Baba Wawa & Fidel: a love story?

Okay, so she’s not a full-fledged, 100%, dyed-in-the-wool stooge. As we noted in a posting in December 2016, Barbara Walters was one of perhaps two of the upscale Manhattan guests at Leonard Bernstein’s 1970 Black Panthers fundraiser – the one that Tom Wolfe made famous in Radical Chic – who didn’t drool all over the thugs in a repulsive display of limousine liberalism and nostalgie de la boue. While glamorous folks like high-society bandleader Peter Duchin and New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers oohed and aahed over the Panthers’ plans for an armed revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, Walters actually asked a sensible question: “I’m talking as a white woman who has a white husband, who is a capitalist, or an agent of capitalists, and I am, too, and I want to know if you are to have your freedom, does that mean we have to go?” No, she didn’t give them a dressing-down and then storm out of the party, but at least she stood apart from fellow guests who looked at the gun-toting gangsters and, somehow, saw angels about to usher in a golden utopia.

Similarly, when she interviewed Fidel Castro in 1977, she at least – to her credit – said on the record that she disagreed with him on “the meaning of freedom.” But that statement came at the end of a nauseating puff piece in which Walters did a marvelous job of presenting the murderous dictator as a world-class charmer. She interviewed him again in 2002. And over the years she spoke frequently about her encounters with the Caribbean tyrant, her main point invariably being that he was, as she told Harpers Bazaar in 2014, “very charismatic – very charming and funny.” (Following his death, she said the same thing:“The word ‘charismatic’ was made for him.) Once her 1977 interview with Fidel was in the can, she recalled, “Castro took us into his kitchen and made us grilled cheese sandwiches.” Walters laughed. “That’s an experience you don’t have anymore.” Adorable! During the same Cuba trip, Walters and Castro “dined outdoors on roast pig and Algerian wine at Castro’s mountain retreat.” It’s good to be the dictator. That night, at least two people in Cuba ate well.

As the Harpers Bazaar writer observed, “One thing that seemed clear to everyone was the chemistry between Walters and Castro.” Walters herself said: “People did tease me after that, asking if this was a romance.” When he dropped her at the Havana airport, “I reached up to kiss him on both cheeks, and he all but pushed me away. It was a friendly European goodbye, but I was in Cuba, not France.” We checked with a couple of friends who’ve been interviewed by major newspapers and TV networks. They say that the reporters who interviewed them didn’t lean in for a smooch at the end of the interchange – not once! Interesting that Castro seemed to understand, as Walters didn’t, that, under such circumstances, osculation (European or not) was unprofessional.

“Cuba is a very different country because of Fidel Castro,” Walters told Harpers Bazaar, “and I don’t know what he is proudest of or what he wishes he could have accomplished.” Proudest of? Accomplished? What planet has this woman been living on for the past half century? Even to think along such lines is to buy into this despot’s propaganda. Looking back on her meetings with Fidel, we’d have loved to see her lean over with a smile, put a hand on his knee, and coo confidentially: “What’s your favorite prison?” or “Whose execution made you happiest?” We certainly wouldn’t expect this fatuous talking head – this purported feminist media pioneer who long ago gave up any pretense of being a real journalist and has spent the last few decades lobbing softballs at airheaded celebrities and chatting about the latest gossip on morning TV – to actually interrogate somebody like Fidel, confronting him boldly about his monstrous crimes, his outrageous hypocrisy, and his blatant propaganda. Instead, Walters parroted his propaganda, echoing the oft-repeated claim that he’d given his people first-rate health care and education. Lies, lies, lies. And although she did, yes, admit that he was an autocrat who’d robbed his people of their freedom, nobody has given Fidel and his regime better press in the U.S. than this silly, overrated woman.

With self-hating Jews like this, who needs anti-Semites?

Peter Beinart

On Tuesday, we saw how Peter Beinart struck out at Israel in a rather sensational 2010 article for the New York Review of Books. Two years later, he expanded his attack to book length in The Crisis of Zionism, which established him, once and for all, as a leading opponent of the Jewish state.

Sol Stern

Where to begin with The Crisis of Zionism? Beinart celebrates then-President Barack Obama as a model liberal Zionist. In a review for Commentary, Sol Stern noted that Obama, far from being a pal of the Jewish state, had in fact “cultivated friendships with notorious haters of Israel, such as Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the former Weather Underground terrorists Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, and University of Chicago professor and one-time PLO official Rashid Khalidi.” Beinart’s other hero is the American Jewish leader Stephen Wise (1874-1949), whose notorious betrayal of the Jews of Europe, Stern observed, goes without mention in Beinart’s book. At bottom, pronounced Stern, The Crisis of Zionism “is nothing more than a bald political tract designed to advance President Obama’s agenda on the Middle East conflict”; it’s a work in which Beinart “willfully ignores just about any testimony or source that might undermine his uncomplicated narrative of good liberal Zionism versus bad reactionary Zionism.”

