Meet Venezuela’s “cooperating patriots”

At this site we’ve returned frequently to the subject of Venezuela, a once-proud land that was driven down the road to disaster by the late socialist caudillo Hugo Chávez and that, as we saw last week, is finally plunging off the cliff with his chosen successor, former bus driver Nicolás Maduro, at the steering wheel.

There’s one aspect of chavismo that we haven’t yet touched on, however. We’re speaking of the so-called “cooperating patriots” – in Spanish, patriotas cooperantes. On January 30, La Nación described them as an “army of informers” who serve the chavista government by seeking to “sow fear and prevent dissent.” How do they do this? By directing accusations at critics of the regime, who are then put under arrest.

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Rodolfo Gonzáles

An example: Reuters, in a January 29 article, cited the case of Rodolfo González, a retired pilot who was arrested in his Caracas apartment in April 2014 and accused of helping to organize anti-government protests. In March 2015, after being held in a windowless dungeon for almost a year without trial, he hanged himself.

On what evidence was Gonzáles arrested? A “cooperating patriot” had given authorities his name. That was it. No one had supplied proof of the charges; there had been no investigation; the only testimony against him was from an anonymous member of the “coooperating patriots.”

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Balvina Muñoz

Another example: in the same month that Gonzáles was arrested, police officers banged on the door of another Caracas apartment, that of poet Balvina Muñoz in Caracas. When Muñoz answered, one of the cops shouted: “Give me your novel! The one you’re writing … Give it to me!” She handed them the manuscript, and after the men had examined it, they imprisoned Munoz for 11 months on a charge of “inciting social hatred and terrorism.” Munoz, the mother of two boys, was brutally beaten during her incarceration.

How did the police know about her novel? A young woman, it turns out, had approached Muñoz some weeks earlier, pretending to be an aspiring writer seeking her advice. After the young woman had gained Muñoz’s trust, the author told her in confidence about her work in progress, a novel about participants in anti-Maduro protests. The young woman later turned out to be a cop.

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Muñoz’s arrest

As a result of such allegations by “cooperating patriots,” dozens of members of Venezuela’s political opposition have been put on trial not for actual offenses but for supposedly being willing to commit crimes. (Orwell, of course, had a name for this: Thoughtcrime.)

Not only, moreover, are the crimes of these accused felons imaginary; the accusers are anonymous, identified in court documents not by name but as “cooperating patriot,” “witness,” or “informant.” The withholding of identities is justified as necessary in order to protect the informers against reprisals. No consideration, of course, is given to the defendants’ right to confront their accusers. Indeed, the whole practice is in violation of Venezuelan law, which requires that accusers be identified.

Venezuelan acting President Nicolas Maduro raises his fist during a campaign rally in San Carlos, Cojedes State, on April 4, 2013. The presidential campaign to replace Venezuela's Hugo Chavez formally kicked off Tuesday, with Maduro -- Chavez's hand-picked successor -- battling opposition leader Henrique Capriles for the forthcoming April 14 vote. AFP PHOTO / JUAN BARRETOJUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images
Maduro

It’s believed that there are two types of “cooperating patriots”: the “amateurs” are just ordinary members of the public looking for a governmnt payday in return for an anonymous accusation, while the “professionals” are members of state security. Madoro, for his part, has encouraged his subjects to join the ranks of the “cooperating patriots” in order to ensure Venezuela’s continued peace and stability. At a recent rally, Maduro shouted: “I call on the Venezuelan people to be alert and to turn ourselves into millions of cooperating patriots to guarantee the country’s peace!”

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Diosdado Cabello

Maduro flunky Diosdado (“The Godfather”) Cabello, whom we’ve met before on this site, and who’s largely responsible for another appalling chavista phenomenon, the “Bolivarian Circles,” has also cheered on the “cooperating patriots,” praising them for their “solid moral principles, love for the fatherland, and loyalty toward the President of the Republic and the supreme commander Hugo Chávez.” (Just as Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, remains the official leader of North Korea, Chávez, even after his death, is still referred to by chavistas as if he were alive and still running the country.)

Whether or not the number of “cooperating patriots” has increased, the frequency of legal actions resulting from tipoffs by them has certainly risen dramatically in the last couple of years. Before 2013, accusations by “cooperating patriots” resulted in fewer than a dozen court cases; in 2014, the number of such cases exploded.

Alejandro Salinas, a Chilean lawyer and human-rights activists, has described the “cooperating patriot” as “a nefarious figure for democracy.” That’s putting it mildly. 

Castro: A hug from Hollande

The headline of a Washington Post editorial on January 31 didn’t mince words: “Failure in Cuba.”

