Amsterwhat?

“When I first found out I was going to Amsterdam, I thought I had been there before, even though I hadn’t, because I’m not very good at geography, and I thought Amsterdam was in Belgium. It’s not. It’s in the Netherlands.”

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Sally Kohn

That’s a direct quote from an article that jejune CNN pundit Sally Kohn wrote last year for a travel website. Her honesty about her ignorance is almost charming. But the ignorance itself is so staggering, on the part of somebody in her position, that it totally cancels out the charm.

This is, after all, as we saw yesterday, a commentator who’s been described as one of “the 100 most influential pundits on television” and as “the 35th most influential LGBT person in the media.” Her professional background, as we further observed yesterday, has been entirely in activism and political commentary. As far as we can tell from her CV, she has spent little or no time studying such topics as history or (as she herself admitted in that travel article) geography.

nethThe thing is this: if Kohn didn’t know that Amsterdam is in the Netherlands, imagine how much else she doesn’t know. It’s one thing not to be able to explain the difference between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, or between Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. But Amsterdam and the Netherlands play a central role in modern history, in Western history, and – indeed – in American history. If she didn’t know that Amsterdam is in the Netherlands, that means that there’s a whole swath of basic Western historical fact that must be a total mystery to her.

sally8Put it this way: if you don’t know that Amsterdam is in the Netherlands, then you can’t possibly have even a vague awareness of the crucial role of the Netherlands in the settling of the New World and the founding of the United States. You can’t possibly be aware of the place of the Dutch Republic in the rise of modern freedom, modern capitalism, and modern commerce – at least not aware enough to deserve a job spouting opinions on CNN. Because if you want to even start to try to understand how the world works today, and why some parts of it work so much better than others, and how things came to be this way, you need to know enough history to be aware, at the very least, that Amsterdam is, in fact, in the Netherlands.

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Belgium?

This is not to suggest that Kohn is alone at the top in her woeful ignorance. All too many young (and not so young) reporters and pundits nowadays seem to know remarkably little about what happened in history before they were, say, in high school. (Kohn’s CNN colleague Wolf Blitzer, for example, is a certified buffoon who put in one of the most humiliating performances ever on a dumbed-down celebrity edition of Jeopardy.) But even in this crowd, Kohn seems to be a special kind of ignorant. In July, she tweeted angrily about “white guys with AK-15s conducting mass shootings.” When some of her followers pointed out that there’s no such thing as an AK-15, she insisted it was a typo and doubled down on the ranting.

In May, Kohn wrote an article for Time complaining about what she called the “Bernie Bros” – in other words, male Bernie Sanders enthusiasts who were being unruly at public events. She couldn’t figure out why Bernie boosters, most of whom by definition, in her view, have “a deep commitment to non-violence,” should be conducting themselves in such a barbaric fashion. After all, she argued, it’s the Donald Trump camp that is “not entirely but definitely largely based on implicitly violent denigration of Mexicans and Muslims.”

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Kohn tweeted this picture in April when she endorsed Sanders’ White House bid

How can a person in her position be so historically unaware? Before the Sanders campaign fizzled out, Kohn was an all-out supporter of the senator from Vermont – a dyed-in-the-wool socialist who’s repeatedly praised the Castro regime in Cuba, who’s hailed the Chávez and Maduro governments (and refused to comment on their utter destruction of the Venezuelan economy), and who, so deep was his faith, even honeymooned in the Soviet Union. The nature of Sanders’s convictions is, and has been throughout his political journey, crystal clear. But instead of recognizing the simple fact that the tenets of Sanders’s ideology have always been utterly inextricable from the most monstrous kind of violence, Kohn embraced in her Time article the absurd claim – which that ideology has always made for itself – that it is ardently anti-violence.

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One of the “Bernie Bros” being arrested

So ideology-bound is Kohn, in other words, that in her piece for Time she simply couldn’t put leftism and violence together and make it compute. So what did she do? She reached for the closest ideologically acceptable explanation for the violence of the “Bernie Bros,” and attributed it to that comfortable bogeyman, “white male anger.”

Here’s how she put it: “in the past and present of America it is impossible to disentangle white male anger from gender and racial bias and resentment.”

Ah, there we go. How sweet, to feel that tension dissipate! How easy, when you consistently place ideology above reality, to be able to sweep away the plain and simple facts with the same old comforting, reassuring lies!

But we’ve only begun to plumb the depths of Sally Kohn’s superficiality. More tomorrow.