Alana Newhouse

In a review for the Washington Post, Alana Newhouse, editor of the Jewish periodical Tablet and herself a liberal critic of Israel, described Beinart’s book as and “a political stump speech for an attractive young candidate who is seeking the job of spokesman for liberal American Jews.” Newhouse criticized his take on Palestinians (whom he depicts as “just the passive and helpless victims of Israeli sadism, with no historical agency; no politics, diplomacy or violence of their own; and no responsibility for the miserable impasse of the conflict”) as well as his dismissive view of other prominent American Jews (which, she surmised, allows Beinart to present himself as the only natural leader of Americans “who want to think of Israel as a decent place but who can’t stomach the conflict with the Palestinians and who of course don’t want anyone to think they are anti-Semites”).

Bret Stephens

Describing Beinart as “the self-appointed anguished conscience and angry scold of the Jewish state,” another reviewer, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, noted that a recent study had shot Beinart’s whole thesis to hell: “A whopping 82 percent of American Jews feel that U.S. support for Israel is either ‘just about right’ or ‘not supportive enough’ —and that’s just among those Jews who describe themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘very liberal.’” As Stephens describes it, Beinart’s book is largely a mishmash of familiar anti-Israel arguments and glib belittling of the evil of Hamas and Hezbollah. “The real problem for Beinart’s argument,” Stephens writes, “is that, in word and deed, Palestinians have repeatedly furnished good reasons for the Israeli (and American) right to argue against further territorial withdrawals, at least until something fundamental changes in Palestinian political culture.” Alas, to Beinart, “no Israeli misdeed is too small that it can’t serve as an alibi for Palestinian malfeasance. And no Palestinian crime is so great that it can justify even a moment’s pause in Israel’s quest to do right by its neighbor.”

More on Tuesday.

The man who’s even too radical for The Nation

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Bob Avakian

Yesterday we met septuagenarian Bob Avakian, who’s spent his adult life as a Communist radical. Since 1975, he’s been head of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP), which holds aloft the torch of Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong – and, not least, of Avakian himself, who has striven to make himself the center of a personality cult modeled on those of Stalin, Mao, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and the Kims in North Korea.

Cornelius Pettus, owner of Payless market, throws a bucket of water on the flames at next-door business Ace Glass on 4/30/1992. Hyungwon Kang / Los Angeles Times.
An image from the 1992 L.A. riots

A high point for the RCP was the 1992 race riots in L.A., in which party members – who had relocated from Massachusetts to southern California for the purpose – sought to stir up racial discontent and transform it into full-fledged revolution. That’s not all. One reporter has conclude that in the 1990s, the RCP probably “penetrated the underground punk rock world” and even “owned a punk rock club in Houston.” In a 1994 interview with SPIN, Tom Morello, the lead guitarist of Rage against the Machine, apparently recommended an RCP bookstore and “vigorously” defended Shining Path – leading one to wonder whether Morello had fallen under the influence of Avakian and company. Another punk group, Outernational, featured RCP spokesman Carl Dix in a music video. The cultivation of celebrities and the effort to develop a personality cult around the founder are among the things that can make the RCP look very much, at least from some angles, like Scientology.

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Michelle Goldberg

After a period of relative quiescence, the RCP jumped back into action after 9/11, becoming a major behind-the-scenes player in such antiwar groups as Not in Our Name and ANSWER. One antiwar group, The World Can’t Wait, appears to have been “entirely a creation of the party.” All these groups, notes Gram Slattery, “managed to rise to prominence in large part because few people actually knew of their affiliation with the revolutionary left.” Even a columnist for The Nation, Michelle Goldberg, had harsh words for the RCP, writing in 2002 that its members “aren’t just extremists in the service of a good cause – they’re cheerleaders for some of the most sinister regimes and insurgencies on the planet.”

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Todd Gitlin

Goldberg wasn’t alone in her criticism: over the years, Avakian gradually came to be viewed by many on the left at as something of a relic, an oddball, and an embarrassment to the movement. A decade or so ago, Todd Gitlin, the prominent sociologist and former SDS leader, cited him as an example of “the ludicrous feebleness of the unreconstructed left.” But while Avakian may be a bit of a clown, he’s no fool: a few years back he managed to get plenty of well-known academics to sign a New York Review of Books ad defending his right to free speech – even though nobody was trying to deprive him of free speech.