HAVANA, CUBA - AUGUST 14: Secretary of State John Kerry (R) watches as Marines raise the American flag at the U.S. Embassy August 14, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. Kerry will visited the reopened embassy, the first time an American secretary of state has visited Cuba since 1945, a symbolic act after the the two former Cold War enemies reestablished diplomatic relations in July. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Secretary of State John Kerry at the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, August 14, 2015

President Obama’s opening to Cuba,” argued the Post‘s editors, had failed in its declared objective, namely to “unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans,” to “engage and empower the Cuban people,” and to “empower the nascent Cuban private sector.” Obama, the editorial charged, had made concession after concession to the Castro regime without demanding human-rights advances, the release of dissidents from prison, the introduction of independent media, Internet access, or an end to state control of the economy.

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Hollande and Raúl Castro at the Elysee Palace, Paris

In sum: while Fidel and Raúl Castro were profiting handsomely from Obama’s opening to Cuba, they were refusing to make any meaningful reforms. Obama kept making concession after concession to the Cuban tyrants, but in return the Cuban people were getting nada. “Autocrats everywhere,” wrote the Post‘s editors, “must be watching with envy the Castros’ good fortune.”

Cut to Paris, where Raúl Castro made a historic state visit on February 1. It was a perfect opportunity for French President François Hollande to call for precisely those changes in Cuba that the Post editorial had enumerated.

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Yoani Sanchez

Yoani Sanchez, the internationally known Cuban blogger and pro-freedom activist, wrote an article urging Hollande to “take advantage of Raúl Castro’s official visit to demand a democratic opening.” France, she wrote, would lose nothing by taking “a stronger stance on the lack of freedom under which 11 million Cubans live.” Reporters without Borders agreed.

Did Hollande heed their call? Au contraire. He gave Castro (in the words of Voice of America) “the red-carpet treatment.” He hugged him. He threw a state dinner. And, according to one source, he actually “declared his love” for Castro.

Indeed, instead of criticizing the Cuban dictator, Hollande lectured Obama, exhorting him to make even more unilateral concessions to the Havana regime. The U.S. embargo, Hollande insisted, was a “vestige of the Cold War” and must be lifted in its entirety so that Cuba could “fully takes its place” in the community of nations. This, Hollande added, was not only “the will of this country” – i.e., France – but was also “the will of the international community.”

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Castro and Hollande raising a toast at the state dinner

Hollande made it clear, in short, he’s big on “normalizing” the world’s relations with Cuba. But he didn’t drop so much a hint that if the Cuban government wants its country to fully join the community of nations, it has its own job of “normalization” to do – it needs, quite simply, to grant its people the same individual liberties enjoyed by everyone else in the Western hemisphere.

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Last May, Hollande visited Havana and met with Fidel

What’s the background to this Franco-Cuban lovefest? Briefly put, Hollande sees Cuba as a golden opportunity for French business development, and thinks U.S. policies are keeping many French entrepreneurs from diving in. Yet as one contractor told Le Monde, the main obstacle to Cuba’s re-entry into the community of nations isn’t the U.S. embargo; it’s the Castros’ refusal to turn their dictatorship into a nation of laws, with property rights, financial transparency, and so on. Without such reforms, many potential foreign investors will prefer to put their money elsewhere.

Meanwhile, we’re left with Hollande’s shameful silence on Cuban Communism. “This encounter,” lamented one Cuban emigre, “is all about profiting from Cuban slave labor. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Venezuela: Weimar redux

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A Caracas food line in January

Venezuela is blessed with magnificent natural resources and great promise, but thanks to chavismo, the reality-challenged socialist system imposed upon it by the late egomaniac Hugo Chávez and his torpid successor, former bus driver Nicolás Maduro, it has recently become, as we saw yesterday, the worst economy on earth. Inflation is so high, as Kejal Vyas reported on February 3 in the Wall Street Journal, that the government has been shipping in planeloads of newly printed money – at least five billion bank notes in all. The demand for more bolivars has been so urgent that the Venezuelan government has been forced to split the print job among several major international firms – including a subsidiary of Giesecke & Devrient, “which printed currency in 1920s Weimar Germany, when citizens hauled wheelbarrows of cash to buy bread.” In an unsettling echo of those days, Venezuelans are now carrying around giant rolls of cash, with supper at a fine restaurant costing “a brick-size stack of bills.”

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Waiting on line for price-controlled toilet paper

Venezuela’s currency was already close to worthless; this influx of fresh bolivars is virtually guaranteed to reduce the value of the bills even further, increasing inflation (which is already expected to hit 720% this year, currently the highest rate on earth) and sending Venezuela’s economy totally down the tubes. As of early February, the bolivar, which seven years ago was worth about fifty cents, had dropped to a tenth of a penny on the black market. “The flood of money has led some sectors of the economy,” notes Vyas, “to effectively price their goods in U.S. dollars,” in violation of Venezuelan law. Even criminals have switched to greenbacks, with “professional kidnap-and-ransom teams often demand[ing] U.S. currency instead of bolivars.”

