeger never made clear exactly when he left the Party.) That should have been enough time to develop an opinion of the man.

What was Stalin up to in those days? Well, he was sponsoring the great purges and show trials in which the Party, government, and Red Army leaderships, plus the peasants, the intellectuals, and foreign minorities were terrorized and decimated. That news made the papers, even the New Masses, so I assume Seeger was well aware of it all.

What else? Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist, original member of the Soviet Politburo and founder of the Red Army, who had been exiled by Stalin in the 1902s, was assassinated in Mexico City on Stalin's orders.

Then there was World War II and Stalin’s pact with Hitler (1939 to 1941), followed by his invasion and annexation of Poland and Lithuania.

Right after the war there was the hostile take-over by the Soviet Union of Eastern European states, followed by the violent suppression of the East German uprising of 1953, which started with labor strikes. In Poland, there was the Poznań uprising in 1956, also a labor strike. Also in 1956, there was the huge uprising in Hungary which ended in the abolition of the Hungarian Communist Party, the calling of multi-party elections, and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact – in fact, a counter revolution - which was brutally suppressed by a Russian military invasion. I know Seeger must have heard about that.

To be fair, since Stalin died in 1953, it was his successors who were directly to blame for everything that happened in 1956. Of course, also in 1956, came the famous denunciation of Stalin by Nikita Khrushchev to the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. His speech "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" was published in the West, including in the New York Times. It made quite a splash.

Surely Seeger read about Khrushchev's speech. Didn’t the crimes of the Stalin era make an impression on him? I guess not, if it was only in 1993 that Seeger expressed some small criticism of Stalin.

A supremely cruel misleader. That’s it? After spending thirteen years as a loyal Communist while Stalin was alive, and with the benefit of another forty years of hindsight after Stalin’s death, that’s all Seeger had to say about the man?

So tell me … if Leni Riefenstahl, sometime around 1984, had told an interviewer that Hitler was “a supremely cruel misleader,” would she have then been welcomed back to the human race, and become a fit subject for film criticism or, say, an NPR profile about all her fascinating artistic pursuits since WWII? At the least, would Jodie Foster finally be able to make the Riefenstahl biographical film she is rumored to be developing? I don't think so.

I mean, 1993? Really? Why even bother making such a ridiculously mild ‘denunciation’ at such a comically late date? Not only had Stalin been dead for forty years, but the Soviet Union itself had ceased to exist by the time Seeger wrote his book.

It’s like Seeger waited until he was the last Communist still standing before he let rip with that tiny diss.
Where have all the commies gone, long time passing?
Where have all the commies gone, long time ago?
Where have all the commies gone?
Gone to grave yards every one
I hesitate to speak ill of the dead. But given that we've talking about the last unrepentant follower of Stalin, I ask myself, when will we ever learn to shun the propagandists of left-totalitarianism the same as we do their counterparts on the right and elsewhere?


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

If I Had A Hammer, It Would Look Cool Next To My Sickle

Talking Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that is

Leni Riefenstahl never got the respect she deserved. The taint of Nazism overwhelmed all other considerations when it came to her reputation.

Riefenstahl was fairly described as "an artist of unparalleled gifts, a woman in an industry dominated by men, one of the greatest formalists of the cinema on a par with Eisenstein or Welles." All absolutely true, and all of absolutely no help whatsoever in rehabilitating her legacy in cinema.

She was a far greater artist than Pete Seeger. Plus she was a woman, so you might think she'd get at least some grudging acknowledgment as the pioneer for women in her field. She even lived seven years longer than Seeger did (she died at age 101), so she might have qualified for at least a little reconsideration based on the passage of enough time. But, no. She had been pro-Nazi.

Pete Seeger, on the other hand, got a total pass for the nearly two years that he played for the same team as Riefenstahl: 23 August 1939 until 22 June 1941, the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. She made pro-Nazi films, and Seeger sang his heart out to keep America neutral while Nazi Germany invaded Poland and Czechoslovakia, tried to invade Britain, and established Auschwitz. What's the moral difference between those two propagandists?

Seeger, a U.S. Communist Party member, was being objectively pro-fascist, to use the term that George Orwell applied to pacifists in World War II. Yet, he ends up being the celebrated old leftie troubadour, awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Riefenstahl just ... ended up.

It was Seeger's bad luck that he and the Almanac Singers released their debut album of FDR-bashing anti-interventionism, Songs for John Doe, just one month before Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the USSR. But Seeger was nothing if not flexible. He withdrew Songs from distribution (although you can still find it) and came right back with a pro-FDR, pro-war, album called Dear Mr. President. Seeger did not let a decent interval pass, he just turned on a dime and resumed cheer leading, only for the other side. 