Stooge in a clerical collar: Daniel Berrigan

When the Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan died on April 30 at age 95, the mainstream media painted him as a well-nigh heroic figure. This was, we were told, a man of deep and contemplative faith, a crusader for peace, a consoler of the sick, an advocate for the poor, and – on top of it all – a gifted poet.

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Daniel Berrigan

Not until a couple of dozen paragraphs into its obituary did the New York Times bother to note Berrigan’s anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian slants (he was so ugly about Israel that Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg accused him of “old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism”), his reprehensible silence on the scandal surrounding sexual abuse of children by his fellow clergy, and his apparently congenital failure to criticize Communism.  A follow-up profile in the Times by Jim Dwyer omitted these unpleasant details entirely, painting Berrigan as a veritable saint who “filled his life to the brim with poetry and protest, preaching and witness” and spoke “from a distinctly Catholic perspective against war, capital punishment, abortion, bigotry and indifference to the poor.” 

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With his brother on the cover of Time

Other mainstream media took more or less the same approach, either overlooking his views on Jews, child abuse, and the USSR or treating them as minor flaws in an otherwise stellar character. On the contrary, Berrigan’s softness on Communism, in particular, was utterly inextricable from the ideology that motivated him throughout his career. A founder of what became known as the Catholic New Left, Berrigan – along with his brother, Philip, who was also a priest (and who died in 2002) – raided draft boards during the Vietnam War, pouring blood on some selective-service records while burning others with homemade napalm. (For the latter act, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced, only to take it on the lam; the law eventually caught up with him and he spent two years in the slammer.)

Berrigan’s protest activities, legal and otherwise, invariably involved vicious rhetoric about America – rhetoric which, as the historian Michael B. Friedland has written, “did nothing to dispel the image of activist priests as fuzzy-headed moralists.” By contrast, when asked about the Communist threat, Berrigan dismissed it outright: “communism as an issue in the Vietnam war is a myth,” he insisted.

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With Zinn in Hanoi

What exactly was Berrigan’s view of Communism? More than a few observers maintain that he was a Communist himself. “Daniel romanticized the North Vietnamese,” one commentator has written. To revisit his writings about them is to conclude that that’s putting it mildly. One thing is for sure: he was no fan of any aspect of American culture or the American political and economic system; routinely, he condemned his own country as violent, genocidal, and imperialistic, a nation bereft of spirit, of virtue.

We do know this: in 1968, Berrigan traveled to Hanoi with Howard Zinn, who would later become famous as the author of the 1980 propaganda tract-cum-bestselling textbook The People’s History of the United States. In Hanoi, the two men met with North Vietnamese officials, who handed over to them three U.S. Air Force POWs to take home with them to America, supposedly as tokens of good will and as a first step toward a negotiated peace.

berriganbookIt is interesting that of all the people Berrigan could have had as travel companions, he went with Zinn. As has been well established in recent years by FBI files and multiple other records, Zinn was at the time an active member of the U.S. Communist Party. He had joined the Party at the height of Stalin’s postwar power, and when interviewed by the FBI in 1953 he flat-out lied about his Party membership. Zinn later openly supported the Castro regime in Cuba and, during the Vietnam War, cheered unequivocally for the Communists to win.

No, Berrigan’s readiness to link arms with Zinn doesn’t necessary indicate that he, too, was a card-carrying Communist. At the very least, however, it shows that he had no problem associating himself and his cause with that of a man who was explicitly rooting not for peace but for the enemy’s victory. Indeed, in Night Flight to Hanoi, the memoir Berrigan later published about their “peace mission,” Berrigan calls Zinn “my cherished brother and friend and Old Testament man of heart and guts.” Zinn wrote the introduction to the book, which provides a fascinating window on Berrigan’s mindset; we’ll riffle through a bit of it tomorrow.

Bob Yari: lousy filmmaker, excellent Cuba propagandist

In recent months we’ve cast a jaundiced eye at the avalanche of stoogery that has surrounded the so-called “opening” of Cuba – what’s been called the “thawing” of U.S.-Cuba relations.

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Giovanni Ribisi and Adrian Sparks in Papa Hemingway in Cuba

Part of that “thawing,” as we’ve seen this week, has been a mass pilgrimage of TV and movie producers to the prison island. On Monday we noted that some sequences of the newest installment of the Fast and Furious franchise are being filmed in Cuba; yesterday we reported on the release of Papa Hemingway in Cuba, a feature that was shot there in 2014. While receiving lukewarm to poor reviews, the picture has nonetheless occasioned some pretty idiotic (if unsurprising) commentary about Cuba. 