CNN’s Patrick Gillespie, in another February 3 report, threw in an additional tidbit. How screwed up is Venezuela? So screwed up that although it has 298 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, more than Saudi Arabia or Iran and eight times the reserves held by the U.S., the country is now importing oil. Its oil sector is so incompetently run that it’s not capable of profitably refining its own crude So it’s been shipping in oil from Russia, Angola, Nigeria, and the U.S.

The former bus driver, driving his country off a cliff

Is Maduro taking urgent action to pull his country up out of its economic nightmare? Of course not. That would mean recognizing the folly of the current economic policies. And for the true believer in the Bolivarian Revolution, that’s simply not an option. Better to betray the people than abandon chavismo. Better to blame Venezuela’s economic woes on capitalist conspiracy, presumably masterminded by the U.S., than to acknowledge that socialism is a formula for self-destruction.

Thus Maduro “has changed the law so the opposition-controlled National Assembly can’t remove the central bank governor or appoint a new one.” Also, he’s “picked someone who doesn’t even believe there’s such a thing as inflation to be the country’s economic czar.” How can this be? How can someone not believe in inflation? According to this new “czar,” when prices go up, it’s not inflation; it’s profiteering by “parasitic” businesses.

In short, the Venezuelan people are at the mercy of rulers whose devotion to chavista thought compels them to deny the basic laws of economics. For them, ideology trumps reality. Better a mind crammed with utopian ideas than a full stomach.

 

Venezuela: still plummeting

For years, many members of the U.S. news media treated the chavista regime in Venezuela with far more respect than it deserved. Hugo Chávez, Americans were told, might not be perfect – he might not, for example, be as devoted to democratic principles as some of us might prefer – but he was a true hero, using his power (albeit quite ruthlessly at times) to bring fairness and equality to his country.

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A cockatoo in every pot?

If there’s anything good about the current economic decline of Venezuela, it’s that such glowing reports are now rather thin on the ground – almost as thin, indeed, as many an indigent Venezuelan who goes to bed hungry every night because there’s nothing on the grocery shelves.

One prominent instance of the new media frankness about Venezuela was a January 29 article in the Washington Post, in which Matt O’Brien explained that both that country’s government and its economy “are well into their death throes.” Experts, he noted, now “expect Venezuela to default on its debt in the very near future. The country is basically bankrupt.” This, even though it has “the largest oil reserves in the world.” But as O’Brien pointed out, that’s the genius of chavista socialism.

The recipe for this disaster? Hand out freebies you can’t pay for. Replace skilled officials at the state-owned oil company with incompetent friends of the regime. And when the money runs out, just start printing more. Quoth O’Brien: “Lenin was wrong. Debauching the currency is actually the best way to destroy the socialist, not the capitalist, system.”

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At least the supply of grocery carts seems undiminished.

Thanks to the wisdom of chavismo, Venezuela’s supermarkets have empty shelves, the breweries don’t have “enough hops to make beer,” its factories have insuffienct “pulp to produce toilet paper,” and so on. “The only thing Venezuela is well-supplied with are lines,” wrote O’Brien. Long, long lines of people waiting to buy things that are in short supply – if they’re in stock at all. Readers will recall that we’ve already discussed this socialist triumph on this site; the one new twist here, identified by O’Brien, is that the Venezuelan government has actually started rationing spots on those grocery-store queues, “kicking people out of line based on the last digit of their national ID card.” 

A February 3 article by Kejal Vyas in the Wall Street Journal provided some more illuminating details.“Millions of pounds of provisions, stuffed into three-dozen 747 cargo planes, arrived here from countries around the world in recent months to service Venezuela’s crippled economy,” reported Vyas from Caracas. But the “provisions” to which Vyas was referred weren’t food items or medical supplies – they were shipments of currency, “at least five billion” freshly printed bank notes, which reportedly doubled the amount of cash in circulation.

What does this stunning development portend? We’ll talk about that tomorrow. 

Beyoncé’s Orwellian Panther tribute

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Some images from the history of the Black Panthers….

Back in December, we discussed a blinkered review by the Hollywood Reporter‘s John DeFore of Stanley Nelson’s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. “If you didn’t know anything about the Panthers,” we wrote, “you’d come away from DeFore’s review…believing that the Panthers were, in essence, an endearing crew of human-rights activists who were devoted to charity work and whose repeated clashes with police reflected not any predilection to violence on their own part but the cops’ ferocity and racism.”