No peacenik: Tom Hayden

As we saw yesterday, Sixties radical Tom Hayden, who died on October 23 and was remembered in one obituary after another as a champion of peace, was, in fact, the very opposite of a peacenik.

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1968 Chicago riots

Here are a few more highlights. In a 1967 article in the New York Review of Books, he served up detailed prescriptions for organized urban bloodshed. That same year, contemporaneous observers blamed his incendiary rhetoric for “causing nearly a week of rioting” in Newark. During the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, he encouraged civil disruption in the form of “spreading nails on a highway” and firebombing police cars. At Berkeley in 1969, he led a “training center” where would-be revolutionaries were taught to use firearms and explosives. Also in 1969, he took part in a “war council” in Flint, Michigan, at which he and some of his comrades officially declared war against America and called for “violent, armed struggle.”

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Hayden the politician

To be sure, after the madness of the 1960s dissipated, Hayden shifted gears. In the 1980s and 90s, he got himself elected to the California legislature, taught courses at Harvard, UCLA, and elsewhere (despite having no degree beyond a B.A.), and gave speeches at innumerable universities.

gospelBut he remained a radical rabble-rouser. In 1996, quick as ever to embrace a trendy left-wing cause, he wrote his own book on environmentalism, The Lost Gospel of the Earth, even though he had no expertise whatsoever in the field and absolutely nothing original to say about it. Echoing Kirkpatrick Sale’s vapid, ultra-PC Conquest of Paradise (1990) and other recent contributions to the genre, Hayden drew an embarrassingly crude contrast between the perfectly saintly American Indians and the unwaveringly evil Europeans. “His descriptions of Indian virtue and wisdom,” wrote Vincent Carroll in a review for the Weekly Standard, “are no less monochromatic than his most gullible exhortations on behalf of the Viet Cong – if anything, they are more so.”

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Seattle riots, 1999

And so it went. In 1999, Hayden encouraged street riots to protest World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. In 2001, he blamed the 9/11 attacks on American imperialism. In 2005, ever eager to socialize with America’s enemies, he met in London with Iraqi terrorist leaders; afterwards, his naivete as intact as it had been decades earlier, he wrote an article painting these ruthless jihadists as gentle, peace-loving patriots. When Hugo Chávez died in 2013, Hayden wrote: “As time passes, I predict the name of Hugo Chávez will be revered among millions.” In 2014, he declared in an op-ed that the Cuban Revolution had “achieved its aim: recognition of the sovereign right of its people to revolt against the Yankee Goliath and survive as a state in a sea of global solidarity.”

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Older, but not wiser

How to sum up the life of a man who combined moral depravity with sheer doltishness? Carroll made a couple of good points in his review of The Lost Gospel. Citing Hayden’s “dreadful sanctimony and self-absorption” and air of “moral superiority,” Carroll wrote: “one continuously marvels that a man of Hayden’s superficiality has played such a prominent role in left-wing political thought for more than 30 years.” But we can’t say we’re too surprised: after all, Hayden was far from the only narcissistic, barricade-charging ideologue of the 1960s who was treated as a cultural hero in the decades that followed and whose fatuity, ferocity, and malice were transformed, in his obituaries, into wisdom, peacefulness, and love.

The talented M. de Man?

“In his writing, abstruseness, bristling abstraction, and a disorienting use of terms make his essays often difficult to penetrate. This was part of the key to his success: to his American admirers, with their cultural inferiority complex, it seemed that if things were difficult to grasp, something profound was being said.”

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De Man (left) with poet Theodore Weiss and Renee Weiss

That’s critic Robert Alter writing about Paul de Man (1919-83), the lit-crit god who, as we saw last week, came crashing down from Olympus four years after his death when an archivist ran across pro-Nazi articles he’d written during the war. In 2014, a CUNY prof named Evelyn Barish finished off the job, demonstrating, in an excellently researched biography that we examined yesterday, that de Man was not only a wartime Nazi and anti-Semite but a lifelong thief, user, and master of deceit.

As Alter pointed out in his review of Barish’s biography, de Man, famous in his lifetime for the supposed “rigor” of his criticism, was in fact a slippery customer not just in real life but in his work as well,

playing fast and loose with the texts he discussed, misquoting, inventing quotations, and mistranslating. The British Renaissance scholar Brian Vickers has demonstrated in a trenchant article that de Man, discussing Rousseau, at one point inserts a ne absent in the French, thus converting a positive assertion by Rousseau into a negative one that suits his own purposes. Again, as Vickers shows, de Man emphatically claims that “rhetoric” in Nietzsche has nothing to do with persuasion whereas Nietzsche repeatedly says the opposite.