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Eliza Berman

Take Eliza Berman, who, in a puff piece for Time, fatuously echoed the Castros’ own B.S., blaming the island’s disastrous economy not on Communism but on the U.S.: “Because the embargo restricted the import of American goods to the island, much of the country has maintained the appearance of being somewhat stuck in time—not least of all thanks to its 1950s-model cars. This allowed for the majority of the film to be shot on location rather than on artificial sets.” (It’s not surprising to discover that Berman is a very young lass and that her 2007 Yale B.A. is in that ridiculous non-field, American Studies.)   

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Ribisi in Havana

Helen T. Verongos, writing in the New York Times, may have been entirely correct to say that the film “bristles with authentic detail, down to the very typewriter Hemingway used,” and that the producers’ ability to arrange for shooting in Cuba “was a feat of diplomacy, financial and otherwise.” But it would’ve been appropriate, we think, to include some acknowledgment of the nature of the political system with which the producers worked their supposed diplomatic magic.

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Humberto Fontova

Verongas’s “feat of diplomacy” remark wasn’t a one-off. Even as they panned the movie, many reviewers praised its producer-director, Bob Yari, for pulling off a supposed coup – namely, getting Cuba’s government to let him film there. It took Cuban-American writer Humberto Fontova to point out the sheer absurdity of this take on the situation. Hemingway, after all, whether you love his fiction or not, was a fervent supporter of Castro’s revolution, which he called “very pure and beautiful.” In fact, recently uncovered documents show that, for a while there, he was actually a KGB spy (albeit a lousy one). From the very beginning, the Castros recognized Hemingway as one of their own; they turned his house into a museum, have maintained it assiduously ever since, encourage tourists to visit it, and are eager to publicly underscore, at every opportunity, their cozy connection to the Nobel Prize-winning author.

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Fidel Castro

Letting Yari make his film in Cuba, then, was a no-brainer. It’s perfect pro-Cuba propaganda. And, as Fontova stresses, nothing matters more to the Cuban regime than propaganda. Fidel himself bragged early on that “propaganda is the vital heart of our struggle”; the CIA has credited Cuba’s government with “creating the most effective propaganda empire in the Western Hemisphere.” 

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Che Guevara

To be sure, Yari’s picture leaves out Hemingway’s service to the KGB. To quote Fontova, “it also omits what could have provided the movie with some of its most dramatic scenes. I refer to Papa Hemingway as honored guest and charmed spectator during many of Che Guevara’s firing squad murder marathons, while gulping his especially-made-for-the-celebratory-occasion Daiquiris.” But of course such scenes – the absence of which from the movie was noted by absolutely none of the critics linked to at the review-aggregating sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic – would’ve damaged the images of both Hemingway and Cuba. And we couldn’t have that, could we?

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: 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.

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.

The 20-year-old scourge of Brazil’s stooges

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Dilma Rousseff

In recent days we’ve been observing how Brazil – which, a few years ago, looked as if it was on the verge of becoming a prosperous, developed First World-style nation – has rapidly declined, during the presidency of Dilma Rousseff, into an economic disaster zone. Meanwhile, the most massive corruption scandal in the country’s history has brought down one member of her administration after another. In the months after her re-election in October 2014, Rousseff dropped from an 80% to an 8% approval rating. Millions are now calling for her impeachment.

Among the most prominent of them is Kim Kataguiri, who turns 20 years old today.

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Kim Kataguiri, with a laptop reading “Less Marx, More Mises”

Just over two years ago, when he was an obscure college student, Kataguiri attended a history class in which the teacher attributed Brazil’s economic success – which would soon evaporate into nothingness – to the welfare-state policies pursued by Rousseff and her predecessor (and Workers’ Party colleague) Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva.

That just seemed wrong,” Kataguiri said in an October 2015 interview with Time Magazine, which named him one of the year’s most influential teenagers. To Kataguiri – a grandson of Japanese immigrants – it was obvious that Brazil’s growth was a result of “the commodities boom and our relationship with China.” In recent years, China had become Brazil’s #1 trading partner, with the value of trade between the two nations climbing from $2 billion in 2000 to $83 billion in 2013.