**FILE**Black Panther national chairman Bobby Seale, left, wearing a Colt .45, and Huey Newton, right, defense minister with a bandoleer and shotgun are shown in Oakland, Calif., in this undated file photo. The Black Panther Party officially existed for just 16 years. Seale never expected to see the 40th anniversary of the Black Panther Party he co-founded with Huey Newton. But its reach has endured far longer, something Seale and other party members will commemorate when they reunite in Oakland this weekend. (AP Photo/San Francisco Examiner)DeFore wasn’t the only reviewer of The Black Panthers to join in Nelson’s baldfaced whitewashing of the twisted, violent Panthers. As we noted, it took Michael Moynihan, writing in the Daily Beast, to point out that “beyond the mindless ‘power to the people’ platitudes, the Panthers were ideological fanatics,” a “murderous and totalitarian cult” that repeatedly expressed devotion to the demonic likes of Mao, Kim Il Sung, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, and above all Joseph Stalin, who was repeatedly quoted and praised in the group’s periodical The Black Panther. Moynihan further noted the Panthers’ “deeply conservative gender politics,” which involved not only anti-feminist rhetoric but systematic physical abuse. In 1974, for instance, Panther founder Huey Newton “was charged with murdering a teenage prostitute who had ‘disrespected’ him.”

bp1Indeed, murder was at the very heart of the Panther agenda. The group was, as David Horowitz once put it, nothing less than “a criminal army at war with society,” “a Murder Incorporated in the heart of the American Left.” Now a prominent conservative, Horowitz was once a radical leftist who during the early days of the Panther movement collaborated very closely with its leaders. “Violence,” he has explained, “was an integral part of the Party’s internal life….this Party of liberators enforced discipline on the black ‘brothers and sisters’ inside the organization with bull-whips, the very symbol of the slave past.”

Those words appeared in Horowitz’s account of A Taste of Power, the 1992 memoir of former Panther leader Elaine Brown, who entered the group via “the Slausons, a forerunner of the Bloods and the Crips.” In her book, she explained “how the Panthers originally grew out of criminal street gangs, and how the gang mentality remained the core of the Party’s sense of itself, even during the heyday of its political glory.” As she recalled, she was

bppdemostunned by the magnitude of the party’s weaponry….There were literally thousands of weapons. There were large numbers of AR-18 short automatic rifles,. 308 scoped rifles, 30-30 Winchesters, .375 magnum and other big-game rifles, .30 caliber Garands, M-15s and M-16s and other assorted automatic and semi-automatic rifles, Thompson submachine guns, M-59 Santa Fe Troopers, Boys .55 caliber anti-tank guns, M-60 fully automatic machine guns, innumerable shotguns, and M-79 grenade launchers….There were caches of crossbows and arrows, grenades and miscellaneous explosive materials and devices.

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Beyoncé at the Super Bowl

All of which leads us, surreal as it may sound, to Beyoncé. Yes, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, the 34-year-old, Houston-born superstar songstress who’s won 20 Grammys, been named Artist of the Millennium by Billboard, and appeared twice on Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. In 2009 she paid tribute to the new American president, Barack Obama, by tenderly warbling “At Last” at an inaugural ball; four years later, in another thrilling turn, she sang (or, rather, lip-synched) the national anthem at Obama’s second inauguration. These were stirring patriotic moments (lip-synching aside). But then, the other day, on the most-watched program of the year, Beyoncé put a humongous blot on her own splendid, glittering escutcheon. Performing during halftime at the Super Bowl, she paid tribute again – this time not to her country or to its president, but to the Black Panthers.

beyonce2Yes, the Black Panthers. Her Super Bowl show was an exercise in what one critic called  Black Panther chic.” Her dancers, reported the New York Post, were “dressed in homage to the Black Panther Party, at one point joining her in giving millions of viewers a black-power salute as she belted out her new politically charged power anthem, ‘Formation.’” Suggesting that the show might be the most radical political statement from the superstar in her 20-year career,” the Guardian reported that her backup dancers, “wearing Black Panther-style berets and clad in black leather were photographed after the performance posing with raised fists evocative of the black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.”

beyonce4Much of the halftime show,” observed the Post, was about love and togetherness…the audience spelled out ‘Believe in Love’ with rainbow-colored placards.” Love? This was all about love? Does Beyoncé sincerely believe that the Black Panther movement has, or ever had, anything whatsoever to do with love? If she does, then she can only be described as a thoroughgoing historical ignoramus, and thus a useful stooge of the first order. For the fact is that the Black Panthers were, quite simply, hate set in system. They were racists, terrorists, homophobes, anti-Semites, proud disciples of the cruelest and most remorseless totalitarian despots of the twentieth century. Nothing could be more Orwellian than the notion that they were ever driven, in any sense of the word, by love.