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Robert Alter

But in 2014, just as in 1987, de Man’s old friends did their best to fudge the facts and kill the messenger in an effort to salvage his reputation. Reviewing Barish’s book in the New York Review of Books, Peter Brooks, an old Yale buddy of de Man’s, played an especially slick game. From the very first sentence of his review and right up until the end, Brooks toyed with the conceit that the de Man of Barish’s book was not unlike Tom Ripley, the brilliantly deceitful antihero of Patricia Highsmith’s famous novel The Talented Mr. Ripley.

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Peter Brooks

Brooks’s point: Barish’s de Man is not the real de Man, but just a character cooked up by Barish in an effort to reduce the complexities of a real man’s life to the crude outlines of the protagonist of some cheap thriller. Brooks’s approach to Barish’s biography was so transparently dishonest – so obviously an effort to avoid the questions raised by de Man’s lifelong duplicity and instead indict Barish herself for deliberate misrepresentation – that David Lehman replied with a splendid letter in which he reminded readers of the objective fact that de Man was, like it or not, “a cheat, a liar, a forger, a thief, a bigamist, a cad, a swindler, a moocher, not to mention an enthusiastic Nazi propagandist, whether out of conviction or opportunism.”

The “sleight of hand” Brooks employed in his review, wrote Lehman, “should fool no one,” although Lehman did express the concern that readers might come away from Brooks’s review “with the opinion that the biographer is the criminal for not recognizing that de Man’s is, in Brooks’s words, ‘a story of remarkable survival and success following the chaos of war, occupation, postwar migration, and moments of financial desperation.’” Lehman added, eloquently:

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David Lehman

Those of us who lost family in the Holocaust have the right to insist that actions freely undertaken have consequences; that unquestioned brilliance of intellect does not justify misdeeds of the magnitude of de Man’s; and that special pleading in the face of overwhelming evidence is a species of dishonesty. No one forced de Man to write anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi articles—he did it on his own, and whether out of conviction or opportunism is beside the point.

Orwell’s stooges

We here at Useful Stooges would not presume to compare ourselves with George Orwell, the great English man of letters and enemy of tyranny in all its forms, but we have at least one thing in common with him. Our website could be described as a catalogue of people – some past, most present – who, as we put it on our “About” page, are “pawns of tyrants in our own time” who “either admire despotism or have figured out ways…to profit from their cynical support for it.”

1EN-625-B1945 Orwell, George (eigentl. Eric Arthur Blair), engl. Schriftsteller, Motihari (Indien) 25.1.1903 - London 21.1.1950. Foto, um 1945.
George Orwell

Orwell made a list, too. In 1949, the year he published his classic novel 1984 and not long before he died, he provided the Information Research Department, a newly established propaganda unit of the British Foreign Office, with the names of “journalists and writers who in my opinion are crypto-communists, fellow travellers or inclined that way, and should not be trusted.” In other words: people who, if hired or used in any way by British intelligence, would be likely to become double agents.

In 1996, when the existence of Orwell’s list became widely known, and again in 2003, when the list itself became public, many of his fellow men of the left condemned him as a McCarthyite, a blacklister, a rogue. Communist historian Christopher Hill called him a traitor to his side. (It is worth noting that Hill also despised Animal Farm for attacking Communism.)

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Christopher Hill

But Orwell’s friend David Astor, the longtime editor of the Observer, had a clearer view of things: “Orwell wasn’t betraying the left – the pro-communists were betraying us.” For Britain’s misguided left, Orwell’s crime was simple: he recognized that totalitarianism in the name of Communism was no better than totalitarianism in the name of Nazism. In short, he hated Stalin every bit as much as he hated Hitler. And that was inexcusable.

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Christopher Hitchens

But Orwell requires no defense from us; anyone who wants one need only consult the splendid essay on the subject that was published in 2002 by the estimable Christopher Hitchens. (It appears in Hitchens’s Why Orwell Matters,  in his posthumous collection, And Yet…,  which appeared last year, and is also behind a firewall at the New York Review of Books website.)

To this day, Orwell’s list is worth perusing. Because he was right. The people he named – journalists, historians, scientists, professors, even a couple of actors, a Member of Parliament, and a noted clergymen – deserved their places on that list. Orwell knew them for what they were. The problem is that we don’t. Most of the names on his list mean nothing to most people in the English-speaking world nowadays. That’s a shame. Because their stories illustrate that, then as now, it’s far from uncommon to find fans of totalitarianism in positions of power and influence in free countries.