In May 1941, Seeger was all:
Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damned near believed what he said
He said, "I hate war, and so does Eleanor
But we won't be safe 'till everybody's dead."

Then, in February 1941, he was all:
Now, Mr. President,
You're commander-in-chief of our armed forces
The ships and the planes and the tanks and the horses
I guess you know best just where I can fight ...
So what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done!

I dislike the sucking-up tone of Dear Mr. President even more than the objective pro-fascism of John Doe. "I guess you know best ... " Really, now.

Just so I don't speak too much ill of the dead on the day that he died, I'll say something in Seeger's favor. He disagreed with Joan Baez' statement that there are no good right-wing folk songs, which I think showed a commendable magnanimity. I recall seeing him say that in a television interview many, many, years ago; I've been googling like a Stakhanovite all day to find a clip of that interview but came up empty-handed, so please trust my recollection.

Seeger even sang a few examples of good right-wing folk songs, one of which was See the Beatniks (An Ode to Non-Comformity). That was a parody of Little Boxes, a song Seeger had covered and made popular, and which the satirist Tom Lehrer called the most sanctimonious song ever written. There's a good discussion of Boxes here.

RIP Seeger. You came of age in a low dishonest decade, but in the end you lived long enough that those old lies have been almost forgotten.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Federal Offices In Washington DC Closed Due To Snow

Today's major winter storm started very slowly, I must admit. But by now - almost noon - I see a steady flow of snowflakes coming down, so the prudent judgment of the Office of Personnel Management (FEDERAL OFFICES in the Washington, DC, area are CLOSED) has been amply justified.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Kabul's Taverna du Liban Attack Was A Tripwire Crossed

Outside the Taverna yesterday

Last Friday's attack by the Taliban on a Kabul restaurant that catered to the international community is just about a perfect example of terrorism, as it is defined by the U.S. government: politically-motivated violence against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups to influence an audience.

The Taliban are influencing that target audience in a big way. They have an achievable strategy - making ISAF and the rest of the international community leave Afghanistan - and that attack was perfectly executed to advance their aims without causing unintended casualties that might have spoiled the political message it delivered. 

The Taliban released a statement describing the attack's political message as revenge for a U.S. airstrike that killed civilians:
The attack was in retaliation to the massacre carried out by foreign invaders 2 days earlier in Parwan province's Siyah Gerd district where the enemy airstrikes destroyed up to 10 homes, razed several orchards as well as killing and wounding up to 30 innocent civilians mostly defenseless women and children.

The day before the Taverna attack, President Karzai himself condemned that airstrike for the same reasons, and noted: "The Afghan government has been asking for a complete end to operations in Afghan villages for years, but American forces acting against all mutual agreements ... have once again bombarded a residential area and killed civilians." According to press reports, there were indeed civilian casualties.

The statement by ISAF Commander General Dunford condemning the Taverna attack did a great job of missing the point, especially this sentence: "The Taliban must stop premeditated and indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, especially on those who are working to bring stability and prosperity to the Afghan people.”

That is an extremely odd choice of words, considering that there was nothing at all indiscriminate in the Taliban's attack. They killed every foreigner inside the restaurant, but none of the local employees. On the contrary, it was indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by ISAF that was the Taliban's stated justification.

The WaPo had this description of the Taverna:
For years, the bistro was a rare haven of relaxation for foreign diplomats, aid workers and Afghan officials in a gray city full of blast barriers and beggars. Hookahs bubbled in an alcove equipped with low couches, and Arabic pop music played in the background. Wine and beer were served discreetly, in china teapots, along with savory Lebanese appetizers of kebab, falafel, tabbouleh and stuffed grape leaves.

In the past year, as international missions began to downsize or leave the capital in anticipation of Western troop withdrawals, the number of ­foreigner-friendly establishments shrank, but La Taverna thrived.

-- snip --

In 2011, the restaurant added armed guards and triple-door steel barricades at its entrance to protect customers and win continued approval from foreign embassies and missions for their employees to eat there.

Those precautions were no match for the suicide team that attacked Friday night.

The Taverna was a soft target despite those steel entry doors and an anteroom for inspection of visitors. According to press reports, one bomber detonated inside the inspection area, clearing the way for two more attackers to enter the restaurant and fire at the guests, who were evidently trapped without a way to get out quickly. It probably isn't feasible for a 'foreigner-friendly establishment' in Kabul to have a large building with setback from the street, architectural blast hardening, and control of internal circulation, but short of such measures there really isn't a way to counter that kind of attack. 