beyonce5Of course, Beyoncé is far from alone in her self-delusion. As Nelson’s Black Panther documentary demonstrated quite neatly, a revisionist approach to the history of the Panthers – a determination, that is, to turn these devils into saints, these monsters into martyrs, these ruthless purveyors of mindless violence into heroic victims of government harassment and police brutality – is all the rage these days in PC circles. In many quarters, accordingly, Beyoncé’s halftime salute to Newton’s gang of murderers, drug dealers, pimps, rapists, and extortionists won gushing plaudits.

beyonce9The Fashionista website, for instance, praised her use of “wardrobe to bring attention to her latest song’s powerful commentary.” The celebrity gossip site TMZ called her performance “a stirring political statement.” Julee Wilson, senior fashion editor of the Huffington Post, cheered what she described as Beyoncé’s “powerful nod to the sleek and serious uniform of the Black Panthers.” Wilson’s piece, as it happens, ran under the following headline: “Beyoncé’s Dancers Slay In Black Panther Outfits During Super Bowl Halftime Show.” We have no way of knowing who was responsible for putting the word “slay” in that headline, or, for that matter, whether the allusion to the violence of the Black Panthers – who did far more than their share of literal slaying – was intentional or inadvertent.

Strikingly, Caroline Framke, writing in Vox, used the same word: “Beyoncé slayed.” Framke, too, celebrated Beyoncé’s act, describing it as “a huge, purposeful statement” that offered “defiant social commentary” and that was “proudly steeped in black American culture” – as if the Black Panthers were anything to be proud of. In sum, wrote Framke, Beyoncé “transformed one of the biggest events in sports, corporate synergy, and entertainment into a distinctly political act.”

Meanwhile the website of Essence, the magazine for black women, secured an interview with Marni Senofonte, Beyoncé’s stylist. Senofonte had this to say about the show’s message:

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07: Beyonce (L) performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

It was important to her to honor the beauty of strong Black women and celebrate the unity that fuels their power. One of the best examples of that is the image of the female Black Panther. The women of the Black Panther Party created a sisterhood and worked right alongside their men fighting police brutality and creating community social programs. That they started here in the Bay Area, where the SuperBowl is being held this year, was not lost on her. And they made a fashion statement with natural afros, black leather jackets and black pant suits. That image of women in leadership roles; believing they are a vital part of the struggle is undeniably provocative and served as reference and reality.

Senofonte called Beyoncé’s show “a celebration of history.” On the contrary, as reflected in Senofonte’s own staggeringly misinformed account of Black Panther women, it was a celebration – and a supremely ignorant and dangerous one, at that – of the wholesale rewriting of history.

Trumbo crosses the pond

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Bryan Cranston as Trumbo

Last week, we examined reviews of the new movie Trumbo, which purports to tell the story of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter of films like Spartacus and Roman Holiday. Critic after critic, we noted, failed to challenge Trumbo‘s benign view of what it means to be a Communist.

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John Goodman in Trumbo

Perhaps the most egregrious offender was veteran showbiz scribe Rex Reed, who despite having lived through Stalinism apparently believes that Communism is somehow not incompatible with democracy. On Friday we focused on a couple of prominent reviewers who actually got it right – Godfrey Cheshire, for example, who points out that Communists like Trumbo “were hoping for a revolution to overthrow American democracy.”

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Helen Mirren in Trumbo

As it happens, a postscript is in order. Trumbo, which opened in the U.S. on November 25, didn’t open in the U.K. and Ireland until this past Friday. And several of the notices in major publications on the British isles, gratifyingly, have proven to be far better informed than the reviews in places like Time and the Boston Globe and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Writing in the Mirror, David Edwards mocked a scene in which Trumbo explains his politics to his young daughter by telling her “that Communism is the same thing as sharing her packed lunch with a classmate who has nothing to eat.” This scene, Edwards charged,

suggests that we, the viewers, are as naive and uncomprehending as a six year old. And in its attempt to make Trumbo a misunderstood hero, any mention of his support for Joseph Stalin and other murderous dictators is deliberately but jarringly avoided. Instead we’re given a portrait of a man of unimpeachable integrity whose biggest fault is boozing in the bathtub and ignoring his family.

Donald Clarke, in the Irish Times, makes the same point. The film, he complains, doesn’t give us “any convincing investigation of Trumbo’s politics,” instead portraying him “as as a democratic socialist in the mode of Bernie Sanders.” All this, says Clarke, reflects a “gutlessness…that suggests the mainstream is still not quite comfortable with the red meat of radical politics.”