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The Free Brazil Movement’s logo

Kataguiri responded to his teacher’s sunny socialism with a You Tube video in which he spoke up for the free market. The video went viral. He followed it with other videos, in which, as Yahoo News has reported, he and a group of like-minded friends, who call themselves the Free Brazil Movement, “often don wacky costumes and dress up as political figures such as Fidel Castro.”

The Free Brazil Movement’s positions are clear. It calls for the introduction of a free-market system, with lower taxes, a smaller government bureaucracy, and complete privatization of publicly held companies. It also demands the impeachment of Rousseff, whose Workers’ Party Kataguiri (now a college dropout) views as “the nemesis of freedom and democracy.” His heroes? Politicians Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher, and economists Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises.

 

As Brazil’s economy faltered, and then, with terrifying rapidly, spiraled down into the dustbin, Kataguiri and his movement became increasingly popular. On March 15 of last year, when over a million Brazilians attended anti-Rousseff rallies, Kataguiri spoke to an audience of 200,000 at a protest in São Paulo.

CCbJYzSWgAAfp64Pointing out that he had himself “emerged through the Internet,” Kataguiri told Time that he has

a great hope that the internet can have a serious effect on the political world and can bring change. It can improve knowledge, participation and transparency in politics. Now, politics in Brazil looks very bad. Everyone steals. But I have hope that in 20 years things can be different. I have hope that our generation can change the ways things are done.

Hey, Washington Post: your man in Havana is an idiot

In recent months, we’ve seen Time Magazine, or what’s left of it, celebrating the charm and quaintness of poverty in Cuba and worrying that the opening up of relations with the U.S. will bring increasing economic opportunity and with it – gasp! – that dreaded phenomenon known as income inequality. Meaning that at least some people will no longer be dirt poor.

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Alamar, 2012

On December 29, the Washington Post joined in the wailing. The focus of Nick Miroff‘s 2000-word piece was on Havana’s Alamar neighborhood, a public-housing project that’s home to some 100,000 people. Miroff made a point of the fact that the buildings are all covered with mildew. To Miroff, the mildew was plainly a feature, not a bug. For the message he wanted to get across was that this slum, this eyesore, is in fact a wonderful place, because it “is arguably Cuba’s most equal place,” where “everyone pretty much has an identical apartment.” And identical mildew. 

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Another view of Alamar

Miroff quoted a septuagenarian bus driver who fondly recalled helping to build what the old man called a “model city.” “We had everything then,” the busman maintained. “Everyone looked after each other.” In other words, they were rich – not in money, but in Communist solidarity. They were dreaming the dream.

No more. Today, Miroff lamented, “ideological foundations are cracking, and new uncertainties are coming — perhaps none larger than whether the egalitarian values of Castro’s revolution will be swept away by rising inequalities and the breakdown of Cuba’s socialist welfare state.”

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Nick Miroff

Let’s pause for a moment over that last line: “the egalitarian values of Castro’s revolution. Note that Miroff wasn’t quoting or paraphrasing somebody here; he was, in his role as a reporter for the Washington Post (not The Nation or The Daily Worker), presenting as an objective fact the notion that Castro’s revolution was, and is, characterized by “egalitarian values.”

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Yet another view of Alamar…

Granted, with the obvious exception of the Castro family and perhaps a few people in their immediate circle, pretty much all Cubans are equal in a number of ways. For one thing, they’re all unfree. They’re all living in a totalitarian state. They’re all prohibited from leaving. They’re all in danger of being imprisoned if they criticize the government. In these ways, yes, they’re all equal. Somehow, in Miroff’s mind, all this oppression adds up to something that deserves to be described with the word “values.” Because, you see, everybody’s oppressed. Well, hurrah. 

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…and another…

Of course, the main kind of equality Miroff is concerned with is economic equality. Are Cubans really economically equal? Yes, because most of them are dirt-poor. Zero is equal to zero. Then again, a not inconsiderable number of Cubans – namely, those who have positions of power in the government, those who are preachers and enforcers of all that wonderful equality, if not (as in the case of the Castros themselves) living symbols of it are markedly better off than most of their countrymen. A few are even prosperous by Western standards. And, again, when you get up to the top level, to the Castro clan and a very few others, you’re looking at people who, by any measure, are downright rich.