The attack killed nationals of many ISAF coalition members and international organizations, including three UN civilian staff from Russia, the U.S., and Pakistan, plus the Lebanese IMF Representative, two Britons, a Dane, two Canadians, and two American from the private sector, as well as 13 Afghan nationals. The impact will be felt immediately as foreign embassies and missions in Kabul will now further restrict their staffs to secure compounds, and will reconsider how many staffers and contract employees they need to keep in Kabul, as well as how soon they can close up shop in Afghanistan and go home.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Today They Give Crystal, Back Then They Gave Weapons

Czech protocol gifts used to be more hardcore

A few more details have come out in the Czech press about the firearms found inside the residence of the late Palestinian Ambassador Jamal al Jamal. A few new details, plus one terrific quote.

According to the Prague Post:
The police revealed 12 arms in two suitcases and one plastic bag on the spot of the explosion, the paper [Lidové Noviny (LN)] writes, citing sources close to the investigation.

When Palestinian diplomats arrived on the spot, they wanted to mark the suitcases and bag as diplomatic luggage, but the police had already found the guns.

-- snip --

According to its sources, it were [sic] four Škorpion vz.61 submachine guns and eight pistols - one Smith&Wesson, one Tokarev and six CZs made in Czechoslovakia.

Only one of the arms was officially registered in the Czech Republic - a pistol whose official owner is former Palestinian ambassador Mohammed Salaymeh who was replaced by Jamal in Prague last summer.

-- snip --

It is still unclear whether the Czechoslovak-made pistols were first sent to Palestinians in the Middle East and then smuggled to Prague or whether they have never left Czech territory, LN writes.

Salaymeh claims that the second alternative is true.

"Czech representatives give crystal to foreign guests now, in the past it were weapons," Salaymeh told LN.

I love that quote. Today it's crystal for those diplomatic gift-giving occasions, but back in the day it was weapons.

Why did they ever switch? Is there anyone who wouldn't rather get a Skorpion submachine gun than some fancy glasses?

The story continues:
Ambassador Jamal died in a blast of a safe deposit in the Palestinian embassy building in Prague-Suchdol on Jan. 1.

Czech investigators believe that Jamal was fatally injured by a bomb that he wanted to use to secure the safe. The investigation is still underway, however.

"According to police investigators, 200 grams of a yet unknown explosive exploded. The blast was very strong. Even if Jamal survived it, he would have lost both hands," said a source acquainted with a police report on the case.

The Palestinian diplomats were moving to a new seat. It appears that Jamal wanted to check the safe and secure it against opening, a source told LN.

A Czech diplomat requesting anonymity told the paper that the Foreign Ministry does not focus on the technical details anymore. "We are now primarily interested in how are the Palestinians going to solve the whole case administratively, for example, whether there will be an apology," the diplomat said.

The Palestinians no doubt owe an apology to their host country's government. However, doesn't the Czech government owe all of us an apology for having equipped terrorist groups - the PLO for one, but also many others - back in the 1980s?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

How Muslim Women Should Dress In Public (Not That It's Any Of My Business)

Pew Research has data on how people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public, and the results are what you would expect.
An important issue in the Muslim world is how women should dress in public. A recent survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research conducted in seven Muslim-majority countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), finds that most people prefer that a woman completely cover her hair, but not necessarily her face. Only in Turkey and Lebanon do more than one-in-four think it is appropriate for a woman to not cover her head at all in public.

So, naturally, my first thought was to wonder how many of the survey respondents were female. The answer is in the Data and Methods section of the survey report:
Among the 3,070 respondents 55% were female, 17% had university education with a degree, 38% were currently employed, and 66% were married. In terms of class background, 0.4% self-reported as members of the upper class, 26% upper middle class, 36% lower middle class, 25% working class, and 12% lower class.

The lovey lady in image number 4 on the chart below is the clear winner, except in Saudi Arabia, where they overwhelmingly prefer the full Ninja look.

There is a lesson here for all those who believe that inside every foreigner there is an American trying to get out. Actually, they are foreign all the way to the bone.

Nothing wrong with being foreign, you understand. I like foreigners just fine. I probably know more foreigners than I do Americans. But, people, please respect the f-o-r-e-i-g-n, and do not assume that foreigners all around the world just naturally like the same things you like, or want the same things you want. They have their own ideas about that.
To each his - and her - own.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Czech Police: Twelve Firearms In Palestinian Ambassador's Safe

Fine small arms are expressive gifts of Czech national pride

The first round of reports about the death of Palestinian Ambassador al-Jamar in Prague mentioned that local police found some firearms inside the safe in his residence. Czech police spokesmen at first declined to give any details about the weapons but, after rumors of up to 70 weapons began to circulate, the national police chief today confirmed for a Czech daily newspaper that there were twelve weapons, and that they consisted of both pistols and sub-machineguns.