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Diane Lane and Cranston in Trumbo

The Economist‘s anonymous critic noted that despite the film’s overblown rhetoric “about the blacklist years being ‘a time of fear’ and ‘evil,’” there’s barely a glimpse of any of this in the picture itself:

Even after being blacklisted, the hero’s main complaint is that he is in such great demand that he is too busy to celebrate his daughter’s birthday….At his lowest ebb, he pockets $12,000 for three days’ script-doctoring, most of which he does in the bath while sipping Scotch. Not much of a martyr. Then comes the farcical moment when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger bump into each other on his front porch as they beg him to work on Spartacus and Exodus. Trumbo is less an indictment of Hollywood’s cowardice than a jobbing screenwriter’s wildest fantasy.

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Goodman, Mirren, and Cranston at Trumbo premiere

Even Peter Bradshaw of the left-wing Guardian called the film on its Communist apologetics. While Bradshaw felt that Trumbo‘s story “needed to be told,” he still criticized it for failing “to challenge Trumbo’s unrepentant communism, a culpable naivety in the light of the gulags.” (Bradshaw also suggested, interestingly, that a biopic about actor Edward G. Robinson or director Elia Kazan, both of whom “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, would have been more of a challenging choice.)

The readiness of many stateside reviewers of Trumbo to buy into its whitewashing of Communism remains depressing. But it’s heartening to know that at least some film critics know better.

Trumbo: two (count ’em, two) rational voices

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Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

In all the reviews we’ve examined of Trumbo, the Bryan Cranston film that shamelessly whitewashes Stalinism and one of its loyal servants in mid-century America, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, there are only a couple that don’t seem to be utterly befogged by dangerous delusions about the nature of Stalinism. One is by Alissa Wilkinson of Christianity Today, who writes in part:

Anyone attempting to understand how a person could reasonably claim to love America and also be committed to Communist ideals will not be helped here; the movie suggests that being a Communist is basically like being a little to the left of a liberal Democrat. The explanation is as caricatured as the opposition. In fact, the principles of Communism are literally reduced to an illustration Trumbo gives his young daughter, whilst she sits astride a horse, involving sharing a sandwich with a hungry schoolmate.

The film also gives us no reasonable or rational detractors on the other side; they’re all kind of the worst, which is more ironic given Trumbo’s early pleas to his friends to not demonize people they haven’t met.

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Cranston as Trumbo, with Kirk Douglas, played by Dean O’Gorman

Well done, Ms. Wilkinson. But you’re almost too kind to Trumbo; the guy who really takes off the gloves is Godfrey Cheshire, who, writing at the Roger Ebert site, calls it “another of those simplistic, made-to-order films about the Hollywood blacklist in which the blacklisted movie folks are all innocent, in every conceivable way.” Noting that the DVD jacket copy on a recent documentary about Trumbo described the screenwriter as having been “blacklisted by the House Un-American Committee,” Cheshire points out that “HUAC never blacklisted anyone”; it was the Hollywood studios (who now, in their movies, prefer to shift the guilt to Washington, D.C.) who blacklisted writers and others. Cheshire also notes that Trumbo omits

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Cranston promoting the film

any sense of the utter contempt that Trumbo and his communist cohorts felt for liberals, who, in fact, they often regarded with more enmity than they did right-wingers. But that makes sense, of course. The communists were hoping for a revolution to overthrow American democracy. A takeover by fascists would only hasten that result, they thought; successful liberalism could only impede it.

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Director Jay Roach promoting the film

Of all these reviewers, in short, only a couple seem to grasp that you can’t make a First Amendment hero out a man who championed a dictatorship that executed people for expressing the wrong opinions. And you can’t teach a “vital lesson in democracy” (to quote Joe Neumaier’s blinkered Time review of Trumbo) by making a hero out of a man who was one of democracy’s sworn enemies.

Doublethink: Trumbo and the critics

Back in November, we took a good long look at the new movie Trumbo, which makes a hero and martyr out of blacklisted Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. During the last couple of days we’ve been examining reviews of the picture by critics who’ve somehow failed to grasp that, while the Hollywood blacklist may well have been a bad thing, that doesn’t mean that Stalinism was anything other than evil. 

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Bryan Cranston in Trumbo

We’re not done, because (as it turns out) there are plenty more clueless critiques of this film to ponder. Take this bemusing sentence by Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Set in the years after World War II, when fear of the ‘Red Menace’ – of creeping communism – spread across America, Trumbo details how fear and suspicion wormed their way into the movie biz, with actors and filmmakers branded as Stalinist sympathizers.”