A young Cuban man rides a bicycle in front of the huge apartment blocks in Alamar, a public housing periphery of Havana, Cuba, 9 February 2011. The Cuban economic transformation (after the revolution in 1959) has changed the housing status in Cuba from a consumer commodity into a social right. In 1970s, to overcome the serious housing shortage, the Cuban state took over the Soviet Union concept of social housing. Using prefabricated panel factories, donated to Cuba by Soviets, huge public housing complexes have risen in the outskirts of Cuban towns. Although these mass housing settlements provided habitation to many families, they often lack infrastructure, culture, shops, services and well-maintained public spaces. Many local residents have no feeling of belonging and inspite of living on a tropical island, they claim to be “living in Siberia”.
…and another…

But fine, let’s forget for the time being about those privileged few and focus instead on the penniless majority. These are, after all, the people whom Miroff was really writing about. And what Miroff was lamenting here, quite plainly, was that, half a century into the revolution, some of these desperately poor people are finally starting to climb up out of poverty – not because Communism has at last proven to work as an economic system, but because, on at least a small scale, the state is introducing free-market reforms.

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…and another…

Most rational people, most decent people who actually cared about the well-being of others, would view this sort of change as positive. Terrifically positive. Not Miroff. “Communist Party elders,” he wrote, “want to keep a lid on market forces, but with every incremental opening, yawning income gaps emerge.”

Yawning income gaps! The horror! If Miroff didn’t agree with those Party bosses, he would never use such a ridiculous term. And note that term “elders.” Whom was Miroff referring to here? He was referring to a bunch of thugs who never were elected to anything by anybody, but who have run Castro’s island prison for decades, keeping a lid not just on market forces but on freedom in all its forms.

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…and, finally, this.

“Younger Cubans do not seem too troubled” by these new developments, Miroff admitted. No kidding! Could it be that many of these younger Cubans not only are not “too troubled” by the yawning income gaps, but that they in fact look upon the new spark of economic development in their grim, shabby, garbage-strewn rusted hulk of a country with something that might actually be described as hope? Is it possible that they don’t love being poor as much as slumming American visitors like Miroff enjoy the spectacle of them being poor? The idea seemed alien to Miroff, who was busy wringing his hands, plainly sharing the “fear” of Cuban “authorities” that “these disparities” – that is, the yawning income gaps – “bear the seeds of social tensions, resentments and crime.”

We’re not done with Miroff. More tomorrow.

Che, an inspiration?

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Time’s special Cuba issue, published earlier this year

Back in August we flipped through Time Magazine’s special summer issue about Cuba, in which Karl Vick and other writers sang the praises of that country and its people – and even, in some cases, of the Castro regime (which, Vick assured us, isn’t really totalitarian). In a follow-up piece, we quoted a mind-boggling statement made by Vick about the Castros’ island prison in an essay he’d written for Time a few months earlier: “Their country is poor and, without doubt, a security state, but also safe, literate and healthy. People enjoy life in Cuba as in few other places.”

As we commented at the time, “’security state’ is itself something of a euphemism: it sounds nicer than ‘police state’ or ‘dictatorship,’ and is, to say the least, a rather tame way of describing a country that will imprison and torture you for criticizing its leaders or advocating for democracy.” For good measure, we cited a radio interview with Vick by Warren Olney, whose sharp questioning showed up the inanity of Vick’s starry-eyed views about Cuba under the Castros – and about the country’s post-Castro prospects. As we put it, Vick actually seemed to believe that “Cubans are worried that as a result of changes to come, some of them will no longer be destitute.”

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Che

You might think that Time has already given Cuba’s jailers more than enough friendly ink this year. But apparently the magazine’s editors just can’t bring themselves to stop paying tribute to Cuba’s leaders and the heroes of its revolution. So it was that on October 9, the forty-eighth anniversary of Che Guevara’s death, Time‘s website ran a piece by Jennifer Latson headlined “How Che Guevara Didn’t Let Asthma Affect His Ambitions.” It began:

Che Guevara might have considered the United States his worst enemy, but he faced an even greater threat to his revolutionary ambitions: asthma.

Latson tells us that “Che was born premature—tiny and sickly” and that “his father took a rough approach to infant rearing,” leaving the diapered baby out on a balcony in cold winter weather. “Instead of toughening him up, however,” Latson recounts, this tough love left Che “with a persistent cough and severe asthma.”

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Jennifer Latson

But did Che let this stop him? No. He “embrac[ed] the rowdiness of youth,” pausing in his fast-paced rugby games only to use his inhaler. And he followed the “rugged revolutionary road to Cuba,” where an explosion of rage over U.S. imperialism once sent him into a “terrifying” two-hour asthma attack.