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Walter Duranty

One of the names on Orwell’s list is that of Walter Duranty, our archetypal useful stooge. Duranty was the New York Times‘s man in Moscow from 1922 to 1936; he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. At the time Orwell included Duranty’s name on his list, Duranty was still a highly respected journalist. Not until years later would his dispatches from Russia come under serious scrutiny. Robert Conquest, in his 1968 book The Great Terror, condemned Duranty for systematically whitewashing the evils of Stalinism and trying to cover up the Ukrainian famine. The publication in 1990 of Sally J. Taylor’s biography of Duranty, which was appropriately entitled Stalin’s Apologist, helped trigger a serious effort to have Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize revoked. In 2003, however, the head of the Pulitzer board declined to withdraw the prize. He still didn’t get it; Orwell had gotten it more than a half-century earlier.

Another useful stooge whose number Orwell had early on was a Daily Express editor named Peter Smollett, who years later would be identified as a Soviet spy. We’ll look at Smollett tomorrow.

“More pro-Kremlin” than Stephen F. Cohen

Yesterday we were introduced to the American Committee for East-West Accord (ACEWA), which is yet another brainchild of NYU Kremlinologist Stephen F. Cohen and his heiress wife Katrina vanden Heuvel, and which is obviously meant to be a vehicle for spreading pro-Putin propaganda far and wide. We also met Gilbert Doctorow, who, with Cohen, is listed as the group’s co-founder, and who, as it turns out, is even more fervent an apologist for Putin than Cohen.

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Gilbert Doctorow

Since November, Doctorow has been writing regularly for a website called Russia Insider. His contributions, not to put too fine a point on it, read like Kremlin press releases. Last November, for example, he attributed the European Parliament’s overwhelming vote in favor of two resolutions condemning Russia to “a Cold War mentality that never faded since 1989.”

A week later, Doctorow blamed anti-Putin attitudes among left-wing U.S. peace activists on “years of denigration and information warfare coming from Washington,” including “propaganda about an authoritarian regime that allegedly jails dissent, about homophobia and about conservative family values of Russia’s silent majority, not to mention about greedy, raw capitalism.” Doctorow argued that Putin has in fact promoted “peace and international cooperation, justice and indeed human rights,” and is the only head of government on the planet who’s “directly challeng[ing] American global hegemony.” For these reasons, he argued, Putin should be treated by sensible stateside peace-lovers not as a bad guy but as a hero.  

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Anne Applebaum

In January, Doctorow penned a column that was one long, drawn-out sneer. The topic: a book called Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by Karen Dawisha. He smeared Russia expert Anne Applebaum, author of the magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History, as a “blowhard” for the crime of favorably reviewing Dawisha’s book in the Washington Post. And he made a mocking reference to “the saintly Khodorkovsky” – meaning human-rights activist and former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom Putin robbed of billions of dollars and then tossed into prison on trumped-up charges. Doctorow lamented that once reliably left-wing American media, such as the New York Review of Books and PBS, have now “join[ed] the jackals” who engage in “Putin bashing.” 

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Moscow Victory Day Parade, 9 May 2015

And on and on it goes. In May, after attending the Moscow parade marking the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II, Doctorow gushed exuberantly over what he described as Putin’s ascent to the very “heights of statesmanship”: by allowing ordinary citizens to march in the parade while holding up photographs of their relatives who’d died in the war, the Russian leader had driven home “the point that this is a day for every Russian family and not just a pompous show of military capability for the high and mighty to strut on the stage.”

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Sochi Olympics opening ceremony, 7 February 2014

If at the Sochi Olympics, enthused Doctorow, Vlad had sent a message “that Russia has its own traditions of both popular and high culture but is open to the world and hospitable to all,” in Moscow, his people had pulled off the parade at “a supremely professional level” and shown “very great respect for the spectators, both those on the Square and the others watching it on their television as I did.”

Ugh. It’s the kind of cringeworthy bootlicking that’s rarely found outside of the propaganda organs of totalitarian states. And it raises certain questions. Such as: can this guy really be such a convinced disciple of Putin? Or is he on the payroll? Have Stephen F. Cohen of NYU and Princeton, Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation, her rich dad, Bill Bradley, and others in fact chosen to hitch their wagons to a paid Kremlin operative?

We don’t know the answers to these questions. But we can say one thing, for which we’ll provide more evidence tomorrow: when it comes to propagandizing for Putin, Doctorow churns it out as naturally as a slug leaves a slime trail.