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A protest to free the Hollywood Ten, with Trumbo third from left

But of course it wasn’t just “fear and suspicion” that “wormed their way into the movie biz”; Communism itself wormed its way into the film capital, as part of a highly calculated plan hatched within the walls of the Kremlin itself. And saying that Trumbo and his cohorts were “branded as Stalinist sympathizers” is like saying that Harry Truman was branded as a Democrat. Or a male. Or a Missourian. These guys were Stalinist sympathizers. They were Stalinist tools, Stalinist operatives – conscious and willing enemy soldiers in the war of ideas between the free world and the Soviet bloc. They were, quite simply, Stalinists  – full stop. Rea writes as if all this was invented by paranoid right-wingers, as if the “Red Menace” and “creeping communism” were nothing but feverish fantasies, as if Americans’ “fear and suspicion” of Communism were as unfounded as a fear of ghosts or vampires or werewolves.

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Trumbo wrote in the bathtub

One of the signal attributes of the totalitarian society depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was something he called “Doublethink” – the “power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” That’s what going on in many of these reviews: even while the critic accepts the fact that Dalton Trumbo was a Communist (how could he not?), he ridicules the “Communist witch hunt” as a paranoid, hysterical effort to unearth enemies of freedom where none at all existed.

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Cranston as Trumbo, writing in the tub

Then there’s Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, who knows very well what Stalinism was (and is), and who doesn’t try to disguise his fondness for it. “I cannot pretend to any objectivity when it comes to this subject,” he admits. “My mother and her first husband (who many years later was also her third husband) were both members of the Communist Party. My stepdad knew Dalton Trumbo, and worked on the defense committees for both the Hollywood 10 (a group of movie people, including Trumbo, who went to federal prison for refusing to answer questions before Congress) and for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, American Communists who were executed as Soviet spies.”

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The Rosenbergs

These are, it must be said, rather curious formulations: of course, the Hollywood Ten weren’t just “a group of movie people” but a group of dedicated members of the Communist Party, all of whom were dedicated to the overthrow of democracy in the United States; and the Rosenbergs weren’t just “executed as Soviet spies,” they were Soviet spies, who passed the atom-bomb secrets on to the Kremlin. (Ethel Rosenberg even lied to her two sons, assuring them in a goodbye letter that she and their father were innocent – a claim proven false many years later by declassified KGB documents.)

Yes, there have been a couple of intelligent, well-informed reviews of Trumbo. We’ll get to them tomorrow.  

 

 

Rex Reed, Trumbo fan

trumboAs we saw yesterday, several prominent reviewers have filed notices about Trumbo – the recent biopic about blacklisted Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – that are so utterly uninformed by even the slightest historical awareness that we can’t help wondering: where were these idiots educated? How did such ignorant people get top-flight movie-reviewing gigs? How old are they? Could it be that they’re just too young to understand just what an evil phenomenon, and what a real threat, Soviet Communism was?  

That last question, to be sure, doesn’t arise in the case of Rex Reed, the septuagenarian gossip columnist, movie reviewer, and (back in the day) frequent talk-show guest.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 27: Rex Reed attends the "Preston Bailey Flowers" book release party at the 21 Club on October 27, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Getty Images)
Rex Reed

Reed, one of Trumbo‘s most enthusiastic champions, gushes over its portrayal of what he calls – and please read this carefully – “a postwar decade when America was nervous about finding a Communist under every bed, deceived and misinformed by alarmists like then-Senator Richard Nixon, who mistakenly preached the ignorant message that Communism was the enemy of democracy.”

Now, let’s take this nonsense in sequence. First, about “alarmists”: surely one of the lessons (however unintentional) that any alert viewer takes away from Trumbo is that it wasn’t “alarmist” at all for anyone to worry about Communist influence in Hollywood. No, there may not have been a Communist under every bed (and nobody seriously thought that there was), but there were, as it turned out, a hell of a lot of convinced Stalinists writing movies that would be seen by millions of people around the world. Radical leftists insisted passionately, repeatedly, that the Hollywood Ten were innocent; in the end, it turned out that every last one of them was, indeed, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. (And that’s not just an expression: each of them had a card testifying to his membership in the CPUSA.) 

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Reed in the 1970 movie Myra Breckenridge

As for Reed’s statement that it was “ignorant” for Nixon, or anyone, to suggest that “Communism was the enemy of democracy”: how to reply to such a breathtaking claim? How could Reed –who, born in 1938, was alive during most of the history of the Soviet Union – actually put such a sentence to paper? Granted, Reed has never been known for his brilliance; on the contrary, he’s always been something of a preposterous nitwit, preoccupying himself with the accumulation and dissemination of inane celebrity scuttlebutt.