The police say they are investigating where the weapons came from. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Deputy Foreign Minister said they were gifts to the Palestinian mission from the former Czechoslovakian government.
Deputy Palestinian Foreign Minister Taysir Jaradat said Sunday he met with his Czech counterpart and was asked about the weapons.

"We told them that these guns have been in the embassy for a long time — going back to the former regime of Czechoslovakia — and these guns were either licensed in the embassy or were given as gifts to the ambassador," he told Voice of Palestine radio station Sunday.

I can see how that might happen in the normal course of diplomatic pleasantries. Some Czech tchotchkes got exchanged in the ceremonial climate of toasts, banquets, speeches, and formal greetings? Okay, no big thing.

But I do wonder what diplomatic occasion it was that called for the gift of guns. Maybe a Palestinian National Day celebration? No, I seem to recall that Semtex was the Czechoslovakian gift of choice for those.

More likely it was a visit to Prague by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. I'm sure he always needed another gun to accessorize his faux guerrilla fighter outfits, and his favorite ones came from the Warsaw Pact countries.

That one looks like a Polish PM-63

There will be more to come on this after the Czech police run down the serial numbers on those old pistols and sub-machineguns. The StB did turn over its records to the post-Communist government, I assume?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Accidents and Artifacts In Prague

On Mission Impossible, only the taped message self-destructed in five seconds. But something more robust than that occurred to fatally injure Ambassador Jamal al-Jamal when he opened a safe inside his official residence in Prague.

The Foreign Minister of the State of Palestine, Riyad al-Malki, speaking to Voice of Palestine Radio news, described the death of his Ambassador to the Czech Republic as a “work accident.” I don't disagree.

It’s a rare accident when an Ambassador dies from his own inexpert handling of explosives, however, the incidence of that type of misadventure does seem to occur primarily among diplomats from the State of Palestine.

The Czech authorities are still investigating and we might find out more in time, but at present most news accounts seem to be in agreement that Ambassador Jamal al-Jamal triggered a small explosion – judging by the lack of evident damage to the room he was in, I’d guess it was very small, on the scale of a hand grenade – when he tried to remove a package containing several firearms from a safe in his official residence. The residence is part of a newly-constructed Palestinian embassy compound, and the safe had been relocated from the old Palestinian embassy, which had been occupied as far back as the 1980s.

Initially, there had been speculation that Ambassador al-Jamal must have triggered an emergency destruction device of some kind when he opened the safe. I didn’t believe that scenario, because, while such devices do exist, they destroy documents and computer media by incineration or chemical action rather than by explosion. As someone who remembers when U.S. embassies used sodium nitrate emergency burn barrels, I know that those things are not going to explode on you (although they might burn the building down).

What’s more, Czech police reported that there was a second safe in the residence but they found no explosives in that one, so whatever detonated and killed al-Jamal wasn’t common to the safes in his mission.

There is an internal Palestinian disagreement as to whether or not the safe was in regular use. The first news reports, which quoted the Palestinian Foreign Minister, said the safe hadn’t been opened since the 1980s. Apparently it was just forgotten and had been sitting in a corner somewhere ever since that bygone era when the PLO was trafficking Czech-made Semtex explosive and Skorpian machine pistols to allies such as the IRA. But today, Palestinian Embassy spokesman Nabil El-Fahel told Czech radio that the safe was in regular use and was opened and closed almost daily.

Which story is worse for the Palestinian State, in so far as its relations with the Czech Republic? Acknowledging that they kept firearms and small explosive charges in an active safe inside their diplomatic mission and residence as a matter of routine, or, that a forgotten artifact of a more militant past was opened in all innocence by a modern, peace-loving, diplomat who had no idea what was inside? That's a tough call.

Prague Police Chief Martin Vondrasek told Czech radio news that the firearms in the safe were not registered, but he did not describe them further. The Czech newsweekly Respeckt reported today that they were “enough to arm a unit of ten men,” which could mean that there were only ten weapons.

I suppose an arsenal that size might impress Central Europeans, but c’mon, I personally have three pistols I keep in a bedside table plus two shotguns in a closet. And my residence doesn’t even have diplomatic inviolbility, not that I need it in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

One last thought: do you suppose there are more booby-trapped arms caches in Palestinian embassies and diplomatic residences elsewhere?


P.S. at 7PM

I learned from press reports tonight that Ambassador al-Jamal was first posted to Prague in 1984 and for several years thereafter, then departed before returning last October as Ambassador. Could that possibly resolve the conflicting statements about the nature of the safe that he opened? If it really was a left-over item from the PLO mission in Prague in the '80s, as the Palestinian Foreign Minister has claimed, could it possibly have been a safe that al-Jamal used back then? If so, he may have known what was in it, and thought that he could open it safely.