At no point does Latson remind us that Che was a bloodthirsty monster who said Americans were “hyenas…fit only for extermination”; who confessed that he “liked killing”; who demanded that the rabble think as a “mass,” not as individuals, and that they obey the regime unquestioningly; who despised freedom of the press; who said, “When in doubt, execute.” No, Latson’s story follows a familiar journalistic formula – the inspirational story of how a great man or woman overcame youthful obstacles. Teddy Roosevelt growing from a sickly and (yes) asthmatic child into the very picture of brave, heroic manliness. FDR triumphing over polio. Helen Keller transcending blindness and deafness.

(FILES) In this 04 September1999 file photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro discusses his request to the president of the International Olympic Committee in Havana for an investigation into the treatment of certain Cuban atheletes. Castro said the communist nation is not afraid of dialogue with the United States -- and not interested in continued confrontation with its powerful neighbor. The comments came as a group of US lawmakers visited Cuba this weekend to try to end nearly half a century of mutual distrust and amid reports that President Barack Obama was planning to ease economic sanctions on the island, including travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans. "We're not afraid to talk with the United States. We also don't need confrontation to exist, like some fools like to think," Castro, 82, said in an article on the Cubadebate website on April 5, 2009. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE /FILES (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images) Original Filename: Was672139.jpg
Fidel

Latson winds up her piece with what’s meant as a charming, amusing coda. At a cabinet meeting, Castro said he needed a new head of the National Bank and asked his fellow gangsters if any of them was an economist. Che raised his hand, but after the meeting it became clear that there’d been some confusion:

“Say, I never knew you were an economist,” said Fidel. “Economist!” said Che, astounded. “I thought you said Communist!”

Adorable, no?

“Stalin wasn’t even a Communist”

trumboWe’ve spent the last couple of days talking about Trumbo, a new movie by director Jay Roach that tries to make a free-speech hero out of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), and about Hollywood Traitors, a new book in which Allan H. Ryskind shows that Trumbo and his fellow Tinseltown Stalinists, far from being free-speech heroes, sought, in the years before the HUAC hearings, to silence non-Communists and to slip as much pro-Soviet propaganda as possible into their scripts. 

Front-The2And in the years after the blacklist? As the late Andrew Breitbart noted in a 2009 interview, Hollywood has been run by leftists for “the last forty years,” and those leftists have made one movie after another about the blacklist – among them The Front (1976), Guilty by Suspicion (1991), and The Majestic (2001). All of these pictures have sold the same dishonest message – namely, to quote Breitbart, that “the worst thing that ever happened” during the Cold War was that “a few screenwriters had to write under pseudonyms for a few years.” Yet for the last four decades, Breitbart added, these very same powers-that-be “have been vicious to people who disagree with them,” doing their best to keep the silver screen scrubbed clean of non-leftist voices. Indeed. And if that’s not a blacklist a – or, at least, a “brownlist” – what is it?

2001_MAJESTICBut the main point to be made about Trumbo is this: however inadvisable, stupid, wrong, or unjust the HUAC hearings and the blacklist may or may not have been, Trumbo’s summons by HUAC and his placement on the Hollywood blacklist didn’t magically convert him into a champion of American freedom. Roach and company, of course, would have you believe otherwise. On November 3, promoting the movie on the Howard Stern Show, Bryan Cranston, who plays Trumbo, actually made two thoroughly outrageous claims in quick succession.

First, Cranston maintained that “Stalin wasn’t even a Communist. He was a fascist dictator.” Cranston didn’t explain what he meant by this ridiculous statement, and Stern didn’t ask. Presumably, this was Cranston’s own little contribution to the decades-old, and still ongoing, effort by many leftists to whitewash Communism as an ideology by representing real-life, brutal, monstrous, totalitarian Communism, whether in the USSR or China or Vietnam or Cuba, as a betrayal of true Communism – which they continue to view as benign ideology that’s never really been put into practice and that, if it were tried, would succeed, lifting humankind to an unprecedented level of goodness and glory.  

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Bryan Cranston

Second, Cranston suggested that even though Trumbo and other members of the Hollywood Ten joined the Communist Party, they weren’t really Communists or Stalinists or whatever; they were just well-meaning guys in search of a way to fix the ailing U.S. economy. And besides, the USSR was our wartime ally. 

We’ll wind this up tomorrow.