But for heaven’s sake, the guy is pushing 80. Has he really learning nothing all these decades? Has he been so busy attending screenings and going to glitzy showbiz parties and interviewing vapid actresses that he’s managed to miss out entirely on even the most significant world events of the day? Is his whitewashing of Communism an example of staggering foolishness? Of staggering dishonesty? Of some unfortunate mental debility?

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The real Trumbo with his wife, Cleo

Or could it be that Reed – who, like Yoko Ono and the late Lauren Bacall, lives at the sumptuous Dakota on Central Park West – is himself, like Trumbo, a limousine Commie? (Though we’ve never paid much attention to Reed, we’ve always thought of him as a bubble-headed lightweight whose mind never actually entertained a political idea of any stripe; but we’ll have to take a closer look at his oeuvre one of these days to see if we’ve been missing something.)

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Cranston, with Diane Lane as Cleo

By the way, here’s what Reed says at the end of his review: “Hopefully, Trumbo will broaden the knowledge of young audiences today that remain ignorant about Hollywood’s darkest past.” The tragedy of Trumbo, alas, is that will fill the heads of untold numbers of improperly educated young people, both today and in the future, with dangerous falsehoods about Stalinism and its adherents.

Then there’s Steven Rea. We’ll get around to him tomorrow.

Reviewing Trumbo

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Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

Directed by Jay Roach and written by John McNamara, the movie Trumbo came out last November to widespread acclaim – especially for Bryan Cranston‘s performance as blacklisted Hollwood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.  Cranston is nominated for an Oscar; both he and Helen Mirren, who plays gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, were nominated for Golden Globes.

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The real Dalton Trumbo

When Trumbo first came out, we spent a few days on this site pondering, and questioning, the way it presents its protagonist. As we noted at the time, Trumbo and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten were all Communists. Trumbo, like virtually every other Hollywood movie ever made about the blacklist, tries to pretend that being a Communist was (or is) pretty much the same as being a Democrat or a liberal. Not really. Trumbo and his friends were devotees and disciples of an extremely illiberal fella named Joseph Stalin. They were his devotees and disciples in precisely the same way that Nazis were devotees and disciples of another fella named Adolf Hitler. Stalin, like Hitler, was a totalitarian dictator. The only substantial difference between them was that Stalin reigned much longer and killed a lot more people.

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Joe Neumaier

It’s utterly ridiculous to have to make these obvious points. Any middle-school student should know all this stuff, and feel insulted at any suggestion that they don’t. But as the reviews of Trumbo make clear, many people in positions of influence are totally clueless about the reality of Communism. One movie reviewer after another has hailed Trumbo as (to quote Joe Neumaier in Time) a “vital lesson in democracy,” and its Communist protagonist as nothing less than a hero of democracy. Indeed, many of the reviewers who haven’t praised Trumbo have still praised Trumbo. Or, more specifically, praised his “ideals.”

Here, for example, is Joanna Connors in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “Besides being a gifted writer he was an outspoken champion of workers’ rights and socialist ideals.” This about a man who defended the Gulag, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Moscow show trials – in short, every monstrous crime against humanity Stalin ever committed.

In the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mike Scott laments that Communist is “still a dirty word today.” And in the Toronto Star, Peter Howell actually calls Trumbo “a principled member of the Communist Party.” (Yes, he was devoted to the “principles” of the Communist Party in the same way that Hitler was devoted to the “principles” of Nazism.) Howell also refers to “the rebellious Hollywood Ten,” as if they were a bunch of admirably iconoclastic individuals rather than a group of lockstep ideological fanatics taking orders from a mass-murdering foreign government.

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Cranston, with Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper

One baffling feature of many of the reviews of Trumbo is that even as they acknowledge that Dalton Trumbo and his fellow Communist screenwriters were Communists, they use the term “Red Scare,” which implies that Trumbo & co.’s Communism existed only in the heated imaginations of Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, and others – whose principled anti-Communism the movie treats with nothing but vicious mockery, even as it treats D.T.’s Communism with respect and admiration. 

“Trumbo,” writes Ty Burr in the Boston Globe, “brings what Lillian Hellman dubbed ‘scoundrel time’ into sharp relief.” Burr’s reference to Hellman and to Scoundrel Time, one of that horrible old Stalinist’s notoriously mendacious “memoirs,” leads us to wonder whether Burr knows anything whatsoever about Hellman, one of the great moral scoundrels in American literary history, or, more broadly, about American Stalinism. Burr refers to the writers and directors who came to be demonized as the Hollywood Ten.” No, they weren’t “demonized”: they were identified as Communists – as men who had sworn to help bring down American democracy in the service of murderous totalitarianism – and that was precisely what they were. Yet Burr buys the film’s attempt to sell them as heroes, and buys its presentation of John Wayne and other anti-Communists as “ogre[s].”

More to come.